The world awaits how the dispute between Russia and Ukraine plays out.
The two countries have been the source of headache for Western countries in the past few weeks. Russian troop build-up has intensified near the Ukrainian border, signaling a full-scale invasion into Europe’s breadbasket, but Russian President Vladimir Putin defended their presence, saying it’s only a military exercise.
No one knows what Putin is thinking, what his next moves are, or why is he even interested in invading Ukraine. “It’s not clear what Russia’s central demand is,” United States’ top diplomat Secretary Anthony Blinken said. Even Kremlin’s adviser on foreign policy, Fyodor Lukyanov, isn’t so sure: “The expert opinion that I can authoritatively declare is: Who the heck knows?”
But clues have been swirling around. Russia has successfully annexed Crimea, a peninsula in the southeastern part of Ukraine, in 2014, and Russian separatists took control of two eastern Ukrainian provinces, Luhansk and Donetsk. And, as Putin confronts the twilight of his political career, he is trying to burnish a lasting legacy: to rebuild the Soviet Union that collapsed three decades earlier, which, in his view, was the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the 20th century.
Since January 5, the Russian embassy in Ukraine has thinned out, eliciting speculations about a possible invasion. Ukrainian and U.S. officials interpret this as “part propaganda, part preparation for a looming conflict, part feint or all three.”
The brewing tensions between the two countries share a long history, dating back to the 9th century when a group of people called Rus moved their capital to Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital. A series of events, frustrations, and political aspirations led to a conflict that both parties and their backers wanted to deescalate. Here are ten things to know about the Russia-Ukraine conflict gripping Europe, the West, and the world.
1. Ukraine a painful loss for Russia
Putin has often invoked the ties that bind Russia and Ukraine, calling their independence “our great common misfortune and tragedy.”
“Our spiritual, human, and civilizational ties formed for centuries and have their origins in the same sources, they have been hardened by common trials, achievements, and victories. Our kinship has been transmitted from generation to generation,” he wrote in the article “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians” in July 2021. “It is in the hearts and the memory of people living in modern Russia and Ukraine, in the blood ties that unite millions of our families. Together we have always been and will be many times stronger and more successful. For we are one people.”
Ukraine gained independence in August 1991 following the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
It was a painful loss for Russia. Ukraine was the second most powerful republic in the union. Russia tried to negotiate an accord that would keep Ukraine even on a limited scale, but Ukrainians voted overwhelmingly – 92.3% – to secede, thus, the independence.
Since then, Ukraine has drifted away from its roots, increasingly embracing the West through military aid and exercises.
2. Crimea’s annexation a turning point
Putin has grown irritated about their neighbor as it contends that Russia and Ukraine are bound to be together. The pretext of this can be dated back to 2014 when Ukraine ousted its pro-Russian president, Viktor Yanukovych, and Russian separatists annexed Crimea in the latter part of the year, causing disruptions in the election but ultimately led to the election of Petro Poroshenko.
The annexation would shortly lead to a rebellion in two Eastern provinces, Donetsk and Luhansk.
While Putin and Poroshenko signed a ceasefire agreement in Minsk, Belarus, peace has been elusive, costing the lives of more than 13,000 soldiers and civilians as the war continues to erupt in the region.
The Minsk agreements ended Ukraine losing more than Russia, unable to regain control of the territories now pervaded by rebels and giving Russia the upper hand.
“The deal likely was the best that Poroshenko could have achieved under difficult circumstances, with Russia continuing to back the separatists,” Steven Pifer, former American ambassador to Ukraine, told at the time. “But Minsk II raises tough questions and leaves difficult issues for later. It is a fragile arrangement, requiring good faith and follow-through from parties that have shown little of that in the past.”
3. Ukraine’s NATO membership would end Putin’s aspirations
Russia has since fought tooth-and-nail to prevent Ukraine and Georgia—another former Soviet Union state briefly invaded by Russia in 2008—from being admitted to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).
The treaty, signed on April 1, 1949, is a military alliance formed to counter Soviet Union’s aggression. Since the Union’s fall in 1991, three of its ex-countries have been granted membership: Lithuania, Estonia, and Latvia.
Ukraine has aspired since to join NATO, but there is currently no movement to do so. Membership will be granted if the country meets stringent military, defense, political, economic, and legal criteria.
Russia has specifically demanded legal assurances that Ukraine would be excluded from NATO, but the United States slammed that proposal, saying the alliance decides for itself.
“We will not allow anyone to slam closed NATO’s open-door policy, which has always been central to the NATO alliance,” Deputy Secretary of State Wendy R. Sherman said during talks with Russia in Geneva in January.
While Ukraine is not a member, it has participated in the alliance’s yearly joint exercises. NATO members have also showered Ukraine ample funding to shore up its military capacity. The Biden administration, for instance, approved an additional $200 million in security assistance to Kyiv.
For Putin, Ukraine’s membership would step on the red line, staking much of his political capital to assert that Russia and Ukraine are one by heart. A repercussion of Ukraine’s admission would be NATO’s increasing footprint within the border, in line with the treaty’s provision to mobilize all member-countries defense if one is being invaded or attacked by a third party.
“If Ukraine joins NATO, or is drawn into a de-facto military alliance with it, then Putin’s project has failed; if Ukraine is kept from doing so, Putin has fulfilled his historical role,” Joshua Yaffa wrote for The New Yorker.
4. Ukrainians are prepared to fight
Half of Ukraine’s population has military experience, but a general said they wouldn’t stand a chance against the influx of Russian invaders without Western support.
“Unfortunately, Ukraine needs to be objective at this stage,” said Gen. Kyrylo O. Budanov, head of Ukraine’s military intelligence service. “There are not sufficient military resources for repelling a full-scale attack by Russia if it begins without the support of Western forces.”
Currently, there are 100,000 Ukrainian troops at the border, with more to come. But if Russia is serious about the invasion, it can wipe out the military within “30-40 minutes,” as per Robert Lee, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran.
Even then, Ukrainians won’t give up without a fight. A third of its citizens, according to a poll, is prepared to take “armed resistance.” General Oleksandr Pavlyuk, the commander of the Joint Operation Forces fighting the separatists, said that if they receive no help from the West, they’re ready to take on a “partisan war.”
“Eight years have passed and there are very many people with military experience who are prepared with weapons in their hands to fight,” he said.
If all systems fail, a general said they would simply give away their weaponries so Ukrainians can defend themselves.
5. A possible invasion is only a distraction
There is skepticism that Putin is serious about fanning the flames, with some thinking that the Russia-Ukraine dispute might just be a show, serving as a distraction on other issues Russia’s facing, such as the Covid-19 crisis and a poor economy.
Russia’s deputy foreign minister asserted that “[w]e will not attack, strike, invade, quote unquote, whatever, Ukraine.” Putin is not mobilizing Russians to prepare a full-scale invasion against their neighbor.
The New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman noted that by escalating tensions with Ukraine, no one would notice the problems Russia has been suffering for decades.
“The last thing that Putin wants is a thriving Ukraine that joins the European Union and develops its people and economy beyond Putin’s underperforming, autocratic Russia. He wants Ukraine to fail, the E.U. to fracture and America to have Donald Trump as president for life so we’ll be in permanent chaos,” he wrote.
As the COVID-19 pandemic raged and the economy stagnated in Russia, on top of his own political aspirations to serve the presidency for life, Putin is upping the ante by transforming into a wartime president.
“The Kremlin’s response to this predicament was to shift the foundation for the regime’s legitimacy from economic progress, which made Putin so popular in his first two terms in office, to Putin as the defender of a motherland besieged by the West. A lifetime presidency, Putin apparently has concluded, can only be a wartime presidency,” Leon Aron of The Hill wrote.
Furthermore, Putin might only be, in layman terms, a playtime as he relishes the West’s confusion and fear of Russia’s ambiguousness.
6. A lose-lose situation for Western countries
It seemed that Putin had only set a trap to the West.
If diplomacy fails, the Ukrainian invasion will stand as a lose-lose situation for them.
In the words of Yaffa: “[…] either they look feckless if they do nothing and Ukraine is defeated, or they feel compelled to intervene, risking a wider war with Russia that no one has the stomach for.”
The invasion might yet be another political liability for U.S. President Joe Biden, who has suffered a massive backlash over his handling of Afghanistan.
But above all, Europe might incur heavy losses if the worst happens in terms of trade and policy. The continent has important trade and gas deals with Russia, which Putin used as leverage in the past in dealing with contentious issues. And it would strike a blow to the European Union’s credibility for failing to establish an enforceable foreign policy that could have mitigated the situation.
7. China empowered, emboldened
Friction with the West has allowed Russia to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with another autocratic country, China.
Trade between China and Russia has increased to 167% since 2010, aided by a series of energy projects such as the $55 billion Power of Siberia-1 natural gas pipeline, $25 billion Eastern Siberia-Pacific Ocean Pipeline and the $13 billion Amur gas processing plant.
Just last year, China’s General Administration of Customs reported a total of $146.88 billion worth of deals with Russia, up 35.8% from the previous year.
This allowed Putin to be more assertive in his demands with the West without fear that the sanctions would affect Russia’s economy.
“I think Putin likely received some guarantees from Xi that if a crisis erupts over Ukraine and the West imposes major sanctions against Russia, then China will stand shoulder to shoulder with Russia,” Artyom Lukin, a professor of international relations at Russia’s Far Eastern Federal University, told Nikkei Asia.
“If further trade sanctions are placed on Russia, Moscow will need to increase Russia’s sourcing capabilities elsewhere, with China being one avenue,” he added.
Next month, Putin is about to bag more deals with Chinese President Xi Jinping as the former attends the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics.
When China occupied Scarborough in 2013, Russia followed suit by occupying Crimea in 2014. If Russia succeeds again this time, it will further embolden China.
A successful invasion might just rouse authoritative China to take over Taiwan, the democratic country that the former hopes to reunify.
8. Repercussions would ripple across Africa, Asia
Ukraine, a top exporter of corn, barley, rye, and wheat, feeds populations spanning Europe, Africa, and Asia. A possible invasion would spark food insecurity across those countries.
Unfortunately, most of the country’s agricultural lands are located in its eastern provinces, where the conflict with Russian separatists has erupted. Donetsk and Luhansk—two provinces under their total control—produce 5% and 3% of wheat’s total production, respectively. Kharkiv—bordering those two provinces—boasts the highest share of wheat production anywhere in Ukraine, at 8%.
Ukraine is the world’s fifth-largest exporter of wheat, shipping out 18 million metric tons out of a total harvest of 24 million metric tons in 2020. Countries like Lebanon, Yemen, and Libya depend entirely on Ukraine for wheat consumption. Egypt, its largest consumer, imported more than 3 million metric tons in 2020. In Southeast Asia, the country supplied 28% of Malaysia’s and Indonesia’s wheat.
The worst-case scenario would be the separatists claiming ownership of the lands, pushing farmers away, and destroying their infrastructure. In effect, it would shock prices in importing countries and exacerbate food insecurity.
The consequences would be much direr: conflict, ethnic tensions, government destabilization efforts, and violence might occur due to skyrocketing prices and pervasive hunger.
9. The world’s economy would be at a precarious level
Russia’s seeming appetite to reunite with Ukraine would cause the global market to be jittery. Analysts see that inflation would rise once it is successful as investors rush back to bonds and oil prices skyrocket.
The autocratic country is a major oil producer, with Europe relying on 35% of its natural gas supply. Covid-19 has worsened the situation as demand decreased and recovery faltered, sending prices to record highs.
Part of the sanctions Western countries could impose on Russia is the construction of gas pipelines. Germany, for example, would halt the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline if Putin greenlights the invasion.
The tensions would also create a domino effect on the global GDP growth and inflation rate. JPMorgan predicted that once the Russia-Ukraine dispute reached its climax, a “material spike” would occur, raising the price of an oil barrel to $150, reducing GDP growth to 0.9% and skyrocketing inflation to 7.2%.
Both countries’ assets will also be in danger if tensions arise. Russia’s ruble and Ukraine’s hryvnia underperformed in 2021, on top of Russia’s declining overall standing in capital markets amid sanctions rooted in geopolitical tensions, such as the annexation of Crimea.
“The events of late 2014 remind us of the liquidity gaps and U.S. dollar hoarding that led to a substantial drop in the ruble at that time,” Chris Turner, global head of markets at AIG, told Reuters.
10. Putin’s post-Cold War legacy
In the end, the growing tensions between Russia and Ukraine convey Putin’s desired legacy: establishing a post-Cold war order.
“After so many years in power, Putin sees himself, not Gorbachev or Yeltsin, as responsible for formulating the ultimate post-Soviet order,” Alexander Baunov, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Moscow Center, told The New Yorker magazine. “In this sense, many events or facts that may seem to be historically irreversible are, from his perspective, mistakes that remain to be corrected.”
For Putin, this is an opportune time to regain Russia’s geopolitical relevance, which was shattered when it lost the Cold War that led to Soviet Union’s fall. Only a war, in his view, would reopen that conversation.
“Either we negotiate a new post-Cold War order or I will start a post-post-Cold War confrontation,” Friedman wrote on Putin’s demands to the West.
To put it more plainly: Russia wants to be in lockstep with the world’s two superpowers: the United States and China.