MOSCOW: Amid fresh warning from the United States that the Russian forces could invade Ukraine ‘any day’ now, the simmering tension over the Russia-Ukraine conflict has escalated. The United States has warned the American citizens in the country to leave within 48 hours amid signs of Russia escalation. The United States is also set to evacuate its embassy in Kyiv as Western intelligence officials warn that a Russian invasion of Ukraine is increasingly imminent.
What triggered the Russia-Ukraine crisis?
Russia-Ukraine tension which has triggered one of the greatest security crises in Europe since the Cold War, started ever since Moscow seized Crimea, a strategically important port region in Ukraine – in 2014.
Fearing a potential ground invasion by the Russian forces, the US-led NATO nations extended tactical support to Ukraine by sending additional troops and military equipment there.
The current Russian build-up of 100,000 troops along the Ukraine border has further escalated tensions to unprecedented levels. In a move to defuse the crisis and to prevent it from triggering the possible Third World War, the United Nations Security Council has appealed to both sides to resolve all issues amicably through diplomatic channels.
Why is Russia so obsessed with Ukraine?
Russia and Ukraine were members of the erstwhile USSR – the United Soviet Social Republic of Russia before its disintegration in 1991 after which Ukraine declared its independence. Since Ukraine occupies a strategic geographical position, sitting at the center of the fight for influence in Europe, Russia wants to prevent Ukraine from turning towards the West.
Moscow fears that if Kyiv joins the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), it will lose its influence over the region. Though NATO has not yet opened the door to Ukraine and since the process of joining the allied forces is long and complex, Russia wants to veto Ukraine’s membership in the alliance. As one of the permanent members of the UN Security Council, Russia argues Ukraine joining NATO would be a big threat to Moscow.
It all began when pro-Europe protests against the alleged misrule of Ukraine’s pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych were violently suppressed forcing him to flee the country in 2014.
Taking advantage of the 2014 conflict, Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered the Russian forces to invade part of the Crimean Peninsula in the south of Ukraine, and organized a referendum to annex the area. However, the Russia-monitored referendum was declared illegal by the international community.
Moscow was even accused of sending shipments of Russian weapons to the Donetsk and Luhansk regions of Ukraine. The United Nations claimed around 14,000 people have died in the war in the disputed Donbas region.
Why does Russia want to annex Crimea?
The Crimean Peninsula is a strategic spot as it offers an important entrance to the Black Sea – an area Putin wanted to control. The annexation was celebrated at a large-scale event, in which Putin clearly explained the importance of the Crimean Peninsula: “Crimean Tatars have returned to their homeland.”
The invasion of the Crimean Peninsula triggered international protests, economic sanctions against Russia and ongoing calls for the territory to be returned. Putin has said that will never happen. Since 2014, he has been providing political and military support to pro-Russia separatists fighting the Ukrainian army in east Ukraine.
Russia has demanded an immediate halt to any NATO drills near Russia’s border and complete withdrawal of allied forces from Eastern Europe.
In December, Putin said that Russia wants a legal guarantee that there would be no further NATO moves eastward. He also demanded legal guarantee that there would be no deployment of weapons systems in close vicinity to Russian territory.
On the other hand, the NATO allies led by the United States have been building pressure on Moscow to withdraw its forces and threatened it with severe sanctions.
Can the Russia-Ukraine crisis trigger another Cold War?
The Cold War between erstwhile Russia and the US had divided Europe between west and east and much of the world then. It included bloody proxy wars and posed a very serious risk of global thermonuclear war.
However, after the disintegration of Russia, the US is much more powerful and influential than Russia today. Importantly, the international community, in one voice, opposes Russia’s annexation of Crimea. President Obama had described Russia’s actions as the behaviour of a weak country.
Since Ukraine is strategically important in its geopolitical competition with the West, the Putin regime has been taking an aggressive stance and asserting its influence over the region.
Russia, which mainly supplies gas to Europe, wants to reclaim some of its past glory and thus position itself as a legitimate competitor to the Western world. Still, this competition is limited to former Soviet republics and it is nowhere near the global conflict of the Cold War.