October 2021Frozen ConflictsConflict and Security

FOCUS on Frozen Conflicts: Ukraine-Russia

Eric Bunce
Staff Writer

Seven years ago, Russia annexed Crimea in southern Ukraine, sparking the largest security crisis in Europe since the end of the Cold War. Today, this conflict continues to simmer, with over 10,000 killed and 24,000 injured, according to the Council on Foreign Relations. Eastern Europe is no stranger to uncertainty, but the situation in Ukraine presents a serious obstacle to peace in the region and has left the country in a precarious state of limbo. 

In recent years, there have numerous deadly skirmishes in eastern Ukraine. As noted by the New York Times, the France and Germany-brokered Minsk Peace Protocol has been violated frequently since large-scale competing Russian and NATO military exercises in 2018. 2021 has been one of the deadliest years since the ceasefire, according to the Associated Press. Even with then-Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych pulling back troops to avoid contact, over 30 Ukrainian soldiers were killed. 

The increase in fighting this past spring led some media outlets to proclaim the ceasefire effectively over, though this later proved premature. Nonetheless, this year’s escalation was highly concerning. Reuters recorded in April over 80,000 Russian troops, including tanks, amassing near Ukraine’s south-eastern border. Washington was uncertain how to react, with some warning of a full-scale invasion, and others dismissing it as saber-rattling. Fortunately, tensions cooled following the completion of NATO exercises further north. U.S. tank brigades continue to rotate through Eastern Europe, notes the Council on Foreign Relations, and Ukraine continues to buy American anti-tank weapons. But as of now, the conflict has settled back into its uneasy status quo.

The roots of this crisis can be traced far back. Ukraine was an integral part of the Soviet Union, and before that the Russian Empire, until its collapse in 1991. While celebrated throughout much of Eastern Europe and the West, the swift downfall of the Soviets was seen as a humiliation by many Russians, including Vladimir Putin. This sentiment continues to shape Russian policy two decades later.

Ukraine has faced deep divisions between its Ukrainian and Russian-speaking populations, eventually leading to the 2014 Russian annexation of Crimea. Shortly thereafter, Moscow began aiding and arming pro-Russian separatists in the Donbas region in eastern Ukraine. As noted by the Associated Press, early fighting in the Donbas resulted in the downing of a Malaysian Airlines flight by Russian missiles, killing all 298 onboard. In 2015, France and Germany brokered the Minsk Accords to end the large-scale fighting in the Donbas. But the agreement, generally seen as strongly favoring Russia, has not been entirely successful in stopping the violence. 

The history of conflict in Ukraine raises the question of Russia’s unclear motives. Some point out its desire to keep NATO at an arm’s length. As argued by the Atlantic Council, the threat of closer Ukrainian ties with NATO and the EU would realize Russian fears of being encircled by U.S. allies. By maintaining this dispute with Ukraine, Russia complicates any efforts for them to join NATO. Voice of America notes that another motivation could be the large increase in domestic support Putin gains by standing up to the West—this spring’s escalation could have been an attempt to distract from the imprisonment of the prominent Kremlin critic Alexi Navalny. Many Russians, especially Putin, aspire to regain some element of past prestige. While Russia cannot match the military power of the West, it can act as a spoiler by trying to demonstrate that Western power is on the decline. Sheer Russian political determination should not be underestimated. In reality, Moscow’s motivations are likely a combination of all of the above but are far from clear. As the Centre for Eastern Studies in Poland says, “Russia has laid out ‘red lines’ for the West not to cross, there is no red line for Russia itself.”

The future of Ukraine remains uncertain. The recent completion of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline threatens the billion-dollar gas transport industry in Ukraine, according to Bloomberg. The effects this could have on the conflict are unclear, but Ukrainian efforts to decrease reliance on Russian gas will help mitigate any leverage Moscow hoped to gain. Nonetheless, an economically weakened Ukraine, combined with the damaged prestige of the U.S. following the Afghanistan withdrawal, presents an opportunity for Moscow. The U.S. and Europe must be careful to keep an eye on Ukraine, lest the conflict unfreeze.

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