This year’s Winter Olympics, held in Sochi, Russia, came to an end on February 23 after months of international focus on the ex-superpower. On March 2, what were presumably Russian troops seized government buildings in the semi-autonomous, Russian-speaking Ukrainian province of Crimea. Global shock and condemnation from the sudden escalation of domestic conflict has been espoused from all corners of the world. Now, people are racing to understand more about the history of the conflict in Ukraine and how the country’s strategic geopolitical location between Russia and the European Union is related to energy security and the economic stability of the region. The struggle has ties to ethnic conflict, Soviet-era allegiances, competition between economic zones and good old-fashioned corruption. The situation, which highlights the tenuous attributes of a country which has remained sovereign for the entirety of my lifetime, raises fears for the future of Eastern Europe and brings back memories of a continent polarized by fear during World War II and the Cold War. Putin’s claim that Russia is protecting the ethnic Russian minority of Ukraine is reminiscent of Hitler’s claim that Germany needed to protect the ethnic Germans in the Sudetenland.
The year 1994 was filled with ups and downs. On the high end of the scale, I was born and the world was never the same. On the low end of the scale, massacres in Rwanda and rocket attacks in Sarajevo made headlines worldwide. In Ukraine, democratic elections peacefully and unobtrusively allowed for a new government to assume control in a state that had torn away from the Soviet Union just three years prior.
Since then, Ukraine has seen political strife between the ethnically Ukrainian and ultranationalist West and the ethnically Russian East. Here is a quick-run down for people who may not be experts on Ukrainian history in the period following the Cold War. After Viktor Yanukovych, a pro-Russian political leader, was elected in 2004, the citizens of Ukraine rose up declaring that the election was rigged. After the Orange Revolution, Yanukovych stepped down and pro-Ukrainian, pro-European Union Viktor Yushchenko assumed control. After several years of a stagnant economy in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, Yanukovych was elected back into office. Since then, he has made a series of controversial deals with Russia. The people of Ukraine have taken to arms and ousted Yanukovych from Kiev, the state’s capital. Seeking refuge in the country’s East, Yanukovych still asserts that he is the ruler of the country and has asked for Russian military assistance, which the country has now provided.
So where does that leave us?
Ukraine is divided into two blocs: one that wants to join the European Union and one that wants to join the Russian-backed counter economic zone termed the Eurasian Union. Russia has long considered Ukraine essential to the formation of this economic zone. Since the entire country doesn’t want to join the bloc, however, it seems that Russia may be content annexing Crimea and creating an essential dependency out of Eastern Ukraine. The United States is in absolutely no position to assist Ukraine militarily and Russia knows it.
Any conflict between Russia and Ukraine will be reminiscent of the Russian Federation’s 2008 invasion of South Ossetia. The conflict will be one-sided, and Russian tanks will steamroll its opposition. Russian aggression, however, will be tempered by the possibility of economic sanctions by the global community, Western Europe and the international hegemon. This will likely result in the Russian military seeing success against conventional forces, yet it will need to be restrained in its post-conflict negotiations.
The United States’ move seems obvious: Try to ensure that Ukraine moves away from the Russian sphere of influence. This was happening organically anyway, and Russia seems to have seized on an opportune moment in its neighbor’s domestic politics to ensure that it is able to maintain some influence over this strategic country. It is therefore in the interest of Western powers and liberal democracies across the globe to ensure that Western Ukraine is able to retain its sovereignty, that it takes significant steps closer towards Europe and that it is not laden with unreasonable Russian demands.
The bottom line is that in the post-Cold War era, 20th century imperial tactics cannot be tolerated. Spontaneous, unilateral action against a neighboring sovereign state is simply unacceptable with today’s norms. Secretary of State John Kerry, America’s top diplomat, weighed in by saying, “You just don’t [invade another country] on a completely trumped up pretext.” It may be the case that the world isn’t ready to challenge Russia’s military might, but intervening in Europe only serves to weaken Russia’s public image. The reality is apparent: Russia is desperately clawing to reestablish regional dominance over the Soviet Union’s liberated provinces.
In my eyes, Russia’s realpolitik approach towards maintaining energy security is not only of imminent concern, but is hauntingly reminiscent of Germany’s acquisition of the ethnically German regions of Czechoslovakia. Looking forward, the world should remember the lessons learned from the Munich agreement before Crimea turns into the Neo-Sudetenland.
Tyler Fredricks is a Trinity sophomore. His column runs every other Wednesday.