Ukraine, in Contemporary times, become the Centre-point of geopolitical conflict between the Federation of Russia and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) countries which not only captured the world attention but also a strong reminder of former conflict between West led by United States of America and East led by the Union of Soviet Socialist Republic (USSR). The threat of conflict looms in Eastern Europe with more than 100,000 Russian troops amassed along the border with Ukraine. Meanwhile NATO has about 4,000 troops in multinational battalions in Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia and Poland, backed by tanks, air defences and intelligence and surveillance units, while the 8500 troops of United States were kept ready to be deployed after the green signal from NATO. Russia and Ukraine are the two largest countries in Europe. The neighbours were part of the 15 Soviet republics that made up the USSR.
The Yeltsin government of Russia protested strongly against the start of the NATO expansion in the 1990s and Russia accustomed itself without too much trouble to NATO membership for the former Soviet satellites in Central Europe. But from the very beginning of the NATO expansion in the mid-1990s, Russian officials and commentators—including liberal reformists—warned that an offer of NATO membership to Georgia and Ukraine would bring confrontation with the West and an acute danger of war. These warnings were echoed by George Kennan, the original architect of the strategy to contain the USSR and the State Department’s greatest ever Russia expert, as well as by Henry Kissinger and other leading American statesmen. There is nothing mysterious, extreme, or Putinesque about this Russian attitude. In the first place, Western language about NATO expansion establishing a “Europe whole and free” implies the exclusion of Russia from Europe and from a role in Europe—a matter of deep offence to Russians, and Russian liberals in particular, especially since this Western rhetoric was imbued with the assumption (a racist one, by the way) that the word “European” equates to “civilised.” And that Russia isn’t part of that idea.
Russian fears about the expansion of a potentially hostile military alliance to Russia’s borders should be understandable to anyone who has heard of the Monroe Doctrine. In Georgia and Ukraine, there are also specific issues inherited from the Soviet Union: in the case of Georgia, the separatist movements of the Abkhaz and Ossete minorities and the resulting ethnic conflicts involving Russia. Such ethnic conflicts over territory, with the involvement of outside powers, are all too common during and after the fall of empires: think for example of Turkey’s invasion of Cyprus in 1974, and Ankara’s establishment of an (internationally unrecognised) mini-state for the Turkish Cypriot minority. In the case of Ukraine, it holds a special place in Russian thinking. Since 2014, and increasingly so in 2021, the Russian elite has used historic and cultural reasoning to argue that Ukraine belongs to Russia’s sphere of influence. NATO membership for that country implied the expulsion of Russia from the naval base of Sevastopol in Crimea (a city of immense importance to Russia, both strategic and emotional), and the creation of a hard international frontier between Russia and the Russian and Russian-speaking minorities in Ukraine, making up more than a third of the Ukrainian population.
The Russian establishment fears in addition that NATO would act as a cover for a programme of state-backed Ukrainian ethnic nationalism intended to destroy Russian culture and the Russian language in Ukraine. These fears were increased by what happened in Estonia and Latvia, where after independence, the national governments broke their previous promises to Russia and the local Russian minorities to respect their political, educational and linguistic rights—which did not prevent them from joining NATO and the EU. For the Kremlin, the notion that Ukraine, a pillar of the Soviet Union with strong historic ties to Russia, would join NATO was a red line. “No Russian leader could stand idly by in the face of steps toward NATO membership for Ukraine. That would be a hostile act toward Russia,” Putin warned US Undersecretary for Political Affairs William J Burns, who is now director of the CIA, in the weeks leading up to NATO’s 2008 Bucharest Summit. Although NATO did not announce a formal membership plan for Ukraine and Georgia at the Bucharest Summit, the alliance did affirm “that these countries will become members of NATO.”
Russia won China’s backing in its showdown with the West over Ukraine as Beijing agreed with Moscow that the US-led NATO military alliance should not admit new members. The demand for NATO to stop expanding came after a meeting between President Vladimir Putin and Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping in Beijing, in which the Russian leader hailed the two countries’ “dignified relationship”. In a long strategy document, Moscow and Beijing hit out at what they said was Washington’s destabilising role in global security. Europe is divided in its stance over Ukraine as around 35 percent of the European Union’s natural gas comes from Russia which the union fears to be used as a tool by Moscow. Of the 167.7 billion cubic metres of natural gas Europe imported from Russia in 2020, Germany bought the most—56.3 billion cubic meters—followed by Italy, with 19.7 billion, and the Netherlands, with 11.2 billion. The countries are supporting Ukraine, economically, socially, politically but not militarily. While the west has warned Russia of severe sanctions if it endeavoured to invade Ukraine.