Political Column: Russia’s aggression, explained Part 1

BY
Guest Political Contributor

The Russian Federation, led by President Vladimir Putin, is acting much like the Soviet Union back in the Cold War. With the annexation of Crimea, Russian aggression in Eastern Ukraine and Russian involvement in the Syrian Civil War, many are beginning to worry. Just last Thursday, the Russian Embassy in Washington had its annual Armed Forces party, with U.S. and NATO representatives visibly absent, and unusually so. The Pentagon confirmed that this was due to Russian intervention in Ukraine.

In 2014, Ukraine was essentially torn between whether or not to support NATO and the European Union, or the Russian federation, as nearly 20 percent of Ukrainians still identify as Russians. Then, parts of Eastern Ukraine bordering Russia declared independence, and the Donetsk Republic and Luhansk Republic were born. Although internationally unrecognized and described as a terrorist organization, the Donetsk and Luhansk Republics have one key ally: Russia. Both republics are pro-Russian groups backed by Russian troops, who began to fight the Ukrainian military in order to hold on to their territory. Meanwhile, Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula. Russia is investing in Eastern Ukraine because it believes Ukraine is and always will be a part of its own country. While the annexation of the entire Ukraine is unrealistic, Russia could at least break Ukraine up and have the pro-Russian side be Putin’s puppets, the same way Lithuania and Estonia had seats at the UN during the Cold War, but fiercely loyal and obedient to Soviet Russia. The conflict, known as the War in Donbass, is still ongoing between pro-EU forces and pro-Russian forces.
Why is Russia now bothered about Ukraine, 25 years after Ukraine left the Soviet Union? The simple answer is due to Russia feeling the effects of losing power and influence in international affairs. Russia annexed Crimea to send a message. It had even more reason to step up in Ukraine after oil prices dropped and the Russian economy collapsed, to prove its strength and relevance. Now that the Warsaw Pact is gone, Russia’s international organization is the Commonwealth of Independent States, consisting of Russia, Kazakhstan, Armenia and a few others in the region. The Commonwealth is no match for NATO, which consists of the United States, U.K., France, Italy, Canada and Germany. Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, both parts of the former Czechoslovakia, the Czech Republic and Slovakia are now members of NATO, all of whom were originally part of the Warsaw Pact and committed Soviet allies. Russia looked around and wondered “What do we have left?” That is when it decided to get aggressive.

While all of this has been happening, the U.S.-Russia relationship clearly and understandably has been deteriorating rapidly. The United States did not appreciate what Russia was doing in Crimea and Ukraine, and responded with sanctions. According to Vice President Joe Biden, it was the sanctions which partially led to the collapse of the Ruble and the Russian economy. NATO has also placed American troops on the Russian-Lithuanian border and has conducted military exercises, showing they are ready if Russia ever decides to attack Lithuania. But this is nothing new. The 1999 NATO bombing of Belgrade, Yugoslavia, a key Russian ally, is believed to be the relaunch of U.S.-Russia tensions. But according to professor Stuart Kaufman, U.S.-Russia tensions run deeper than that incident.

“It’s not like Russia and the United States began to fully trust one another after the Cold War,” Kaufman says. “Even if the Belgrade bombing never happened, the U.S. and Russia would still be rivals playing their usual chess game, and we would probably still be where we are in US-Russian relations. It’s just natural at this point. There’s cordial diplomatic relations between them, but you have to keep in mind that both countries are superpowers with huge egos.”

But in sum, the U.S.-Russian relationship became strained due to NATO poaching
Russia’s former companions, expanding missile defense and due to America’s commitment to the EU and the Ukraine. Counter-aggression by Russia is what has created this awkward situation among the two countries.

Read Part 2 of this article in the coming weeks to find out more.

Hirak Mukhopadhyay is the President of the UD College Democrats.

Stuart Kaufman is a Professor of Political Science & International Relations at the University of Delaware.

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