Image source: liputan6.com
Russia and Ukraine have conflicted since 2014 or since Kiev’s pro-Moscow leader was ousted. This time, the two countries that were once part of the Soviet Union were on the verge of war. The pro-Kiev United States accuses Moscow of deploying more than 100,000 troops on Russia’s border with Ukraine and in Crimea, the region that split from Ukraine and joined Russia, in recent weeks.
This has fueled fears in Kiev and the West that the Kremlin could start a new war with its neighbor. Earlier this month, a leading Ukrainian military expert told Al Jazeera that Russia could strike Ukraine as early as January, unleashing a “short and victorious” war.
But Russia denies it is planning an invasion. Moscow says it reserves the right to move troops anywhere on its territory and that its actions are defensive.
Moscow officials, including President Vladimir Putin, have warned NATO against expanding toward eastern Europe or near Russia.
So, what is the essence of the conflict that has been going on for more than seven years? What is now Ukraine, Russia, and neighboring countries; Belarusians, born on the banks of the Dnieper River, almost 1,200 years ago in Kievan Rus, a medieval superpower that covered much of Eastern Europe.
But Russia and Ukraine are separated linguistically, historically, and, most importantly, politically.
Putin, however, has repeatedly claimed that Russia and Ukraine are “one person”, part of a “Russian civilization” that also includes neighboring countries; Belarusian. Ukraine rejected his claim. Ukraine underwent two revolutions in 2005 and 2014, both of them rejecting Russian supremacy and seeking to join the European Union and NATO.
Putin was furious at the prospect of a NATO base next to his border and said Ukraine joining the US-led transatlantic alliance would mark a “red line” crossing.
After the 2014 Ukrainian Dignity Revolution, which saw months of protests eventually topple pro-Moscow Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych, Putin used the power vacuum to annex Crimea and support separatists in the southeastern provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk.
The Kremlin rejects the Crimea annexation narrative. They insisted that Crimea with a majority of voters chose to split with Ukraine and join Russia.
Separatist groups in Donetsk and Luhansk also broke away from Ukraine by establishing an authoritarian and economically weak “People’s Republic” respectively. Both regions reinstated the death penalty.
They ran dozens of concentration camps where dissidents were tortured and executed.
Professor Ihor Kozlovsky of Donetsk State University spent nearly 700 days in concentration camps and prisons, and said he was tortured by Russian separatists and officers who recounted Putin’s claims about “Russian civilization”.
“The officer told me, ‘There is no country, there is civilization, and the Russian world is a civilization, and for anyone who has been a part of it, no matter what you call it, Tatar or Ukrainian, you don’t exist,’” he told Al Jazeera.
The war and how the separatists abused their opponents and mismanaged their “republican” economy cooled pro-Russian sentiment in Ukraine.
“Paradoxically, Russia is helping to strengthen a sense of Ukrainian nationality that some Russian politicians say doesn’t exist,” Ivar Dale, senior policy adviser at the Norwegian Helsinki Committee, a human rights watchdog, told Al Jazeera.
The conflict turned into the hottest war in Europe. It has killed more than 13,000 and displaced millions. In 2014, the Ukrainian military was under-equipped and demoralized, while the separatists had Russian “consultants” and weaponry. Today, however, Ukraine is much stronger militarily and morally, and the thousands of volunteers who helped oust the separatists are ready to do it again.
“As a veteran, I am always ready to rejoin the military to defend Ukraine in case of an invasion,” Roman Nabozhniak, who volunteered to fight the separatists in 2014 and spent 14 months on the front line, told Al Jazeera.
Ukraine buys or receives advanced weaponry from the West and Turkey, including Javelin missiles which have proved lethal to separatist tanks, and Bayraktar drones that played a key role in last year’s war between Azerbaijan and Armenia.
The first impeachment of former US President Donald Trump was prompted by the suspension of military aid and arms exports to Kiev. His successor Joe Biden may send lethal weapons and advisers in the coming weeks. Meanwhile, Ukraine has been pushing for domestic development and production of weapons – some of which are as effective as Western weapons.
Despite ideological and political reasons, Putin has desperately sought Ukraine’s membership in the Moscow-dominated free trade bloc launched in 2000.
The Eurasian Economic Community (EAEC) unites several former Soviet republics and is widely seen as the first step towards reincarnation of the Soviet Union.
With a population of 43 million and strong agricultural and industrial output, Ukraine was supposed to be the most important part of the EAEC after Russia, but Kiev refused to join.
“To create a self-sufficient market, one needs a population of around 250 million,” Aleksey Kushch, a Kiev-based analyst, told Al Jazeera, referring to a theory by Nobel prize-winning economist Paul Krugman.
“The Krugman model is the basis for the bloc architecture, and for unions [to work], Ukraine and Uzbekistan [with a population of 34 million] need to be included. That’s why there is a permanent geopolitical war around these countries,” Kushch said.
Ukraine’s economy sank after cutting ties with Russia, once its biggest economic partner. But seven years after the conflict, the recession is over, as world prices for grain and steel, Ukraine’s main exports, skyrocket, and as Ukrainian companies and migrant workers find new ways to the West.
Russia’s rating of satisfaction with Putin has dropped due to the economic hardship caused by the pandemic.
The Kremlin recalls its stratospheric rating of nearly 90 percent after the annexation of Crimea, and a new war or escalation could distract the public from domestic problems and increase Putin’s popularity.
He has also sought to restore dialogue with the West, especially the US, and amassing an army next to Ukraine has been successful.
In the spring, tens of thousands of troops were deployed next to Ukraine – and in June, Putin held his first face-to-face meeting with US President Joe Biden.
The presidents held a two-hour videoconference on December 7, and Biden threatened Putin with tougher economic sanctions and the repositioning of NATO troops in Europe.
But Putin still wants to meet him in person. “We will definitely meet, I like it very much,” he told Biden, according to a video released by Russian media on Tuesday.