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The War in Donbass

More than six year have gone by, around five thousand people have died and more than twelve hundred have been wounded. The conflict in the Donbass region has yet to subside. As of July 27th, the 29th attempt at a “full and comprehensive” ceasefire came into effect, with number of attacks and deaths dropping and a renewed hope of the end of this conflict.

To understand its origin, we must take a step back to November 2013, with a heavily indebted and corruption-filled Ukraine in need of help. Both the EU and Russia seek to help, the former promising strong ties in the long-run at a cost of tough conditions in the short-run and the latter offering a seemingly more lenient offer of a $15bn loan to be paid out over the course of several years and the prospect to join the Eurasian Union. Preferring the Russian bailout to an agreement for further integration with the European Union, which many saw as a way out from the deep economic problems, president at-the-time Viktor Yanukovych stirred unrest in the population. This led to protests in Kyiv’s Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square), the “Euromaidan”. In February of the same year, Parliament voted to remove him forthwith.

Viewing these protests as an opportunity and on the pretext that Russian speaking minority was being threatened, Moscow invades Crimea in Spring of 2014. Not long after, pro-Russian separatists seize the cities of Luhansk and Donetsk and declare them independent from the Ukraine. The national army moves to regain the cities, but Russian soldiers covertly join the rebels. Thus, a war is sparked in the Donbass region between the separatist forces of the self-declared Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics and the government.

Source: Foreign Policy

In February 2015, both sides settle on a peace agreement called Minsk II, detailing a ceasefire and withdrawal of armed groups and weapons from the border region. Nonetheless, neither side respects the agreement, and 28 failed ceasefires ensue.

Only one question comes to mind: Why did this conflict come to be?

Russia’s ambitions in Ukraine

Since its recognition as an independent state, Russia has attempted to shape Ukraine’s foreign policy choices, using hard power, negative externalities and coercion, while capitalizing on existing energy and trade interdependencies.

There is large debate, as to why Russia seeks to gain control over Ukraine.

Some believe, the geostrategic importance of Ukraine’s gas transit infrastructure has prompted Kremlin’s drive to gain control over it. Until the Crimean invasion, Russia supplied most of Ukraine’s gas, and, though imports have since stopped completely, it still relies heavily on Ukrainian pipelines to pump its gas to customers in Central and Eastern Europe and pays billions in transit fees to Kyiv.

Others argue Moscow seeks to restore Russian hegemony and have it recognized by the Ukrainian people, that the post-Cold War enlargement of NATO, viewed by it with increasing distress, is the major reason for this assertive policy. When intent to bring Ukraine into the organization was made clear, Putin declared it “would be a hostile act towards Russia.”

Finally, comes Putin’s fear of losing power at home. After anti-government protests in 2011 and a steady decline in ratings, Putin claimed U.S. actors were sowing unrest and began to rally his political base by antagonizing them. His intervention in Ukraine propelled scaled ratings above 80%.

Regardless of the cause, its leverage over Kyiv has been exercised for years, via multiple security challenges and interdependencies, especially economic. Russia currently holds a 3bn dollar bond from the Ukrainian government and its heavy industry was, for years, largely dependent on energy imports and low prices from the former. The fear of being in a subordinate position vis-à-vis Russia has defined the evolution of Ukraine’s foreign policy during the past quarter-century.

US and EU policy

Following the Soviet collapse, Washington was the first to recognize Ukraine’s independence: “If we believe in the principle of sovereignty of nations on which our security and the security of our friends and allies depends, we must support Ukraine in its fight against its bullying neighbor. Russian aggression cannot stand.”, Bill Taylor, former US ambassador to Ukraine.

Focused on the denuclearization of the former Soviet Union, priority was set in leading Ukraine to forfeit its nuclear arsenal and in 1994 the US, the UK, and Russia pledged, via the Budapest Referendum, to respect Ukraine’s sovereignty in return for it becoming a nonnuclear state. Thereafter, the US has been worked towards safeguarding Kyiv’s independence, in favor of its integration into NATO since 2009 and, in June 2020, announcing a 250 million dollars military aid.

Similarly, the European Union has laid heavy interest in guaranteeing stability, freedom and prosperity in its neighboring regions, by supporting good governance standards and the European rule of law being applied to this area.

Source: giz.de

Energy transit, environmental issues and border security represent the EU’s major concerns in Ukraine, assisting in reforms and cooperating on projects tackling joint problems. The Union is developing tighter cooperation with Ukraine in policy areas, marked by a greater level of interdependencies. Financial bonding examples, majority of which with the purpose of border protection, include projects such as TACIS National Program and Nuclear Safety.

Twenty years later, with the Crimean Annexation, restoring and strengthening Ukraine’s sovereignty reemerged as a top U.S. and EU foreign policy priority, as well as rooting out corruption, strengthening the rule of law, and encouraging privatization of businesses, particularly in the energy sector.

Ukrainian perspective

Before diving into Ukraine’s stance in this conflict, it is important to give some historical context. Since the mid 11th century Ukraine has had a long history of foreign dominance and its subjugation to Russian ruling can be dated as far back as the 18th. In the following centuries, there was a rise in the national cultural identity but only in 1918 did the Ukrainian People’s Republic successfully proclaim independence from the Russian Soviet Republic. This was, however, short-lived and the nation was once again conquered by the Russian Red Army. In 1991, it declares independence, formally recognized by Russia in the 1997 Treaty of Friendship.

The post-soviet era marked, nonetheless, no end to foreign influences as, on the one hand, Euro-Atlantic integration constituted an appealing path but, on the other, Russia still exercised leverage via the above-mentioned interdependencies. The “European Choice” has been a major priority from the onset, every new stage towards closer cooperation has been seen as a step closer to membership status. Nevertheless, maintaining a friendly relationship with Russia came to be a must for its feasibility.

Former president, Leonid Kuchma, summarized this vision of a multivectoralist foreign policy stating: “Being located at the European crossroad, in a complicated system of international axes, being at the same time pivotal for central, western, and southeast Europe, our country cannot afford not to have tight relations with these countries.”

Being located at the European crossroad, in a complicated system of international axes, being at the same time pivotal for central, western, and southeast Europe, our country cannot afford not to have tight relations with these countries.

Leonid Kuchma, former president, summarized vision of a multivectoralist foreign policy

The nation itself is divided regarding the East-West debate. A high number of ethnic minorities, including Belarussian, Hungarian and Russian at 17.3%, and a significant Russian influence on language, with circa 25.7% of the population considering it to be their mother tongue, stirred all but unity regarding foreign vision. Whilst the northwestern region of the county is pro-European integration and has adopted, in part, a strong nationalist position, the southeastern region still tipped heavily in favor of Moscow.

In recent years, however, public support has been galvanized pro-West due to Russia’s more aggressive behavior. The election of Petro Poroshenko and Volodymyr Zelensky have signaled, more than anything, the deep discontent and dissatisfaction with the political establishment and its handling of the conflict. Zelensky campaigned combating corruption and oligarchic economy, it is yet to be seen whether he will be the solution to Ukraine’s deep-rooted problems or another corrupt politician.


Sources: BBC news, The Guardian, CBS news, Vox, The Economist.

Afonso Monteiro

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