Barely a week ago, the Olympic flame was extinguished at Sochi, signalling the end of the largely successful 2014 games. Many complimented Russia for hosting the international event, despite its short-comings, and noted the Games as a representation of the ‘new’ Russia.
Seven days after the Closing Ceremonies, relations between Russia and the West are at the lowest point since the Cold War. A few weeks ago, a large-scale European conflict was impossible. Now, there is a non-zero chance of significant hostilities in Eastern Europe. How did we get here? How did things escalate to the most serious international crisis in Europe since the Warsaw Pact’s 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia in a matter of days?
Ukraine is at the centre of the crisis. Formerly a Soviet republic, Ukraine gained independence with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and has been rocked by problems ever since. Much of this is driven by a deep ethnic divide that splits the country in half — the western half is dominated by ethnic Ukrainians, many of whom strongly support an independent Ukraine. Eastern Ukraine is dominated by an ethnic Russian population, where Russian is the vastly predominant language. These regions have politically supported stronger ties to Russia.
Last November, Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych’s government announced that it would be abandoning a major trade deal with the European Union, instead opting for closer ties with Russia. This set off widespread protests, which continued for a number of months. In late February, the situation rapidly escalated, with dozens of Ukrainians killed in violent clashes between protestors and security forces. On February 21, a deal was brokered between Yanukovych’s regime and the opposition, establishing a new government and early elections. As his control in Kiev rapidly diminished, Yanukovych fled the capital for the pro-Russian east, the area of Ukraine where his support is concentrated. Shortly after, the Ukrainian Parliament removed Yanukovych from power and issued a warrant for his arrest. Around the same time, pro-Russian protests intensified across eastern Ukraine, particularly in the southern region of Crimea. On March 1, despite earlier assurances that Ukraine’s territorial integrity would be respected, Russian troops seized control of Crimea, under the pretext of protecting the region’s Russian majority population from the new interim government in Kiev.
Russia’s aggression in Crimea is not completely surprising, and Russia does have a strategic interest there – Crimea hosts Russia’s sole deep and warm water port, and the Crimean city of Sevastopol serves as the base for their Black Sea fleet. Nonetheless, the occupation of the Crimean peninsula represents an egregious violation of international law, and has been widely condemned by the international community. The condemnation seems to have fallen upon deaf ears in Moscow, as Russian President Vladimir Putin has yet to show any indication of de-escalating the situation in Crimea. In fact, the latest reports out of the region have additional troops being deployed.
The next few days will indicate how all of this will unfold. Ukraine’s government has been adamant that it will not surrender Crimea, and Ukrainian troops remain stationed there (however, their bases have been surrounded by Russian forces, with conflicting reports that an ultimatum to surrender or face assault has been issued). The Ukrainian forces have shown no sign of submitting to such demands. At the same time, Russia has increased its military presence on its main border with Ukraine, reportedly mobilizing 150,000 troops.
As tensions rise in Ukraine, the Western world has quickly tried to formulate a response to Russia’s sudden and disturbingly Cold War-esque aggression. Preparations for the upcoming G8 summit in Sochi have been suspended, and the United States and the European Union have threatened sanctions against Russia. NATO’s North Atlantic Council has held an emergency meeting, with another scheduled at the request of Poland, under the rarely invoked Article 4 of the NATO Charter – which allows for the alliance to convene if an ally feels that its territory and independence is under threat. Poland has expressed grave concern at Russia’s aggression in Ukraine, and has voiced concerns about the potential for the crisis to erupt into a regional conflict. The UN Security Council has also held emergency meetings, in which Russia defended its actions to the council by displaying a letter from the ousted President Yanukovych to President Putin, requesting Russia to invade Ukraine.
What comes next? No one knows for sure, except President Putin. Russia took Crimea without firing a shot, however it remains to be seen if the peace will be maintained on the peninsula. Russia’s continued posturing in the region reflect a willingness to allow the situation to escalate, and Russia’s upper house of Parliament has authorized the use of troops against Ukraine. The potential for conflict remains high, depending on whether or not Ukraine launches an offensive against the Russian occupation in Crimea or Russia launches a wider invasion of eastern Ukraine.
At the moment, the best case scenario is Russia caves to international pressure and withdraws from Crimea. Unfortunately, this is highly unlikely given Russia’s strategic interests there. The more likely outcome is that Russia remains in control of Crimea, either annexing it or propping it up as a puppet state – much to Ukraine’s dismay. This is certainly not a desirable outcome – it reminds one of the ill-fated appeasement policies of the 1930s in regards to Nazi Germany, and sets the stage for a long-term distancing between the West and Russia – and potentially a new Cold War.
Much depends on Putin’s ambitions and how far he is willing to go. Outside of Crimea, there is little national interest for Russia in occupying Ukraine. However, German Chancellor Angela Merkel has expressed concern that Putin may not be “in touch with reality”, a concerning sign for the leader of a major world power.
In the worst-case scenario, Russia may launch a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, which will spark a war between the two. At this point, the situation becomes extremely precarious. Poland would feel increasingly threatened by Russia’s aggression, and could deploy its forces into Ukraine to assist. If Russian aggression becomes directed at Poland as a result, NATO will have no choice but to invoke Article 5 of the North Atlantic Charter, which would prompt all 27 NATO members to defend Poland, resulting in war between NATO and Russia – something we spent the entire Cold War desperately trying to avoid (and a cruel irony that alliances would once again result in a world war 100 years after the start of the first). All parties involved must ensure that this does not happen.
The crisis in Ukraine represents a decisive split between East and West once again. If rationality prevails, the situation will be resolved with hopefully no bloodshed, which looks to be the most likely outcome at this time. However, the warm notions of ‘new Russia’ that were espoused at the Sochi Olympics have shown themselves to be false, with a renewed Cold War on the horizon mere days after the world came together in the very country that seems intent on tearing it apart.
Graeme Archibald is a graduate of the University of Alberta in Political Science and a soon to be graduate student in International Affairs.
Creative Commons Image courtesy of Voice of America, Wikimedia Commons.