A Ukrainian Thaw?

The spectre of a potential Russian invasion appears once again, as Russia builds up its forces on Ukraine’s border.

The Ukraine Crisis was the first global crisis I can remember actively paying attention to. I remember watching the scenes of unrest in Kyiv via livestream, fascinated that I, too, could observe history in the making. Little could I have known that my interest in this event would lead eventually to my studying of this entire region in higher education.

Just over seven years on, Ukraine’s crisis persists. Now, Ukraine finds itself the centre of international attention once again due to the actions of its increasingly aggressive neighbour; the Russian Federation. Breakaway states in the east of the country still exist and resist. The memory of Crimea as a part of Ukraine, increasingly, fades. Two vastly different administrations have now governed Ukraine, each faced with the same challenges, but with hugely contrasting criticisms.

To add to all this, the spectre of a potential Russian invasion appears once again, as Russia builds up its forces on Ukraine’s border. The Ukrainian Civil War has cooled for a few years now - will it thaw once again?

Frozen in Time

The term “Frozen Conflict” is a prevalent one in the former Soviet Union. A Frozen Conflict is more or less exactly what it says on the tin - a conflict which is not resolved through a peace process or through military victory. Instead, the situation changes little over time, building until the moments when tension increases and bursts - moments such as these are referred to as thaws.

Does this label apply to the War in Donbass? Up until recently, the trend had been towards it becoming such a conflict. The level of fighting is nowhere near the level it reached in the first years of the war. However, it would be premature to say that the conflict is on the same level as, say, the conflict between nearby Georgia and the two breakaway states of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Frequent ceasefire violations and shelling halts such a comparison.

In Ukraine, the two breakaway states of the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics (DPR and LPR respectively) continue to flounder; failing to cooperate and relying on unofficial Russian assistance. They tried to form a confederation; ‘Novorossiya’ - New Russia, but this never came to pass.

In 2018, the President of the DPR was assassinated. His successor, Denis Pushilin, recently gave a former Russian deputy-governor, Vladimir Pashkov, the position of ‘chairman of the government.’ Ukraine has used this to suggest that Russia has much more overt control over both the Republics. Furthermore, Russia supplies gas to the Republics and, almost certainly, provides arms to their militias.

The Great Game

This Russian interference brings us to the recent developments surrounding Russian military build-up. Why is this happening now? In short, Ukraine and its conflicts are, unfortunately, used as pawns and proxies in the larger contest between the USA and Russia.

In 2019, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko lost the presidential election to Volodymyr Zelensky. Zelensky is a former comedian, who starred in a TV show called Servant of the People. Here he portrayed a fictional President of Ukraine who came to power suddenly after complaining about the corruption in Ukrainian politics. Zelensky has been pushing for what he has called “eurointegration” - the idea that Ukraine should seek membership of both the EU and NATO. His preferred mechanism for this is via referendum, and during the campaign he argued that Ukraine should set a goal to apply for membership of both these organisations in 2024. In the last week, Zelensky has added that this process should be sped up.

Outside of Ukraine, President Biden has ramped up the USA’s opposition to Russia to a much greater extent than his predecessor. Planning sanctions against Russians involved with cyber espionage, supporting Alexei Navalny, and stating that Russia will pay a price for election meddling, mark this new phase.

My thoughts turn to the 2008 Georgian War. Personally, I do not think that this situation will escalate to a conflict between Ukraine and the Russian state, but it is a possibility - if it were to occur, it would be similar to that conflict. Russia would try to bolster the breakaway states territorially and militarily. It would also serve as a warning to NATO and the EU, in much the same way as Georgia has. That being said, it seems that this posturing could simply just be that - posturing. With threats from the US, an actual possibility of Ukraine joining NATO, and the failing fortunes of the DPR and LPR, it would make sense for Russia to want to remind its opponents of its military strength.

The real question here is whether or not Putin thinks that the risk of further escalation is worth it. That is the fundamental conundrum in this ‘Great Game’ of proxy conflicts. If he doesn’t take that risk, then maybe one side might ‘win’.

If this is a risk he ultimately does take, everyone loses.

Alex is a Masters student from Portsmouth, finishing an MRes in Russian, East European and Eurasian Studies at the University of Glasgow. His main areas of interest are the Former Soviet Union, the politics behind COVID-19 Restrictions, and Authoritarianism, among other things. He has also previously worked with the HET.

Disclaimer: All views expressed in this piece belong solely to the author and do not reflect the views of Demographica as a company.

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