While the world is focused on what Russia will do in Idlib, Iran’s activities in Yemen, North Korea’s nuclear program, or the fraught political situation in the US, it is easy to ignore what Russia is doing in Ukraine.
When Kremlin-backed Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych failed to sign an association agreement with the European Union in 2013, months of street demonstrations, supported by the West, led to his overthrow in early 2014. Russia responded by illegally annexing Crimea and stoking a separatist conflict in eastern Ukraine.
Since 2014, almost 5 percent of Ukraine’s landmass and more than half of its coastline have been under illegal Russian occupation. Russia continues to back separatist factions in eastern Ukraine with advanced weapons, technical and financial assistance, and Russian conventional and special operations forces. This war has led to the deaths of more than 10,000 people. Russia has also launched sophisticated cyber-attacks against Ukraine’s infrastructure.
Two cease-fire agreements—one in September 2014 and another in February 2015, known as Minsk I and Minsk II, respectively—have come and gone. As events in eastern Ukraine since the signing of Minsk II have shown, the agreement is a cease-fire in name only.
Ukrainian soldiers are wounded daily, and are killed weekly, defending their homeland. There have been 41 Ukrainian soldiers killed over this past summer alone.
This is why the world should not lose focus of the situation there.
Worryingly, there have been three recent developments with the war in Ukraine that should keep the international community on its toes. All three have the potential to increase the fighting there.
First is the large-scale military exercise, named Vostok-2018, planned by Moscow and set to start today and lasting one week. Consisting of 300,000 soldiers and thousands of tanks and armoured vehicles, this will be the largest military exercise for Russia in four decades.
While the focus on the exercise is in the eastern part of the country, the war games gives Russia an excuse to move military hardware freely around the country and mobilise large numbers of troops at little or short notice. In 2008, Russia’s invasion of Georgia followed a large-scale military exercise in the North Caucasus, so there is no doubt that Kyiv will be watching Russia’s moves next week very closely.
Secondly, is the recent assassination of the puppet leader of the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic, Alexander Zakharchenko.
On August 31, while Zakharchenko was at a cafe, he was killed in a bomb explosion. So far, there is no clear indication on who was behind the assassination. Predictably, the Russians blame the Ukrainians. Others argue the Kremlin was behind the attack. In the past Moscow has assassinated separatist officials in eastern Ukraine who were not towing the line. Another theory is that the assassination was a result of a dispute over money owed to oligarchs.
Whatever the reason behind the assassination, the killing of such a high profile individual like Zakharchenko could easily ignite more fighting.
Finally, Russia’s recent maritime actions in the Sea of Azov marks a serious escalation in the conflict. Over the summer, Russia has harassed and partially blockaded Ukrainian merchant shipping from entering or leaving the Sea of Azov. This body of water accounts for 80 percent of Ukraine’s exports by sea.
It is too soon to know what the economic impact will be for Ukraine, but with its economy already struggling it cannot be good if Russia’s activities continue for any extended period of time. With most of the military activity in Ukraine being on land or in cyber space, the spike in Russian maritime actively is particularly alarming.
Although Ukraine is not in NATO and does not get the Article 5 security guarantee, many in the US and Europe should be concerned by Russia’s actions.
Ukraine is in the midst of a national struggle that will determine its future geopolitical orientation. The outcome of this struggle will have long-term implications for the transatlantic community and the notion of national sovereignty.
The long-term strategic goal for Russia is ensuring that Ukraine remains out of the transatlantic community and distanced from organisations like NATO and the EU. Russia would also benefit from the long-term integration of Ukraine into Moscow-backed groups like the Collective Security Treaty Organisation or the Eurasian Economic Union. This is why Russia places so much importance on the war there.
Modern Ukraine represents the idea in Europe that each country has the sovereign ability to determine its own path and to decide with whom it has relations and how and by whom it is governed. No outside actor (in this case Russia) should have a veto on membership or closer relations with organisations like the EU or NATO.
The most effective way for Russia to achieve this goal is by letting the conflict in eastern Ukraine simmer while hoping that the international community loses interests or becomes distracted.
Sadly, for Ukraine, Russia’s strategy appears to be working.
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