Russia-Ukraine border crisis draws worldwide attention

Anders Rosdahl, Staff Writer

For the past few weeks, much of world news has focused on the shocking prospect that Russia might launch a full-scale invasion into Ukraine. Having met multiple times with Russian President Vladimir Putin since the end of Dec. 2021, President Biden hopes to continue diplomatic talks in the coming week. So far, minimal progress has been made towards any agreement with Russia.

In recent  weeks, President Biden revealed his belief that an invasion of Ukraine was likely to occur, vowing that any such action would be a “disaster for Russia.” Moscow and Washington have threatened each other for decades, but the current situation is unprecedented due to the threat of a full-scale Russian land invasion that could cause the entire region to go up into flames.

On Jan. 14, American intelligence agencies reported their belief that Russia was planning a false flag operation — an act committed with the intent of disguising the actual responsibly party by pinning the blame on someone else — to justify an invasion of Ukraine. However, it is unknown whether this massive confrontation between Russia and the West is simply a calculated bluff on Russia’s part or a more ominous sign of a large-scale land invasion, something that has not occurred in continental Europe since the end of the Second World War. 

Fear of a large-scale land invasion of Ukraine is based on the massive Russian military buildup on the Russia-Ukraine border. Russia has amassed over 100,000 troops near the border over the past month. Two weeks ago, Russia progressed this speculation by emptying their embassy in the Ukrainian capital of Kiev, another clear sign that open and violent hostilities between the two nations might be on the horizon.

Dr. Tatiana Nazarenko, a Ukrainian national and Dean of Curriculum and Educational Effectiveness at Westmont College, discussed the situation, saying, “Putin doesn’t want to lose face at this point. Putin needs chauvinism and nationalism in a show of force to account for the failing Russian economy.” Dr. Nazarenko earned a masters’ degree in English Studies and Education, as well as her Ph.D in English Philology, from the National University of Kyiv in Ukraine.

On the other hand, a few major factors could deter the prospect of an invasion.

Many North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) countries — such as Germany — rely on Russian oil and gas through the Nord Stream pipeline. If Russia decides to cut off the pipeline due to hostilities, an energy crisis could easily erupt across Europe. Both Russian and Western interests could be threatened by this possibility. Furthermore, it would not serve Russia’s national interest to endure further sanctions on top of the crippling ones that already exist. 

Despite loads of speculation, much of the media coverage has ignored the root cause for this conflict between Russia and Ukraine. Dr. Alister Chapman, a history professor at Westmont College whose research focuses on modern European history, briefly discussed the historical origins and implications of the conflict between Russia and Ukraine. “From Russia’s standpoint, not having control of Ukraine is sort of like America not controlling New York or Boston,” he said.

Russia perceives Ukraine as an integral part of their history and national identity. The Kievan Rus — a federation of eastern Slavic peoples lasting from the late ninth century to the mid-13nth century — united Russian and Ukrainian people.

Following the Pereyaslav Council agreement in 1653, Russian raids on the Ukrainian Cossack state ended. With this agreement, the Ukrainian Cossacks were forced to pledge allegiance to the Russian Tsar, who promised Ukraine protection in return. Ukraine considered this agreement a disgrace. It represented a lost opportunity for independence and led to a long period of russification in the region. For Russia, the deal cemented territorial claims to Ukraine.

Today, the history of the Kievan Rus, along with the history of the Soviet Union and the Russian Empire, provide a common cultural heritage for both nations. Russian nationalists have used this history and heritage to justify their aspirations for territorial expansion and unity between the two nations.

Ukrainians have historical reasons for their animosity towards Russia.

As far back as the 1930s, the Stalin-led Soviet Union caused an intentional famine, known as the Holodomor, which killed between three and five million Ukrainians.

The Soviet government then-dominated by Russians viewed the Ukrainian people and prospects of Ukrainian independence as a nuisance to Soviet unity and stability. Ukrainians responded by allying with Germany during the Second World War, hoping that a German victory would ensure their independence from the Soviet Union.

The Ukrainian people did not gain independence until 1991, and the desire to remain independent has animated Ukrainian nationalist sentiment in the wake of Russian belligerence. 

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, which President Putin has publicly lamented as the “greatest political catastrophe of the Twentieth Century,” a significant Russian minority remained in Ukraine.

According to the 2001 Ukrainian census, about 17% of Ukraine identified as ethnically Russian. From Russia’s standpoint, this was not a major concern. However, after NATO expanded into many eastern European nations combined with the 2014 overthrow of Viktor Yanukovych — Ukraine’s pro-Russian President of Ukraine — Vladimir Putin began attempts to expand Russia’s control in the region.

In 2014, Russia annexed Crimea, a Ukrainian peninsula, and Russian separatists have since occupied a significant portion of eastern Ukraine.

Regardless of what happens in the coming weeks, it’s important to remember how historic agreements such as the Pereyaslav Council in 1653, the legacy of the Kievan Rus and the Soviet Union, and more recent NATO expansion explain Russia’s expansionist aspirations and inform the current animosity. 

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