The tension in Ukraine has caused an unprecedented movement of troops and military means in Europe in recent decades, which even raises fears of an armed confrontation. The importance of the bet of the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, has revealed even more, if possible, the strategic importance that Moscow attaches to its neighbor.
For the current Russian rulers, the possible entry of Ukraine into NATO is one of the “red lines” that must not be crossed. Some of the keys that explain it are found, as usually happens, in history and geography.
Ukraine, the “border” of Russia
For Putin and for many Russians, Ukraine is the cradle of Slavic culture, a country with which they maintain linguistic and religious ties.. The kingdom of Kievan Rus (9th-13th centuries) grouped the Slavic tribes until it was conquered by the Mongols. Already in modern times, the territory of what is now Ukraine was divided between the Russian and Austro-Hungarian Empires and it was not until the Russian Revolution (1917) and the end of the subsequent civil war that Ukraine appeared as such, as a of the Soviet republics that make up the USSR and which, after the fall of the Soviet giant in 1991, proclaimed itself independent.
For Russia, Ukraine has always been a border territory. “Russian territory is very vulnerable. Except for the winter, it is relatively easy to attack, and historically it has been invaded from east to west by Mongols, French, Germans,” he explains to RTVE.es Maria Jose Perez del Pozo, professor of International Relations at the Complutense University (UCM). “That’s why you’ve always considered the need to have a protective shield around. Ukraine, Belarus, the Caucasus or Central Asia had that function: to protect the heart of Russia.”
“Russia has always considered the need to have a protective shield around“
Geography also explains why Russia annexed the Crimean peninsula in 2014, home to its Black Sea fleet, which belonged to Russia until Nikita Khrushchev ceded it to Ukraine in 1954. “Russia could lose Ukraine, but it was not going to lose Crimea because his naval fleet, his outlet to the Mediterranean was there. He couldn’t surprise anyone, he was never going to lose it,” adds Pérez del Pozo. The professor cites the background of the independence of Kosovo from Serbia, allowed by the EU.
Ukraine is also one of the territories for which the hydrocarbons that Russia sells abroad circulate.
In its strategic documents, Professor Pérez del Pozo underlines, Moscow has always declared that the priority of its foreign policy is what it calls “the next foreigner”, the territories that belonged to the USSR, with the exception of the Baltic republics, which are considered lost. “The rest, Russia today considers its backyard, its main area of influenceclinches the professor. Its influence in its immediate area is what gives Russia its great power status, which he has kept since his birth.
a divided country
After independence, Ukraine sought a balance between the European Union and Russia. Things began to go wrong when in 2013 the government of Viktor Yanukovych rejected an association agreement with the EU, from which Russia was excluded. This provoked citizen protests and violent riots (known as Euromaidan), in which they played a major role far right groups, and which ended up overthrowing the government a year later, with the approval of the US and the EU.
Moscow then warned that “forcing Ukraine to choose” between Brussels and Moscow could harm its territorial integrity. Shortly after the annexation of Crimea took place and the civil war began in the Donbas region (east of the country) between the Kiev government and the pro-Russian separatist movements of Donestk and Lugansk.. Despite the Minsk agreements of 2015, breached by both parties, the conflict has continued and has caused 14,000 dead and some 2 million displaced, with complaints of human rights violations by both parties.
“The country has a broken heart – assures RTVE.es rafael poch, former correspondent for The vanguard in Russia for more than a decade – because socially, religiously, culturally and linguistically is bicephalous, with a very nationalist Ukrainian part and a more Russophile part, both being in favor of sovereignty, with the exception of Crimea and the rebel regions, which are pro-Russian”.
“Ukraine is a country divided between pro-Russian and pro-Western countries, so Russia easily finds a way to consolidate that influence,” emphasizes Professor Pérez del Pozo, who underlines the fact that the Duma (Russian Parliament) has started discussing whether to grant citizenship to Russian-speakers in Donbas, another move that may force the EU and the US to define themselves.
The enlargement of NATO, a threat to Russia
Poch understands that Russia does not want Ukraine to be part of a “hostile military bloc” such as NATO, an organization born out of the Cold War.
During the negotiations between George Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev that ended that historical period, the Soviets received verbal assurances that NATO would not expand eastward. But this promise was not fulfilled: Hungary, Poland, and the Czech Republic joined the Alliance in 1999, followed in 2004 by Bulgaria, Slovakia, Slovenia, Romania, and the Baltic republics. In 2008, NATO opened the door to Ukraine and Georgia.
“The Russians see this as an absolutely material threat,” the teacher explained to RTVE.es a month ago. Olga Volosyuk, professor at the Moscow Higher School of Economics (HSE) and expert in Russia-Spain relations.
For Poch, the neutrality status would be the one that could benefit Ukraine the most. “In Europe we have neutral countries like Finland, Austria, or Switzerland, and they have maintained their independence perfectly. Finland was in the backyard of the USSR and has been a sovereign and democratic state. It had the intelligence not to provoke its immediate neighbor” .
How far is Putin willing to go?
Moscow has denied that it is going to invade its neighbor and has assured that it is only trying to “guarantee” its own security. But how far is Putin willing to go?
Pérez del Pozo believes that the Russian president “play many options to have different possibilities of acting” but he does not imagine a full-fledged military invasion. “The message of an invasion has been spread, which all the European foreign ministries have bought, but I do not know if that was Putin’s first intention. He makes a move and everyone takes a picture, has allowed him to know how everyone will react“.
However, the UCM professor warns that “a pre-war climate is being created” and asks “to be more cautious”. “It is very dangerous. An area with many deployed weapons has been created, like in the Black Sea, and any mistake or glitch can trigger a more serious problem.”
“Must try to attract Russia, is not the enemy of the EU, we need each other”, adds Pérez del Pozo.
Poch assures that Putin has slammed his fist on the table by concentrating troops on the border and has managed to mark the agenda. “Just that the negotiations take place has already generated a situation, and it is a point in favor of Russian strategy. The military invasion is a chimera. What happens is that the Westerners have inflated it to counteract the point made by Putin. I don’t we know, but I am convinced that something is going to happen, because Putin would lose face if not. The answer will be unexpected.”
George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.