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January 21, 2022

Ukraine was a part of the defunct USSR until its breakup in 1991 following internal unrest in the republic and the eventual dissolution of the republic. Since the breakup of the USSR, Russia has tried and succeeded in most cases to keep control of the region, often bullying neighbouring countries into signing agreements and treaties that keep them as the “puissance ultime” of the Eastern European bloc. 

Tensions between Ukraine and Russia have simmered down in recent years after the 2014 revolution that ousted previous Ukraine president Viktor Yanukovych who was pro-Russia. However, since late 2021, hostilities have resumed between the two nations with Russia moving troops to the boundary between the two nations- a move that international observers have said is a direct preparation for the invasion of Ukraine at the slightest opportunity. So what is behind the latest tensions? We analyse the various moving parts fueling the unrest between both European nations.

The Cultural Angle
Ukraine, Russia and Belarus were a part of a medieval superpower that existed over 1,200 years ago and wielded strong influence in what is eastern Europe today. Consequently, the countries were all part of the defunct USSR. Today, Russian President Vladimir Putin does not hide his opinion that the peoples of Belarus, Ukraine and other republics that broke out of the USSR benefited from the Russian civilisation and as such are Russian people. The Ukrainians, however, vehemently deny this claim and seek to build a nationalistic country. In fact, naturally, a lot of Ukrainians speak Russian seeing that they were a part of the USSR, but the country chose Ukrainian as its official language after declaring independence from the USSR thus showing a preference for their own. This effectively means that Ukraine has divorced itself from Russia linguistically and culturally.

The Political Angle
One of Russia’s major problems with Ukraine is from the political side of things. In 2014, Ukraine witnessed a bloody revolution that led to the ousting of then-president Viktor Yanukovych who was trying to strengthen Ukraine’s ties with Russia. According to analysts, Putin sees that as a threat to the ambitions of Russia in the region and elsewhere.

Additionally, current Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky has the ambition of joining the NATO military alliance and strengthening ties with the west- a move that has angered Russia for a number of reasons. First, if Ukraine joins the NATO alliance, that might mean that NATO will station a military base in Ukraine and Putin does not want a NATO military base close to his country at all.  In fact, when discussing with western nations who are trying to broker peace in the region, Putin said that he needs guarantees from the US and its allies “that would exclude any further NATO moves eastward and the deployment of weapons systems that threaten us in close vicinity to Russian territory.”

In 2014 during the revolution protests, Russia saw a loophole because the Crimean people in Eastern Ukraine wanted autonomy and to be annexed to the Russian federation. Russia moved quickly, supplying firepower and manpower to the separatists who fought until they essentially declared the Republic of Crimea. Since that time, Russia has invested hugely in building Crimea; repairing roads, hospitals and airports as well as supplying water and electricity. Ukraine sees this as Russia tampering with its sovereignty- the west agrees. In 2014, Crimea held a referendum where 96.7% of voters aligned with joining Russia. The UN  declared the referendum as illegal and invalid.

The Economic Angle
Apart from the cultural and political angle, the recent unrest may be due to an economic reason as well. When Russia started the Eurasia Economic Community in 2000, Putin desperately tried to get Ukraine onboard after convincing several ex-soviet countries to join but Ukraine refused. At the time, that ultimately led to Russia and Ukraine severing economic ties- a big blow to Ukraine at the time. However, with grain and steel two of Ukraine’s biggest exports high in demand in recent years, Ukraine has exited its recession and is poised for growth.

What Does Russia Want?

It Wants Ukraine To Back Away From The West
One of the key things that Russia wants is to bully Ukraine to back away from the west. Its reason? Russia wants to stay in control of the political bloc and does not want western allies building military bases at its borders. The current Ukrainian president favours a relationship with the west over building closer ties with Russia.

US Attention
Many analysts also believe that the recent tensions between both countries is a ploy by Putin to get America’s attention. Just recently, American president, Joe Biden and Putin had a diplomatic call which observers referred to as “tense”. That meeting notwithstanding, Putin still wants a face-to-face meeting. “We will definitely meet, I would really like that,” He told Biden during their last call.