Why Russia will not back down from Ukraine so easily.
Why is Russia in Ukraine? The media in western countries have been bombarding us with reports about Russia’s actions in Ukraine. You’ve likely heard how aggressive Russia has been and that Russia somehow has highhandedly violated humanity by acting within its personal or perceived interests. We have been hearing a lot about how Russia is wrong for stepping foot in Crimea, but we never really hear the Russian side of the equation. What exactly is their argument for getting involved in Crimea in the first place?
Russia has had historic ties in the Crimean Peninsula since the 18th Century. Catherine the Great gained control of the peninsula and founded the city of Sevastopol, which today is a major source of contention between Ukraine and Russia.
Sevastopol was given as a gift in 1954 by Nikita Khrushchev (who was coincidentally Ukrainian) from the Russian SSR to the Ukrainian SSR. This was when both Russia and Ukraine were part of the Soviet Union, so it was all the same country anyway. Crimea today is majority ethnic Russian, with 60% of the population total. The two remaining groups are Ukrainians and minority Muslim Tatars. The Russian language is still used as the main language in Crimea, as well as in many parts of Eastern Ukraine. Russia is still seen as the mother country in Crimea, but not Ukraine.
In turn, Russia has geopolitical and financial interest in Ukraine. The Crimean port of Sevastopol is home to the Russian Black Sea Fleet, and has been, going back to Czarist times. As mentioned earlier, Sevastopol and Crimea are heavily ethnic Russian and Russian speaking. The Russian Black Sea Fleet is a source of pride, and protection, for the Russian Crimeans. For the Kremlin, the port of Sevastopol is a key interest point and a main source of influence to wield over the rest of Ukraine.
The Fleet in Sevastopol is also a heavy economic factor for Sevastopol and Crimea. Russian troops based there contribute an enormous amount to the local economy. The base also is one of Russia’s ways to maintain a somewhat friendly Ukraine. Much like the United States and its use of military bases to maintain influence and order in certain regions, Russia desires the same to be maintained in Crimea.
The main difference between Russia and the United States is that Russia actually has deep historic ties to most of the regions it holds bases in. The U.S. has nearly a thousand bases and facilities worldwide, in countries with almost no cultural or historic ties whatsoever. Yet the U.S. claims the right to protect its interests and the interests of its allies by maintaining bases and troops in many parts of the world. The question is then, if the U.S. can do it then why can’t Russia?
Also, Russia has many interests in Ukraine as a whole. Ukraine is the centerpiece for Russia’s gas-pipelines that lead to Western Europe. Russian natural gas and oil have big buyers and markets in Western Europe. Ukraine itself is also a huge market for Russian gas. Having a friendly Ukraine is essential to make sure Russia’s economic activities run smoothly. There were many instances of conflict during the years of president Yuschenko, who leaned West and was often very hostile to Russian interests.
Then there’s Russia’s largest concern; NATO expansion. Russia has been fighting tooth and nail to prevent NATO from expanding its frontiers further on Russia’s borders. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the West has expanded NATO to consume all former Eastern Bloc countries, and even the Baltic States of the former USSR. NATO has sought to include Georgia and Ukraine for some time now. Russia does not want to see more countries in the former USSR become absorbed into NATO.
If Ukraine becomes part of NATO, that could compromise Russia’s position in Crimea and could potentially see Western troops replace Russian at the port of Sevastopol. The United States has never ruled out basing troops or facilities in the former Soviet Sphere. For Russia, losing Ukraine completely to the west simply can’t happen. If Ukraine goes west, then what’s to stop Russia from going west?
Some argue that you can’t compare the interests of NATO or Russia equally. NATO, as I am told continuously, is a benign cooperative of nations that only seek to spread free-market democracy and encourage the rights of people to their own self-determination. Russia, meanwhile, is an oppressive 19th century bully looking out for there own selfish interests and will brutally crush all who get in its way.
For one, the idea that the U.S. or NATO somehow doesn’t have geopolitical interests and never act on them is just absurd. Of course we have interests and act on them. The United States and NATO would intervene anywhere in the drop of a hat if it felt its interests were directly threatened. The U.S. in particular.
Remember the United States will always reserve the right to intervene where it feels it stands to gain or lose. Western Europe is no better. France intervened in Mali because it felt its interests were threatened in the mainly Francophone nation. Of course, the United States alone changed the rules on what it means to justify and intervene (Iraq). So, if the West can somehow intervene where it likes, why can’t others?
Safeguarding democracy? Well, in Ukraine for example, the West immediately recognized the new government in Kiev after it seized power. It wasted no time in doing so. Even though, as being reported, the new regime in Kiev have been appointing many far-right nationalists to key posts within the government.
Among the first acts of the new government was to repeal a law that allowed Russian to be recognized as a regional language where it is spoke the most. Basically, they made it illegal to use Russian as a second language in official circles. Many in Eastern and Southern Ukraine speak Russian as their primary language. The interim president of Ukraine claims that he has vetoed the repeal, but the action has sent off alarm bells for many Russian and Russian-speaking Ukrainians.
The protests in Kiev alone were riddled with nationalist symbols and speeches, and the most violent of acts were often committed by nationalists. The new “unity” government doesn’t seem to have much room for the pro-Russian people in the East and South. None of them have been given any significant posts in Kiev’s new regime, and the new government is working to break Ukraine from Russian influence completely.
They already desire to kick the Russian’s out of Sevastopol, and inevitably desire to become part of NATO to wean themselves away from Russia for good. Remember the protest movement in Kiev began by pro-Western Ukrainians who were angered that Yanukovich backed out of an E.U. trade agreement for closer ties with Moscow.
The central point here is that Russia does have entrenched interests in maintaining a somewhat friendly Ukraine. Russia probably does not desire Ukrainian territory, but just wants Ukraine’s new authorities to understand that it can never fully break free from Russian influence. Ukraine can maintain ties with the West, but must ultimately understand that Ukraine is Russia’s backyard and that Russia will defend its interests by any means necessary.
Everyone is shocked at Russia’s actions, mostly because leaders in the west never really prepared for the idea of a resurgent Russia. Many western analysts believed that Russia was a nation in decline, and that it ultimately had no relevance anymore. Most western nations focus on China and Iran as their main national threats. Now Russia has exploded back on the map, and the west is at a loss of what to do. Russia is acting like a superpower again, and the we’re having a very hard time coming to terms with it. NATO thought that Russia was irrelevant. Not so much.
Russia’s interests in Ukraine are just one point of contention with the us. The U.S. and NATO has to learn that Russia is no longer a weak nation in decline, but has managed to stabilize itself. It’s a strong nation once again and is willing to exert its power where its interests lie. Russia’s interests in Ukraine are well understood when fully examined. The question here should really be; what are the west’s interests in Ukraine?