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Ukraine crisis – a historical perspective

Col (r) Ikram Ullah Khan

Ukraine crisis has emerged primarily due to the misinterpretation of Ukranian history by both Russia and the US. Both of them have locked horns with each other over the status of Ukraine. Hence, a peep into history is necessary to determine the real status of Ukraine and the causes of the current crisis.

Ukraine is a small country wedged between Russia and Europe. It formed part of the erstwhile Soviet Union until 1991. It’s a country with foreign policy dictated both by Russia and the US and its NATO allies. It has a long history of subjugation by outside powers. The crisis began towards the end of 2013 as an internal Ukranian issue gripping the entire country due to two reasons. The first reason, a protest was launched because pro-Russian President Victor Yanukovych rejected a deal for its integration with the European Union. The second reason, the deeper one, was that President Yanukovych was viewed by pro-Europe protesters as corrupt, autocratic and as a Russian stooge. This is why the pro-European Union protesters demanded Yanukovych not only to sign the European deal but also to step down thus sparking a mass protest which Yanukvych attempted to suppress using brute force. Russia backed Yanukovych while the US and its NATO allies supported the anti-government protesters.
In February 2014, anti-government protesters succeeded in toppling the pro-Russian government and President Yanukvych fled the country and reportedly went to Russia where he is living in exile. To salvage its dwindling influence in Ukraine, Russia invaded and annexed Crimea which most of the world considers to be part of Ukraine, but Russia considers it as its own territory which it liberated from Ukrainian occupation and rightfully brought it back under its control. Crimea being strategically important region, Russia couldn’t afford to lose its control and influence over it.
It’s pertinent to mention here that Crimea has technically been part of Ukraine since 1954. From 1991 up to 2014, Crimea remained part of Ukraine with special autonomy but with large Russian military bases. It spent a very long time as part of Russian Empire before dismemberment of USSR, and most of its citizens are Russians. In March 2014, Crimeans voted overwhelmingly in favour of Russia and decided to become its part.
In April 2014, pro-Russian separatist rebels began seizing territory in Eastern Ukraine. Fighting between Ukrainian military and the separatist rebels intensified, but seeing the rebels losing ground to Ukrainian military, the Russian army invaded Eastern Ukraine in August 2014 to support the rebels thus bringing the relationship between Russia and the West to the lowest ebb. To begin with, the conflict in Eastern Ukraine started in the beginning of 2014 with low-level fighting between Ukrainian military and Russian-backed separatist rebels who seized a few towns of predominantly Russian speaking Eastern Ukraine. The rebels are said to have substantial organic and local support.
The situation worsened when the Ukrainian government launched an offensive to flush out the rebels once and for all. Seeing the rebels on the verge of getting overrun, Russia supported the rebels, armed them to the teeth and supported them overtly invading with Russian military troops.
Although, Ukraine has remained under the domination of former USSR for centuries, the country is currently divided more or less evenly between Pro-Europe Ukrainians and those who are pro-Russia and see Ukraine as intrinsically linked to Russia given the centuries old Russian domination. According to a conservative estimate, one in six Ukrainians is an ethnic Russian, one in three speaks Russian as their native language, and much of the country’s media is operating in Russian language. Besides, pushing an imperial revival, President Putin sees Ukraine as part of greater Russia which the US and its allies can’t easily digest.
Ukraine is suffering from identity issue, and the current crisis is viewed as an extension and perhaps culmination of both the internal and external dispute about Ukraine’s identity. It’s also considered as the culmination of Russian belief that Ukraine, particularly Eastern Ukraine is not a separate country, but rightfully part of Russia when seen through the lenses of its past history as it remained under the domination of former USSR for centuries. Currently, there is internal polarization as to the status of Ukraine because people in the West of Ukraine consider Russia as an aggressor, see themselves as European, and want to take their country out of Russian influence and join Europe, while the Eastern half of Ukraine overwhelmingly supports Russia. The people in the Eastern part look more favourably on Russia and see the two countries as more historically linked.
At present, as many as 100,000 fully armed Russian troops are amassed at the Ukranian border, despite warning from US President Joe Biden and European leaders of serious consequences should Russian President Putin move ahead with an invasion. As a response to US threats, Russian President Putin recently visited China in a bid to win China’s support.
According to US intelligence reports, Russia could begin a military offensive in Ukraine early 2022 that could take the US and its allies off guard. Hence, the US and its allies too are preparing to meet such an eventuality which may ultimately lead to an all-out war with chances of assuming the shape of Third World War.
Lastly, Ukraine or no Ukraine, US-Russia showdown seems to be a foregone conclusion with both sides seemingly determined to knock each other down. The only fear that deters them from an all-out war is the risk of Third World War which the world can ill afford as it’s destined to end with a nuclear holocaust, and no sane mind can ever think even in his wildest dream to go for this sinister option. The world is still feeling the heat of the US nuclear bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945 during Second World War.
Amidst all this nightmarish scenario that is likely to see the clouds of a disastrous war hovering over the horizon, US convened United Nations Security Council (UNSC) meeting last month for voting in favour of convening UNSC special session to discuss Ukraine crisis. During voting, to the much dismay of the US and its allies, India opted to abstain from voting. This unexpected move is seen by political analysts as India’s implicit endorsement of Russia’s stance on Ukraine issue. The move has stunned the US as India happens to be its non-NATO strategic ally.
This new development in Russo-Indian relationship shows India drifting away from the US and siding with Russia first during climate security conference held in December last year and now in Ukraine crisis. The latest Indian support for Russia’s stance on Ukraine comes on the heels of another. Moreover, both the countries signed an arms deal during Russian President Putin’s visit to New Delhi despite US stiff opposition and threat of economic sanctions. The new development, however, is likely to make a serious dent in US-India relations. A matter of great concern for the US.
India dared take this hard decision because it has a realization of its importance as being an Achilles’ heel of the US given the fact that the US has no substitute of India to use as a bulwark against China because in order to maintain its supremacy as a super power, it’s imperative for the US to contain China. But when it comes to Russia, India can’t afford to ditch it by siding with the US on Ukraine issue because Russia is the biggest arms supplier to India that include missiles, fighter jets and other sophisticated weapons. The 5.5 billion dollar deal of Russian S-400 missile air defence system signed between the two countries in 2018 is a case in point.
Besides, both the countries have a huge volume of bilateral trade running into billions of dollars. Moreover, India can use Russia as a shield against China should the need arise. On the other hand, it has nothing big at stake with the US except a slash in bilateral trade that will affect the US more than India as with its 1.5 billion population, India makes a huge market for US products. So India seems to have played its cards wisely. Judged by all standards, it comes as a well-calculated move on the part of India.

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