The conflict in Ukraine is very important to American, NATO, and Russian security. Russia has been testing its limits by annexing Crimea in 2014 and then by participating in the Ukrainian conflict. With sanctions affecting the Russian economy, Russia is using different tools to circumnavigate the sanctions by using China. With Russian forces in Syria fighting extremists, and with Russian involvement in Ukraine, Russia is able to use these conflicts as leverage against the United States.
Currently, the only NATO nations that border Russia have very small windows that lead directly into Russia. Ukraine has a large border with Russia, so keeping Ukraine out of NATO is of tremendous worth strategically to Russia. This is evident in history. Russia was invaded by Napoleon in 1812 and by the Germans in World War II through Ukraine. With a presence in Ukraine, Russia is able to keep a large buffer zone between the West and themselves.
The Crimea Peninsula is of strategic importance to Russia as this peninsula houses a port for Russia’s Black Fleet. Thus, if the Kiev government were to cede over to the EU, this port may not be available for the Russians. Russia’s overtaking of Crimea and conflict in the Eastern part of Ukraine was rather unprecedented as it occurred without much warning and now poses a far-reaching threat of stability within the Euro-Atlantic theatre.
As this map shows, the Crimea Peninsula is already under control by Russia and strategic areas including Lugansk and Donetsk are under separatist control. It appears that Russia is not planning on completely taking control of Ukraine but is maintaining a presence there to support its plan of keeping Ukraine out of NATO.
With Western sanctions President Putin wants the Russian people to put the blame on the West and the EU instead of on the real reason which is Russia’s involvement in Ukraine. With the sanctions, Putin’s popularity may plummet especially among the middle-class Russians. If this were to happen there are a couple things that Putin may do. He may seek to bolster nationalism in Russia by influencing citizens to unite in the cause of helping ethnic Russians in Ukraine to gain their independence. Another option he may choose is to find accommodations with Europe and the US to calm social discontent. This may involve the increase of Russian attacks on dangerous extremist groups in Syria. Since the US doesn’t have many troops in Syria able to fight the terrorist groups there, Russia could require the US to remove sanctions against Russia in exchange for a swift strategic defeat of the extremists in Syria. For the same concessions, Russia could also demand that Ukraine will never become a member of NATO.
Russia has relatively strong reserves of oil and gas. Perhaps to offset the sanctions that are slowly ruining the Russian economy, Russia signed a $400 billion deal to sell natural gas to China over the next 30 years (Studzińska (2015). This would form stronger ties between China and Russia, both security rivals of the US. With tensions with China at a medium state with the US and with Russia becoming allied with China, this would pose a great deterrence to the US both in security and economics. In contrast, China has large economic ties to the US. Even with Russian hostility towards the West, China will likely be reluctant to be hostile to the US despite its growing political and economic ties to Russia.
The Baltic states of Estonia and Latvia have a high Russian ethnic population. With Russia stating that it will protect Russian speaking people, it is possible that Russia will use deception and clandestine operations to overthrow these NATO countries, further escalating tensions and the stability in the region. Russia will likely not conduct a conventional war to retake the two countries as they are protected under the NATO alliance. However, Russia tested the West when in September 2014, Russian operatives were reported to have kidnapped an Estonian agent who had spied against Russia and took him back into Russia to be tried. This is a stark warning that Russia can act as it wants to in the Baltic states.
Ukraine has sought to build military relationships with the US and Britain. At a NATO conference in Bucharest in 2008, Ukraine (along with Georgia) were told by the alliance that they would one day be full and active NATO countries. With the situation in Ukraine as it currently stands, granting Ukraine NATO status would put the alliance at war with Russia and Russia would likely use military force against Kiev and NATO. Countering Russia through Ukraine’s armed forces presents a unique challenge as Ukraine’s military has structure and corruption problems. Thus, if the US provides help for the Ukrainian military, it will take a firm commitment from the US and NATO countries to drive out Russia from Ukraine.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990, Ukraine decided to be a passive player to avoid volatile circumstances with Russia. Additionally, European states desired stability. Through the NATO -Russia Council (NRC) and the Partnership and Cooperation Agreement (PCA), Russia would be included in summits between European nations. However, this partnership did not work very well. Sometimes relationships were cold and at other times, they would improve. However, Ukraine decided to increase its ties to the West and enlarge itself while still trying to maintain a healthy relationship with Russia. In 1997, Ukraine joined a charter membership with NATO. This did not guarantee emergency assistance to Ukraine if it was invaded, but it did establish a crisis consultative agreement. With this agreement, Ukraine joined in defense planning and civil-military relations with NATO countries.
The Rose Revolution in 2003, (when Soviet leadership was ousted from Georgia), and the Orange Revolution in 2004 (where corruption and electoral fraud was exchanged with a fair and free election in Ukraine), were viewed by Western countries as successes while Russia viewed these events for reasons to reassert itself globally.
In 2013, Ukrainians were feeling like their voices were not being heard by the Ukrainian government in Kiev. The elected President, Viktor Yanukovych, was supported by Ukrainian citizens to sign a deal with the EU, but because of Russian pressure, he withdrew the deal in favor of a deal with Russia. In addition to rescinding the deal with the EU, Yanukovych had been accused for jailing political rivals and using lethal measures to counteract peaceful demonstrations. With the EU deal broken and with these accusations, the situation in Ukraine culminated in the Euromaidan uprising which occurred on November 21st, 2013.
Despite the Euromaidan uprising, many Russian-speaking and Russian-cultured Ukrainians in eastern Ukraine sided with Yanukovych to make a stronger alliance with Russia. With pro-Ukrainians in the western part of the state, and the breakdown of the Yanukovych government after its brutal crackdown on protesters, Russian President Vladimir Putin sent in troops and annexed the Crimean Peninsula located in south-east Ukraine. This was a total surprise and was met with no resistance from Ukrainian troops.
After the annexation of Crimea under Russian control, President Putin visited Crimea and announced that the time had come to unite Russian speaking and Russian cultured Ukrainians back to Russia. Thereafter, “green men”—Russian soldiers and volunteer militia men—began crossing the border into Ukraine and united with anti-Kiev militia groups culminating in conflict on the eastern border. Reinforced with technology supplied by the Kremlin, these forces quickly captured key cities and areas in eastern Ukraine. Although Russia denies that it is involved in the conflict, a Malaysia commercial flight was shot down by a Russian anti-aircraft missile, the Buk 332, while flying over Ukraine. Additionally, international peace organizations stationed at crossings between Russia and Ukraine have seen Russia supplying militias with weapons such as tanks and artillery.
Pulse. (2018) retrieved from https://www.pulse.ng/news/world/russia-countrys-blockade-of-sea-of-azov-ports-angers-ukraine/2w2kh8f
Studzińska, Z. (2015). How Russia, Step by Step, Wants to Regain an Imperial Role in the Global and European Security System. Connections, 14(4), 21-42. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/26326416