Political Anthropology: Russian Imperialism and the War in Ukraine

The only active conflict in Europe today, the war in Ukraine, has been “on a low simmer”[1] since 2015.

A recently unexpected military build-up on the Russo-Ukrainian border has raised concerns around the globe not just about the beginning of a full-blown warfare between the two countries, but also about the potential reactions of the world to it, as well as the possibility of the conflict’s spillage that would leave not a single country on the sidelines.

Introduction

A picture depicts Ukrainian and Russian flags 'crashing' into each other, thus symbolizing a conflict between two neighbouring countries.
Credits: E-International Relations, https://www.e-ir.info

This blog analyzes the Ukrainian historical identity spilt as well as the reasons behind Russian imperial designs to argue that Russian fears of its regional power decline due to Ukraine’s pro-Western foreign policy turn led to the still unresolved Russo-Ukrainian war.

I will also elaborate upon the recent rise of tensions between the two countries caused by the unexpected military build-up of Russian troops and weaponry at the Russo-Ukrainian border, and will speculate about the possible reasons behind it as well as about the potentially dangerous future outcomes that might unravel.

Russian imperialism explained

Russian foreign policy has always displayed expansionist inclinations over its neighbouring territories.

The picture depicts an old map of Europe 'attacked' by a huge octopus, which symbolizes Russian imperialism.
Credits: Pinterest, https://co.pinterest.com

This incessant desire for more land and resources can be explained by Russian geopolitical realities.

The fact that Russia is a continental empire that spreads over a vast territory which has no natural barriers for its protection generated an enduring feeling of insecurity within its ruling elites.

Indeed, the prospects of an easy invasion contributed to the realist belief that expansionism is essential to Russian survival, since in anarchic international society with the permanent scarcity of security states are forced to compete for power and influence with each other in order to maximize their survival chances.

Under these circumstances, the security usually depends on:

  • the state’s military and economic strength,
  • or its availability of resources.

While the attainment by Russia of the great power status was held back by its technological and military backwardness, the attainment of more territory enabled it to trade it for time, since by facing the enemy far away from its core, Russia had more time to prepare a counter-offensive.

Historically, Russia could accrue significant military gains only through the use of its vastness of territory and severe winters which drained enemies’ energy and thus allowed the inferior but more sizeable Russian army to strike a decisive blow.

The reasons behind Russian anti-Western sentiments

A photo depicts a former Russian President, Boris Nikolayevich Yeltsin, smiling at the camera.
Boris Nikolayevich Yeltsin (1931-2007). He was a Russian and former Soviet politician, whom served as the first President of Russia from 1991 to 1999.
Credits: Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Boris_Yeltsin

Naturally, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia’s sense of security was completely shattered.

The embarrassment from the abandonment of its superpower status, resentment over the loss of fifteen Soviet republics that were now independent from direct Moscow’s control, divisions of the military, industrial property and infrastructure- all led to the profound Russian identity crisis and a desire to use its foreign policy as a compensatory tool.

During the short-lived post-Cold War Atlanticist phase, Boris Yeltsin, the first president of Russia, aimed to collaborate with the West.

However, it soon became clear that Russian prospects to integrate with the West were almost nonexistent due to the latter’s refusal to accept it as their equal after the collapse of the U.S.S.R. which placed Russia in a very miserable economic and political situation.

Putin’s Presidency (2000-2008; 2012-now)

A photo depicts the current President of Russia, Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin, looking away.
Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin (born 1952). He is a Russian politician and former intelligence officer, whom is serving as the current President of Russia since 2012. He has also served as President of Russia from 1999 to 2008, as well as the Prime Minister of Russia from 1999 to 2000 and from 2008 to 2012.
Credits: Wikipedia,

With Vladimir Putin’s accession to power in 2000, Russia turned to the phase of “national pragmatism”[2], and its foreign policy took a sharp stance against Washington’s unipolar domination, advocating for the multipolar world order that would include Russia as one of its dominant powers.

Putin’s second presidency (2004-2008) set a distinct anti-western tone, partly due to the 2004 pro-western Orange Revolution in Ukraine, which became “a particularly heavy blow to Russia’s aspirations of the assured friendliness, if not necessarily submissiveness, of the CIS- designated regimes in the near abroad”[3], and which allegedly confirmed Russian suspicions about the incentives of the West to undermine Russia’s regional influence.

The photo depicts Russian soldiers invading Georgia posing for a photograph by the road sign showing 66 kilometers to the country's capital Tbilisi. The soldiers are posing under the sign while holding a large Russian flag.
“Russian soldiers invading Georgia taking photographs by the road sign showing 66 kilometers to the country’s capital Tbilisi.”
Credits: Euromaidan Press, http://euromaidanpress.com

The 2008 Russo-Georgian war thus became “a landmark of Russia’s hardening to the West”[4] , as well as a response to NATO’s bombings of Belgrade, U.S. withdrawal from the 1972 ABM treaty and western support given to ‘color revolutions’ throughout the CIS countries.

Therefore, this commercial and geopolitical competition with the West encouraged Russia to develop the idea “for ‘soft hegemony’ in southern Eurasia, carried out through the instrumentalities of economic integration and interstate policy conformance.”[5]

For this reason, Putin’s third presidency (2012-2018) was marked by the efforts to renew Russian imperialism toward surrounding pre-Soviet states.

Regionalist turn and corruption

The regime’s economic and military backwardness, as during pre-Cold War times, is the reason behind Russia’s foreign policy choice of the ‘regionalist turn’ instead of global domination.

Statistically, Russia’s debilitated economy is chronically dependent on raw materials such as gas and oil that “take full 70 per

The collage of photos reveals some of the most prominent Russian businessmen and officials.
Some of the most prominent Russian businessmen and officials.
Credits: Voanews, https://www.voanews.com

cent in the structure of exports”[6], while most consumer goods are imported from abroad.

Also, “the capital flight abroad, which held at US$20 billion annual average under Boris Yeltsin, climbed up steadily to $50 billion average at the beginning of Putin’s third term in the office”[7] and reached a shocking $130 billion in 2014 due to the Ukrainian crisis and western sanctions. According to the 2011 Global Financial Integrity report, Russia was second in the world “in the amount of capital illicitly transferred abroad: $427 billion in the years 2000-2008.”[8]

This money, stolen from the national budget or acquired through illegal privatizations, facilitated the formation of the superrich elites (oligarchs), who transformed the country into a “petro-state dominated by patronage and rent seeking.”[9]

Today, the oligarch’s tight grasp of the Russian treasury, however, disproportionately affects the resource- availability for the rest of the population due to the corrupt deprivation of the much-needed resources from governmental departments.

For this reason, it can be said that “Russia not only lacks crucial capabilities necessary for power projection abroad, but cannot be imagined to develop those any time soon.”[10]

Since these unfunded necessary projects throughout Russia as well as the traditional hard power (in)capabilities fallen “victim to the politics of kleptocracy”[11]need to be compensated somehow, Russia’s regionalist direction became the best solution.

This foreign policy strategy allows the prestige-seeking Russia to demonstrate its power and influence to the world through the full use of various regional soft power instruments such as

  • geographic proximity to its smaller neighbours,
  • trade and investment ties,
  • mass media influence,
  • transportation corridors,
  • and resource dependencies.

This strategy thus benefits Russia by allowing it to project its power in an area that does not antagonize other regional or global hegemons, as well as allows it to make use of area’s position as the largest corridor between Europe and Asia.

Also, the ‘regionalist turn’ allows Russia to benefit from the economies of scale, since the close integration with the post-Soviet states enables it to enrich herself through the elimination of customs tariffs and preferential trade agreements.

Moreover, in order to avoid any costly military engagements and still resuscitate its “status imagery and self-perception as that of ‘primus inter pares’ among the countries of the region”[12], this foreign policy strategy allows Russia to pursue its military domination through the regional CSTO peacekeeping collective forces and anti-terrorist CIS, SCO and the Eurasian Union frameworks.

A photo depicts President Putin delivering address to the Federal Assembly in 2002.
President Putin delivering address to the Federal Assembly, 2002.
Credits: President of Russia, http://en.kremlin.ru

Such regional integration with the post-Soviet states surrounding Russia became an economic and political-military priority under Putin.

His address to the Federal Assembly in 2002 not only described the integration in the CIS framework as Russia’s foreign policy goal but explained it in terms of “a priority that is linked, among other things, to the obtainment of the competitive advantages in the world markets.”[13]

Russia’s first major regional foreign policy accomplishments were the treaty ratification on the Russian-Ukrainian border delimitation in the use of the Azov Sea aquatory and the agreements between Belarus, Kazakhstan and Ukraine on the creation of the Single Economic Space.

The strategic importance of Ukraine for Russia

A picture depicts a map of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic.
A map of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. The Ukrainian SSR ceased to exist on 24 August 1991, when the Supreme Soviet of the Ukrainian SSR proclaimed the independent state of Ukraine.
Credits: Internet Encyclopedia of Ukraine, http://www.encyclopediaofukraine.com

The economic and political collaborations with Ukraine were (and are) “the first-rate objectives of Russia’s foreign policy”[14] due

to the historically unique Russian- Ukrainian relations.

  • Firstly, many years of cohabitation within the borders of the same country/empire- first within the borders of the Russian Empire and later the U.S.S.R.- led to the families’ interconnectedness and similar culture between these two ethnic groups.
  • Secondly, as the second-largest economy within the U.S.S.R., Ukraine had its three quarters firmly integrated “into the unified economic complex of the Soviet Union.”[15]
    • Thus, after the collapse the USSR, Russia and Ukraine became increasingly dependent on each other for parts and inputs from the cross-border production chains.
    • In fact, “Russia remained Ukraine’s largest trade partner in 2014, with 22 per cent share of Ukraine’s total exports and near 25 per cent share of its total imports.”[16]
  • Thirdly, historically, Ukrainians played a crucial role in Russia’s military efforts, including, but not limited to, Ukrainian Cossacks’ military union with the Russian tsar, Ukrainian heroic participation in World War II, and the assistance in the buildup of the Soviet armed forces during the Cold War.

Therefore, it was (and still is) Russia’s high priority, if not to integrate, but to dominate Ukraine in its economic, political and cultural spheres.

Ukranian identity split

Ukrainian identity split, however, has always been the key obstacle for Russian desires to dominate Ukraine.

The Ukrainian historical identity split into two languages and cultural groups of Russophiles and Ukrainophiles undermined Russia’s abilities “to be an effective authoritarian black knight in Ukraine.”[17]

A picture depicts a map of Ukraine roughly divided into 4 geographic zones.
Kyiv International Institute of Sociology (KIIS) geographic division of Ukraine.
Credits: Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org

Ukraine can be roughly divided into three regions that encompass distinct political/social attitudes.

  • Western Ukraine, dominated by Ukrainian-speaking ethnic Ukrainians, was under Austrian- Hungarian control until WWII when it was incorporated into the USSR.
    • The Austrian government did not ban Ukrainian attributes and even promoted the expansion of mass schooling in the Ukrainian language, which helped to further support for Ukrainian nationalism.
  • Eastern/southern Ukraine is historically closer to Russia, since it was incorporated into its territories during the seventeenth century.
    • As opposed to western Ukraine, eastern Ukrainians were educated in the Russian language and were banned from expressing any Ukrainian allegiances, since it was believed that diversity could undermine the Russian Empire’s or, later, the USSR’s unities.
      • Thus, people in this region possess a relatively weak Ukrainian identity and generally speak Russian.
    • Moreover, since western Ukraine once belonged to the Catholic Austrian Empire while eastern Ukraine to the Orthodox Russian Empire, these people celebrate different religious holidays and have different views on Ukraine’s foreign policy aims, with easterners supporting Russia and the CIS and westerners the EU and NATO.
  • Thus, central Ukraine is a swing region.
    • Alike eastern Ukraine, the center was under Russian domination since the seventeenth century, however, it was populated by more Ukrainian- speakers than the eastern/southern regions.
      • Interestingly enough, “in the early 1990s, central Ukraine tended to support Russophile political forces, but it gradually shifted over to the Ukrainophile side by the mid-2000s.”[18]

This regional divide is especially important in Ukrainian politics, since “given the organizational and mobilizational advantages of taking one side or the other on the national question, few politicians [are] able to gain power without choosing sides.”[19]

This, in turn, facilitated pluralism in Ukraine through the creation of the most regionally polarized elections in the world.

A picture depicts a map of Ukraine and the voting pattern of Ukrainian citizens from different geographical zones. It can be seen that eastern and southern Ukrainians mainly voted for the pro-Russian Viktor Yanukovych, while western and central Ukrainians mainly voted for pro-Western Viktor Yushchenko.
Results of the second round of presidential elections in Ukraine in 2004. The regional polarization of votes is strikingly evident here.
Credits: Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org

Russia’s attempts to consolidate the pro-Russian authoritarian puppet regime in Ukraine were undermined twice in 2004 and 2013 by the Ukrainophiles’ resentment of Russian domination of Ukrainian politics.

Remarkably, the Ukrainophiles’ main concern with autocratic pro-Russian presidents was less about their commitment to democratic values than about their antipathy toward the Russophile power structures.

The surveys of protesters during the 2004 Orange Revolution in Ukraine, when the pro-Russian presidential candidate Viktor

A photo depicts a large mob of people during the 2004 Orange Revolution in Kyiv. Protesters are holding orange balloons and flags supporting a pro-Western presidential candidate V. Yushchenko. At the bottom left side of the photo someone is holding a large Ukrainian flag, while at the top right corner protesters are holding a huge sign that reads "Stop Vote Corruption".
The Orange Revolution. Kyiv, 2004.
Credits: Internet Encyclopedia of Ukraine, http://www.encyclopediaofukraine.com

Yanukovych, who previously fraudulently won the elections, was defeated by the pro-Western Viktor Yushchenko, suggest that “participants predominantly wanted to see Ukraine as Ukrainian rather than as an appendage of Russia.”[20]

The Ukrainophiles, sick and tired of being constantly treated as Little Russians, or even worse- as a part of Russia, would detach themselves even further and claim “their historical primogeniture as rightful heirs of the Kievan Rus- the ancient state that all three Eastern Slavic nations hail from.”[21]

Given the Ukrainian geographic location between progressive Europe and retrenching Russia, the Ukrainophiles would choose the pro- western foreign policy direction, thus further escalating the Russian anti-West sentiments.

The caricature depicts the Ukrainian map being torn between the bear wearing a Russian hat (symbolizing Russia), from the right side, and Uncle Sam with a person dressed in the EU flag, who represent the USA and the EU, respectfully, from the left side.
Credits: Socialist Revolution, https://socialistrevolution.org

Such Moscow’s suspicions about the Western desires to enslave the Russian economy were epitomized by Putin’s speech at the 2007 Munich Conference on Security Policy, when he strongly opposed the unipolar world model backed by the U.S. and NATO’s ‘encroachment’ to the east.

Putin proclaimed:

“I think it is obvious that NATO expansion does not have any relation with the modernization of the Alliance itself or with ensuring security in Europe. On the contrary, it represents a serious provocation that reduces the level of mutual trust. And we have the right to ask: against whom is this expansion intended?”[22]

The speech signaled a clear detachment from the Yeltsinite tradition of ‘unassuming’ pro-Western Russia, and elevated the long-held feelings of disappointment and resentment towards the Western ‘betrayal’ of Russia.

Dugin’s Neo-Eurasianist ideology

A photo depicts Aleksandr Gelyevich Dugin looking at the camera.
Aleksandr Gelyevich Dugin (born 1962). He is a Russian political analyst and strategist known for his fascist views, which include his neo-Eurasianist ideology. Credits: Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org

The prospects to lose the strategically important Ukrainian territory and Russia’s paranoia over the presumed Western

conspiracy against herself, gave rise to the far-right extremist neo-Eurasianist ideology by Aleksandr Dugin.

This ‘philosophy’ is “centered on the idea of building a totalitarian, Russia-dominated Eurasian empire”[23] which is able to counterbalance and to eventually defeat the U.S.- led Atlanticist world.

At the official level, neo-Eurasianist ideas were used in some Putin’s speeches, when he equated Russian-speaking Ukrainians with Russians and questioned Ukraine’s right to control its Eastern and Southern territories.

In fact, these statements closely resonate with Dugin’s core idea that “continued existence of unitary Ukraine is inadmissible”[24], since, according to him, Ukraine presents an enormous security threat to the whole Eurasia because it is torn between two competing geopolitical powers of Russia and the West.

Dugin claims that “Ukraine as a state makes no geopolitical sense”[25], since “it does not possess any peculiar cultural message of universal significance, or geographic uniqueness, or ethnic exceptionalism.”[26]

To prove his point about the ‘uselessness’ of Ukraine, he divides its territory into four ethnocultural regions:

  • Western Ukraine that is alien to the Russian culture and needs to belong to Europe,
  • ‘Little Russia’ (Malorossiia)- the Ukrainian territories to the east of the Dnieper river- that is culturally, religiously and historically linked to Russia, which necessitates “an unconditional and solid union with Moscow.”[27]
  • Central Ukraine, alike the Malorossiia region, that is ethnically dominated by ‘little Russians’ and thus has to belong to Russia, and Crimea that needs to be granted “a special status and provided with a maximum autonomy under Moscow’s direct strategic control.”[28]

The 2008 Russian-Georgian war deepened Dugin’s conspiracies regarding “the intensification of the alleged Atlanticist attack on Russia”[29] and forced him to proclaim that the time was running out before Ukraine would be annexed by the West.

For this reason, he believes that in order to neutralize the geopolitical threat to the Russian Federation from the ‘unnatural’ Ukraine’s union with the West, Russia needs to be guided by neo-Eurasianist principles to extend its control over Ukraine through non-military measures of “information resources, social organizations, faith-based groups, and social movements.”[30]

Although, Dugin believes that the hybrid war, which combines direct actions with non-military resources, can also be used to protect Russia’s existential security threats.

Euromaidan

The biggest ‘existential threat’ for Russia was the overthrow and impeachment of pro-Russian president Yanukovych in 2013 during the West-supported Euromaidan in Ukraine.

A photo depicts protesters holding the EU and Ukrainian flags at Euromaidan in 2013.
Euromaidan, November 2013. Credits: DW, https://www.dw.com

The 2013 Ukrainian Revolution was inevitable, since Yanukovych government’s “policies of political repression, widespread corruption, and constitutional and legal nihilism closed the door on the possibility of them losing power.”[31] Only revolutionary actions could have possibly weakened the tight grasp on power by an autocrat.

For the Ukrainophiles, Yanukovych government’s last-moment decision not to sign the long-awaited by many EU Association Agreement “was the straw that broke the camel’s back, bringing years of tension and anger to the surface”[32], leading to, at first, the pro-European student protest known as Euromaidan.

A photo depicts the Ukrainian police force 'Berkut' beating down a Euromaidan protester.
An abuse of power during the events at night on November 30, 2013. Credits: Kyiv Post, https://www.kyivpost.com

The situation worsened when on November 30 Ukrainian security forces, under the strict orders from Yanukovych, brutally beat unarmed protesters in order to kick them out from the main square in Kyiv.

The subsequent adoption of the antidemocratic legislation on January 16 forced an even deeper resentment and hatred of everything Russia/Soviet-related.

This was epitomized by the dismantlement throughout Ukraine of over 500 monuments of Lenin, which symbolized the protest against the Soviet (and by extension, Russian) dictatorship.

A photo portrays people surrounding a statue of Soviet state founder Vladimir Lenin that was toppled by protesters during a rally organized by supporters of EU integration in Kyiv on December 8, 2013.
“People surround a statue of Soviet state founder Vladimir Lenin that was toppled by protesters during a rally organized by supporters of EU integration in Kyiv on December 8, 2013 possibly setting off the rash of Lenin-idolatry abuse.” Credits: RadioFreeEurope, https://www.rferl.org

Russia, surely, did not like such a passionate Ukrainian protest against the pro-Russian dictatorship.

Indeed, Yanukovych presidency provided Russia with many benefits such as control, through the appointment of its nationals, of the presidential guards’ leaderships, the Ukrainian branch of FSB (SBU) and the ministry of defense.

Moreover, the ‘Kharkiv Accords’, signed by Yanukovych and Medvedev in 2010 extended the Russian lease on naval facilities in

A photo depicts Mezhyhirya Palace, which was subsequently privatized by V. Yanukovych.
Mezhyhirya Palace. Credits: bestkievguide.com, http://www.bestkievguide.com

Crimea from 2017 until 2042, while the new era of cooperation between SBU and FSB curtailed anti-Russian counter-espionage activities and no longer banned the separatist and pro-Russian extremist groups in Ukraine.

However, there could be no forgiveness to the regime that was corrupted to the extent that its leader “paid bribes worth at least $2 billion during his four years in office- amounting to almost $1.4 million for every day he was in power”[33] and owned the spacious  Mezhyhirya palace with a mock Spanish galleon, private zoo and multiple golf courses.

A photo depicts photographs of fallen Ukrainian heroes surrounded by candles and flowers.
The Nebesna Sotnya (Heavenly Hundred). Credits: Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group, http://khpg.org

Especially, there could be no forgiveness to the regime’s atrocious cruelty, when, to halt the Revolution, Yanukovych hired professional snipers who open fired at unarmed people at the square, murdering over a hundred, immortalized as the Nebesna Sotnya (Heavenly Hundred).

The regime’s brutalities significantly radicalized the population who was willing to sacrifice their own lives for the sake of the independent Ukraine.

The parliament’s condemnation of murders by Yanukovych regime and its orders to halt the further actions by the security forces led to Yanukovych’s flight from Kyiv.

The Ukrainian Revolution’s success in ousting  Yanukovych’s regime thus clearly implied that Ukraine under no circumstances would join any Russia- led integration projects.

Armed conflict

The Ukrainian Revolution therefore severely threatened Russia’s ambitions for regional domination.

In response and in order to revert Ukrainian pro-Western foreign policy direction, the Russian government began referencing the neo-Eurasianist ideology, which encouraged launching a hybrid war in Ukraine.

The launch of a hybrid war by the Russian government in Ukraine, under the pretext of preventing it from becoming ‘a part of Atlanticist plot to destroy Russia’, offered it “a chance to send the occupation forces under the guise of peacekeeping forces”[34], as well as to use propaganda and politico-economic pressures onto its neighbouring country, in order to keep it within its sphere of geopolitical and economic influence.

A caricature portrays a 'fair' Crimean referendum. At the middle of the picture a man who is voting is surrounded by an army 'influencing' his decision.
Credits: Crimean News Agency, http://old.qha.com.ua

First, Yanukovych’s plea to Russia “to establish legitimacy, peace, law and order, stability and defending the people of Ukraine”[35] was also used as a main pretext to legitimize Russia’s neo-Eurasionist aims to annex the Crimean peninsula.

In fact, as Kyiv court’s verdict reads, “in order to create a picture of legitimacy of the actions of the Russian Federation in Crimea and make sure the occupation of Crimea appears legitimate, Yanukovych provided representatives of the Russian authorities with a written statement from the allegedly legitimate president of Ukraine.”[36]

Shortly after, the illegitimate referendum, which allegedly supported the region’s annexation, was held in Crimea from February 20 to March 18 of 2014.

A photo depicts a pro-Russian rally in Donetsk, Ukraine on April 6, 2014.
Pro-Russian rally in Donetsk, Ukraine on April 6, 2014. Credits: Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org

The next step for Russia to undermine the newly elected pro-Western government in Ukraine was to establish separatist bases in eastern Ukraine.

A photo depicts Sloviansk city council under control of Russian Registered Cossacks (four of them are portrayed on the photo) on 14 April 2014.
Sloviansk city council (in Donetsk Oblast, eastern Ukraine) under control of Russian Registered Cossacks on 14 April 2014. Credits: Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org

Again, aided by the neo-Eurasianist ideals of Malorossiia’s belonging to Russia, it formed a separatist movement in the Donbas

region.

While there is no official conclusive evidence that Russia directly sanctioned the recruitment of its volunteers with the intention of sending them to Ukraine to help the separatists, there are two crucial factors that suggest Russian involvement in this process.

An image depicts the flags of the LNR and DNR.
The flags of the LNR and DNR- two Russia-sponsored separatist republics in eastern Ukraine. Credits: DNR Live, https://dnr-life.ru
  • First, it is clear that without Russian involvement and support, there would not be any separatist governments, such as the Donetsk National Republic (DNR) and the Luhansk National Republic (LNR) in eastern Ukraine.
    • Indeed, Russian nationalism was never popular in Donbas and Crimea “and only appeared in 2014 imported from Russia when separatists received support from Russian neo-Nazis such as the Russian Party of National Unity”[37] that follows Dugin’s neo-Eurasionism and uses the modified swastika as their party symbol.
      • This organization was publicly advertising the separatists’ recruitment and training.

A photo portrays four members of the Russian Party of National Unity saluting at the party meeting.
The Russian Party of National Unity’s salute. Credits: Springtime of Nations, http://springtimeofnations.blogspot.com
  • Second, despite its official denials, Moscow, if it chose, could easily stop volunteers from Russian neo-Nazi groups to travel to Ukraine.
    • Interestingly enough, “not a single criminal case was opened in Russia against Russian citizens for their fighting on the side of the pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine.”[38]
      • Russia’s Criminal Code includes Article 208 that punishes those who participate in illegal armed formations in Russia or abroad, and Article 359 that punishes those engaged in training, recruitment or financing of a mercenary and those who participate as a mercenary in an armed conflict.[39]
    • Paradoxically enough, “the Russian authorities prosecuted those Russian citizens who fought in east Ukrainian oblasts [regions] against the separatists and Russian troops.”[40]

By August 2014 separatists were nearly defeated by Ukraine’s Anti-Terrorist Operation (ATO), launched in April 2014, however, Russia’s direct intervention in eastern Ukraine has led to the prolongation of the war.

Unfortunately for Russia, the severe impact of Western sanctions, the devaluation of the Russian ruble, the crumbled oil prices, the limited support for separatism from Ukrainian population, and the heroic Ukrainian military resolve- have so far prevented it from pushing further its Malorossiia’s annexation plans.

Recent breach of July’s cease-fire and rising tensions

A photo depicts a Ukrainian soldier getting ready at position behind the trenches near the frontline with Russia-backed separatists in Shyrokyne, eastern Ukraine.
“A Ukrainian soldier gets ready at position near the frontline with Russia-backed separatists in Shyrokyne, eastern Ukraine, Wednesday, Nov. 28, 2018.” Credits: BNN, https://bnn-news.com

Today, as the war rumbles into its eighths year, the possibility of a military or diplomatic solution seems dim as “the US and other western powers want Russian forces to leave Ukraine, but Mr. Putin shows no sign of changing his approach.”[41]

A photo depicts a line-up of Russian tanks near the Russo-Ukrainian border.
Russia military build-up on border with Ukraine, 2021. Credits: Newsknown, https://newsknown.com

In the past month, however, the war has escalated sharply.

The longest-lasting and controversial cease-fire negotiated by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in July 2020 began fraying since late January, as social media videos started to reappear portraying Russian “trains loaded with [Msta-C self-propelled] howitzers and self-propelled artillery crossing the bridge across the Strait of Kerch that connects Russia with the disputed Crimean peninsula”[42], as well as the repositioning of Russian warships “from ports in the Baltic Sea and Caspian Sea to new staging areas on the Sea of Azov, adjacent to Ukraine.”[43]

A screenshot from the video depicts a line-up of trains loaded with howitzers and self-propelled artillery crossing the bridge across the Strait of Kerch that connects Russia with the disputed Crimean peninsula.
A screenshot from the video depicting trains loaded with howitzers and self-propelled artillery crossing the bridge across the Strait of Kerch that connects Russia with the disputed Crimean peninsula. Credits: depo.ua, https://www.depo.ua

The Russian government has also deployed two armies and three airborne formations to western Russia, close to the Donbas region.[44] There are troop deployments to the east, north and south of Ukraine, which besides Russian, also include the deployment of the Belarussian military.[45] The significant increases in Russian aerial activities in the Baltic region have been recorded as well.[46]

Experts claim that this is the largest accumulation of Russian military since the illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014[47], which leaves “little doubt that Russia is pulling together an assault force capable of invading Ukraine.”[48]

More shocking is the fact that unlike previously, when Russia obfuscated and publicly denied its role arming, commanding and financing separatists in Donbas region and claimed that the warfare was just a civil war between Ukrainian citizens, today, it makes no attempts to hide who the soldiers are and what they are doing, as “this new military build-up has been out in the open.”[49]

This military build-up of Russian forces has stimulated the U.S. military’s European Command to raise its watch level “from possible crisis to potential imminent crisis-the highest level.”[50]

At the end of March, the Ukrainian Parliament has officially approved a statement emphasizing an ‘escalation’ along the border, thus “essentially acknowledging that a cease-fire negotiated in July had broken down.”[51]

The Russian government justifies its actions as a defensive response to Ukrainian mobilization of its own military to recapture Crimea and some territories to the east as well as “the alliance’s military activities threatening Russia.”[52]

For instance, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova has proclaimed that “so far, the Ukrainian authorities have avoided taking concrete steps toward a peaceful settlement of the situation in the Donbas […] increasingly, Kyiv is promoting slogans about ‘a Russian threat’ while it is the Ukrainian troops who are increasing their presence near the contact line.”[53]

It is, however, proven that there has been no military build-up in Ukraine.[54] It should also be noted that Zelensky has not only placed additional restrains on the Ukrainian army to not make even minimal military gains in Donbas to reassure Moscow that Ukraine does not want to challenge the military status quo, but he has also been much more forthcoming in negotiations with Russia over demilitarization, as well as appointed Andriy Yermak- one of the most pro-Russian figures in Ukrainian government- as a special envoy for negotiations with Russia.[55]

A caricature depicts Putin as a puppeteer holding a Russian TV host as a puppet, thus symbolizing a state-controlled and propaganda-ridden Russian media.
Credits: Euromaidan Press, http://euromaidanpress.com

On the other hand, it is the Russian state TV that has instead been actually saturated with anti-Ukrainian propaganda.[56]

For example, a couple weeks ago, a top propagandist Dmitry Kiselyov has proclaimed that “if an attack comes, it would be supporting a noble cause as Ukraine has become what he called a ‘Nazi state’.”[57] He also mentioned that since its ‘denazification’ has not happened voluntarily, it now has to occur by force.[58]

Another justification for military build-up was given by the Kremlin spokesman, Dmitri S. Peskov, who recently announced that “Russia would intervene to prevent ethnic cleansing of Russian speakers by the Ukrainian government.”[59]

In fact, one of the most popular anti-Ukrainian propaganda by the Russian state media is focused upon the issue of the severe discrimination of the Russian language in Ukraine, as well as the mistreatment of residents of the two separatist enclaves- the DNR and the LNR- and the refusal to accept by the Ukrainian government their illegally granted by Russia dual Ukrainian and Russian citizenships.[60] Since 2019, more than 500,000 Russian passports were given out to people living in the DNR and the LNR.

An image depicts the Ukrainian map which portrays the amount of native Russian speakers per each oblast (or province). Eastern regions have significantly more native Russian speakers than both central and western regions.
“Ukrainian is spoken by 70% of the country, but Russian is the mother tongue of many in the east.” Credits: CNN World, https://edition.cnn.com

As a Ukrainian citizen who was born and raised in Ukraine, as well as a person who chooses to speak the Russian language most of the time, I have never encountered/heard about discrimination and mistreatment of a single Ukrainian citizen (let alone myself), which is solely based on his/her preferred language of choice, and especially considering that the Russian language is a native language to close to 30% of Ukrainians[61], while the majority of Ukrainian citizens can fluently communicate, read and write in Russian.

Political analysts highlight four possible explanations (or their combinations) for a sudden Russian open aggression and military build-up[62]:

  1. the testing of the Biden administration’s commitment to Ukraine – that is, Joe Biden’s adamancy expressed during his telephone conversation with Putin stating that Ukraine’s sovereignty is not for sale[63];
  2. the retaliation against Zelensky’s sanctioning of Putin’s ally Viktor Medvedchuk and shutting down of several pro-Kremlin TV stations, which, by extension, curbed Russian influence in local Ukrainian politics;

    A photo depicts Russian protesters at a rally in support of jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny in Saint Petersburg on January 23, 2021. The placard held by one of the protesters reads "One for all and all for one".
    “People attend a rally in support of jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny in Saint Petersburg on January 23, 2021. The placard reads “One for all and all for one”. ” Credits: Arab News, https://www.arabnews.com
  3. the shifting of Russian citizens’ attention from shaky domestic politics, including the Russia-wide violent suppression of protests against the recent imprisonment of Putin’s main political opponent Aleksei A. Navalny;
  4. the preparation for an actual full-blown warfare as a pre-emption technique against the alleged by Russia of Ukraine’s, NATO’s and US’s conspiration against the Russian Federation and their team efforts to retake Crimea and resolve the war in the Donbas area.

However, with regard to the last explanation, some experts believe that Russia would most likely not seek an all-out invasion of Ukraine at least because they did not deploy the Rosgvardia (National Guard), which back in 2014 threatened to invade Ukraine and set up an occupation regime in Ukraine, while violently suppressing local resistance.[64]

Instead, they believe that it is much more likely that Russia will engage in other forms of limited escalation of a conflict to alter the stakes of the war. There are several reasons to believe this[65]:

  1. Russian provocation in Donbas- could provide them with a pretext to deploy ‘peacekeeping troops’ in order to “upgrade diplomatic ties with the separatist republics it created in eastern Ukraine”[66];
  2. limited escalation around the Crimean peninsula, on the other hand, would allow Russia to capture a small bridgehead on the Ukrainian territory- “an operation formally justified by a lack of water supply on the peninsula [since when the peninsula was annexed by Russia, Ukraine cut off its supply of water from the Dnieper River] but, in practice, designed to increase Kyiv’s military vulnerability”[67];
  3. the public demonstration of Ukrainian military vulnerability is extremely significant, as it would allow Russia to pressure Ukraine into various political and economic concessions, including the signing and fulfillment of the Minsk Agreement on Russia’s terms.
    • Most notably, this would mean the integration of the DNR and LNR into Ukraine as they are, thus “providing Russia with a permanent veto on Kyiv’s domestic politics.”[68]
    • According to a senior policy fellow with the European Council on Foreign Relations in Berlin, Gustav Gressel, “psychologically, [Russia] wants to humiliate Ukraine, they want to pressure Ukraine into making political concessions they can use to run the country from behind.”[69]

It remains to be seen how this dangerous situation will resolve. However, I believe that further diplomatic, economic and military indifference by Ukraine’s partners would only push Moscow to act even more aggressively, as “the more vulnerable Russia’s neighbours are, the more effective its muscle-flexing becomes.”[70]

To quote Mr. Peskov: “If military actions begin […], not one country in the world will remain on the sidelines.”[71]

And this is something to think about.

Bibliography

  • Alekhina, Margarita. “Nepochetnyi Legion.” Novye izvestiia, October 6, 2015. https://newizv.ru/news.
  • Bond, David, and Roman Olearchyk . “Ukraine: On the Front Line of Europe’s Forgotten War.” Financial Times , September 6, 2018. https://www.ft.com.
  • Brown , Chris. “What Might Be behind Putin’s Latest Confrontation with Ukraine .” CBC News , April 16, 2021. https://www.cbc.ca.
  • Dugin, Aleksandr. Chetvertaia Politicheskaia Teoriia: Rossiia i Politicheskie Idei XXI Veka. St. Petersburg: Amfora, 2009.
  • Dugin, Aleksandr. Osnovy Geopolitiki. Moscow : Arktogeia-tsentr, 2000.
  • Gressel, Gustav. “War of Unreality: Why Russia Is Threatening to Escalate the Ukraine Conflict.” European Council on Foreign Relations, April 14, 2021. https://ecfr.eu.
  • Kramer, Andrew E. “Fighting Escalates in Eastern Ukraine, Signaling the End to Another Cease-Fire.” The New York Times, March 30, 2021. https://www.nytimes.com.
  • Kramer, Andrew E. “Russian Troop Movements and Talk of Intervention Cause Jitters in Ukraine.” The New York Times, April 22, 2021. https://www.nytimes.com.
  • Kuzio, Taras. “Independent Ukraine between Two Viktors (2004-2014).” In Ukraine: Democratization, Corruption, and the New Russian Imperialism, 77–116. Santa Barbara, Denver : Praeger Security International, 2015.
  • Molchanov, Mikhail A. “Russia’s Foreign Policy in the Shadow of the Empire.” In Eurasian Regionalisms and Russian Foreign Policy, 49–80 . Surrey : Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2015.
  • Omelicheva, Mariya, Ryan K. Beasley , Juliet Kaarbo , Jeffrey S. Lantis , and Michael T. Snarr. “Russian Foreign Policy: A Quest for Great Power Status in a Multipolar World.” In Foreign Policy in Comparative Perspective: Domestic and International Influences on State Behavior, 2nd ed., 94–114. Press/Sage , 2013.
  • Putin, Vladimir. “Speech and the Following Discussion at the Munich Conference on Security Policy.” President of Russia, February 10, 2007. http://en.kremlin.ru.
  • Roth, Andrew. “Ukraine Still Outgunned as Russia Prepares for Larger Conflict.” The Guardian , April 14, 2021. https://www.theguardian.com.
  • “Russia Used Yanukovych to Try to Legitimize Crimea Annexation – Judge.” UNIAN , January 24, 2019. https://www.unian.info.
  • Shekhovtsov, Anton, Mark Bassin , and Gonzalo Pozo. “Aleksandr Dugin’s Neo-Eurasianism and the Russian-Ukrainian War.” In The Politics of Eurasianism: Identity, Popular Culture and Russia’s Foreign Policy, 181–96. London, New York : Rowman Et Littlefield, 2017.
  • Tucker, Maxim. “Ukraine’s Fallen Leader Viktor Yanukovych ‘Paid Bribes of $2 Billion’ – or $1.4 Million for Every Day He Was President.” The Telegraph, May 31, 2016. https://www.telegraph.co.uk.
  • “Ugolovnyi Kodeks Rossiiskoi Federatsii.” Accessed April 30, 2021. https://docs.cntd.ru.
  • Way, Lucan. “Pluralism by Default in Ukraine.” In Pluralism by Default: Weak Autocrats and the Rise of Competitive Politics, 43–91. Baltimore : John Hopkins University Press, 2015.

Notes:

[1] Andrew  E. Kramer , “Russian Troop Movements and Talk of Intervention Cause Jitters in Ukraine,” The New York Times, April 22, 2021, https://www.nytimes.com.

[2] Mikhail A. Molchanov, “Russia’s Foreign Policy in the Shadow of the Empire,” in Eurasian Regionalisms and Russian Foreign Policy (Surrey : Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2015), p. 49-80, 51.

[3] Molchanov, Ibid, 53.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Molchanov, Ibid, 54.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Molchanov, Ibid, 55.

[13] Molchanov, Ibid, 60.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Molchanov, Ibid, 75.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Lucan Way, “Pluralism by Default in Ukraine,” in Pluralism by Default: Weak Autocrats and the Rise of Competitive Politics (Baltimore : John Hopkins University Press, 2015), pp. 43-91, 45.

[18] Way, Ibid, 46.

[19] Way, Ibid, 47.

[20] Way, Ibid, 70.

[21] Molchanov, Ibid, 75.

[22] Vladimir Putin , “Speech and the Following Discussion at the Munich Conference on Security Policy,” President of Russia, February 10, 2007, http://en.kremlin.ru.

[23] Anton Shekhovtsov, Mark Bassin, and Gonzalo Pozo, “Aleksandr Dugin’s Neo-Eurasianism and the Russian-Ukrainian War,” in The Politics of Eurasianism: Identity, Popular Culture and Russia’s Foreign Policy (London, New York : Rowman Et Littlefield, 2017), pp. 181-196, 182.

[24] Aleksandr Dugin , Osnovy Geopolitiki (Moscow : Arktogeia-tsentr, 2000), 348.

[25] Dugin, Osnovy Geopolitiki, Ibid, 377.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Dugin, Osnovy Geopolitiki, Ibid, 380.

[28] Ibid.

[29] Shekhovtsov, Ibid, 184.

[30] Aleksandr Dugin , Chetvertaia Politicheskaia Teoriia: Rossiia i Politicheskie Idei XXI Veka (St. Petersburg: Amfora, 2009), 234.

[31] Taras Kuzio , “Independent Ukraine between Two Viktors (2004-2014),” in Ukraine: Democratization, Corruption, and the New Russian Imperialism (Santa Barbara, Denver : Praeger Security International, 2015), pp. 77-116, 98.

[32] Kuzio, Ibid, 89.

[33] Maxim Tucker, “Ukraine’s Fallen Leader Viktor Yanukovych ‘Paid Bribes of $2 Billion’ – or $1.4 Million for Every Day He Was President,” The Telegraph, May 31, 2016, https://www.telegraph.co.uk.

[34] Shekhovtsov, Ibid, 195.

[35] Kuzio, Ibid, 108.

[36] “Russia Used Yanukovych to Try to Legitimize Crimea Annexation – Judge,” UNIAN, January 24, 2019, https://www.unian.info/politics.

[37] Kuzio, Ibid, 111.

[38] Shekhovtsov, Ibid, 193.

[39] “Ugolovnyi Kodeks Rossiiskoi Federatsii,” accessed April 30, 2021, https://docs.cntd.ru.

[40] Margarita Alekhina, “Nepochetnyi Legion,” Novye izvestiia, October 6, 2015, https://newizv.ru/news/society.

[41] David Bond and Roman Olearchyk , “Ukraine: On the Front Line of Europe’s Forgotten War,” Financial Times, September 6, 2018, https://www.ft.com/content.

[42] Chris Brown, “What Might Be behind Putin’s Latest Confrontation with Ukraine,” CBC News, April 16, 2021, https://www.cbc.ca.

[43] Brown, Ibid.

[44] Brown, Ibid.

[45] Gustav Gressel , “War of Unreality: Why Russia Is Threatening to Escalate the Ukraine Conflict,” European Council on Foreign Relations, April 14, 2021, https://ecfr.eu/article.

[46] Gressel, Ibid.

[47] Brown, Ibid.

[48] Gressel, Ibid.

[49] Brown, Ibid.

[50] Andrew  E. Kramer, “Fighting Escalates in Eastern Ukraine, Signaling the End to Another Cease-Fire,” The New York Times, March 30, 2021, https://www.nytimes.com.

[51] Kramer, “Fighting Escalates in Eastern Ukraine, Signaling the End to Another Cease-Fire”, Ibid.

[52] Brown, Ibid.

[53] Ibid.

[54] Ibid.

[55] Gressel, Ibid.

[56] Brown, Ibid.

[57] Ibid.

[58] Ibid.

[59] Kramer, “Russian Troop Movements and Talk of Intervention Cause Jitters in Ukraine,” Ibid.

[60] Ibid.

[61]https://en.wikipedia.org.

[62] Kramer, “Russian Troop Movements and Talk of Intervention Cause Jitters in Ukraine,” Ibid.

[63] Gressel, Ibid.

[64] Ibid.

[65] Ibid.

[66] Ibid.

[67] Ibid.

[68] Ibid.

[69] Brown, Ibid.

[70] Gressel, Ibid.

[71] Kramer, “Russian Troop Movements and Talk of Intervention Cause Jitters in Ukraine,” Ibid.

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