Ukraine has always played an important, yet often unnoticed role in the global security order, acting as a cultural as well as a geopolitical bridge between Europe and former USSR countries, namely Russia and Belarus. Today, the country is on the front lines of a newly renewed power rivalry, which is arguably going to dominate international relations and power politics in years to come.
In recent opinion polling, Ukrainians have clearly indicated that they see their future as part of the European Union, however, the country still suffers from deeply institutionalized corruption and regional partiality in identification, split by roughly 80:20 between Europe and Russia, which could impede its path to the EU. In the meantime, Russia’s aggression on the border of Ukraine in the area of Donbas has triggered one of the largest security crises since the Cold War. In 1994, proceeding the denuclearization of Ukraine after independence, the Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurance was reached between US, Russia – the UK, guaranteeing territorial as well as political self-determination of Ukraine, which evidently has been breached in 2014. While the US, as well as its allies, have taken disciplinary actions against Russia in the last 7 years of conflict, very little headway has been achieved in restoring Ukraine’s territorial integrity, and in the nearest foreseeable future there are no signs of that Ukraine is going to gain back sovereignty over the lost territories, not mentioning Crimea. The most recent build-up of Kremlin troops on the border in late 2021 has sparked fear of a large-scale invasion of its neighbour.
Ukraine has become a geopolitical flashpoint due to its vital role in the Soviet Union as well as being a rival to the US during the Cold War. Behind Russia, it was the second most populous as well as powerful of the 15 Soviet republics, home to a large portion of the Soviet Union’s agricultural production, defence, military as well as nuclear arsenal. In particular, the space innovation industry was reliant on Ukrainian intellectual resources, among many being Sergei Korolev, the head of the USSR space agency during the Space Race. Moreover, during the soviet times, Moscow was the magnet that attracted the headliners of intellectual, cultural as well as political spheres, and subsequently Ukrainian-born leaders were taking part in the relocation to find recognition elsewhere, impoverishing Ukrainian human capital. Since the separation from the USSR in 1991, with nearly three decades of independence, Ukraine has attempted to align paths with Western institutions, to devise its own highway to sovereignty, these institutions including the EU and NATO. However, the capital, as well as the bordering areas of Donetsk and Luhansk, suffer from deep internal division, whereby a more nationalist Ukrainian-speaking population in western parts of the country has generally supported greater integration with Europe, whereby a most Russian-speaking community in the east have aspired to have closer ties with Russia, alluding themselves to share the part of the wealth and prospects that Russia has to offer. The current situation in the annexed areas demonstrates that while the path to Russia seems clear, there is no light at the end of the tunnel for them, and the pseudo area they are craving to leave has not brought them the prosperity they were longing for.
It is important to highlight that the prevailing rhetoric in Russia of “saving Ukraine” exists due to the propaganda which is spread on Russian television channels. While Russian-language online platforms are playing an increasingly important role among Ukrainian audiences, TV remains the dominant media format. This is particularly true of older citizens and those in rural areas, with both of these categories are traditionally among the most vulnerable to Kremlin disinformation. These headlines include features on “fascists” being in power in Ukraine, the illegitimate removal from power of the previous president Victor Yanukovitch (who is now hiding away in Russia after the Euromaidan of 2014), the legitimacy of the actions undertaken by Kremlin in annexing Crimea and the incompetence of the current President Volodymyr Zelensky. While most post-Soviet nations are primarily concerned with countering heavily slanted Russian TV news coverage, this is not the biggest difficulty they are currently facing. On the contrary, current affairs news sources are relatively inexpensive to produce. The real problems arise when it comes to big budget entertainment programming. This is where Russian TV tends to dominate, by virtue of extensive funding as well as the large scope of influence.
Regardless of the acknowledgments of various prominent Russian leaders, including the President Putin of Russia, about the historical network between the disputed Russia and Ukraine, this once existent relationship among the populations has been cut short by the military unrest that took place in 2014, and is still ongoing. The undisclosed and undeclared final goal is to re-establish a sort of “New Russian empire”, considering that Putin has spoken out that the collapse of the Soviet Union was the worst outcome of the 20th century. Furthermore, the arguably calculated and infamous strategy that Putin chose to undertake starting in 2014 has resulted in their closest neighbor embellishing them as an enemy and aggressor, an undeniable fiasco of the Russian president.
Seems like centuries ago when Obama was proposing “The Russian Reset” to find an agreeable solution to grant peace and cooperation for Europe and more importantly Russia. Fast forward to this year, and Russia is feeling threatened by the enlargement of NATO presence at their border and is fearing the drastic actions that Joe Biden is looming to impose. This has led to a long list of requirements put forward by Putin, addressed to US and NATO, ironically excluding Europe from this negotiation, in an attempt to “blackmail” any forthcoming ties between Ukraine, EU, and the US.
This distance created by the territorial wrangle between Ukraine and Russia, is pushing Russia right into China’s open arms, and considering the autocratic leadership in both countries, it brings Europe face to face with an aggressive monolith of democratically unaccountable countries, directly bordering them. It is entirely up to Europe to find a language in which to negotiate this very difficult equilibrium, which enables Ukraine to maintain its set out path towards becoming a European state. Furthermore, the stance of Germany and its new coalition in this debate is undeniably important. Purely for geopolitical reasons, Germany under Chancellor Merkel has always acted as a platzdarm for Russia, especially with the facilitation of the construction of Nord-Stream 2 which means that Poland and Ukraine will no longer be getting the transportational commission from gas and natural resources, making up about $7 billion/year, as well as no longer having hypothetical leverage over the block of gas supplies to Europe in the case of further Russian aggression.
Overall, even though the current situation in Ukraine is eventually going to be settled, it leaves Ukraine under Russia’s microscope and the permanent creation of man-made instability through the infiltration of the FSB (former KGB) provocateurs generating a domino effect of mistrust in Ukrainian political leaders, considering the fact that there are openly pro-Russian parties in parliament.