Ukraine turmoil reflects Europe’s history

Once again, Ukraine is emerging as a focus of tension between Russia and the United States as well as Europe. An always-uncertain ceasefire has broken down, and very substantial Russian troop movements in the region now accompany sporadic fighting.

In addition, Moscow is stating as well as otherwise signaling that diplomatic relations with the West in general, and the United States in particular, are deteriorating seriously, perhaps ominously. Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has declared that dealings with Washington have “bit bottom.”

Moscow has no immediate intention of sending ambassador to the U.S. Anatoly Antonov back into position. Antonov headed for home after President Joe Biden went on the record that Russia’s President Vladimir Putin “is a killer.”

NATO jet fighters scrambled numerous times at the end of March. They tracked exceptionally large numbers of Russian military aircraft appearing over the Baltic Sea, Black Sea, North Sea and North Atlantic Ocean.

On April 2, President Biden spoke with President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan are in good contact with Ukraine counterparts. Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Mark Milley has been on the phone with his Russian as well as Ukrainian counterpart.

Ukraine has been battling separatist forces in the eastern Donetsk and Luhansk regions since 2014, when Russia abruptly annexed Crimea. The European Union mediated a truce, which brought some fitful calm, in particular to the capital city of Kiev.

Since annexation, hundreds of Crimeans have been jailed, accused of espionage on behalf of Ukraine. This includes at least one woman in her 60s, identified only by an initial, not by name.

Persistent violence within Ukraine reflects a wider tug-of-war for alliance and influence between Russia and the West. Moscow initially enjoyed strong influence, but since 2014, Ukraine has moved in the opposite direction.

Membership in the EU is on the horizon, and NATO cooperation grows. In June 2020, Ukraine joined a NATO partnership program, and the government lobbies hard for full alliance membership this year.

Western leaders should condemn violations of human rights, while effective policy requires appreciation of broad historical context. War to the death with Nazi Germany has had a profound continuing impact on Russia, including the current generation. Totalitarianism fed traditional anxieties regarding territory and national security.

The tough-talking officials of the George W. Bush administration pressed eastern expansion of NATO, including membership by both Georgia and Ukraine. Not surprisingly, Russia became alarmed.

During this period, Georgia launched a military attack on breakaway South Ossetia. In reaction, the Russian Army, in 2008, invaded. President Nicolas Sarkozy of France brokered the cease-fire. The Obama administration wisely ended the Bush administration emphasis on alliance expansion eastward.

Historically, Ukraine along with Georgia is entangled with Russia, in complex ways. The beginning of the Russian revolution in 1917 sparked independence movements. After years of struggle, Ukraine eventually was absorbed into the new Soviet Union.

Moscow forced collectivization of farms, resulting in great population dislocation. Ukraine was also the target of vast Stalinist purges and forced mass starvation. Russia’s authorities still suppress information about this period.

The Atlantic Council today is one of the most impressive sources of policy analysis on a wide range of topics, including current Ukraine developments. Access their report on the Biden Administration and Ukraine: https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/in-depth-research-reports/issue-brief/biden-and-ukraine-a-strategy-for-the-new-administration

The United States and allies must stay mindful of history, while demonstrating through military moves as well as statements clear commitment to Ukraine defense.

 

Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College and author of “After the Cold War” (NYU Press and Macmillan). Contact acyr@carthage.edu.

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