Written by: Olivia Oseroff
A Brief Introduction and History
The Russian Federation and Ukraine’s history is a troubled one. Their relationship is not amicable, specifically regarding the territorial rights over Crimea and Eastern Ukraine. In November 2013, Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych rejected an increase in economic integration with the European Union. Soon after protests erupted across Kyiv, and after escalation and unrest, President Yanukovych was ousted in March of 2014. Ukraine did not have a leader, so Russian troops invaded and took control of Ukraine’s Crimean region, citing safety concerns for Russian speakers in the peninsula. Crimeans later voted to join the Russian Federation in a referendum; however, European leaders deemed the results illegitimate due to polling places being heavily guarded and monitored by Russians. As the situation escalated, an ethnic divide heightened.
Tensions only rose. In July of 2014, a Malaysian Airline flight was shot down over Ukrainian airspace. Over the next year, experts determined that a Russian surface-to-air missile was at fault. In February of 2015, the Minsk Accords sought to bring peace to Eastern Ukraine. France, Germany, Russia, and Ukraine sat down for the first time in 2015, but the resolution was unsuccessful. In April of 2016, NATO announced they would cycle troops through Eastern European countries to prevent the escalation of Russian forces in Europe. The U.S. sent two tank brigades to support NATO forces further. In addition to physical attacks, between 2014 and 2017, Russia targeted Ukraine in a series of cyberattacks.
The U.S., Ukraine, and Russia
Unlike the U.S.’ relationship with Russia, its relationship with Ukraine is much younger. They forged an official association in 1991 after Ukraine gained its independence from the Soviet Union. Ukraine is a high priority for the U.S. as its strategic position is crucial to fighting against Russian aggression. The U.S. does not recognize Russia’s attempted annexation of Crimea and continues to explore diplomatic solutions to the escalating conflict.
What’s Happening Now?
In January 2018, President Donald Trump imposed sanctions on companies and individuals involved in the conflict. Throughout 2018, Trump continued to bolster Ukraine’s defensive capabilities by supplying them with anti-tank weapons to respond should Russia have a misstep; he also announced an additional 200 million dollars in defense aid. Following Russia’s annual military exercise in September of 2018, Ukraine led the U.S. and neighboring NATO allies in a joint military air exercise in western Ukraine.
After the 2019 Ukrainian election, the newly elected President, Volodymyr Zelensky, pledged to end the Donbas conflict. Ultimately his efforts failed to de-escalate the situation. In June of 2020, Jens Stoltenberg, the Secretary-General of NATO, said Ukraine became eligible for NATO membership.
In January 2021, President Biden expressed the importance of Ukraine’s sovereignty. Following the last few months, Putin’s next move is uncertain and the ultimate goal of this specific escalation. In recent weeks, observers have found new weapons on the Russian-backed side, and there are threats of seizing diplomatic talks. The Ukrainian Parliament noted that talks had “broken down” since their beginning almost six years ago. In February 2021, the Russian military conducted rehearsals of drops into Crimea that many saw as a reconnaissance mission focused on acquiring information about water canals supplying Ukraine from the Dnieper River.
As of April 13th, Russia warned the U.S. to remove ships from the Crimea region ordered into the Black Sea after the Russia-Ukraine conflict escalated. The following week, NATO and the U.S. pledged their support for Ukraine amid rising conflict. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin ordered a bolstering of U.S. presence in Germany and stated, “the U.S. stands firmly behind the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine.” Biden announced he would “take further actions” if Russia escalates the conflict in Ukraine. In response to Russia’s interference in U.S. elections, President Biden put financial sanctions on Russia and expelled ten Russian diplomats from U.S. embassies. Josep Borrell, the High Representative for the EU’s Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, warned of a more significant conflict if Russia’s military bolstering doesn’t end. Under the Normandy Format, France, Germany, Russia, and Ukraine have reaffirmed commitments to reach a cease-fire in Eastern Ukraine. According to the Associated Press, on April 21, 2021, Ukrainian President, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, activated reservist troops, reaching over 12,000 troops at the border. He has yet to call for mobilization. As of May 7, 2021, Secretary of State Blinken considered a request from Ukraine’s President for additional military aid; since Crimea’s annexation in 2014, the U.S. has given Ukraine 5 billion dollars in aid. There has been no update on this decision since the consideration was announced. On May 16, 2021, Russia declared the U.S. and the Czech Republic ‘unfriendly states’; this included restrictions on the hiring of embassy staff. As of May 20, 2021, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken are discussing a possible summit between Vladimir Putin and Joe Biden. According to the State Department, their initial conversation included discussion of Russia’s military buildup on the Ukrainian border, the imprisonment of opposition Alexey Navalny, and the release of two former U.S. marines imprisoned in Russia.
Geopolitical Motives for Annexing Crimea and Ukrainian Territory
Acquiring Ukraine and Crimea provides Russia with a multitude of advantages ranging from economic to strategic. The Crimean peninsula holds the Port of Sevastopol, Russia’s only warm-water port. The port is valued for its access to maritime trading routes and geopolitical advantages. Ukraine is the door to Europe, and acquiring it would give Russia the ability to attack both directly into Europe and Turkey while also providing them a large piece of what Russia hopes to be a Eurasian empire. On the economic front, Moscow is a leading supplier of gas in Europe alongside Ukraine, leading to an extremely large bolstering of economic prosperity in Russia should they annex Ukraine.
Since the 1960s, Ukraine has provided a door through which the Soviet Union and later Russia could supply gas to Europe. Following the fall of the USSR and Ukraine’s declaration of independence from Russia (1991), Russia became highly dependent on Ukrainian gas lines and transportation systems to continue supplying Europe with natural gas. When this was infeasible for the superpower, they attempted to undermine Ukrainian gas systems by constructing new lines. A repeating gas crisis arose from a continuous dispute throughout the early 2000s. While some of Russia’s bypass attempts were successful, Crimea’s annexation to Russia instigated the military conflict in Donbas. The military conflict halted a progression that could have resulted in a tremendously weaker Ukraine without its resource advantage over Russia. In 2019, Europe shared a significant decrease in demand for gas as their natural gas and energy consumption fell more than ten percent. Now, the European Union has adopted a new policy revitalizing Ukraine’s involvement in the European economy. With Russia coming up, this presents a new front for the two to face in energy wars as Russia is an experienced actor in energy and misinformation.
A continuation or escalation of this conflict will only further contribute to the deterioration of U.S.-Russian relations and increased Russian influence and troops in Eastern Ukraine and other NATO countries. An escalation in any NATO country would trigger a response from the U.S. and other NATO allies under Article 5 for collective defense. The continuous embattlement of the leading countries involved in this conflict keeps the focus away from other international issues, specifically the world’s fight against terrorism or the continuing pandemic. So, the question remains: will the U.S. and Ukraine go to war with Russia while backed by the NATO Alliance, leading to the next major conflict, or, like others, will the situation subside and dial down? Ukraine is not a NATO member yet; however, aid levels are rising. Vladimir Putin knows that there will be an appropriate response from Ukraine’s western allies if Russia does invade Ukraine. Will World War III be started by this rising conflict in 2021 or for years to come? While both Ukraine and Russia have verbally postured, hinting at war and invasion, Russia’s next step remains unclear.