The stakes are high in the increasingly strained atmosphere in Eastern Europe. Having amassed thousands of troops and tanks on Ukraine’s border, concerns of military conflict are high. Inaction by the West risks signaling to Russian President Vladimir Putin that these kinds of acts go unpunished. Although the West has failed so far to eliminate the tensions between Moscow and Kyiv and solve a crisis that has been ongoing for eight years now, it has to be noted that there has been a considerable change in attitudes compared to 2014, when Kyiv’s pro-Kremlin- leader was driven from office by a popular uprising and Moscow responded by annexing Crimea and then backing a separatist insurgency in eastern Ukraine.
While the events of 2014 failed to draw a significant reaction from the West, now the rhetoric is much harsher against Russia, with almost all countries voicing their support for Ukraine’s territorial integrity and sovereignty and threatening sanctions on Moscow. Though divided on some aspects, Washington and its allies are raising the prospect of unprecedented sanctions in the event of an invasion, including a possible ban on dollar transactions, draconian restrictions on key technology imports like microchips and the shutdown of a newly built Russian gas pipeline to Germany, which has further encouraged Russia to push the limits.
The West is now finding itself in the biggest standoff with Russia since the Cold War. Russia, which denies any plan to attack Ukraine, already controls the Crimea territory seized in 2014 and continues to support separatist forces controlling the Donbass region in the east. It has to be underlined that this uprising was not orchestrated locally but rather was a direct invasion from outside with direct foreign financing. Tensions in the region continue, as several rounds of diplomacy have failed to ease concerns. The Kremlin says its goal is to get NATO to agree to never give Ukraine membership and also to withdraw from Eastern European countries already in the alliance. The United States and its European allies reject these demands. Adding to tensions, large-scale Russian military drills were underway last week with ally Belarus, which lies just north of Kyiv and also borders the European Union.
Furthermore, the West ramping up invasion rhetoric has adversely affected Ukraine’s economy and its citizens, as has the fact that these countries are vacating their embassies and halting flights to the country. War-mongering by Western countries has been continuing almost on a daily basis, one of the most recent examples of which was Washington warning that a Russian invasion of Ukraine could begin during the Beijing Olympics, which will end on Feb. 20. Kyiv has tried to calm the tensions, disagreeing with U.S. intelligence assessments that an all-out war could break out at any moment. Turkey, on the other hand, has urged for calm and recently emphasized that if there is no real risk of an invasion, the West has to be more sensitive with its war rhetoric.
Meanwhile, as military tensions are on the rise, a process of dialogue and finding a middle ground is still ongoing. The Kremlin once again accused Ukraine of not adhering to the 2015 Minsk agreements between Kyiv and Moscow on the separatist conflict in the east of the country, requiring self-rule for the rebel-held territories and a promise to hold Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) monitored local elections – balloting that would almost certainly keep pro-Moscow rebels in power there. Russia insists that Ukraine negotiate directly with the separatists, which is Ukraine's red line. One of the biggest threats that have the potential to spoil the diplomatic process is that Moscow is trying to bring Kyiv to the table with the representatives of the occupied territories, although the process is a trilateral one consisting of Ukraine, Russia and the OSCE.
Again, the Normandy Format similarly does not foresee the official participation of these territories. Moscow is furthermore demanding that these territories have separate elections and foreign policy than that of Ukraine; meanwhile, its military presence there continues and no calm has been established, with reports of wounded and dead almost on a daily basis. The occupied territories, which are under the heavy influence of Moscow, could be used by the latter to further its own agenda through their representation. Although the Kremlin calls for self-determination of the area, the same enthusiasm was not seen when Chechens aimed for independence.
The Minsk deal is seen by Ukrainians as a betrayal of the country's national interests and its implementation has stalled. In another gain for the Kremlin, the document didn't contain any obligations on the part of Russia, which insisted it is not a party to the conflict. While the Minsk deal helped end large-scale battles, frequent skirmishes have continued. Russia has failed to withdraw its troops from the conflict areas, firmly denying its presence or influence. Russia has offered political and economic support to the rebels and granted citizenship to more than 700,000 residents of the region. According to Ukrainian diplomatic sources, Kyiv is ready for joint disengagement of military forces and is ready to withdraw its forces once Moscow agrees to do the same. The deal, signed “under a Russian gun barrel,” included an OSCE-monitored cease-fire, a pullback of heavy weapons and foreign fighters from the line of contact and an exchange of prisoners.
With Russia having amassed over 100,000 troops on its border with Ukraine, Putin is unlikely to take a step back and return empty-handed as the whole world is closely watching the conflict unfold. This would be a major blow to the Russian leader, who already faces perceivable unrest at home. Growing discontent, the repression of critics, economic problems, the COVID-19 pandemic and now growing anxiety over a potential war that is unnecessary in the eyes of the Russian public, have been putting pressure on Putin, who has been using the tensions with Ukraine as a means to divert public attention from internal woes. According to an October poll by Moscow-based Levada Center, 47% of Russians would like to see Putin as president after 2024, while 42% would not – one of the highest figures against the president so far, clearly indicating Putin's concerns. As is possible to observe in many authoritarian countries, creating external threats and using the notion of nationalism has been a frequent apparatus to gain popular support inside. The same pattern could be identified during the 2014 events. Upon reelection in 2012, Putin faced severe economic problems. After Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014, Putin’s approval ratings catapulted; however, the light of nationalism has been fading since and disillusionment has caused the public to contemplate alternatives. Furthermore, a functional, democratic Ukraine with strong ties to the EU on its doorstep is a discrediting threat to Putin’s rule.
Even though internal concerns constitute a major motive for Russia, the tensions also have roots in historical-cultural perceptions. Putin’s view that Ukrainians and Russians are the same nation represents an attempt to provide a historical justification to the Russian public for a possible invasion. The traces of this thought could be openly seen in Putin’s article titled "On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians" written in July. Ignoring the long history of its state, institutions, language and culture, Russia still sees the country as part of its sphere of influence; from a Cold War perspective, if Russia does not control strategically important Ukraine, others will seek to do so. However, the people of Russia themselves, which have strong familial and cultural ties with the people in Ukraine, might not want to see the country’s cities burn in an invasion.
While Crimea’s annexation did not incite a major conflict, the current situation is signaling a more protracted process. The West and Ukraine frequently emphasize that a diplomatic solution is the only way to defuse tensions while keeping warnings that military escalation will receive a strong response. Russia’s military buildup next to Ukraine and continuing influence as well as support for separatists in Donbass are some of the main obstacles to finding a way forward. Considering that the Kremlin’s demands from the West are nonstarters, Putin might finally accept a compromise to save face in this self-manufactured crisis and answer the need to foster popularity at home.