“We want to be friends with Ukraine.” Is that still the case?
An analysis of the everlasting clash between Kyiv and Moscow
by: Isti Miskolczy
Amidst the Crimean conflict, on the 18th of March 2014, in an address in the Kremlin Russian President Vladimir Putin declared that “we want to be friends with Ukraine, and we want Ukraine to be a strong, sovereign and self-sufficient country”. Fast forward eight years with tensions escalating on the Russian-Ukrainian and Belarussian-Ukrainian borders and more than 130.000 Russian troops in the area, however, doubt is cast on Putin’s original statement. Will Russia force an open invasion and a direct confrontation with Ukraine and NATO, or the high-scale military exercises are just pressure-applying tools in Moscow’s foreign policy objectives?
Contrary to Putin’s 2014 speech, Ukraine’s sovereignty was certainly harmed when Russia invaded Crimea following a heavily disputed referendum on the region’s belonging to Russia, seeing 95% of the Crimean voters saying ‘yes’. Whether the referendum was valid and democratic (as Russia claimed) or illegal and illegitimate (as the US and the EU deemed), it certainly aided one of Moscow’s chief foreign policy motives: to help Russians living on foreign soil gain recognition. In his speech, Putin even expressed Russia’s historical and emotional ties to the peninsula and revealed Moscow’s desire to rehabilitate the rights of the Crimean Tatars as well as to have three equal languages (Russian, Ukrainian and Tatar) in the region.
These concerns over the situation of ethnic Russians in Ukraine have since become prime drivers of Putin’s foreign policies.
Under the respect of the (alleged) will of the people of Crimea, however, lied more substantial political aims which can still be traced in today’s conflict. Ever since the dissolution of the Soviet Union Ukraine has been strategically the most important country to Russia. This is due to its location between the EU and Russia and its size of approximately 44 million citizens, making it the largest of the former USSR countries. Moreover, acquiring ports on the Black Sea (such as the port of Sevastopol in Crimea) has been an interest of Russia for centuries.
Moscow’s goal, therefore, is to ensure Ukraine remains under its sphere of influence. If not as a friend, then as an ally. If not through economic ties, then via military means. Kyiv has various trade deals with Moscow in place, including being a transit country of Russian gas to Europe. Nevertheless, given that economic relations between the two countries have gradually been worsening since the 2009 gas crisis, this time Russia attempts to exercise its needed influence and pressure over Ukraine by placing an estimated 130.000 troops on its borders instead of loans and economic agreements. This move includes military exercises overseen by Putin himself.
However, Russia’s ultimate concern is Ukraine being closely affiliated with, if not a member of the EU or NATO.
Although the Kremlin initially favoured the EU’s enlargement – because of perceiving it as a substitute and counterbalance to NATO’s expansion – with the historically strongly anti-Russian Baltic states and Poland joining and sanctions becoming more intense, it is now openly against the expansion of both organisations. And while joining the EU is certainly not achievable for Kyiv, being a member of NATO is indeed a far-future possibility.
As for an EU ascension, not just Brussels considers Kyiv unreliable based on then-president Viktor Yanukovych’s last-minute backing out from the association agreement in 2014, but also Kyiv thinks that Brussels’ reforms are too accelerated. Therefore, it is equally unlikely that a request for deeper cooperation will come from Ukraine or that the European Union will grant membership to the country. Ukraine will remain an important economic and strategic partner to the EU as well as a transit country of the Russian gas supplies, but apart from having influence in the region, none of the two parties is motivated to take matters further.
As opposed to the EU, last year, NATO leaders reiterated their 2008 Bucharest Summit decision that Ukraine could be a member state of the treaty – an idea that has constantly been gaining support among Ukrainians since 2014. An eventual membership to Ukraine, however, would mean the organisation’s – and with that especially the US’s – strengthened military presence in the region, which Russia views as a potential military threat. NATO already has defence bases and forces in the Baltic states, Poland, Romania, Bulgaria, and Turkey; all neighbouring or located close to Russia.
Therefore, while any deployment of Russian troops on Ukrainian territory could only be condemned and requited, the Russian military pressure on Ukraine and NATO is a strategic move by the Kremlin. Alongside the military exercises resulting in many European countries relocating or evacuating their Kyiv embassies, Putin demands guarantees that Ukraine will not be a NATO member state. He also wants NATO not to deploy forces to those countries admitted to the treaty after 1997. Although this demand does not contest existing membership, according to the Russian leader, NATO can always reject Ukraine and return to the pre-1997 establishment.
To respond to this Russian pressure in the region, German chancellor Olaf Scholz asserted at a joint press conference with Vladimir Putin that “any further aggression against Ukraine would have dire strategic consequences” and that “further escalation must be prevented”. On the other hand, he also acknowledged some major political aims of Putin – the recognition of Russia as a crucial actor in regional politics and the need for Russia’s cooperation with EU member states – when he stated that “stable security cannot be built against Russia, it can only be built with Russia”. Yet, Putin seeks cooperation with individual countries and not blocs. The Russian President negotiating bilaterally with western leaders instead of talking with the EU or NATO heads is a prominent example.
As his latest move, Putin even recognised the eastern Ukrainian territories Donetsk and Luhansk as independent states which sparked condemnation and various sanctions from not just Germany but all major western powers. The Donetsk People’s Republic and the Luhansk People’s Republic have been desiring independence from Ukraine since the 2014 conflict despite the fact that their separatist forces are not controlling the entirety of these regions.
“We are on our own land; we are not afraid of anything and anybody” responded Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky to Putin’s further announcement on the near-future deployment of Russian troops in these territories. Any Russian forces entering Donetsk or Luhansk would mean the violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty to Kyiv, Brussels, London, and Washington while Moscow would view it as a peacekeeping mission.
With bordering and having relations with both Russia and the EU-NATO bloc Ukraine is indeed on a tightrope between the West and Moscow.
Even the ethnic divides within the country are in line with this constantly on-edge situation: western Ukraine is pro-EU while eastern Ukraine, with its significant Russian population is pro-Russian. Kyiv’s situation is not helped by NATO having been ignoring Russia’s enlargement concerns and the EU facing a lack of internal cohesion either. Within the western blocs, disagreement surrounds all the common foreign policy towards Russia, the exact means of supporting Ukraine and the hosting of American or NATO troops. Considering all the above, it can be said that “Ukraine is and will very likely remain in a vulnerable position towards the EU and Russia in the years to come” (Busygina, 2017).
Photo courtesy of Clker-Free-Vector-Images via Pixabay
Vulnerability, though, begs the question: will Putin fully invade Ukraine? The President of Russia expressed his willingness not to go to war and engage in a dialogue first. Still, the possibility of an armed conflict between Kyiv and Moscow can never be excluded with the excessive number of troops along the mutual frontier. UK PM Boris Johnson, for example, sees the possibility of “the biggest war in Europe since 1945”. Nevertheless, there are several reasons – some named by TDLR News EU – to believe that the high-scale military exercises and the formal recognition of the separatist territories are just pressure-applying tools of Moscow to prevent any closer association between Ukraine and NATO and that there will be no full invasion in the foreseeable future.
(1) If Russia wanted an invasion, it could have already executed one as any attack will only be more difficult over time. From the Kremlin’s point of view, hesitation allows NATO and the EU to design a more unified and comprehensive response.
(2) Unlike in 2014, there are no signs of Putin preparing the Russian population for war and its costs and casualties. Indeed, not merely the personnel and financial costs of military operations but also the costs of a possible regime change need to be considered. Any possible Russian victory “will be measured just as well by the items that disappear from a Ukrainian shopper’s food basket as by square kilometres of territory conquered” (Summers, 2022) and Putin knows this. For this reason, towards the Russian public western aggression and Russian withdrawal are communicated.
(3) A military incursion would push Ukraine even further away from Russia and the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU), which Moscow wants to avoid. Ukraine – especially its western regions – started to distance themselves from Russia after the annexation of Crimea in 2014, and their relations have become more stagnant than ever by 2022.
Instead, Putin attempts to pressurise both Ukraine and the EU-NATO bloc (the collective defence of the European Union is done by NATO) and hopes that it might be just enough to achieve NATO discontinuing with its expansion ideas. Apart from the direct military pressure, sponsored separatism and the possibility of thousands of Ukrainian refugees moving towards the borders of the EU also strengthen Moscow’s position. So do covert operations, cyber warfare, and disinformation. Earlier this month, Ukrainian banks have been targeted by Russian hackers, while the Kremlin has also been operating with false withdrawals and attack dates.
So far, the European Union has responded with rhetorical interventions, sanctions and offering Ukraine financial aid and military equipment besides relocating NATO forces in the neighbouring member states. Brussels’ “Russia policy […] involves an immediate and continuing crisis response” (DeBardeleben, 2020) but no direct confrontation. Mutually beneficial economic relations with Russia are crucial to the EU as well, hence Brussels will always try to solve disagreements through dialogue first.
Thus, both conflict and cooperation elements can be detected in the Russia-Ukraine conflict, just as in the Russia-EU members and Russia-NATO relations. Moscow – finding itself isolated by NATO – does not want to be friends but wants to be strategic partners by any means. Looking back at his 2014 speech, Putin also “expected Ukraine to remain [their] good neighbour” and viewed the EU’s and NATO’s actions as operations “against Ukraine and Russia and against Eurasian integration”. He also expressed fear of NATO’s expansion which has been driving the Kremlin’s foreign policy up until today’s conflict. Nonetheless, even if running out of economic pressurising tools, Moscow should still respect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine in order to preserve a slight chance of any future relations with Kyiv.
DISCLAIMER: This article contains the personal views of the author on politics. It is here because we like good argumentative articles (like this one), and we are ensuring that everyone’s opinion can be heard on political issues. Nonetheless, those views expressed in the article are not necessarily represented by the University of Aberdeen or The Gaudie Student Newspaper.
SPECIAL THANKS to Ivan Kanev for editing this article, the Higher School of Economics for their intriguing lectures on Russia-EU relations which set the basis and historical background of this article and the Santander Mobility Award of the University of Aberdeen for funding the author's summer university programme at the Higher School of Economics.
USED ACADEMIC LITERATURE:
Busygina, I. (2017). Russia–EU Relations and the Common Neighborhood: Coercion vs. Authority (1st ed.). Routledge.
DeBardeleben, J. (2020). Crisis response, path dependence, and the joint decision trap: the EU’s eastern and Russia policies after the Ukraine crisis, East European Politics, 36:4, 564-585.
Partizán (2022). Spartacus Podcast (episode 14).
Summers, K. (2022). Five Questions about Russia and Ukraine. American University Washington DC.
(+ notes made at the lectures of the Higher School of Economics)