Ten Reasons to Pay Attention to Ukraine

The conflict spreading throughout East Ukraine is an extension of  a history defined by ongoing dispute. Over the past century, vast expanses of Ukrainian territory, including the Crimea, changed hands from one country to the next until the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union. For instance, up until the 1950s, contested land was given to and received from countries such as Poland, Romania, Czechoslovakia, and Russia.

But one has to travel much further back in time to understand the complexity of the problem. The Crimean Peninsula, known previously as The Khanate, was conquered by the Russian Empire under Catherine the Great in 1783. Hence, from 1783 until 1954, and despite a few foreign occupations, Crimea remained a part of Russia. In 1954, Nikita Krushchev, in an attempt to foster the friendship between Ukraine and Russia, transferred the Crimea from the Russian SFSR (Soviet Federal Socialist Republic) to the Ukrainian SSR (Soviet Socialist Republic).

Kruschev’s action did little to placate a number of Ukrainian nationalists with a different agenda. True, Ukraine, the Crimea, and currently contested areas remained a part of the Soviet Union from 1922 until 1991, but then things began unraveling. Since then, invasive Western and Russian actions have greatly stressed Ukrainian culture, resulting in the Ukrainian Revolution of 2014. Now, America and Europe are evaluating possible strategies for dealing with the situation, examining strategies that might best serve their vested interests. Following are ten reasons why we should pay attention to Ukraine and assess possible outcomes resulting from continued Western and Kremlin influence.

  1. People from the Baby Boomer generation of the ‘50s and ‘60s Cold War are calling the same shots, for better or worse. The Cold War was an outgrowth of World War II, and that great conflict was the extension of unresolved economic, social, political and military issues raised by World War I. This is why threats of a renewed Cold War are taken seriously by many.
  2. There will be a new change in the political relations with Russia, which hasn’t shifted much since the collapse of the Soviet Union. There is a solution to the crisis in Ukraine, but it would require the West to think about the country in a fundamentally new way. The United States and its allies should abandon their plan to westernize Ukraine and instead aim to make it a neutral buffer between NATO and Russia, akin to Austria’s position during the Cold War.
  3. Massive division on the decision to send arms to Kiev and upping the ante in Ukraine might lead to unwanted escalation. Not only would the fighting in eastern Ukraine be sure to intensify, but it could also spread to other areas. The consequences for Ukraine, which already faces profound economic and social problems, would be disastrous.
  4. Putin is treating this as a “frozen conflict,” similar to the invasion of Georgia in 2008. Hypothetically, if he enacts the same strategy in a NATO state, a much more damaging European conflict could follow. This will result in future conflicts over US and Russian influence in post-Soviet countries.
  5. Indecision could create an economic default in Ukraine, spawning a massive failed state in the middle of relatively prosperous Eastern European countries. Massive amounts of armaments left over by Western and Russian suppliers could perpetuate this problem, similar to the ISIS procurement of left behind U.S. weaponry.
  6. Upcoming peace talks could also result in more intense sanctions on Russia. Sanctions that will result in more backhanded dealings with other countries in the acquisition of goods. This will also strain relationships with countries involved in larger scale ventures, such as the trading of aircraft carriers with France. 
  7. Putin is a first-class strategist, which should be noted and respected by anyone challenging him on foreign policy. Putin’s strategic capability stems from his vastly influential experiences, notably from running the KGB and conquering Chechnya.
  8. Regardless, Russia lacks the capability to easily conquer and annex eastern Ukraine, much less the entire country. Roughly 15 million people—one-third of Ukraine’s population—live between the Dnieper River, which bisects the country and the Russian border. An overwhelming majority of those people want to remain part of Ukraine and would surely resist a Russian occupation. Furthermore, Russia’s mediocre army, which shows few signs of turning into a modern Wehrmacht, would have little chance of pacifying all of Ukraine. Moscow is also poorly positioned to pay for a costly occupation; its weak economy would suffer even more in the face of the resulting sanctions.
  9. But, there is a method to Putin’s madness, so although Washington may not like Moscow’s position, it should understand the logic behind it. Great powers are always sensitive to potential threats near their home territory. After all, the United States does not tolerate distant great powers deploying military forces anywhere in the Western Hemisphere, much less on its borders. Imagine the outrage in Washington if China built an impressive military alliance and tried to include Canada and Mexico in it. Logic aside, Russian leaders have told their Western counterparts on many occasions that they consider NATO expansion into Georgia and Ukraine unacceptable, along with any effort to turn those countries against Russia—a message that the 2008 Russian-Georgian war also made crystal clear.
  10. We need Russia, as they need us. Sticking with the current policy would also complicate Western relations with Moscow on other issues. The United States needs Russia’s assistance to withdraw U.S. equipment from Afghanistan through Russian territory, reach a nuclear agreement with Iran, and stabilize the situation in Syria. In fact, Moscow has helped Washington on all three of these issues in the past; in the summer of 2013, it was Putin who pulled Obama’s chestnuts out of the fire by forging the deal under which Syria agreed to relinquish its chemical weapons, thereby avoiding the U.S. military strike that Obama had threatened. The United States will also someday need Russia’s help containing a rising China. Current U.S. policy, however, is only driving Moscow and Beijing closer together.