Why is Russia so obsessed with Ukraine?
DISCLAIMER: This article was produced before Russian Invasion to Ukraine
The tension between Ukraine and Russia that we have seen this past few months has concerned a wide range of communities. From businesses to politicians, from academics to civil societies, not only in Europe but also worldwide. Recently, the Kremlin recognition of Ukraine's two separatist regions of Donetsk and Luhansk as an independent state has concerned many people and worsened the tension in Eastern Europe. The West has condemned the specific statement, with NATO chief declaring it a violation of international law and the United States ordering financial sanctions against Russia and the two territories (Al Jazeera 2022). However, it is worth diving into the root of the problem and asking a fundamental question that will bring more clarity to all of us: “Why is Russia so obsessed with Ukraine?”
Before examining the initial inquiry, it is important to briefly mention what has occurred in the specific area until now. Ukraine is an Eastern European country located next to the borders of Russia. The two countries are historically linked together as the former state belonged to the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union until 1991. Since its independence, Ukraine has aimed to forge close relations with the West to secure its sovereignty and stability (Larrabee 1996: 249-250).
The Russo-Ukrainian crisis can be traced back to the conflict that started in 2014 and escalated again in 2021. The war was mainly revolved around the region of Crimea and parts of Donbas that were taken over by the Russian forces yet are internationally recognized as Ukrainian territory (CFR 2022). The recent international concern revolves around a possible invasion of Russian soldiers to the Ukrainian territory. Moscow has deployed more than 127.000 Russian troops, transferred Iskander operational-tactical missiles close to the borders, and increased its intelligence against Ukraine (Dangwal 2022; Lewis and Pamuk 2022).
Although Moscow’s top armed forces commander, Valery Gerasimov, had stated that Russia did not plan to invade Ukraine and denounced these reports as lies, the situation has evolved quite differently (Lewis and Pamuk 2022). Russia has infringed the Minsk II agreement – signed by Ukraine, Russia, Germany and France back in 2015 – by ordering military troops in the pro-Kremlin regions of East Ukraine (MackInnon 2022; Herszenhorn 2022). In addition, it has demanded that NATO put an end to the military training in Ukraine and its increased weapon supply (Sandford 2022). The Russian Foreign Ministry has also prohibited Ukraine from entering NATO and forming closer ties with its Western allies (ibid.).
It is important to note that the American and European officials warned Russia that it would suffer severe consequences if it attacked its neighbour (TNYT 2022). NATO and the United States delivered written responses to Russia's security demands and offered a "serious diplomatic path" to resolve the crisis (ibid.). However, the current incidents undermine the potential diplomatic talks between the different actors – United Kingdom's Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, has even claimed that Russia plans its "biggest war in Europe since 1945" (BBC 2022). An escalation of the situation will certainly, destabilize international security and, specifically, the geopolitical dynamics of the European Union and Russia (Hill 2022).
Historical and Geopolitical Reasons
After having delineated the Russo-Ukrainian crisis, we can move on to analyzing Russia's fixation on its neighbour. The article realizes that there are historical and geopolitical reasons for the country's behaviour and statements. Beginning with the first one, we should take a step back and go to the 9th century where the Kievan Rus was founded – a loose confederation of Eastern Slavic, Baltic and Finnic nations (TRT World 2021). The founding leader of the Kievan Rus dynasty, Rurik, has been perceived as one of the godfathers of the Russian state (ibid.). It becomes evident that Kyiv is being equalized with the birthplace of Russia (ibid.).
Besides the Kievan Rus dynasty, it is essential to mention that Ukraine was part of the Russian Empire and was, as a result, known as "Little Russia" or "Malorossiya" (TC 2021). Czarist policies in the 18th century attempted to diminish the use of both the Ukrainian language and culture to establish a dominant Russia in the specific region (ibid.). In addition, they intended to suppress the Ukrainian identity sovereignty and highlight that the country was a junior member of the Empire (ibid.). According to a former Russian General, Vladimir Putin has referred to Ukraine as "Little Russia", indicating that the Russian government still holds onto outdated beliefs and completely neglects Ukrainian sovereignty and independence (TRT World 2021). It becomes evident that the historical link between the two states translates into an emotional attachment for Moscow towards the Ukrainian territory (ibid.).
However, some geopolitical reasons lead to Russia's fixation on a specific country. During the Soviet era, Ukraine was the second-most powerful of all 15 Soviet Republics: it had defence industries, hosted most of the Soviet Union's nuclear weapons and had a vast agricultural land (WION 2022). Nowadays, the state's military ranks 30th in the world with 1.1 million troops, and it has an important geopolitical location as its territory separates the West from Russia (NTW 2017). An expansion of NATO towards the East would not only pose a direct threat to Russia as Lithuania and Estonia – bordering Russia and former members of the Soviet Union – have also joined the union and adopted NATO sympathies (TRT World 2021). The Kremlin would lose its influence over Ukraine. From the perspective of Russia, this incident is not allowed to happen, taking into consideration the historical and emotional links that we have discussed prior.
Analyzing why Russia is obsessed with Ukraine is more complex than some people might have thought: historical and geopolitical reasons play a significant role in the Russo-Ukrainian crisis. As a result, diplomats and government advisors have to consider those aspects if they aim at a de-escalation of the conflict.
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