In 2014, Russian aggression against Ukraine ramped up with the annexation of Crimea into the Russian Federation, as well as Russian-aided military action in eastern Ukraine. This move was condemned in the international community, but seven years later, Russia still shows no sign of backing down. In fact, Moscow recently made headlines by stationing over 100,000 troops along its border with Ukraine. Although this military buildup was resolved shortly afterward when Russia withdrew its troops, the event served as a reminder that Russia is still threatening Ukraine and can end the nation’s very existence should it wish to do so. This increase in hostility also highlights that the Western bloc is currently unable, or at least does not have enough political will, to stop Russian aggression.
Ukraine has expressed its wish to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), a defensive alliance that includes the former Warsaw Pact nations and even Soviet nations such as Poland and the Baltic states. Joining NATO would offer Ukraine military protection against any future Russian threats due to NATO’s clause of self-defence; in fact, Kyiv even pushed for Ukraine to be included in the alliance’s June 2021 summit. However, there has been pushback from both NATO and Russia against Ukraine’s possible admission to NATO. Critics argue that allowing Ukraine to join NATO would provoke Russia, which seems to be valid, as Moscow has warned that Ukraine joining the alliance would be crossing a “red line.” US President Joe Biden, for his part, has also said that Ukraine needs to meet anti-corruption requirements before it can join the alliance.
Internal Opinions in Ukraine: Russia or the West?
It is worth noting that not all Ukrainians are against Russia – in fact, Ukraine’s second-biggest party, Opposition Platform – For Life, is a “Russophilic” party that has called for increased ties with Russia. The leader of this party, Viktor Medvedchuk, claims to have known Russian President Vladimir Putin for “decades,” and holds regular meetings with Putin.
Ukraine, like many other countries, suffers from conspiracy theories and fake news. In this case, these theories tend to be pro-Russian in nature. They seek to undermine the people’s trust in the Ukrainian government by spinning up “a false worldview”, and are funded by Putin’s government. The central Kyiv government has taken steps to combat these theories and misleading news stories, through methods such as shutting down television channels that were spreading the theories. The leader of the opposition party has also been charged with treason, in a move that Moscow decried as being a “witch hunt.” This showcases Moscow’s policy of influencing conspiracy theories in its rival nations in order to erode trust in their governments, with the most well-known example being the US, but also in Ukraine.
What does this mean for Russian foreign policy?
Russian escalation in the region signifies that Moscow is still not ready to give up its former Soviet territories, no matter if the Western bloc protests that decision, and it is ready to use military force if needed to protect its interests. Meanwhile, the Western bloc seems more hesitant to act, as made evident by its refusal to accept Ukraine into NATO. This may be because of the division within Washington itself, with some politicians believing that this rise in tensions is just a “saber rattling” move, while others believe that tensions can escalate even further. The Western bloc has instead opted to keep on its track of calling for Russia to withdraw from Ukraine, as well as potentially adding more sanctions (although this is due to Moscow’s poisoning of Alexei Navalny). Both of these are weaker steps than those Moscow is taking, which include establishing military officers inside Ukraine and starting conspiracy theories inside the nation.
It is worth noting that this military buildup came after a NATO military exercise with Ukraine’s participation that prepared for a full-out conflict with Russia, which makes revenge a possible cause behind this buildup. The de-escalation that came afterward also supports this explanation, although Russia has kept some weapons in its western region for “another military exercise later this year,” indicating that this is not a full withdrawal. Overall, this means that Russia is likely willing to escalate tensions if needed, but prefers scare tactics, while the Western bloc is more hesitant to risk raising tensions at all.
The conflict in Ukraine has claimed over 13,000 lives. No matter the foreign relations results, the people of Ukraine have already lost this battle purely based on the human cost, as well as their national sovereignty. Neither Russia nor the West wants war – but will a “saber rattling move” accidentally raise tensions beyond the point of no return?