Tensions along the Russia-Ukraine border finally erupted into open war on February 24 when Vladimir Putin announced a ‘special military operation’ in the eastern regions of the neighboring state, confirming fears that had lingered since December must not gather troops with the intention of an invasion.
The Kremlin chief said he believed Russia must take decisive action to extinguish a threat to its national security and that Moscow planned to carry out the “demilitarization and denazification” of Ukraine by overthrowing its leaders, also pledging to end eight years of war in which government forces fought pro-Russian separatists.
In the months of fighting that followed, the Russian military bombarded cities like Kharkiv and Mariupol with intense bombing campaigns in tactics reminiscent of those previously deployed in Chechnya and Syria, while 5 million people fled to neighboring Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, Romania and Moldova, creating a major humanitarian crisis.
Meanwhile, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky continues to lead by example from the streets of Kyiv, tirelessly rallying the international community in support, as his people mount a brave street-level response against Russia’s armed forces at best. that he can.
US President Joe Biden, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres joined other world powers in condemning Moscow’s ‘unprovoked and unwarranted’ attack and vowed to stand by it “responsible”.
Mr Putin had previously continued to deny plans to invade the neighboring state and presented a series of demands to the West, including an end to the eastward expansion of NATO membership. of the North Atlantic Treaty (NATO) to ex-Soviet states and the reduction of military activity by the United States and the alliance on Russia’s doorstep.
Regional tensions escalated dramatically on Monday, February 21, when the Russian president and his security council decided to officially recognize two breakaway regions in eastern Ukraine, held by rebel groups, as independent states, giving his own country a pretext to send troops across the border while arguing that he was only doing so to protect his allies.
The decision to recognize the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) and Lugansk People’s Republic (LPR), which first declared independence in May 2014 and have been embroiled in bloody conflict ever since, came after a direct appeal with the military and financial assistance of their respective leaders, Denis Pushilin and Leonid Pasechnik.
Russia has previously denied accusations by Ukraine and NATO that it helped arm and fund rebels in a fight that claimed more than 14,000 lives.
The international community immediately denounced Russia’s latest chess move, with the United Nations Security Council expressing “great concern”.
Vassily Nebenzia, the Russian ambassador to the UN, had insisted that there would be no “new bloodshed” in eastern Ukraine, but warned the West to ” think twice” before making things worse.
This promise has already been violently broken, with alleged war crimes civilian targets such as hospitals, apartment buildings, nurseries and memorials all destroyed by Russian bombs.
The UK, EU and US have all announced tough sanctions against Russian banks, companies and oligarchs, while German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said regulatory approval of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline recently entirely linking Russia to Germany would be “reassessed” in light of the situation.
The escalation means frantic diplomatic efforts by Western allies to find a peaceful solution to tensions since the New Year have come to nothing.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, in particular, had worked hard to defuse the situation, urging Russia to avoid a return to Cold War-era hostilities as he held numerous talks with his Russian counterparts. , Mr. Zelensky and other European leaders.
British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss, French President Emmanuel Macron and Mr. Scholz had in turn traveled to Moscow on the same mission, but to no avail.
The issue of Ukraine’s exclusion from NATO has been a longtime obsession for Mr Putin, who bitterly recalls the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union under his predecessor Boris Yeltsin in the 1990s as a “decade of humiliation” in which Bill Clinton’s United States “imposed its vision of order on Europe (including Kosovo in 1999) while the Russians could only stay arms crossed,” according to diplomatic relations specialist James Goldgeier.
Mr. Yeltsin wrote to Mr. Clinton in September 1993, expressing similar concerns, saying: “We understand, of course, that any eventual integration of Eastern European countries into NATO will not automatically lead to alliance to turn against Russia in one way or another, but it is important to consider how our public opinion might react at this stage.
To address these concerns, the NATO-Russia Founding Act was signed in 1997, a political agreement stating explicitly that: “NATO and Russia do not consider each other as adversaries”.
The formation of the NATO-Russia Council followed in 2002.
But Mr Putin would nonetheless regret what he sees as the alliance’s gradual eastward expansion, which saw ex-Soviet satellites Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland join in 1999, followed by Bulgaria, l Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia in 2004.
He chooses to interpret the recruitment from these nations as the US breaking a promise allegedly made by his then-Secretary of State James Baker to Mikhail Gorbachev during a visit to Moscow in February. 1990 to discuss German reunification after the fall of the Berlin Wall.
“There would be no extension of NATO jurisdiction for NATO forces one inch to the east,” Mr. Baker reportedly promised Mr. Gorbachev, according to Russian officials, although that the quote is strongly disputed and that the latter denied that the subject was ever discussed in an October 2014 interview with the Kommersant newspaper.
Mr. Putin has since nurtured his grievance, no doubt keen to foster anti-Western sentiment at home and shore up his power base, and has firmly opposed Georgia and Ukraine joining the the covenant.
“Obviously NATO enlargement has nothing to do with modernizing the alliance itself or with ensuring security in Europe,” he told the Munich conference. on security in 2007. “On the contrary, it represents a serious provocation which reduces the level of mutual trust.
The following April, at a NATO summit in Bucharest, he was even more categorical: “No Russian leader could stand idly by in the face of steps towards Ukraine’s NATO membership. It would be a hostile act towards Russia.
Four months later, Mr. Putin invaded Georgia, destroying the country’s armed forces, occupying two autonomous regions and humiliating a president, Mikheil Saakashvili, who had openly courted NATO membership, actions which sparked a new international condemnation.
For its part, NATO’s official position remains that “a sovereign, independent and stable Ukraine, firmly committed to democracy and the rule of law, is the key to Euro-Atlantic security”.
He points out that his associations with the country date back to the disintegration of the USSR and that cooperation had to be intensified in light of Russia’s regional aggression in 2014, when it annexed the Crimean peninsula and supported separatist insurgencies. in DPR and LPR.
For the United States, Ukraine’s path to NATO membership is less clear.
Blinken told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee as recently as June 8, 2021 that “we support Ukraine joining NATO,” but his deputy, Wendy Sherman, was more wary. when she addressed the issue in January, saying only: “Together, the United States and our NATO allies have made it clear that we will not slam the door on NATO’s open door policy – a policy that has always been at the heart of the NATO alliance.
Mr Biden, the former top Democrat and later chairman of that same committee, had previously believed that the transformation of former Soviet republics into NATO allies marked “the start of another 50 years of peace”, but has since tipped toward skepticism about US involvement in distant lands. “Forever Wars”, hence the hasty withdrawal from Afghanistan last summer after 20 years of peaceful occupation.
He is also known to be determined to see political and judicial corruption eradicated in Ukraine and reluctant to further provoke the Russian bear, having lived most of his life in an era of mutually assured destruction, especially since the security threat posed by China is a current priority that cannot be ignored.
Without Ukraine being part of the alliance, the United States and NATO are not bound by treaty to come to its aid if Russia attacks, while these security guarantees are extended to neighboring Baltic states as Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania since signing the 2004 induction.
All three could become potential future targets for Russian annexation, moreover, if the current situation leaves Mr. Putin feeling emboldened.
That said, Mr. Biden’s saber rhetoric strongly suggests that he is ready to step in in some form, even if that doesn’t mean American boots on the ground.
The United States provided Ukraine with $200 million in defensive military aid in January (and has given $2.5 billion since 2014) while the Pentagon says it already has 200 Guard troops national stationed in the country.
If it were to offer more direct defensive assets, the United States would be able to provide Ukraine with a wide range of assistance free of charge, ranging from air defense, anti-tank and anti-ship systems, electronic warfare systems and from cyber defense to supplies of small arms and artillery ammunition.
“The key to thwarting Russian ambitions is to prevent Moscow from having a quick victory and increasing the economic, political and military costs by imposing economic sanctions, ensuring political isolation from the West and evoking the prospect of a protracted insurgency that draws away the Russian military,” Seth Jones and Philip Wasielewski wrote in an analysis of the situation for the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
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