A Brief Look at the Past as Escalation Continues in Ukraine

October 17, 2022

On December 25, 1991, the Soviet Union ceased to exist as a sovereign state. Soon after, the former republics of the USSR declared independence one after the other. In some cases, the separation of paths proved more complicated than others.

In May 1997, Russia and Ukraine signed three agreements whereby they established two independent national fleets, and divided armaments. Under these agreements, Ukraine agreed to lease the port of Sevastopol to Russia until 2017 in return for economic benefits. Since Sevastopol was Russia’s principal naval base on the Black Sea, the agreements also allowed Russia a troop presence there.

In November 2003, thousands of Georgian demonstrators took to the streets to protest the flawed results of a parliamentary election. They gave red roses to the soldiers symbolizing their peaceful intentions. And soldiers who were expected to quell the protests laid down their guns. Thus, it became known as the Rose Revolution. No one was hurt. President Shevardnadze was replaced by Mikhail Saakashvili. He led Georgia into a hopeless confrontation with Russia in 2008. South Ossetia and Abkhazia declared independence.

In November 2004, Ukrainian opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko launched a mass protest campaign again over rigged presidential elections that gave victory to pro-Russian candidate Viktor Yanukovych. Supreme Court later annulled the poll result. In December 2004 Yushchenko won the election re-run. This was the Orange Revolution.

In February 2010, Viktor Yanukovych won a run-off election against Yulia Timoshenko.

Soon after, in April 2010, Presidents Medvedev and Yanukovych agreed to extend this arrangement for twenty-five more years, until 2042, with the possibility of further extension by another five years. This is what the Guardian reported at the time:

“The deal is the most concrete sign yet that Ukraine is now back under Russia’s influence following Yanukovych’s victory in February’s presidential elections. It appears to mark the final nail in the coffin of the Orange Revolution of 2004.

“Yanukovych’s predecessor, Viktor Yushchenko, had vowed to eject Russia’s Black Sea fleet from the port of Sevastopol, arguing that its presence was an affront to Ukraine’s sovereignty and a destabilising factor in Crimea, a majority ethnic Russian region with a strong pro-Soviet mood.”

“The agreement is a boost for Yanukovych as he tries to lever Ukraine’s economy out of severe recession, and to clinch a $12bn bailout loan from the IMF. Russia currently pays $90m per year for the base. It was not clear if the rent has now gone up. But the lease extension is likely to increase opposition to Yanukovych in Ukraine’s western provinces…

“Ukraine’s split between the Russian-speaking east and Ukrainian-speaking west also is predominantly a political division, and leaders have always been forced to play a delicate balancing act for fear of upsetting either camp.” [i]

The agreement was approved by the Ukrainian parliament after an acrimonious debate. It was abundantly clear at the time that Moscow would not let Crimea go.

In early 2014 came the Maidan protests. Yanukovych fled to Russia. Russian troops seized the Crimean Peninsula in a bloodless military takeover. Crimeans voted in a referendum to rejoin Russia. And finally, on March 18, 2014, President Putin signed the treaty of accession with Crimean leaders in Moscow.

On the same day, President Putin addressed both houses of the parliament. He referred to Sevastopol as a legendary city with an outstanding history, a fortress that serves as the birthplace of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet. He said that, in people’s hearts and minds, Crimea has always been an inseparable part of Russia. But after the revolution, he went on, the Bolsheviks added large sections of the historical south of Russia to the Republic of Ukraine with no consideration for the ethnic make-up of the population. Signaling his future intentions, he added that these areas today form the southeast of Ukraine. Then, in 1954, he continued, a decision was made to transfer Crimea to Ukraine, along with Sevastopol, on the personal initiative of the Communist Party leader Nikita Khrushchev.

The US and its Western allies reacted. Non-recognition of Crimea’s annexation became a constant element of Western diplomatic discourse. But despite the tough talk, the West chose not to turn the annexation into a major conflict. Because President Putin’s historical claims regarding Crimea found a receptive audience in the West. Russia’s annexation of Crimea by Russia was a violation of international law but the West, especially the EU could have handled the crisis better.

An unfortunate casualty of the conflict was Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 which crashed in eastern Ukraine on March 8, 2014. All 298 people on board, most of whom were citizens of the Netherlands, died in the crash. A Dutch inquiry later determined that the aircraft was shot down by a Russian-made surface-to-air missile.

On February 24, 2022, despite denials of US intelligence reports regarding an imminent invasion, Russia acted. This was a huge miscalculation by President Putin who thought or was made to believe that the whole country would be taken over in a few months if not weeks and Western reaction would again be manageable.

Two months later, on Monday, April 25, 2022, following their visit to Kyiv, Secretaries Blinken and Austin spoke to the traveling press. They were asked the following question:

“… do you see a scenario where international support enables Ukraine to avoid losing this war to Russia, but isn’t able to fully expel Russian forces or reclaim its victory, and how would you think about such a scenario?”

Secretary Blinken said:

“In terms of wars won and lost, again, I come back to the proposition that in terms of Russia’s war aims, Russia has already failed… Where the contours of the war goes from here, how much death and destruction continues, obviously that’s of deep concern.  We want to do everything we can to help the Ukrainians bring this to an end on the possible terms as quickly as possible.  Much of the work that we’re doing is enabling them to strengthen their hand both on the battlefield right now, but also, eventually, at a negotiation if there is one.”

Later, Secretary Austin, in response to another question made the following remarks which continue to attract international attention:

“We want to see Ukraine remain a sovereign country, a democratic country able to protect its sovereign territory.  We want to see Russia weakened to the degree that it can’t do the kinds of things that it has done in invading Ukraine.”  [emphasis added]

In so far as the “contours of the war are concerned”, as mentioned by Secretary Blinken, many now agree that this is going to be a protracted war, perhaps as predicted in the scenario mentioned in the question directed at the two Secretaries, and Russia’s resort to tactical nuclear weapons remaining a distant possibility but a possibility, nonetheless. When meaningful negotiations might start is still the biggest question.  

As for the weakening of Russia, indeed Russia is weakened, politically, economically, and militarily. So is President Putin. But the global economy has also taken a huge blow. Europe is going to have a tough winter.  And other major powers like China and India, and the Global South would like to see the war end sooner than later.

Last week, the UN General Assembly overwhelmingly condemned Russia’s “attempted illegal annexation” of four partially occupied regions in Ukraine and called on all countries not to recognize the move. Three-quarters of the 193-member General Assembly – 143 countries – voted in favor of a resolution that also reaffirmed the sovereignty, independence, unity, and territorial integrity of Ukraine within its internationally recognized borders. The voting result was almost the same as the one on Resolution ES‑11/1, adopted on March 2, 2022, which deplored Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and demanded a full withdrawal of Russian forces and a reversal of its decision to recognize the self-declared People’s Republics of Donetsk and Luhansk.

In a dysfunctional UN, UNGA resolutions are presented as the collective will of the so-called “international community”. The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs argued that had the General Assembly held a secret vote on the draft resolution as Moscow had proposed the result would have been different. Had a draft resolution calling for the immediate beginning of diplomatic talks between the warring parties been tabled, it would probably have been adopted with an even larger majority.

The blast on the Crimean Bridge, Moscow’s response with missile attacks on targets in Ukraine including Kyiv, and some NATO countries’ decision to boost Ukrainian missile defense signal a further escalation in the war that is no longer a war only between Russia and Ukraine, but a war between Russia and the US/West as well. The total amount of US security assistance to Ukraine since the beginning of the war has now reached 18 billion dollars. This is a third of France’s and Germany’s annual peacetime defense budgets which are now likely to surge. America’s NATO allies have also helped in varying degrees. But matching words with deeds has remained a challenge. Regardless of the military support extended to Ukraine, the launching of diplomatic talks appears to be the preference of the majority of EU countries.

With Russian military failures and rising troop losses, some now speculate that President Putin’s regime change project in Kyiv may turn into a leadership or regime change project in a weakened Russia. So, one may ask how the conflict and the global picture would evolve and what it may entail for President Putin.

On August 29, 2022, Kemal Derviş said:

“While the outcome of the fighting remains uncertain, the West’s strategic aims, particularly how it intends to treat Russia in the event that Ukraine prevails, will have huge consequences. The big question is whether the allies will seek to punish Russia as a whole by imposing severe reparations or instead target President Vladimir Putin’s autocratic regime in a way that limits the burdens imposed on the Russian people…

“By pursuing measures that treat the Russian people differently than Putin and his autocracy, the world’s democracies might hope to prevent a long-term outcome in which Russia would be “lost” to them. Banning all Russians from entering the European Union, as some policymakers now propose, is the type of measure that will push the country toward China. And misleadingly dividing the world into democracies and autocracies comes from the same ineffective, polarizing playbook. When dealing with dictatorships like Putin’s, a key element of any successful diplomatic strategy is to distinguish between political leaders and ordinary citizens…

And he concluded with the following: “In the event that Ukraine prevails, the West’s treatment of Russia and its stance toward the Global South during Ukraine’s reconstruction will determine whether the war’s outcome serves as the launchpad for global progress toward a more inclusive and equitable multilateralism. In the worst case, the West will have achieved a pyrrhic victory that ends up strengthening autocracy and further deepening global divisions.” [ii]

As for President Putin’s future, Anatol Lieven says:

“Putin has to stand for re-election in early 2024, and it seems likely that this time he would face very serious opposition and might have to resort to massive and overt rigging, ferocious repression, or both to win.

“It is vital to note, however, that this opposition will come not only from opponents of the war, but even more dangerously for Putin from extreme nationalists who believe that the war should be waged more efficiently and ruthlessly. In recent weeks, there has been an enormous rise in criticism of the Russian government from this quarter, including from former Putin loyalists. After the Crimea bridge bombing and accusation of Ukrainian “terrorism,” Russia responded by launching a barrage of rocket attacks against civilian infrastructure in cities across Ukraine Monday and Tuesday.

“Bottom line: there is therefore no guarantee at all that the successor to Putin will be an improvement. He could be even worse…” [iii]

Looking back at the centuries-long decline of the Ottoman Empire I can understand what a shock it must have been to the Russian people to see the Soviet Union disappear in no time. There are still those in Turkey who yearn for our Ottoman past and entertain empty dreams of reviving it only to jeopardize our internal peace and external security. Thus, to a certain extent, I can appreciate Russia’s difficulty to make peace with the new state of affairs with a good number of former soviet republics having crossed over to the “other side” in exercising, what was their indisputable right under international law. During the years of waning Russian power, the Western countries lectured Moscow on the merits of democracy and the free market. In retrospect, they probably could and should have done more to prevent the frustration arising from the loss of the Soviet empire. They could at least have drawn the necessary conclusions from the 2008 Georgia-Russia war. Eventually, a considerable level of mutual economic interdependence was achieved between Russia and the EU countries but political engagement with the West, particularly with the US, remained stagnant.

It has been almost eight months since Russia invaded Ukraine. Despite the havoc it has caused, despite widespread resentment with its global impact, like many other wars, the world is getting used to living with it. Western statements of condemnation are becoming routine like those of the Kremlin drawing less and less attention, and President Zelensky has no other foreign parliaments to address.

To confront Russia or China strategically, perhaps both as they keep moving closer to one another, the West needs to write a success story, a peacemaking story, a story in which words would match deeds, a story in which genuine democracy but not selfish interests hidden behind a pro-democracy political discourse will be the central theme.  Perhaps the first few chapters of this story would need to begin with restoring Western peoples’ faith in democracy. Yes, Russia is under a one-man rule. And countries under one-man rule make mistakes. But at present, the West is undeniably experiencing a leadership crisis. Moreover, according to a recent Gallup survey, those who have a “Great deal/ Quite a lot” of confidence in the US Congress is only 7 percent.[iv] In brief, no matter how the war in Ukraine ends, this is unlikely to prove the story the West needs. The UN General Assembly resolutions may condemn Russian aggression but they do not represent blanket approval for everything that the West has done in the past and is currently doing now.

As the fighting escalates, there will be more military casualties and civilian losses, i.e., more death.

The Guardian reported last Thursday that Earth’s wildlife populations have plunged by an average of 69% in just under 50 years, according to a leading scientific assessment, as humans continue to clear forests, consume beyond the limits of the planet, and pollute on an industrial scale.[v]

Looking at the war in Ukraine, what else could the wildlife populations expect…


[i] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2010/apr/21/ukraine-black-sea-fleet-russia

[ii] https://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/ukraine-war-western-strategic-goals-russia-global-south-by-kemal-dervis-2022-08

[iii] https://responsiblestatecraft.org/2022/10/11/is-putin-on-the-way-out/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=is-putin-on-the-way-out&ct=t(RSS_EMAIL_CAMPAIGN)&mc_cid=19d37367d2&mc_eid=cca9360155

[iv] https://news.gallup.com/poll/394283/confidence-institutions-down-average-new-low.aspx?campaign_id=39&emc=edit_ty_20221014&instance_id=74584&nl=opinion-today&regi_id=60473709&segment_id=109946&te=1&user_id=6e50439e867e4155600e5ebabac2aa22

[v] https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2022/oct/13/almost-70-of-animal-populations-wiped-out-since-1970-report-reveals-aoe?utm_term=63478d4514d33cb5e10e1fd061340be2&utm_campaign=GuardianTodayUK&utm_source=esp&utm_medium=Email&CMP=GTUK_email


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