The world’s attention is on the border between Russia and Ukraine. The site of the biggest military build-up in Europe since the Cold War. Russia has already annexed Crimea, part of Ukrainian territory, and plunged Donbas, in Ukraine’s southeast, into a separate conflict. If Russia changes borders again by force, then this will be a challenge to the whole of European security. But how did Ukraine become a flashpoint between Russia and the West? And why won’t Russia leave Ukraine alone?
Vladimir Putin disputes whether a border between Russia and Ukraine should exist. He says that Russians and Ukrainians are one people and has claimed that Ukraine is not a state. But Ukraine is proud of its independence. Russia and Ukraine do have a shared ancestry: a union between Moscow and Kyiv in the 17th Century formed the base of the Russian Empire. Moscow considers Kyiv the cradle of its civilization and its faith. Over the centuries since, the two countries have been intimately connected Ukraine was a cornerstone of the Soviet Union. Until the bloc collapsed in 1991. At the time, Ukrainian independence went hand-in-hand with a new, democratic Russia Ukraine.
In many ways, it set the example for Russia’s independence from the Soviet Union and the idea of Russia as a democratic republic. But over the years Moscow came to view Ukraine's independence as a strategic blow as well as an emotional one. Today, around 13% of Ukrainians are ethnically Russian and nearly a third speak Russian as a first language. But despite these ties, recent events are turning many Ukrainians against Russia. It is a country that is responsible for 14,000 dead soldiers and civilians in a war in the east of Ukraine. It is a country that annexed part of its territory. It is the country that poses a constant threat to 75% of Ukrainians. Those born since 1991 now see their future as in the EU, rather than with Russia. But a democratic Ukraine with ties to the West is unacceptable to Russia. Mainly due to Ukraine’s strategic significance. Ukraine is caught between two spheres of influence- the West and its defensive alliance NATO on one side and Russia on the other. Vladimir Putin is determined to keep Ukraine in Russia’s orbit and keep it out of alliances with others. Putin does not want Ukraine to join NATO is considered as antagonistic towards Russia. A fellow Slavic country, as he says, the same people as us, as a member of NATO as part of the West is an affront.
In 1991, NATO’s borders in central Europe only ran as far east as Germany but as former Soviet-bloc countries joined, the NATO alliance in central Europe now runs, in some places right up to the Russian border. Geographically, Ukraine itself separates Russia from four NATO members. As far as Russia is concerned, Ukraine must never join NATO. And for Ukraine’s first years of independence, that did not seem likely Ukraine was led by governments friendly to Moscow. But by Ukraine’s 2004 presidential elections, it was clear Ukrainians had begun to look westwards and Russia’s influence had its limits. With the help of mass protests, Putin-backed candidate Viktor Yanukovych lost to pro-Western Viktor Yushchenko. It became known as the Orange Revolution and was evidence that Russia was losing control of Ukraine. The Orange Revolution, mattered because people rose against somebody, he backed it showed that people have agency. Even when Yanukovych was voted in five years later Putin still could not get his way in Ukraine.
Yanukovych continued to look both ways — to Europe and Russia. When Ukraine was offered an association agreement with the EU, Putin countered with an economic offer of his own. Yanukovych eventually ditched the EU deal in favor of the economic pact with Russia. But many Ukrainians felt sold out, and peaceful protests in Kyiv followed. Yanukovych’s response was brutal sparking further demonstrations and the downfall of his government. It was a slap in the face for Putin: a video has emerged which appears to show President Yanukovych’s entourage fleeing from his luxurious mansion outside Kyiv. Putin was furious. It was coming after similar protests in Russia.
He had to make an example of Ukraine he had to show that such events, revolutions, end badly and they end in civil war. Putin’s response was to annex the Ukrainian territory of Crimea. Crimea, of course, means a lot to Russians, it has enormous symbolic importance. Of all the territories lost by Russia during the disintegration of the Soviet Union, the loss of Crimea was felt most acutely. His popularity ratings shot up. Putin went on to encourage uprisings of pro-Russian separatists in the east of Ukraine. A conflict that is still running. Putin’s strategy has ensured that the EU and NATO keep Ukraine at arm’s length. And stirring up conflict on Russia’s borders could help with troubles at home.
Putin’s popularity is falling. Opposition to his regime is increasing, particularly among the young. In 2021 street protests erupted after opposition leader Alexei Navalny was poisoned and then thrown in jail. Putin needs a new source of legitimacy and conflict with the West provides, in his eyes that source of legitimacy. Putin portrays himself as Russia’s defender against a failing West. Western-style democracy cannot be allowed to contrast favorably against its rule. Least of all in neighboring Ukraine. A successful democracy next door might lead people to demand the same thing at home. Putin, it is believed, is trying to protect his regime and compensate for insecurity and weakness internally by external aggression. Rulers who have exploited their people, who have run corrupt and militaristic regimes have done this over decades and centuries. Putin is not the first leader to do that. And in that sense, he's fallen into that old trap. For as long as Putin’s political woes continue Russia’s border with Ukraine is unlikely to be left in peace.