From the May-June 2021 issue of News & Letters
A seven-year-old war in Ukraine—involving Ukraine and Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine, with Russia’s ominous, close presence—recently underwent an escalation. Russia’s president Vladimir Putin ordered tens of thousands of troops and armored vehicles, including tanks, to its eastern border with Ukraine, the region known as Donbas, where pro-Russian militants have organized their own territory. This “training exercise” also involved a flotilla of Russian amphibious assault ships outside Ukraine’s port city of Mariupol. Many worried whether an all-out war with Russia was imminent. Most recently, however, Russia has begun withdrawing troops, but leaving some military hardware close at hand.
WHAT’S AT STAKE?
Russia seized the Ukraine’s Crimea Peninsula in 2014. Crimea had been part of the old Soviet Union (USSR), first part of Russia and then assigned to Ukraine. (This after Stalin had exiled the Crimean Tatars in the 1940s.)
With the collapse of the Soviet state-capitalist empire, Ukraine became a prize or pawn in a continuing struggle, with the U.S. and Western Europe seeking to tie Ukraine to its orbit, including the possibility of joining NATO, while Russia, particularly under Putin, was determined to keep Ukraine under its influence. Hence, a second Cold War is in the offing.
With the 2014 Russian annexation of Crimea—which Putin tried to cover over by backing separatists in eastern Ukraine—an on-again off-again conflict has taken place. Some 13,000 have been killed in the conflict between Ukrainian solders and the separatists.
The U.S. and European allies have imposed financial sanctions on Russia. Behind this posturing of sanctions and saber-rattling lies the threat of a greatly expanded war—and this by powers that are nuclear-armed. The Line of Contact trench warfare between Ukraine troops and Russian-backed separatists has been called the new Berlin Wall.
Meanwhile, Ukrainians of whatever stripe are caught within the maelstrom of this developing new Cold War, subject to the competing ideologies, West and East, far away from any genuine self-determination.