Monday, May 27News For London

Fall of the Soviet Union and the Russia-Ukraine crisis

These recent skirmishes have become like a game of chess between Russia and the West backed Ukraine, This board shows the king is advanced from both sides, but when viewed from the Ukrainian side, it has only one piece on the board.

As it stands, all diplomatic channels and discussions have hit a roadblock. French President Emmanuel Macaron, travelled to Moscow to hold talks with Russian President, Vladimir Putin which did not result in the Russian army pulling back or de-escalating the issue. On the contrary, more forces have been stationed near the Ukrainian borders with the biggest troop gatherings around Yelsk, in Belarus and Slavne in Donetsk Oblast which is in the eastern part of Ukraine. 

Map credit: Siddarth Rishi Battula

These recent skirmishes are a build-up of two decades of violence and Russia wanting to bring Ukraine and the neighbouring countries into their fold. To understand this better, we need to go back to 1991 when the Soviet Union collapsed. 

Pre Soviet Union collapse (1985-1991) 

When General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev came into power in 1985, he wanted to revive the economy and rejuvenate the USSR bureaucracy, which was underwhelming. Gorbachev went about by instating two policies known as ‘Glasnost’ and ‘Perestroika’. Through Glasnost, which translates to openness, Gorbachev wanted discussions on political and social issues, something that was unheard of during previous regimes in the Soviet era. This though resulted in an outpouring of criticism against the Soviet government and calls for democratic reforms from various sections of the Soviet bloc. 

Perestroika which referred to restructuring the bureaucracy was set in place to reconstitute the economic and political policy in place in the Soviet government. This did not go down well with party members, and they started to take matters into their own hands. This resulted in a breakdown between party members and the leadership, as Gorbachev wanted to reduce the powers of the Communist Party and its direct involvement in the country’s politics and come up with local governments’ to rule member states. 

These policies led to dissent mounting from all quarters and the Soviet Union being wiped out of existence in 1991. 

Map credit: Siddarth Rishi Battula

Post Soviet Union collapse (1991- 1994)

After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, all the member countries split up, with calls of democracy prevailing through the region. This resulted in the creation of 15 countries across Europe and Asia.

In 1991, Ukraine, Belarus and Russia signed an accord that led to the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Russia still wanted to be powerful in the region and used its influence to keep Belarus and the other countries close to them. Ukraine though was pro-democracy and increasingly looked westward for help. Kyiv declared independence after 90 percent of the population voted during a referendum to become independent in 1991. 

Ukraine had to give up their nuclear arsenal to Russia for destruction in accordance with the Budapest Memorandum. Ever since, they handed over their nuclear warheads to Russia in 1994 in exchange for the US, Britain and Russia pledging to protect Ukraine’s independence and sovereignty, Russia has tried to influence Ukraine’s politics despite failed democratic attempts over the years, either by force or tacitly by intervening in Ukrainian elections. 

In 1991 Leonid Kravchuk, leader of the Ukrainian Socialist Soviet Republic, declared independence. In a referendum and presidential election, Ukrainians approve independence in a major vote and elect Kravchuk as president.

During the summer of 1994, Kravchuk loses the presidential election to Leonid Kuchma, a pro-communist voice. There are suggestions of the Kremlin pulling some strings, but it is declared a fair election. Kuchma is re-elected in 1999 despite there being major irregularities in voting. 

Post-Orange Revolution and Crimean annexation (2004-2014) 

In 2004 a pro-Russian candidate, Viktor Yanukovich is declared the President of Ukraine, despite widespread protests of election rigging and concerns in vote counting. The citizens take to the streets with orange flags in hand, which was the party colour of Viktor Yushchenko a former pro-western Prime Minister. He along with Yulia Tymoshenko took out marches and carried out a civil disobedience movement,  after which they are named President and Prime Minister respectively. Following their successful run-in with the Kremlin, Yushchenko vows to take Ukraine out of Russia’s hands and promises Ukraine a future where it is closer to the west and even a NATO member someday. 

Yulia Tymoshenko is removed from office within a year, due to infighting within the pro-western camp. 

Yushchenko is in power until 2008 during which time NATO suggests, Ukraine might become a member in the future. Before these discussions can get any further, Yanukovich is re-elected after beating Tymoshenko, who is jailed after the elections for supposed misuse and abuse of power. 

By the time Yanukovich is elected in 2010, Vladimir Putin has been in power for ten years and is strengthening in every way possible. Yanukovich signs a gas pricing deal with Russia which will seal Ukraine’s fate for the next few years. President Yanukovich also pulls out from trade talks with the EU in 2013, and they opt to restart ties with Russia instead, this results in mass protests and agitations across the country. 

The protests taking place in Kyiv’s Maidan square turn violent, with protesters killed in the process. The Ukrainian parliament votes Yanukovich out of power, and he flees the country immediately. During the vacuum in power, armed men in combat gear with no insignia take over the Crimean Peninsula and hoist the Russian flag. They even hold a referendum, which results in overwhelming support in Crimea for joining the Russian Federation. 

Timeline of the Ukraine-Russia conflict (Credit: Siddarth Rishi Battula)

After Crimean annexation (2014 onwards)

Petro Poroshenko, a businessman, is elected as the President with his pro-west rhetoric in May 2014. During this time, a Malaysian airline is shot down by a missile which is traced back to Russia, who deny it. Poroshenko in 2017 signed an agreement between Ukraine and the EU, which opened markets for free trade of goods and services, and also provided visa-free travel to the EU for Ukrainian citizens.

Actor and comedian, Volodymyr Zelenskyy and his Servant of the People party win the 2017 elections ousting Poroshenko with promises to tackle corruption and end the animosity and simmering conflict in Eastern Ukraine (Donbas region). 

In February 2021, Zelenskyy imposes sanctions on Viktor Medvedchuk who is seen as a Kremlin ally, this angers Putin. Russia gathers a huge number of troops near Ukraine’s borders but later pulled back some forces, claiming it was a regular military exercise. 

Map credit: Siddarth Rishi Battula

In late 2021, US President Joe Biden warns of fresh sanctions against Russia if they continue to amass troops along Ukraine’s borders. Russia then presents a list of detailed security demands which include NATO not moving eastward towards Russia, they also state that they do not want verbal assurances but legal guarantees. This list of demands are not met and talks between the US and Russia fail, with no major breakthroughs into the New Year. 

There is still a considerable amount of troop build-up across the Ukrainian border, despite continued assurances from Russia that they are willing to engage in dialogue. The most recent round of talks between French President Macaron and Putin have failed to bring about any solution. This leaves the situation hanging by a thin thread, with chances of escalation greater than it has ever been. 

Russia has about 130,000 troops stationed to take over Ukraine if Putin is adamant to do so. While the US has deployed only 3000 army men who will not fight in case of military expansion by Russia but will remain there to maintain peace while it lasts.