Answering The 8 Biggest Questions In The Russia-Ukraine Conflict
Ukraine’s populous revolution that began last November has escalated into a full-blown international crisis, as Russia now finds itself pitted against the West in its struggle to preserve its strategic military and economic interests.
While Ukraine’s interim government seeks assistance from international partners in preserving its sovereignty, Russian President Vladimir Putin has made clear that he intends to not only protect, but also to expand Russia’s influence in Ukraine.
Putin’s actions and statements in respect to Ukraine are concerning to leaders in Europe and the United States, who wish to prevent Ukraine from falling under Russian control.
This has prompted them to send strong signals that the global community will mount a strong campaign to prevent Russia from launching a Ukrainian incursion, potentially setting the stage for an even larger global conflict.
Russia played a central role in fomenting Ukraine’s revolution, which resulted in the country’s Parliament removing President Viktor Yanukovych from office on February 22.
Yanukovych, who was elected to office in 2010 after receiving large support from Ukraine’s pro-Russia class in eastern Ukraine and Crimea in the south, publicly favored expanding economic ties with Russia while rejecting closer alliances with the European Union.
When Yanukovych announced that Ukraine would forgo associating and establishing a free trade agreement with the EU, pro-Europe protesters known as the Euromaidan swarmed Kiev’s Independence Square to voice their dissent.
The activists launched their campaign after Yanukovych announced that Ukraine would enter into an agreement with Russia that would allow the Kremlin to purchase $15 billion in Ukrainian government bonds and offered a major reduction in the price for its natural gas.
What began as a peaceful protest turned into a series of violent clashes between Ukraine’s Euromaidan and police forces, leaving more than 80 dead in Kiev before Yanukovych was exiled from his post.
As tensions continue to rise across Eastern Europe, onlookers wonder how the situation between Ukraine and Russia spiraled out of control so quickly and what they can expect to happen next. To answer those questions, let’s examine why Russia is so willing to defy the international community in its response to Ukraine’s revolution.
1. Why Ukraine’s Citizens Are Divided On Russia
Losing a powerful ally in Yanukovych is troubling to Russia as it attempts to preserve its military and economic interests in Ukraine, in the face of rising anti-Russian sentiment sweeping across Ukraine.
However, the rising sentiment against Russia is not overwhelming, as the protests might have you believe. Only 52 percent of Ukrainians supported an association with the EU last April, while 43 percent favored expanding ties with the Russian-led Customs Union, according to the Washington Post.
These statistics highlight how deeply Ukraine divided culturally and geopolitically. A third of the country speaks Russian as its native language, with the majority of Russian-speakers living in the eastern and southern half of the country.
2. Why Ukraine’s Revolution Concerns Russia
For Russia, maintaining its influence in the semi-autonomous region of Crimea is seen as especially vital.
While Crimea is technically part of Ukraine, it is largely self-governed. More than half of the Crimean population is ethnically Russian, roughly a quarter is native Ukrainian and another quarter is made up of Crimean Tatars, the descendants of a population deported by Stalin in 1944, who are vehemently anti-Russian. It is this group that will aggressively oppose any attempts by Russia to seize control of Crimea.
If the Crimean Tatars and Ukrainian nationals in Crimea decide to challenge Russia’s authority in the region, Russia stands to see its global influence significantly undermined. Ukraine is keen on maintaining its sovereignty over Crimea, which is frequented by many Ukrainian travelers as a premier summer vacation destination.
If the new Ukrainian government decides to take steps to dismantle its military infrastructure in the region, Russia would have little choice but to wage a military campaign to safeguard its interests.
3. Understanding Why Russia Needs Its Black Sea Naval Base
Russia maintains a naval base at Sevastopol, located at the southwest quadrant of Crimea. It is from this base that Russia is able to exert its influence in the Mediterranean, and it is believed that Russia has used the Sevastopol port to supply the Syrian military in its ongoing civil war.
In order to maintain its global military prowess, Russia cannot afford to lose its sea port in Crimea. The remainder of the Black Sea coastline is under the control of NATO allies, with the exception of Georgia, which is currently campaigning for NATO membership.
Without its naval base in Crimea, Russia would struggle to exert its influence in ongoing international disputes and risks jeopardizing its strategic relationships with international partners, especially in the Middle East.
4. Reasons Behind Russia’s Decision To Send Forces To Crimea
Putin was quite vocal in his efforts to dissuade Ukraine from entering into agreements with the EU, while insisting that Ukraine instead join the Russian-led Eurasian Customs Union.
His opposition to Ukraine expanding ties with the EU has been aggressive at times, including threats to impose economic sanctions on the country and twice shutting off natural gas exports to Ukraine when Western-leaning President Viktor Yushchenko was in power in the mid-2000s.
On Tuesday, Putin forcefully defended Russia’s intervention in Ukraine, claiming that Yanukovych’s government was illegally removed from office and that he is providing military assistance at the request of the unjustly deposed leader.
While Russia has yet to officially send troops to Ukraine, Russian military personal wearing unmarked uniforms have been spotted in Crimea. Putin also declared that he has the legal right to deploy troops if he so chooses in order to defend Russia’s interests in the wake of “an unconstitutional overthrow and armed seizure of power.”
Interfax reports suggest that Crimean and Russian forces have seized control of Crimea’s Sevastopol airport, while others are patrolling the airport in Crimea’s capital of Simferopol. Though representatives from Russia’s Black Sea Fleet have denied the reports, Ukraine’s UNIAN news agency stated that six military trucks carrying armed soldiers arrived at the Sevastopol airport, which also houses a Ukrainian Air Force installation.
5. Is Russia Violating Its Treaties To Respect Ukraine’s Sovereignty?
Ukraine’s parliament issued a warning to Moscow to stop sending troops into Crimea, urging it to abide by a standing treaty that prohibits Russia from infringing on Ukraine’s territorial integrity.
In 1994, Ukraine, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States signed the “Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances,” a non-formal treaty where Russia promised to respect Ukraine’s sovereignty and status as an independent nation.
Under the agreement, Ukraine sent all of its Soviet-era nuclear weapons to Russia’s disarmament facilities and signed the Nuclear Nonproliferation treaty.
Ukraine views Russia’s actions as a violation of the agreement and its Supreme Council has requested that the United Nations Security Council be convened to consider whether Russia should be sanctioned for defying the treaty.
6. How Natural Gas Plays A Prominent Role In The Conflict
Roughly a quarter of Europe’s natural gas supply comes from Russia, with a third of that supply flowing through Ukrainian pipelines. Ukraine depends heavily on Russia for its energy needs, with anywhere from one-third to one-half of its natural gas supplied by Russia.
With Russia’s military seizing control in Crimea, it will likely use its natural gas exports to Ukraine and Europe as a political tool in protecting its interests.
Russia already reduced the amount of natural gas it provides to Ukraine, which forced the Ukrainian government to subsidize the inflated price of gas for its citizens to prevent the already economically-anguished country from falling into an even more severe depression.
As part of Yanukovych’s since-revoked agreement with the Kremlin, Russia agreed to reduce the price of natural gas to Ukraine by 33 percent. With that agreement now tossed, Europe is forced to work with Ukraine to identify new suppliers for its energy needs.
Europe is now exploring options to increase its imports of liquefied natural gas from the United States as it seeks to minimize its reliance on Russian gas. It has also turned to using more coal to meet its energy requirements. Additionally, it is identifying new pipelines that bypass Ukraine entirely so as to mitigate Russia’s ability to use natural gas as leverage in this and future disputes.
The US and EU have both threatened to isolate Russia with economic sanctions if it chooses to use its natural gas as leverage as it has in the past, and have warned that there will be significant consequences if Russia shuts off its pipelines entirely.
7. What Does John Kerry Hope To Convey During His Talks In Kiev?
Diplomatic tensions between the United States and Moscow spiked over the weekend when Russia’s upper house of Parliament announced that it planned to ask Putin to recall Moscow’s ambassador to the United States.
The announcement followed a televised address by President Barack Obama where he condemned Russia’s escalated military presence in Ukraine:
“We are now deeply concerned by reports of military movements taken by the Russian Federation inside Ukraine,” said Obama. “It would be a clear violation of Russia’s commitment to respect the independence and sovereignty.................i don tire God help us.