By Vaishali Krishna

Russian security interests remain key to its activities in Ukraine

February 7, 2022 - 18:30

TEHRAN- Once enjoyed the status of a superpower during the Cold War period, Russia of today somehow feels pressure from the U.S.-led West over the Ukraine crisis. Ukraine was part of the Russian empire for centuries before becoming a Soviet republic, and the two neighbours stayed aligned even after the disintegration of the USSR in 1991.

The turning point, however, came in the 2000s when Ukraine sought deeper integration with Europe that completely soured Russia-Ukraine relationship. One would notice that following the Soviet collapse it has been hard for Russia to reconcile with the new geopolitical situation and hence the Russian leadership, especially Putin, remained busy in seeking to restore Moscow’s position in the world. 

Agriculturally rich in production, defense industries, and military, including the Black Sea Navy and some of the nuclear store, Ukraine was a keystone of the Soviet Union with a status of being the second-most densely inhabited and powerful of the fifteen Soviet republics. In the post-Soviet period, Ukraine’s move to shed Russian imperial legacy and come close to the West proved to be a disgrace for Russia. Since the people of the two countries are historically and culturally closely aligned, Russia-Ukraine tensions have always persisted due to psychological and security reasons. Russia’s top distresses is the welfare of the approximately eight million ethnic Russians living in Ukraine according to 2001 census, mostly in the south and east where they form the largest single Russian diaspora. Protecting these people remains to be what Moscow claims as its duty. Yet, the split between Russia and Ukraine is seen by Russian analysts as a blunder of history and a major blow to Russia’s international stature.  

Russia relied on Ukrainian pipelines to propel its gas to businesses in Central and Eastern Europe for years, and it even paid billions of dollars per year as transport fees. In mid-2021, Russia accomplished building of its Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which is the second natural gas pipeline after Nord Stream 1 and runs under the Baltic Sea from western Russia to northeastern Germany. Although Russia has contracted to keep moving gas through Ukraine for several more years, the United States and Europe caution that Nord Stream 2 will help Russia exercise  its greater geopolitical power in the region. On the other hand, Putin has made it clear that he will never allow Ukraine to become “anti-Russian” and will thrive to push back the expansion of Western influence in Ukraine. Ukraine was never considered as a separate country by many Russians but several Ukrainians disagree and that is why leaders there have increased their dependence on the West. 

What exactly is happening in Ukraine points to the fact that Moscow’s activities are indispensable for its vital security interests rather than for destabilizing the region’s safety.  Evidently, Moscow has strongly condemned the U.S. and its NATO partners for supplying Ukraine with weapons and holding joint trainings, saying that interchanges inspire Ukrainian aggressors to try to recover the rebel-held regions by force. Moreover, Putin has persistently assumed Ukraine’s desire to join NATO which is a danger mark for Russia. He voiced apprehensions about plans by some NATO members to set up military exercise centres in Ukraine which will deliver them a military base even without Ukraine joining NATO. 
So, the main focus is concentrated on what Russia does not want rather than what Russia wishes to do so far as Ukraine is concerned? In fact, Russia does not want the presence of NATO in Ukraine in any form which Putin emphasises will hamper the security in the Eastern Europe in the close neighbourhood to Russian landscape. Russia altogether rejects the allegations of occupying Ukraine and blames the West for irritating the situation. Moreover, instead of looking into Russian fundamental issues the world is divided either in support or against Russia. However, in recent times, Western nations have shown their support for Ukraine. The U.S. and UK have supplied weapons, while Germany has sent medical facility, avoiding military equipment. Basically, bricks are collected on the borders of Russia not for constructing a protection wall near Ukraine but to border around Russia to limit it. Sanctions too are aimed by the U.S., UK and other European allies to punish Moscow. 

Such moves can cut Russia from most international financial transactions including international profits from oil and gas production. Moreover, the U.S. holds the most powerful financial weapon against Russia by blocking access to the US dollar which still dominates financial transactions around the world. This rough attitude of the world towards Russia without knowing the real intention is both apprehensive and also impulsive. The West should not forget that this can backfire because Russia is a great source of energy supplies. A few Western scholars disagree somewhat on the motivations behind Russia’s policy towards Ukraine. Some highlight NATO’s post-Cold War expansion, which Russia has viewed with growing anxiety. For many analysts, the conflict marks a clear shift in the global security environment from a unipolar period of U.S. dominance to one defined by transformed competition between great powers. 

On the other side, responses of Central Asian countries indicate that the probability of angering Russia with a strictly pro-Western attitude is off the table because they know that Russia also seeks cooperation, as it needs to find new markets, new sources of food deliveries from non-Western countries, new supporters or loyal allies. These considerations have led to practical and balanced behavior on both sides. Yet, it is hard to conclude whether the Ukraine crisis will mark a sharp turning point in the Central Asian countries’ insight towards Russia or it will provide an opportunity for all of them to seek to balance Russia’s influence by dealing with the West and China. There are strong signs that China will take benefit of Central Asia’s balancing act by promoting itself as a less hostile partner than the West or Russia. India too has broken its silence on the Ukraine crisis and urged for “peaceful resolution” of the situation through “sustained diplomatic efforts” for “long-term peace” in the region and beyond. 

In all such crises, like the Ukrainian one, the media plays a crucial role since each of them give their view with their own perceptions and also with their own prerequisite. Western media have blamed both Russia and Ukraine of throwing information wars in an attempt to influence public opinion in their favor. Russian state media have been accused of resorting not only to half-truths and misrepresentations but also to direct lies in their portrayal of Ukrainian authorities and protesters. While Western media has described the crisis in Ukraine as a Russian-manufactured provocation to defend military involvement, a few Russian media painted a picture of the Ukraine government to be fascist involved in suppressing the rights of the Russian-speaking residents in eastern Ukraine and Crimea. 

Whether the Ukraine crisis is indicative of the beginning of a “new cold war” is something that needs to be watched carefully in the coming days and months. Nevertheless, the Russia-Ukraine stalemate will remain at the center stage given the security concerns of Russia in the region. As of now the fate of Ukraine appears to be uncertain but it is certainly not going to tell the story of an annexation. 

Dr. Vaishali Krishna is assistant professor at Centre for Russian and Central Asian Studies in Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi (India).

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