Chaos has ensued in 2022. Russia has invaded Ukraine…again. This time, it appears to have set its eyes on Kiev. Civilian Ukrainians have been given guns and told to protect their country in what appears to be absolute anarchy. Fear has erupted: how much of Europe will get involved in the conflict?
Mapping the conflict
While the above paints a rather shocking image, this conflict has been brewing for several years now. To better understand the current situation, and the way forward, it is important to get a handle on the historical context. While ongoing media reports have very much identified this to be an inter-state war, at its inception, the nature of this conflict was very much disputed.
Just to expand on this point, when the Russo-Ukrainian conflict first began in February 2014, there were disputes about whether this was a civil war with an intervening force (Russia), or simply a war between Russia and Ukraine. By March 2014, Crimea was already under Russian rule.
I would go as far as to say that at this time, it did appear to be a civil war prompted by or even orchestrated by the external force of Russia. Russia’s policy under Putin has been to overturn the US-led unipolar world and to increase national prestige. A westernised Ukraine would threaten Russia’s NATO buffer zone, and therefore undermine this policy. In 2014, this threat started becoming all too real.
More specifically, this westernisation came as a response to Ukrainian civil society’s aversion to an Eastern alignment. The 2013 president, President Yanukovych, began aligning the Ukraine with the East. This took the form of a Putin-Yanukovych deal giving Russia access to $15 billion in Ukrainian bonds and reducing natural gas prices by a third; the rejection of an association agreement with the EU; a government-initiated attack against a journalist critical of President Yanukovych, Tetyana Chornovol. The Euromaiden Protests began promptly towards the end of 2013. What started off as a few thousand students in Kiev’s Independence Square in November 2013, turned into an encampment sporting national flags and anthems that withstood beatings by Berkut special forces. By February 2014, Yanukovych was forced to flee the country and snap presidential and parliamentary elections were held under the leadership of Turchynov. Immediately, Ukraine realigned: an association agreement was signed with the EU and Kiev began taking a pro-Western stance.
And so, at the beginning of 2014, we see Russia adopting hybrid warfare. For the sake of Russia’s Eurasianist Integration Project, we see Russian intelligence officers infiltrating existing social networks in Ukraine with the aim of building an army of partisans fighting for secession from the Ukraine. In other words, Russia identified a point of conflict, and inflamed it: in this case, the point was identity. In 2014, the regions of the Donbas and Crimea both had strong Russian ties, despite their being a part of the Ukraine. In fact, from 1783 to 1954, Crimea was considered Russian territory where it was the site of Russia’s culturally significant victories against the Ottomans, and later the NAZIs. Building on that, Crimea falling under Ukrainian rule in 1954 was seen as a bureaucratic decision to appease the then influential, and Soviet, Ukrainian Communist Party. Ultimately, this identity crisis was easy for Russia to play on, given repeated Ukrainianisation attempts over preceding decades, which simply served to alienate ethnic Russians in the regions.
In this period, we therefore see Kiev’s Turchynov and later Poroshenko administrations establish the EU as its ally, while separatists in the Donbas region align themselves with Russian forces. At its peak, Russian combative intervention saw 10 000 and 26 000 soldiers, alongside battalion tactical groups, rocket brigades, as well as a reconnaissance-strike model integrating drones, rockets, artillery fire, special reconnaissance, cyber capabilities and geo-locating technology, in the Donbas and Crimea, respectively. And so, in this context of existing tensions between ethnic Russians and Kiev, there are elements of an intrastate or civil war.
Previous mediation attempts
In an attempt to resolve this protracted conflict, we see both the Minsk I and Minsk II agreements in 2014 and then 2015. Both were facilitated by The Trilateral Contact Group of Ukraine (TCG), consisting of Russia, the Ukraine, and the Organisation of Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), with France and Germany taking the lead in terms of mediation. Ultimately, both fail to achieve a permanent ceasefire. In March 2020, we see another meeting in Minsk where Russia-backed separatists are included in talks with the Ukraine for the very first time. Russia also appeared to take on more of an observer and mediator role with the likes of France and Germany. In 2020, we therefore see Russia portraying itself as an outsider to the conflict, which is very much a civil war. This is a total 180 shift from what we are seeing now.
Where are we now?
On the 24 February 2022, Russia launched an attack on the Ukraine. This came after weeks of building up the Russian army along the Russo-Ukrainian border. As of the 2 March 2022, Russian troops had completely surrounded Kherson and Mariupol, with Kiev being subjected to intense shelling, and the civilian death toll was up to 2 000.
NATO has since deployed troops to member states, and the US, EU and Switzerland, as well as allied countries have since introduced sanctions on Russia. On the Ukrainian front, President Zelensky applied for the Ukraine to become an EU member on the 28 February 2022, appealing for the application to be fast-tracked. Were the application to be successful, the Ukraine would be able to rest assured that its political future was safe in the EU’s hands, and would therefore be able to meet Putin’s demilitarisation demands. So far, it is largely the Baltic states and Greece that have expressed their support to the Ukraine’s application. However, French President Macron has already expressed hesitancy. Many are expecting other Western European nations to follow suite.
Potential paths forward
Many questions are brewing as to what will happen next. Will Russia take Kiev? Will the Ukraine join the EU? Will Russia stop at the Ukraine? Will the West deploy troops on the ground?
Reports are showing that Russia is close to taking Kiev. Without some form of diplomatic resolution, Ukraine doesn’t seem to stand much of a chance, despite their militia. And so, the answer to the first question is rather dependent on how successful external mediators are. If the Ukraine is not allowed into the EU, which seems to be the current prediction, Western mediators will have to find another way to ensure Ukrainian sovereignty after demilitarisation. Another tactic could be to carry on throwing protracted and unrelenting sanctions at Russia. As a consequence of the sanctions imposed on Russia by Western allies, the Russian Ruble is now worth less than one American cent. If this continues, Putin will seriously have to consider how much the Ukraine in Russian hands is worth.
As for the third question, if Russia were to carry on encroaching on Eastern European territory, Western allies would be forced to intervene militarily as fellow EU members fall, but also as Russia were to start knocking on the West’s doorstep. And so to answer the final question, it seems that Western allies would only deploy troops were Russia to be close enough to their borders to pose an existential threat.
Stephanie is the Assistant Editor at the Journal of Political Risk. She has a B.A. in Politics, Philosophy, and Economics and an Honours degree in Justice and Transformation from the University of Cape Town. She is currently pursuing her MPhil in Public Law, focusing on a gendered analysis of transitional justice mechanisms. She has also contributed as a member of the research team for the South African Medical Research Council, focusing on the National Health Insurance bill.