Russia and Ukraine .. a new cold war or a repeated scene?
Prepared by Najat Abdel-Qawy Aoun
Master's researcher at the Faculty of Economic Studies and Political Science, Alexandria University
Modern bilateral relations between Russia and Ukraine officially began during World War I when the former Russian Empire was undergoing its political reformation. In 1920, the bilateral relations between the two countries changed due to the occupation of Ukraine by the Russian Red Army. In the 1990s, bilateral relations between the two countries were revived immediately after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, in which Russia and Ukraine were founding republics. Relations between the two countries have collapsed since the Ukrainian revolution in 2014, followed by Russia's annexation of Ukraine's Crimea, Russia's support for separatist fighters from the Donetsk People's Republic and the Luhansk People's Republic in a war that claimed more than 13,000 lives by early 2020, and for which Western sanctions were imposed on Russia.
Historical background on Russian-Ukrainian relations
The historical ties between Russia and Ukraine are many and deep, and the Russians used to call Ukraine "Little Russia". In some historical periods, the Ukrainian capital, Kiev, was the capital of Russia, and from there Orthodox Christianity moved to Russia in the ninth century AD.
In the nineteenth century Russia united with Ukraine, and in the twentieth century Russia established the Soviet Union, and Ukraine was its most prominent republic. In 1991, Ukraine and Russia were among the republics that drove the final nail into the coffin of the Soviet Union. However, Moscow wanted to retain its influence by establishing the Commonwealth of Independent States (GUS). The Kremlin thought at the time that it could control Ukraine through shipments of cheap gas. But that didn't happen. While Russia managed to build a close alliance with Belarus, Ukraine's eyes were always fixed on the West. In 1997, Moscow officially recognized through the so-called "Grand Contract" the borders of Ukraine, including the Crimean peninsula, which is inhabited by a Russian-speaking majority.
a crack in the friendship
Moscow and Kiev experienced their first major diplomatic crisis under Vladimir Putin. In 2003, Russia suddenly began building a dam in the Kerch Strait towards the Ukrainian island of Kosa Tusla. Kiev considered this an attempt to redraw new borders between the two countries. The conflict intensified, and it was not put to an end until after a bilateral meeting between the Russian and Ukrainian presidents. After that, the construction of the dam was halted, but the declared friendship between the two countries began to show cracks.
During the presidential elections in Ukraine in 2004, Russia greatly supported the candidate close to it, Viktor Yanukovych, but the "Orange Revolution" prevented his victory based on fraud, and instead the politician close to the West, Viktor Yushchenko, won. During his presidency, Russia cut gas supplies to the country twice, in 2006 and 2009. Gas supplies to Europe via Ukraine were also cut off. In 2008, US President George W. Bush tried to integrate Ukraine and Georgia into NATO, and accept their membership, but this was met with protest by Putin, and Moscow declared clearly that it would not accept the full independence of Ukraine. France and Germany prevented Bush from implementing his plan. During the NATO summit in Bucharest, the question of Ukraine and Georgia's membership was raised, but no date was set for that. And because the issue of joining NATO did not work out, Ukraine tried to link up with the West through a cooperation agreement with the European Union. In 2013, a few months after the agreement was signed, Moscow exerted enormous economic pressure on Kiev and restricted imports to Ukraine. Against this background, the government of former President Yanukovych froze the agreement, and protests against the decision erupted, which led to his fleeing to Russia in February 2014.
The annexation of Crimea.. a milestone
The Kremlin took advantage of the power vacuum in Kiev to annex Crimea in 2014. This was a milestone and the beginning of an undeclared war. Meanwhile, Russian paramilitary forces began mobilizing the coal-rich Donbass region of eastern Ukraine for an uprising. It also declared two people's republics in Donetsk and Luhansk, headed by Russia. As for the government in Kiev, it waited until the end of the presidential elections in May 2014, to launch a major military operation that it called the "war on terror." In June of the same year, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and Putin met for the first time with German and French mediation, and during this meeting the so-called "Normandy formula" was born. At the time, the Ukrainian army could have pushed back the separatists, but at the end of August, Russia intervened massively militarily. The war ended in September with the signing of a cease-fire agreement in Minsk.
Proxy war in Donbass
After the agreement, the conflict turned into a proxy war that rages on to this day. In 2015, the separatists launched an offensive that Kiev claimed was backed by unarmed Russian forces, which Moscow denied. The Ukrainian forces were defeated again as a result of this attack, in the strategic city of Debaltseve, which the Ukrainian army was forced to abandon in an escape-like manner. At that time, "Minsk 2" was agreed upon, and it is an agreement that to this day constitutes the basis for attempts to establish peace, and its terms have not yet been fully implemented. In 2019 there was a glimmer of hope, as success was achieved in withdrawing soldiers from the two warring sides from some areas of confrontation. But since the Normandy summit in Paris in December 2019, no meetings have taken place. Putin does not want a personal meeting with the current Ukrainian President, Volodymyr Zelensky, because he is not committed to the Minsk Agreement. Since December 2021, the Russian president has publicly asked the United States not to allow Ukraine to join NATO or receive military aid. But the alliance did not acquiesce to these demands.
Ukraine is the spearhead of America and NATO against Russia
The United States and NATO tended to expand their sphere of influence in the Black Sea region. On the other hand, Ukraine tried to exploit these efforts to attract Western support in the region to confront Russia. In this context, there are many dimensions expressed by the Ukrainian crisis, which can be clarified as follows:
1- Ukrainian-Western military relations: Ukrainian foreign relations have recently witnessed a development that includes deepening the strategic partnership with the United States of America and the West, as US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken and Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba announced in Washington the conclusion of a strategic agreement between the United States of America and Ukraine, promising to continue deepening Bilateral cooperation in the political, security, defense, economic and energy fields.
The agreement also reaffirmed the United States' commitment to Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity, including Crimea, in the face of "ongoing Russian aggression" as part of security and defense cooperation. Notably, the USA has already sold weapons, such as Javelin anti-tank missiles, to Ukraine. In addition, Turkey has provided Ukraine with combat drones, which are being used against Russian-backed rebels. NATO also strengthened its presence and conducted naval exercises in the Black Sea with the Ukrainian army, which angered Russia.
2- The Ukrainian army and the Russian-backed separatists: Widespread demonstrations and protests erupted following the accession of Crimea and the port of Sevastopol to Russia, and tensions developed into an armed conflict between the Russian-backed separatist forces in Donetsk and Luhansk People's Republic and the Ukrainian army, and much information emerged indicating that the main leaders of the movement The rebels during the beginning of the conflict, including Igor Strelkov and Igor Bezler, were Russian agents. In addition, the Prime Minister of the Donetsk People's Republic, Alexander Boroday, had Russian citizenship, and Russian volunteers made up the bulk of the fighters. On the other hand, the Ukrainian army used Turkish drones against Russian-backed forces in eastern Ukraine, and two American bombers capable of carrying nuclear bombs flew near the Crimean peninsula, and these developments may confirm what has been raised about Russia's efforts to annex more of the south overlooking the Black Sea. - Russian military policy towards the regional belt: Russia views the former Soviet republics as an integral part of its regional security belt, and follows there a military and security policy that includes provoking separatist tendencies, in a way that provides it with an opportunity to intervene by summoning separatists, and this was evident in Crimea and Georgia.
4- Western moves in the region: Russia viewed the American exercises with strategic bombers capable of carrying nuclear bombs that flew over the Black Sea as a threat to it, along with the American missile defense systems in Poland and Romania, and there were also threats that NATO might deploy missiles on Ukrainian territory.
In this context, the steadfastness of the Russian policy towards the Ukrainian position justifies the adherence to the presence of the military build-up that it placed on the Ukrainian borders.
Expected scenarios for the Russian-Ukrainian conflict
The crisis is heading at the present time to one of two paths:
The first: escalation.
Recent military expectations indicate that Russia is heading to launch a military attack against Ukraine soon with a number of forces exceeding 100,000 soldiers, and this will be through launching surprise attacks by Russia on the Ukrainian borders, and in return Ukraine seeks to join NATO and allow it to mobilize its forces and establish its bases over its territory with the aim of threatening Russian national security. It is expected that if Russia invades Ukraine, it will rely on a fighting tactic aimed at forcing the Ukrainian forces to fight on multiple fronts so that Ukraine cannot continue the confrontation and surrender.
On the other hand, expectations indicate that NATO will not engage in a direct war with Russia in the event of its invasion of Ukraine, because NATO does not have a sufficient number of forces to deter Russia, and with regard to the position of the United States, the Russian bet that the withdrawal of the United States from Afghanistan indicates Its unwillingness to engage in military intervention is not accurate, because the American position is always subject to change.
Some predictions indicate the possibility of a third world war if Russia invades Ukraine, but this possibility is weak.
Two: calm down
Signs of calming appeared in:
1- The closed summit that took place between Presidents Putin and Biden, which resulted in contacts between the parties concerned in the crisis. This summit bore indications of the two sides sticking to their position, but the United States is nevertheless seeking to find diplomatic solutions as it works in this file according to the policy of enticement and intimidation, as it indicated that the response in the event of an invasion would be through imposing economic sanctions on Russia and providing military aid to Ukraine. In addition to continuing the US military presence on the eastern side of NATO.
2- Russia has never objected to discussing the status of Crimea with Ukraine or with the West, and there is talk about the possibility of giving some form of autonomy in Crimea and Donbass.
3- The United States of America is currently seeking to put pressure on Ukraine to accept a measure of autonomy in Donbass, which is effectively under the control of the Russian-backed separatists, but this solution may cause many internal conflicts and provide an additional justification for Russia's intervention.
4- The presence of statements about the possibility of holding a meeting between the Russian and Ukrainian presidents in Donbass, and this indicates that there are secret contacts taking place between the West and Russia that push to move forward towards negotiations.
5- The fear of the West and Russia about the occurrence of something more dangerous makes them convinced of the necessity of negotiation.
6- The Russian build-up on the Ukrainian border carries qualitative messages to put political pressure on Ukraine, the United States and the European Union to stop interfering in Russian spheres of influence.
7- President Putin adhered to the need for the United States of America and its allies to provide signed assurances that exclude any expansion of NATO to include Ukraine and Georgia and limit military activity near Russia's borders, and the United States of America responded and made contacts with the parties to the crisis and indicated the exclusion of Ukraine's inclusion in NATO during the decade The next, and the continuity of contacts will remain a positive indicator despite its weakness, but it is taken into account because of its possible impact on the course of the conflict.
In the end, it is expected that the Russian presence on the borders will continue and Western and US military support for Ukraine will increase with the continuation of talks and contacts between the parties, until one of the parties gives up its position in exchange for some concessions, otherwise the clash will inevitably come.
Najat Abdel-Qawy Aoun