Russia-Ukraine conflict: How have we got to this? Great Power Politics, Longstanding crises, and Russia’s wants

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Disclaimer: This blog post solely reflects the opinion of the authors and should not be taken to represent the general views of IPPR’s management/ editorial team or those of fellow authors.

Recent escalation of the Ukraine-Russia conflict leads to a renewed question over another Cold War in Europe or even a full-scale war. Russia increasingly deploys troops near the border with Ukraine and holds military exercises, and the West is doing the same thing. Moreover, the British Foreign Office just exposed a Russian plot to install a pro-Russian government in Kiev. So, where are we at this stage? Are we going into another war in the middle of a global pandemic? How many more disruptions can we endure? But before we answer these questions, we have to look at the contexts behind the escalating Ukraine-Russia conflict.

What does Russia’s Putin want?

Vladimir Putin has been in power since 1999 (although he had a Presidential hiatus between 2008 and 2012). Putin’s regime has been described as authoritarian. Domestically, he was responsible for the repression of dissidents. Putin also managed to exert his  repression abroad through poisonings and  using illegal chemical weapons on occasions such as the 2006 murder of Alexander Litvinienko and the 2018 poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal, both of them on British soil. 

Under Putin, the Russian Armed Forces managed to rebuild and rejuvenate from 2000 onwards. Russia’s Armed Forces and foreign policy have become important tools for Putin’s stability. Putin does not want to lose legitimacy on the global stage, as that will impact his domestic legitimacy. Putin formulates his foreign policy largely by himself.

Russia sees Ukraine’s potential membership in North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) as a security threat due to a fear of NATO encircling Russia’s borders.  Russia had demanded that NATO never allows Ukraine’s membership. In addition, Putin has been a vocal critic of the United States’ dominance in international affairs and suspicious of alleged Western involvement in revolutions in Post-Soviet states. He committed to support ethnic Russians in its Eastern European neighbours to stand up against the West. For example, the Crimea takeover aimed to defend the majority-Russian population in Crimea.

We cannot underestimate the importance of Russia’s soft power, as such concept of power has been applied to Western and liberal states. Soft power is the expression of state power through attraction and appeal instead of force and coercion. Soft power applies to how Russia wants to shift the global narrative and perception to be more Russia-friendly. At the beginning of the Russia-Ukraine conflict in 2013-14, Russia managed to exert its soft power to promote anti-West sentiment. Russian state broadcasters, such as Russia Today (RT) have increasingly become  powerful propaganda tools  to promote pro-Russian and anti-West sentiments internationally, even if they promote disinformation and conspiracy theories. Russia is deflecting the Western narrative of Russian invasion and aggression by providing the opposite narrative of Western invasion and aggression. Russian broadcasters will continue to provide pro-Russian views in the current Ukraine crisis, most importantly via RT op-eds. The US Department of State found escalating pro-Russian and anti-Ukrainian narratives from Russian state broadcasters and proxy websites.

What military power does Russia have?

Sky News has reported several indications  of an imminent military offensive against Ukraine through the construction of field hospitals as well as the deployment of extra troops and military police. Russia has stationed its military in areas that are Russia-friendly: Crimea, a region taken over from Ukraine in 2014 and Belarus, with extra military resources including  those from areas far afield in the Russian Far East. The US Department of Defence indicated more than 100,000 Russian troops on the Russia-Ukraine border.  Increased military training and build-up of soldiers also highlight the potential immediacy of the conflict. Deployment of military forces from as far as the far east demonstrates Russia’s willingness to use its available military resources.

BBC News presents a picture of where Russia positioned its military:

Source: https://ichef.bbci.co.uk/news/976/cpsprodpb/2A76/production/_123207801_russia_troop_positions_10feb_2x640map-nc.png (As of 10 February 2022)

The military is an essential tool to maintain the survival and strength of Russia. Russia has around more than four times the number of Ukraine’s active-duty soldiers. Yet political subversion and soft power are another tool that helps the Russian state and its military.

What the West wants and its Potential Impacts 

Meanwhile, the West maintains the assertion that any Russian invasion will trigger Western response, especially if Russia crosses the border of a NATO member state. NATO insists that it remains open to dialogue and diplomacy. However, recent Russian military build-up could potentially derail these diplomatic options. Under NATO’s Article  5, an attack on one NATO member state is an attack against the whole NATO. If the War on Terror was a collective response to an attack against the US based on Article 5, could there be a similar response if Russia crossed a NATO border?

It remains an open question. One of the differences between Al-Qaeda and Russia is that the latter is a legitimate state entity with powerful military resources.Yet, NATO members have positioned their military resources. The United States has put its military on standby in Eastern Europe and so has the United Kingdom, both to provide support to Ukraine. Yet aiding Ukraine is problematic. Henrik Larsen argued that Western policymakers must create conditionalities to encourage political reforms and tackle corruption in Ukraine in order to better aid them. Conditioning political reforms are time-limited, especially if echoes of war are imminent.

There is a potentially high cost of war in the West, especially given how divided Western societies are. Within NATO, Germany seemed to be a reluctant partner, given the importance of the Russian gas pipeline. However, German-Russian relations seemed to become harsher, as Russia banned German broadcaster Deutsche Welle from operating its Moscow bureau and Germany had made it difficult for RT to launch a German-language version of its channel within Europe.

The United States continues to face the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic and the 2020 Presidential Election. Illiberal forces,  domestically and internationally, have put the United States on the defensive, and United States-Russia relations remain contentious because of allegations of Russian interference in the US elections. Across the pond, the United Kingdom’s Government remains under the cloud of the ongoing “partygate” scandal. Prime Minister Boris Johnson is subject to police investigation over parties being held in Downing Street during lockdowns and is facing growing anger from his own political party. Johnson could not escape from questions about the scandal when he travelled  to Ukraine to meet the Ukrainian President. South of the English Channel, President Emmanuel Macron is facing an upcoming election, which is also polarising and challenging. Each of these contentious domestic politics can impact how state leaders project their reputation abroad. The Russian press mocked Johnson following Partygate. So did Russia know the “toothless” US is being domestically polarised and heavily distracted with different issues.

Yet there is a shared domestic concern over the impact of Russia-Ukraine tensions: impact towards gas supply and how it could worsen the ongoing energy crisis. Russia has used gas supplies to make sure its economy can recover from Western financial sanctions whilst more ordinary people in Western states face higher inflation. If the Ukraine crisis escalates into a larger-scale conflict the energy crisis will worsen, given Europe’s dependence on energy from Russia and threats of retaliatory energy pipeline cuts following potential sanctions against Russia.

What about Ukraine?

Ukraine remains under the threat of full-scale Russian invasion.These scenes are far too familiar to Ukrainians, who have been under threat of war since 2013-14. The revolution that happened in 2013 escalated as Russia mobilised its armed forces to Ukrainian soil and waters. The Ukrainian government also became more hostile towards Russia. Russia took over Crimea already, and Donetsk alongside Lughansk in Eastern Ukraine have been contested since the 2014 conflict. Recently, Ukrainian civilians have particpated in numerous war scenarios, including firearms training, air-raid and bomb-scare drills, among others, with the Ukrainian military leading the drills. Therefore, while some scenes are already too familiar in Ukraine, a full-scale invasion could create greater uncertainties. 

Conclusion

As the Russia-Ukraine conflict continues to escalate, a number of factors can determine the outcome for the near future. Russia under Vladimir Putin has been increasingly assertive with its domestic authoritarianism, strong military and the ability to subvert its adversarial states. As Russia mobilises  its military from every corner of its territory to the Russia-Ukraine border, the West has reasons to respond, fearing Russian invasion of Ukraine and incursion of NATO border. However, Western response comes at high cost, given Russia’s military might and existing domestic woes in Western states. Inside Ukraine, all-too-familiar scenes led to further preparation within its domestic population. As this crisis continues to unfold, greater uncertainties remain, yet the risk of worst-case scenarios are inevitable.

This blog post discusses an ongoing event, and further developments may happen beyond the date of publication.

By Ivan Korompis

Hi, I’m Ivan Korompis and I am an MSc International Public Policy student at UCL’s Department of Political Science. I am interested in international relations issues, particularly about geopolitics, peace and conflict, Western foreign policy, East and Southeast Asia, as well as international political economy. I did my undergraduate in the University of Nottingham with a BA in Politics and International Relations.

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