The ongoing Russia-Ukraine conflict has once again gained the attention of the International Community. The conflict at the Russian-Ukraine border poses a threat to regional peace and stability. According to Ukrainian General Valeriy Zaluzhny, 9000 Ukrainian soldiers have been killed so far. The United Nations reported that there were 5,587 civilian casualties. Ukraine has always been on Russia’s watch list. When Ukraine was part of the USSR it was economically, and strategically pivotal for Russia and the West. Russia also contested to increase its influence in Ukraine to contain the West, especially the US. Ukraine proved itself to be a bulwark for the US against Russian interference.
The war began in Ukraine in 2014 after Russia annexed Crimea. Russia has been supporting financially and militarily the separatists of the Donbas locale. The clash has shifted the geopolitical environment with the two great powers facing each other, once again, after the Cold War.
Ukraine and Russia have centuries-old familial and ethnic ties and even Ukraine is referred to as the “mother of Russian cities”. Christianity was brought to Slavic people from Byzantium in the 8th and 9th centuries in Kyiv. According to the Ukrainian census in 2001, 8 million ethnic Russians live there. Russia believes that it is Russia’s responsibility to protect their lives. One of the main reasons that Vladimir Putin does not want Ukraine to be inducted into NATO is because Putin sees it as alarming to its interests in Ukraine. In 2004 NATO included 3 former Soviet Baltic Republics Estonia, Lithuania, and Latvia. When NATO showed its intentions to include Georgia and Ukraine, Russia protested aggressively and said that the redline had been crossed. Russia feels that any alliance of Ukraine with NATO can boost Ukraine’s defence capabilities which will threaten Russia’s supremacy and interests in the region.
One of the key principles that follow is collective security which means when there is an attack on any state then it is considered an attack on all member states and they are obliged to defend their partners. If Ukraine becomes a member of NATO, then the rest of the member states would be obliged to rescue Ukraine if Russia attacks. As Ukraine is not a NATO member it does not enjoy the protocol and benefits like the rest of the NATO members. Regardless, the US is helping the Ukraine military and has provided military training to Ukraine soldiers but the Ukrainian Army is smaller in size and strength which is why Ukraine has existential threats from Russia. Russia wants to establish itself as a regional hegemon and wants smaller post-Soviet states to join the Russian camp against the West so that it may not face any resistance and competition in Ukraine. If these states join Russia, then Russia will have a strategic advantage in the region against NATO.
Russia considers the Crimean Peninsula an important instrument to project its power into the Mediterranean. After the collapse of the USSR and with the independence of Ukraine, Russia lost its influence over Ukraine but the Crimea annexation provided an opportunity for Russia to overcome that weakness. Russia faces many difficulties in the Black Sea due to its geographical location but the southern Russian port city of Novorossiysk and Crimea give Russia access to warm waters. Turkey controls the straits of Bosphorus and Dardanelles and it is mandatory for all ships to pass through the Bosphorus straits and Dardanelles to access the Black Sea. Bosphorus and Dardanelles were under the control of Turkey after the 1936 Montreux Convention. Under the agreement Turkey allows civilian ships to pass freely but military vessels face restrictions, especially those states which do not belong to Black Sea littoral states which is of major concern to Russia.
Central Asian states use the Russian port of Novorossiysk to export oil and grain which provides Moscow leverage over Central Asian Republics. Russia is also investing in different energy projects in the Black Sea. Russia has signed an energy project with Turkey named the TurkStream pipeline that provided an opportunity for Moscow to deepen its economic ties with Ankara and provide an opportunity to bypass Ukraine. To decrease the US and NATO influence Moscow has also invested in energy projects in the Balkan states.
Russia is worried about the counterstrike from Ukraine but chances are rare because the Russian military is larger in size and capabilities than that of Ukraine’s and after the Russian annexation of Crimea Ukraine has been reluctant to fight back against Russia but the Black Sea has been used by Russia to project its military superiority. The Russian military objective is the dominance of the Black Sea. The Kremlin uses Crimea to pressurise Ukraine and use it against other states to stop their commercial freighters to access it. Russia also has built the Kerch Strait bridge and ships taller than 33m can’t pass through it and they can’t access Ukraine Mariupol and Berdyansk. Russia uses its leverage and power over Crimea by blocking transport routes to Ukrainian ports through the Kerch Strait. The Ukrainian fishermen have also been denied access to the Sea of Azov. Russia has blocked access to the Sea of Azov between March 2001-October 2021 and the main reason was given as manoeuvres. This act has serious consequences for Ukraine and it also prevents Ukraine from exporting grains through Bryansk and Maripol.
Ukraine has also approached the International Court of Arbitration and the case is set to run till 2022. This blockage has affected the Ukrainian economy in the Donetsk region. It is an industrial hub, materials are supplied through the ports but the railway system is now under Russian control. The European states have always supported Ukraine with infrastructural projects but still, a lot of goods services such as machinery and steel depend on shipping to be transported. Russian forces captured oil and gas rigs in the Black Sea in 2014 which expanded to Crimea westwards. Russia has occupied the majority of areas that are close to Ukrainian shores. Russian Federal Security Service and Black Sea fleet guards these vessels and for better security surveillance sensors are also installed by Russia and their main purpose is to check the arrival of maritime vessels from Ukrainian coasts. Russia considers any aggressive move from the Ukrainian side a threat to its defence system.
Written by: Zohaib Tahoor
Edited by: Amna Sheikh