With 42 million inhabitants, Ukraine wanted to quickly join NATO. This led Putin to decide to avoid it and “burn its wings.” Ukraine is too close to Russia and presents a risk that Moscow is not willing to tolerate. The annexation of Crimea in March 2014 and the subsequent outbreak of war in the Kremlin-backed rebel areas of Donesk and Lugansk keep tensions at their highest.
Ukrainian President Volodimir Zelensky announced that they are planning to overthrow him. “There is an ongoing plot supported by the concentration of Russian troops on the border,” he pointed out several times. He claimed that in telephone recordings, there is talk about Ukrainian tycoon Rinat Akhmetov, who created his fortune in the separatist-controlled eastern Donetsk region.
“To prepare for the collusion, 900 million euros have been allocated… I will not flee anywhere as my predecessor did. The country is fully prepared to confront Russia, if necessary.” The head of the military intelligence, Kirilo Budanov, believes that Russian troops have 100,000 men deployed along the border and “the offensive could start at the end of January or the beginning of February.”
Ukraine is a unified state organized in 24 oblasts, the autonomous Crimea, and two cities with special status: Kyiv and Sevastopol. The first is the capital and most populated, with three million inhabitants. The predominant religion is Orthodox Christianity; there are an estimated 500,000 Muslims and 120,000 Jews. The educational model is public and compulsory, literacy exceeds 99% and higher education is free for outstanding students.
It was one of the founding republics of the Soviet Union in 1922. Its population suffered “ethnic cleansing,” such as the Holodomor in 1933, a famine that caused millions of deaths as part of the attempt to “Russify” the nation. In 1986, the worst disaster in nuclear history occurred with the explosion of the Chernobyl power plant, an event that Moscow—in the communist era—tried to conceal from public opinion to an embarrassing degree.
In 1991, with the USSR, gone after the communist collapse, the Ukrainian parliament approved the Declaration of Independence, defining the state as “free and democratic.” Ukraine is a democracy. The president is elected by popular vote for a five-year term.
The legislative branch is composed of the Verkhovna Rada, a unicameral parliament of 450 members. Headed by the premier, it is primarily responsible for the formation of the executive and its Council of Ministers. Subsequent disputes with Russia over the price of natural gas halted all supplies in 2006 and 2009, causing serious shortages. At the time of his election (2014), Petro Poroshenko announced he would control civil unrest as a priority in the east, strengthen Ukrainian nationalism and normalize the relationship with Moscow. Geopolitically, his strategy involved the country’s “change of sides” from Russian to Western influence.
Moscow’s strategy: alienating the West
In March 2014, Russia occupied the Crimean Peninsula, whose proximity to NATO is seen by Moscow as a danger, thus consolidating control of its outlet to the Black Sea. Days later, a referendum approved joining Russia as a federated state, and the annexation treaty was signed. The UN voted to recognize Crimea as part of Ukraine, rejecting the legal validity of the act.
Poroshenko compared the pro-Russian rebels to pirates and requested the presence of international diplomats at the negotiations. Russia responded that they were not needed. As president, he tried to bring about the return of Crimea to Kyiv’s sovereignty without success. Hundreds of people have been killed by the violence in eastern Ukraine.
According to the United Nations, two million Ukrainians have fled to other parts of the country and 800,000 have emigrated since 2014. The current president Zelensky, a comic actor who played the role of the president in a successful TV series, took office in 2019. Although he enjoys a good level of approval, he declared smiling days ago that “no TV script allowed me to imagine the tension of the office.”
With the collapse of the USSR, the country moved from a planned economy to a freer one. Its industry produces all types of transport vehicles. It imports much of its energy supplies, especially oil and gas, so it relies on Russia as its energy supplier and while 25% of Ukraine’s natural gas comes from domestic sources, about 35% comes from Russia and the remaining 40% from Asia, via transit routes controlled by Moscow. At the same time, 80% of Russian gas is sold to Europe via Ukraine.
Moscow justifies its pressure on Kyiv on historical, economic, and geopolitical grounds vis-à-vis the West. Ukraine is fundamental for Russia. Both countries share origin and identity, making Ukrainians an inseparable part of the Russian nation. Geopolitically, control of Ukraine is essential to prevent its accession to NATO and the European Union, which would reduce Russia’s regional power. In addition, there are economic interests in the neighboring country. The Ukrainian state is one of the leading economies in the post-Soviet space and hosts a large part of the Russian gas pipeline network supplying Europe.
Historical and cultural ties have marked the Kremlin’s paternalistic attitude towards Ukraine. For President Vladimir Putin, the Ukrainian state is in Moscow’s sphere of influence and any Western interference is unacceptable. Another relevant aspect is the demographics of Ukraine: 17 % of the population identifies itself as ethnic Russian and almost one-third speaks Russian as its mother tongue. Most of these inhabitants are located in the annexed Crimea, and especially in the Donbas. In this eastern region, Kyiv and the separatists wage war.
Moscow’s stance on Ukraine also involves geopolitical interests. The idea of NATO bases in the midst of “Russian culture” is a red line. After Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia moved into the democratic orbit, a hypothetical Ukrainian accession to the West would place the United States on the doorstep of its western border.
Economics plays a key role in Kyiv-Moscow relations. Russia has tried to rebuild its influence in the post-Soviet space with political and economic integration projects. It created the current Eurasian Economic Union. However, the creation of a bloc to rival the European Union is weak without Ukraine. Success depends on integrating “one of the most important economies of the old USSR.” With this, Russia would rebuild the Soviet common market and end any possible Ukrainian accession to Europe. Moreover, the energy crisis in the Old Continent has accentuated the importance of Ukraine, since Russia is the main supplier of natural gas to Ukraine.
This supply is made through Ukrainian gas pipelines, which earn it billions of euros in tolls. This role subordinates the supply to the political clash between Kyiv and Moscow. To avoid this dependence, the Kremlin is diversifying supply routes with new pipelines such as Nord Stream 2, which would enable Russia to supply Germany and Turkey, its main customers, without crossing Ukraine. If Russia thus isolates its neighbor, taking away much of its bargaining power, it could achieve a new turn toward its sphere of influence, guaranteeing Ukraine the use of its territory as a gas passage and settling territorial differences.
This option – “the stick and the carrot” – may lead Kyiv to its old ally; the other would push it into the American area. NATO membership, of course, is out of the question, but not only because of Moscow’s opposition, but also because of the ineffectiveness of the Biden administration in providing security to its allies.