By Gillian Blackwell
On the front line of a war between democratic and autocratic powers, Ukraine is one of today’s most crucial battles. As a former Soviet state, Ukraine plays a special role in Russia’s plan to restore their former Soviet power and eventually gain recognition and influence on the world stage. However, with Ukraine’s increasing integration into Europe, Russia sees their long-term goals slipping away. As a result, since 2014 there has been a significant increase in armed conflict in the Eastern European state. With nearly 10,000 deaths, the fight for Ukraine is Europe’s bloodiest conflict since the wars over former Yugoslavia in the 1990s.
Sparks first began to fly between Ukraine and Russia in 2013 when Ukrainian President, Viktor Yanukovych, rejected a deal with the European Union that would have economically bound Ukraine more directly to Western Europe. At a European Union summit in Lithuania, Yanukovych cited pressure from Russia as his reasoning behind dropping the bill. At the time, EU leaders pledged to not let Russia interfere with the bloc’s relationship with the former Soviet state; nonetheless, it seems Europe fell short on its commitment.
When the bill was dropped, fury arose from the estimated 45% of the Ukrainian population that supports closer ties with the west. Thousands of Ukrainian protesters took to the streets of Kiev and the western city Lviv. Their chants rang with disappointed sentiments suggesting Yanukovych had stolen their chance at becoming “a normal country.” Even the Lithuanian President, Dalia Grybauskaite, suggested, “The current choice of the Ukrainian leadership means putting limits on the Ukrainian people’s chances of achieving a better life.” Only a few months later, violence broke out at a protest in Kiev, leaving dozens dead. Protesters suggested government snipers had opened fire on them. Eventually, as pressure from civilians mounted, Yanukovych fled the capital, fueling feelings of a pro-Western victory.
Nonetheless, this sense of victory did not last long. In March 2014 Russia’s parliament granted Russian President, Vladimir Putin, permission to send military forces into Crimea. He sent thousands of Russian-speaking troops with unmarked uniforms into the predominantly Russian speaking peninsula. Within two weeks, the annexation was sealed with a referendum that many around the world, including Ukraine, deemed illegitimate. This annexation was only the first of many moves in recent years that has suggested a more extensive Russian plan for reestablishing the former Soviet territory. Further, pro-Russian rebels have continued to wreak havoc across eastern Ukrainian towns and cities, seizing government buildings and even declaring independence in unrecognized referendums in Donetsk and Luhansk. Particularly, one of the bloodiest regions, Donbas, has seen a mere 600 former Russian militants destroy the entire region, leaving both Russia and Ukraine wanting to end the unorganized violence.
While the new Ukrainian President, Petro Poroshenko, elected in May 2014, has made a push to bring Ukraine more in line with Europe by signing the original EU agreement, Russia has not backed down. Only a few months later, a commercial airliner was shot down over a rebel-held territory in Eastern Ukraine, killing 298 people, with what Dutch air investigators have concluded was a Russian-built surface-to-air missile. Despite negotiating a ceasefire agreement, the Minsk Accords, in February 2015, Russia continued to send tanks, other weapons, and troops across the border, all the while denying any violation of the ceasefire. These actions on the Russian side have taken place despite the U.S. and EU’s sanctions against Russia following their annexation of Crimea. In addition, the U.S. recently passed even more sanctions following Russia’s involvement in the cyber attacks during the 2016 Presidential election. Nonetheless, little is resolved in Ukraine. It seems the Western democracies are willing to step aside and watch as Putin, like many other autocratic powers in the past, continues to amass territories and power.
H.E. Anders Fogh Asmussen, the former Secretary General of NATO, and former Prime Minister of Denmark, and current external adviser to President Poroshenko of Ukraine, suggests the only solution will come from “peace through strength.” He notes in order to dissuade Putin from further attack Europe and the U.S. must strengthen sanctions on Russia. This primarily entails blocking the North Stream Pipeline, which would send oil to Germany and Turkey, and is crucial to increasing Russia’s oil market share in Europe.
Further, Asmussen urges the West to help Ukraine more proactively by giving defensive weapons and secure technology for communication and information. Likewise with American and European concerns over Russian cyber attacks, the Ukrainian forces have expressed breaches of information to be one of the most dangerous Russian tactics. Finally in a panel event with the Hudson Institute, Asmussen argues that granting Ukraine the status of a major non-NATO ally will exemplify full Western support of Ukraine and ultimately deter the Russians. Both former Ambassador to Ukraine, William B. Taylor, and former Ambassador to NATO, Alexander Vershbow, second Asmussen’s point, asserting a key component of mitigating this conflict is building Ukraine’s confidence. This involves helping Ukraine find prosperity and a successful path to integrating into Europe. They suggest it is essential that Ukrainians feel the need for democracy more strongly than the wish for prosperity.
Helping Ukraine symbolically is nearly as important as aiding its militarily. The U.S. and Europe need to signify their full support of Ukraine to deny Putin the international recognition he seeks. This support comes in the form of financial aide to help support Ukrainian governmental reforms, to prevent a wave of populism that could result from poor governmental execution, which is particularly important in light of Ukrainian elections approaching in 2019.
Ultimately, this conflict must be examined more frankly. The fact is either Russia will succeed and continue to claim parts of Eastern Ukraine, re-establishing much of the former Soviet territory, or Ukraine will successfully fend-off the Russian invaders and attempt to rebuild for the 1.5 million displaced people and the 3.5 million trapped behind pseudo Russian-Ukrainian border. The outcome comes down to the West; one choice would increase the chances of another Cold War, while the other would establish security in Europe.