By: Toby Martin-Kohls
You may have heard in the media about the conflict between Russia and Ukraine. You might have heard eye-catching headlines such as NBC New’s “Biden warns Americans to leave, says sending troops to evacuate to be a ‘world war’”. But what is this conflict even about?
In short, Russia has currently amassed 130,000 troops at various points along their shared border with Ukraine, complete with other war aids such as field hospitals. Putin has a list of demands for the West or more commonly referred to as NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization). Negotiations are ongoing, but Russia has enough troops positioned to launch a full-scale invasion.
His demands include that NATO stop expanding, for NATO to remove troops out of Eastern Europe, and assurances that the US won’t protect Eastern European allies. He knows that these demands are far-fetched, but then he could claim he went the diplomatic way before an invasion.
To fully understand this conflict, you need to understand what NATO is and also take a step back into the past.
NATO was formed in 1949 by the US to provide collective security against the Soviet Union. Before Russia became the Russia that it is today, it was the USSR, or also known as the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union was a socialist republic and tried to build a communist society.
After the fall of the Soviet Union in December 1991, former Soviet republics declared some forms of independence, and today they are recognized as sovereign states. These countries are now known as: Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Estonia, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan.
Since modern-day Ukraine was once part of the Soviet Union, there were, and still are, many deep cultural ties to the region. For example, the leader of the Soviet Union when it fell, Mikhail Gorbachev, had a Ukrainian mother and a Russian father. To people like him, and Vladimir Putin, Ukraine, and Russia share similar interests and objectives.
Putin became President of Russia in 2012, but he was a high-ranking government official for years prior. In a 2005 speech, Putin said, “The collapse of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century,” and “As for the Russian people, it became a genuine tragedy. Tens of millions of our fellow countrymen found themselves beyond the fringes of Russian territory.”
In his mind, all the new territories from the old regime were essentially still Russian. When the West shows up to these former republics offering their ideological beliefs such as democracies and inviting them to join their military alliance (NATO), which again, was first started to provide security against the Soviet Union, he felt threatened, because of this belief that Ukraine is Russia.
Ukraine has been flirting with becoming more allied with the West, which has Putin on edge. After Russian annexed Crimea, a southern region of Ukraine, in 2014, Ukrainians elected a pro-West president. The current president, elected in 2019, is also a closer ally of NATO countries, and has talked about the country joining NATO. A Unian poll asked Ukrainians if they were in favor to join the European Union which 58% of respondents said yes. It also asked if they were in favor of Ukraine joining NATO, of which 64% said yes.
Further emphasizing his position, on his blog, Putin wrote, “…Of what is essentially the same historical and spiritual space, to my mind is our great common misfortune and tragedy…But these are also the result of deliberate efforts by those forces that have always sought to undermine our unity. The formula they apply has been known from time immemorial – divide and rule.”
He truly believes that Ukraine has aligned itself with the West to thwart Russia.
Perhaps his most effective argument is, “Just have a look at how Austria and Germany, the USA and Canada live next to each other. Close in ethnic composition, culture, in fact sharing one language, they remain sovereign states with their own interests, with their own foreign policy. But this does not prevent them from the closest integration or allied relations. They have very conditional, transparent borders. And when crossing them the citizens feel at home. They create families, study, work, do business. Incidentally, so do millions of those born in Ukraine who now live in Russia. We see them as our own close people.”
That does not excuse using force to take over a sovereign state. If Putin ends up invading Russia, this will give NATO a new purpose, albeit similar to why it was formed. Putin and his legacy all seem to rest on gaining land back that he deems as part of Russia.