Climbing or relaxing?, by Oluwaseun Tella
There is no consensus on the Russian-Ukrainian crisis. While some argue that as a sovereign state, Ukraine’s desire to be able to determine its own security alliances is legitimate, others note that Russia’s national security concerns are relevant, given the rapprochement kyiv crescent with NATO. This is therefore a no-win situation that can only be resolved through mutually beneficial agreements.
The Russian-Ukrainian crisis that began on February 24 has divided scholars and knowledgeable observers of international politics. In order to assess the direction of the conflict and its implications for the future of Russian-Ukrainian relations, the Institute for the Future of Knowledge at the University of Johannesburg (UJ) organized a webinar entitled “Russian-Ukrainian Crisis Climbing or Relaxing?” on March 16. The event was moderated by Professor Suzy Graham, Associate Dean, Teaching and Learning, Faculty of Humanities, UJ. The three keynote speakers were Ambassador Ilya Rogachev, Embassy of Russia to South Africa; Ambassador Steven Pifer, former US Ambassador to Ukraine; and Professor Emeritus David Marples, Department of History, Classics and Religion, University of Alberta, Canada.
Ambassador Rogachev noted that Russia’s action in Ukraine was triggered by the ongoing conflict in Donbass, eastern Ukraine and the impending attacks by the Ukrainian army against Lugansk and Donetsk, two major cities in Donbass. The ambassador pointed out that over the past eight years, the Ukrainian armed forces have killed civilians in Donbass. He further claimed that following a bloody unconstitutional coup in Ukraine in 2014, the people of Donbass refused to submit to the regime in kyiv, which led to violence in the region. As a result, between 600,000 and 800,000 people obtained Russian citizenship. He argued that the Russian minority population in Ukraine faces repression as laws banning Russian culture, language and media have been enacted. Another important factor relates to security and strategic considerations, most notably the eastward expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Ukraine’s quest to become a member of NATO is a matter of national security for Russia. Indeed, despite Russian opposition and the promise made to the Soviet leaders in 1990 and 1991 that there would be no eastward expansion, for the past thirty years NATO’s infrastructure have moved closer to Russian borders in the meantime, posing a direct threat to Russia’s national security. . Moscow launched diplomatic efforts to resolve this problem by drafting two treaties on mutual security guarantees, which were presented to the United States (US) and NATO on December 15, 2021. However, the proposals were rejected. Similarly, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov wrote to his counterparts at the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), reiterating the principle of equal and indivisible security, which underlines the idea that a state cannot ensure its own security at the expense of the security interests of other member states. This principle finds its legal basis in the declarations of Istanbul in 1999 and Astana in 2010. Ambassador Rogachev further stated that Kyiv’s quest to acquire nuclear weapons, coupled with the significant influence of Western states and domestic neo-Nazis over the Ukrainian government, poses a security threat to Russia, hence the inevitable action from Moscow to Ukraine.
For his part, Ambassador Pifer disagrees with the Russian Ambassador, noting that the war is not limited in its scope and is not limited to the protection of Donetsk and Luhansk, given that 125 tactical groups of Russian battalions and 200,000 Russian troops invaded Ukraine. He said the ongoing conflict is the biggest war in Europe since 1945. He further illustrated that Ukraine is not a security threat, drawing attention to asymmetric warfare as Russian military personnel is four times that of Ukraine, Russia’s defense budget is ten times that of Ukraine, and Russia has 4,400 nuclear weapons, while Ukraine has none. While Moscow has framed the crisis as a dispute between Russia and NATO, 2004 was the last time a Russian border state joined NATO and that was after 2014 when Russia annexed Crimea and caused a conflict in the Donbass that NATO installed military infrastructure in the territory. . According to Ambassador Pifer, the allegation that neo-Nazis control Kyiv does not hold water because Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is Jewish. The claim that Ukraine has nuclear weapons also has no basis, as the allegation has only been made in recent weeks to justify the Kremlin’s invasion of Ukraine. He noted that the main motive for the war was Moscow’s desire to significantly influence Kyiv’s domestic and foreign policies, as the Russian administration is gripped by fear that the regime’s survival will come close to the light of rapprochement with Ukraine with the West. According to him, a Westernized, democratic and economically prosperous Ukraine will trigger a crisis of authority in Russia.
Professor Marples approached the crisis from a historical perspective, highlighting the 1997 Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Partnership which was signed by then Russian President Boris Yeltsin and his Ukrainian counterpart Leonid Kuchma. The treaty divided the Black Sea Fleet and codified an agreement, which specified that Russian-speaking regions would not be prohibited from speaking Russian. Thus, Russian-Ukrainian relations during this period were arguably quite stable. Relations began to sour in 2004 when Russian-backed presidential candidate Viktor Yanukovych lost in the presidential election to Viktor Yushchenko. President Yushchenko raised Ukrainian nationalists involved in anti-Soviet actions during World War II.
In 2014, then-President Viktor Yanukovych decided to join the Eurasian Economic Community and accepted a large loan from President Putin, contrary to Ukraine being an associate member of Europe. This decision led to nationwide protests that ultimately resulted in the ousting of President Yanukovych. The subsequent election of President Petro Poroshenko further aggravated the already fragile relationship, as his administration introduced what has been described as “loss of memory”, resulting in the erasure of the communist past from Ukrainian national history, raising heroes of Ukrainian independence, changing street names. and buildings and overthrowing the statutes of Vladimir Lenin. Relations were arguably at their lowest during this period. However, there was a reversal after Volodymyr Zelenskyy emerged as president in 2019, on the promise of improving Ukraine’s economy. There was no indication of declining relations in the immediate period of Zelenskyy’s administration, raising the question of why relations suddenly deteriorated and why the war only started now.
There is no consensus on the Russian-Ukrainian crisis. While some argue that as a sovereign state, Ukraine’s desire to be able to determine its own security alliances is legitimate, others note that Russia’s national security concerns are relevant, given the rapprochement kyiv crescent with NATO. This is therefore a no-win situation that can only be resolved through mutually beneficial agreements. Ultimately, to jaw-jaw is better than war-war.
Oluwaseun Tella is Head of the Future of Diplomacy at the Institute for the Future of Knowledge at the University of Johannesburg, South Africa.
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