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Our PickThe Russia-Ukraine faceoff

The Russia-Ukraine faceoff

Published: 19th Dec 2021 12:01 am

Ukrainian and Western officials are worried that a Russian military buildup near Ukraine could signal plans by Moscow to invade its ex-Soviet neighbour. The Kremlin insists it has no such intention and has accused Ukraine and its Western backers of making the claims to cover up their own aggressive designs. Russian President Vladimir Putin has pushed for Western guarantees precluding NATO’s expansion to Ukraine, and the buildup could reflect an attempt to back up the message.

One of the reasons of their confrontation is the very contrasting memory that the two countries have of the Soviet period, which ended exactly 30 years ago. Ukraine today presents the Soviet Union and, above all, the Stalinist years, as a dark period in its history. Russia, which was engaged during perestroika and at the beginning of the 1990s in a difficult exercise of criticism of this era, displays a very different attitude, with Putin not failing to underline the positive contribution of this era to greatness, writes Cecile Vaissie, University professor in Russian and Soviet Studies, University of Rennes 2, in The Conversation.

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Roots of Conflict
Ukraine, which was part of the Russian empire for centuries before becoming a Soviet republic with deep cultural and historic ties to Russia, has moved to shed its Russian imperial legacy and forge increasingly close ties with the West. A decision by Kremlin-leaning Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych to reject an association agreement with the European Union in favour of closer ties with Moscow sparked mass protests that led to his ouster in 2014. Russia responded by annexing Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula and throwing its weight behind a separatist insurgency that broke out in Ukraine’s east.
Ukraine and the West accused Russia of sending its troops and weapons to back the rebels. Moscow denied that, charging that Russians who joined the separatists were volunteers. More than 14,000 people have died in the fighting that devastated Ukraine’s eastern industrial heartland known as Donbas. A 2015 peace agreement helped end large-scale battles, but efforts to reach a political settlement have failed, and sporadic skirmishes have continued along the tense line of contact.

The 2015 Deal
A series of bruising military defeats forced Ukraine to sign a 2015 peace agreement brokered by France and Germany that envisaged broad autonomy for the separatist regions and a sweeping amnesty for the rebels. The deal was seen by many in Ukraine as a betrayal of its national interests. Under the deal, Ukraine agreed to change its constitution to accommodate the “peculiarities” of the two Donbas separatist republics and legalise their “special status.” Some analysts said the deal’s vagueness, and some conflicting requirements, make its provisions effectively unworkable.
Ukraine is willing to engage in talks on defining “special status,” including possible changes that account for the cultural and linguistic differences of its eastern Donbas region, which has a higher proportion of native Russian speakers. But Ukraine would reject any change that gives the region virtual veto power over national policy.

What Does Moscow Want?
The Kremlin has accused Ukraine of failing to honour the 2015 peace deal and criticised the West for failing to encourage Ukrainian compliance. The agreement was a diplomatic coup for Moscow, requiring Ukraine to grant broad autonomy to the rebel regions and offer a sweeping amnesty to the rebels. Ukraine, in turn, has pointed to cease-fire violations by Russia-backed separatists and insists there is a continuing Russian troop presence in the rebel east despite the Kremlin’s denials.

Amid the recriminations, Russia has rejected a four-way meeting with Ukraine, France and Germany, saying it’s useless in view of Ukraine’s refusal to abide by the 2015 agreement. Moscow has also strongly criticised the US and its NATO allies for providing Ukraine with weapons and holding joint drills, saying it encourages Ukrainian hawks to try to regain the rebel-held areas by force.

The Russian president has repeatedly described Russians and Ukrainians as “one people” and claims that Ukraine has unfairly received historic Russian lands during Soviet times. Putin has emphasised that Ukraine’s aspirations to join NATO represent a red line for Moscow, and also expressed concern about plans by some NATO members to set up military training centres in Ukraine. He said that would give them a military foothold there even without Ukraine joining NATO.

Invasion Threat
Some observers interpret the troop buildup as a demonstration by Putin that Russia is prepared to raise the stakes to convince NATO to respect Moscow’s red lines and stop sending troops and weapons to Ukraine. Last month, Putin noted with satisfaction that Moscow’s warnings finally have had some traction and caused a “certain stress” in the West. He added: “It’s necessary to keep them in that condition for as long as possible so that it doesn’t occur to them to stage some conflict on our western borders that we don’t need.”

US officials conceded that Moscow’s intentions are unclear, but pointed to Russia’s past behaviour as a cause for concern. US President Joe Biden pledged to make it “very, very difficult” for Putin to attack Ukraine, saying that a set of new initiatives coming from his administration are intended to deter Russian aggression. He warned Putin that Moscow would face “economic consequences like you’ve never seen” if it invades Ukraine, although he noted that Washington would not deploy its military forces there.

Russian Vs Ukraine Military
When Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula and threw its support behind separatists in the country’s east more than seven years ago, Kyiv’s underfunded and disorganised armed forces struggled to mount a credible response. Now, amid fears that a Russian troop buildup near Ukraine’s border could signal a possible attack, military experts say Moscow would face stronger resistance this time. But they emphasise that Ukraine would be well short of what it needs to counter Russia’s overwhelming land, sea and air superiority.

Still, years of fighting the separatists have given Ukrainian veterans like Col Viacheslav Vlasenko the battlefield experience for such a fight. “In case of Russian aggression. I will have no choice — every Ukrainian is ready to die with arms in hands,” said the highly decorated 53-year-old Vlasenko. “Ukraine will never become a part of Russia. If we have to prove it to the Kremlin that Ukraine has the right for freedom and independence, we are ready for it.”

Putin charges that it is NATO strengthening its hold in former Soviet satellites and republics that is threatening Russia. Russian officials have suggested that the US will press Ukraine to formally cede a measure of autonomy within its eastern Donbas region, which is now under de facto control by Russia-backed separatists who rose up against Kyiv in 2014. Decentralisation of Ukraine and a “special status” for Donbas laid out in the 2015 peace deal has never taken hold.

If Russia attacks its neighbour, the one million Russian military would inevitably overwhelm Ukraine’s armed forces, which number about 2,55,000. But in addition to a promised heavy economic blow from Western sanctions, Russia would also stand to suffer significant military losses that would dent Putin’s image at home.

Mykola Sunhurovskyi, a top military analyst for the Kyiv-based Razumkov Center, an independent think-tank, said the Ukrainian military has made much progress in recent years, thanks to Western-equipment and training. “The army today is much stronger than it was in early 2014, and Russia will face serious resistance.”

The Next Steps
In 2014, Ukraine’s Kremlin-friendly President Viktor Yanukovych was driven from power by mass demonstrations that broke out when he decided to ditch an agreement with the European Union, in favour of closer ties with Moscow.

Russia responded by annexing Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula and backing separatist rebels in eastern Ukraine’s industrial heartland, known as the Donbas. The conflict is now in its eighth year, and efforts to seek a political settlement have failed. The US and its allies slapped Moscow with sanctions, and NATO halted all practical cooperation with Moscow, bolstering its forces near Russia. The Kremlin denounced those deployments and drills near its borders as a security threat.

In October, Russia suspended its mission at NATO and ordered the closure of the alliance’s office in Moscow after NATO withdrew the accreditation of eight Russian officials to its Brussels headquarters over their alleged ties to Russian intelligence.

NATO’s credibility hinges on its common defence guarantee, known as Article 5, under which an attack on one member is considered an attack on them all, and its commitment to offer membership to any European country that can contribute to security in Europe and North America. Russia wants the West to make a legal pledge not to deploy forces and weapons to Ukraine, and the Russian Foreign Ministry demanded last week that NATO rescind its 2008 pledge to accept Ukraine and Georgia as members.

The US and other NATO allies rejected Russia’s demands. “NATO’s relationship with Ukraine is going to be decided by the 30 NATO allies and Ukraine, no one else,” NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg had said. Putin countered NATO’s argument by saying that while Ukraine is free to decide its security arrangements, those shouldn’t threaten Russia.

“Every country certainly has the right to choose the most acceptable way of ensuring its security, but it must be done in a way that doesn’t infringe on the interests and undermine security of other countries, in this case Russia,” Putin said. “Security must be global and equally cover everyone.”

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