Ukraine is dominating the news and for all the wrong reasons. The ongoing impeachment drama in the United States threatens to turn the issue of US support to Ukraine from a bipartisan issue to one that becomes intimately linked to Washington’s toxic politics.
Not since Russia’s invasion in 2014 has Ukraine been mentioned so much in US media. And with all the talk about Ukraine in the unfolding political drama, we should not lose sight of the bigger picture: Ukraine is a country at war with soldiers dying every week.
Five years on, with Ukraine featuring so much in the news, it is worth remembering what happened.
When the Kremlin-backed Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych failed to sign an association agreement with the European Union in 2013, months of street demonstrations led to his ouster in early 2014.
Russia responded by violating Ukraine’s territorial integrity, sending troops, aided by pro-Russian local militia, to occupy the Crimean peninsula under the pretext of “protecting Russian people.” This led to Russia’s eventual annexation of Crimea.
Russia’s annexation of Crimea is unprecedented in the 21st century. The annexation has de facto cut Ukraine’s coastline in half and has essentially turned the Black Sea into a Russian-controlled lake.
Russia has since claimed rights to underwater resources off the Crimean peninsula previously belonging to Ukraine. Furthermore, Russia has launched a campaign of persecution and intimidation of the ethnic Tatar community there.
In addition to the exploits in Crimea, Moscow took advantage of political grievances held by the Russian-speaking population in Ukraine’s east to stoke sectarian divisions. In eastern Ukraine, Russia and Russian-backed separatists continue to propagate a war that has resulted in more than 13, 000 lives lost, and more than twice that wounded.
Ukraine now has an internally displaced population of almost 1.8 million people, and the Russian occupation and subsequent war have inflicted substantial damage to the Ukrainian economy. It has also slowed Ukraine’s progress toward deepening ties in the transatlantic community.
Five years later we shouldn’t forget that it was Russia that invaded Ukraine. Russia illegally occupies Crimea. Russia provoked and now supports a separatist movement in eastern Ukraine that did not previously exist. Russia is the aggressor, and Ukraine is the victim.
One should not forget that Russia’s actions in Ukraine were started when Kyiv sought an Association Agreement with the EU. This is why modern Ukraine represents the idea in Europe that each country has the sovereign ability to determine its 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 European Union or NATO. In many ways, the future viability of the transatlantic community will be decided in the Donbas, the region in eastern Ukraine where the fighting has been taking place.
At the NATO Leaders Meeting in London next week, the alliance must speak with a clear and united voice. NATO must continue to present a unified voice against Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, reiterating the need for a complete restoration of Ukraine’s territorial integrity.
Even with the ongoing fighting, there have been small but encouraging signs of Ukrainian-Russian dialogue. Newly elected Ukrainian president and actor turned politician, Volodymyr Zelensky campaigned on a pledge to bring the war in eastern Ukraine to a peaceful and acceptable end.
Russia recently returned the Ukrainian ships it had illegally taken almost a year ago (although, it should be noted the returned ships had almost everything from inside stripped out ).
A recent prisoner swap between Ukraine and Russia led to the release of 24 sailors that were captured with their ships last year, along with the release of Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov.
In December there will be a meeting under the so-called Normandy Format which will bring France, Germany, Ukraine and Russia around the negotiating table again. The last time a meeting of the Normandy Format took place was 2016. The driving force behind this meeting has been French President Emmanuel Macron, who has raised eyebrows recently by suggesting that Europe needs a new approach with Russia.
It must be pointed out that expectations are low for an end to the conflict. The occupation in Crimea and the Russian backed war in the Donbas give Russia influence into the region which it will not quickly give up.
In terms of overall international aid for Ukraine, Europe has contributed many times more than the US, contrary to what President Trump claims. However, when it comes to military assistance alone, the US is the biggest contributor.
America has provided military training and non-lethal military equipment such as radars and radios. It has also provided lethal weapons to the Ukrainians such as Javelin anti-tank missiles, retired US Coast Guard ships, and sniper rifles.
US policymakers understand the importance of Ukraine’s struggle. This is why there was such outrage when President Trump unexpectedly threatened to withhold military assistance late last summer.
Thankfully, the aid was provided in the end. As the impeachment process unfolds in the US, more light is being shed on this decision to withhold the funding. Americans, Europeans, Ukrainians, and Russians will be watching closely.
Ukraine is in the midst of a national struggle that will determine its future geopolitical orientation: the West or Russia. The outcome of this struggle will have long-term implications for the transatlantic community and the notion of national sovereignty.
It would be a shame if American support for Ukraine became the casualty of the ongoing impeachment process in the US.
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