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Ukraine – Ten Points To Understand The Crisis

Updated: May 10, 2023

Every war has deep roots, which can never be reduced to the latest events. Ukraine has always been a borderland, a land of Cossacks, a land of dozens of ethnic groups, which inevitably reverberate in political sentiments. Like Russia itself, a country that lives between European proximity, Slavic culture and eastward tendencies. The analysts of AMIStaDeS and those of the Associazione Italiana di Intelligence e Geopolitica (AIAIG) decided to make their own contribution to trying to understand the crisis.

1. Ukraine, Rus’ cradle: from King Vladimir to present day

Until the early Middle Ages, in current Ukraine lived nomads, but with the arrival of Rus', part of the Norse Varangian, lands were unified and Kiev was named “mother of all Rus' cities”.

The population was also baptized and christianised by order of Vladimir the Great, who thereby abandoned paganism.

After many invasions – among them, the mongolian one, and the later division of the Golden Horde Khanate in three grand duchies – two were Moscovia and Volnya, where there were respectively Moscow and Kiev –, the first one became more important and stronger and put Ukraine under its own control (Treaty of Perejslav, 1654). In the last period of tsarist regime, a work of ucraine lands' russification, above all linguistically, was carried out.

After a long time of civil wars and anarchy (1917-1922), Ukraine became part of the USSR and, when this broke up (1991), the Parliament stated that Ukraine was an indipendent and democratic country.

Relations with Russia were very tense at the beginning, they escalated in the 90s due to relationships between Ukraine and NATO and they got worse in the first years of the new millennium, when Juščenko's reformist government was established, dismissed and then elected again after the so called Orange Revolution (2004), which started after fraud concerns on behalf of Janukovyč, the pro-Russian prime minister. As a consequence, conflicts in the Russian-speaking community of eastern Ucraine increased, while creating the premises of the crisis in 2014.

2. Ukraine, borderland between ethnicities and religiosity

In Ukranian, krajina means “country, land”, whereas for Slavic etymology it means “on the border”: this land, which is the second biggest country in Europe, borders Russia, Moldova, Belarus, Romania, Hungary and Slovakia. Plains and steppes (where černozem – literally “black soil” – can be found) are crossed by many rivers, whilst the only mountains are parts of Carphatians and Crimean peaks. As it can cover up to seven times its population's food requirement, Ukraine was often called “world's granary” (it exports sunflower oil, wheat and sugar), and we shall not forget coal reserves and hydroelectric plants on river Dnepr.

Among all ehtnic groups, the biggest one is the Ukranian, followed by the Russian minority which doesn't correspond yet with the bigger Russian-speaking population. In fact, Ukranian is considered the state language, but Russian is widely used, especially in eastern and southern areas: still, it is difficult to define its real spread since many people speak suržik, a mix of Ukranian and Russian.

The most popular religious denomination is Orthodox Christianity, which is headed by Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate) and Orthodox Church of Ukraine (born from the union of Kiev Patriarchate and Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church).

3. If Russia shuts off gas: what risks for Europe?

It did not come down as a shocker that Moscow’s military aggression against Ukraine would have had utterly negative impacts on the energy markets. On the 24th of February, the futures value of Brent - which sets the benchmark for the European oil market - skyrocketed over $100/bbl due to the reduced input of crude from Russia. The last time oil prices went so high was in 2014, at the time of the Crimean invasion. Regarding natural gas, the current situation is even more fragile and unpredictable. Ukraine is a well-known infrastructural junction for Russian gas flowing towards Europe. Brotherhood, Progress and Sojuz, which cross the Ukrainian territory from east to west, are the most critical arteries through which Moscow transfers its gas to meet almost 40% of the European demand. Indeed, natural gas is a weapon in the hands of Vladimir Putin, despite his guarantees against any kind of supplies disruptions.

Moreover, European countries have been already experiencing weeks – or even months - of unprecedented lows in their gas reserves levels. Nonetheless, the markets tell us that Russian gas exports towards Europe jumped considerably in the first couple of days following the invasion, mainly due to ramping gas prices. In the eventuality of physical or intentional disruptions of gas supplies, it is difficult to measure the scale of the impact that it would have on European economies. Not to forget that the Nord Stream 2 project, which would have let Moscow deliver its gas to Europe without transiting through Poland and, crucially, Ukraine, was halted as the war unfolded.

4. The 2014 crisis: the events in Crimea and the frozen conflict in Donbass

What the West sees today in Ukraine as an honest ambition for democracy and EU membership is far more complex on the ground. When President Janukovyč (who won with 51% votes the elections against Tymošenko) dismissed the application to join the EU in favour of a Russian loan to sustain the economy (autumn 2013), the western part of Ukraine revolted and, after several violent episodes during the revolts today known as Euromaidan, the roots of today’s conflict were created. With a part of the Ukrainian population pushing for affiliation to the West, and the eastern one, mainly speaking Russian, more prone to keep a bond with Russia (declaring unilaterally the independence of the two eastern oblasts, Lugansk and Donetsk), the stage was set for a Russian intervention. Russia supported the separatist republics and occupied the Crimean Peninsula (20th of February 2014 – home to the Russian Black Sea Fleet), which later chose the annexation to the Russian Federation through a referendum (16th of March).

Two agreements were reached by the Normandy Format, Minsk and Minsk II, but they weren’t applied, by both sides, and particularly by Ukraine, which never started the constitutional reform process for the autonomy of the eastern Oblasts, as previously granted in the agreements. With an EU diplomacy totally uncapable of pushing for the agreement and unaware of the White House policy of blocking Russian influence in the area, probably the indirect responsibilities go far from being exclusively Russian.

The Donbas conflict represented until the Russian invasion some kind of fake frozen conflict, since military operations in the area never came to a complete stop, because of the inability of Kiev to control the far-right militiamen later integrated in the National guard on one hand, while on the other it was in the separatists’ interest to keep the tension higher to avoid further movement to the west by the Ukrainian establishment.

The typical tension of the former USSR area is present, too, and a complete analysis of the root causes of the conflict cannot ignore them: a national state with a huge number of quantitatively important minorities, with regional and global powers pushing on tensions because of their own agendas.

5. Crimea and Donbass 'different twins': what does the law say?

According to Putin, 'for the Donbass, another Crimean-style solution was unthinkable' (2014). While the two situations are very similar, they are in fact different and two legal concepts are helpful:

- A new state is formed when there are three elements (people, territory and sovereignty [effective control over the people and territory by a governing authority]) - irrespective of the recognition of other States - just as a human being shall not be said to be not alive if he breathes and his heart beats;

- Among the subjects to which the principle of self-determination of peoples applies are infra-state groups that are clearly identifiable from the rest of the population of a state: here the principle does not entitle them to independence if they are granted a high degree of autonomy to pursue their own political, economic and social development (so-called internal self-determination).

Crimea: former Ottoman Khanate ceded to Catherine II's Russia (1783), remained part of the Russian Soviet Socialist Republic until Kruschev "donated" it to the Ukraine (1954). After a referendum (January 1991) asking it to rejoin the Russian Republic, Crimea was granted only autonomy within Ukraine: it declared independence, which was however revoked by Kiev. With the collapse of the USSR (25 December 1991), the current Ukraine was born, whose Constitution frames Crimea as an Autonomous Republic and Sevastopol as a city with special status. Following the referendum (27 May 1994; 80% yes) - proposed by the newly elected president of Crimea, the separatist Yuri Meshkov - which envisaged, among other things, dual citizenship (Ukrainian and Russian) for the inhabitants of Crimea and a treaty regulating its relations with Ukraine, Kiev reacted by amending the Constitution. Future Crimean presidents would be appointed (and removed) by the Ukrainian government, no longer elected: Crimea, formally a Republic, was in fact less autonomous than the Province of Bolzano. The principle of internal self-determination appears to have been compromised since then; most of the population (Russian speaking population is about 70%) has long identified with a pro-Russian government.

Donbass: militarised by the Russians in the 17th century in an anti-Tatar role, it was definitively absorbed into the Russian Empire when Catherine II ordered the destruction of the Cossack Etmanate (1775). With a population that has always been mixed - various minorities and Ukrainians concentrated in the countryside while Russians in the cities - after a timid attempt for independence (1918), the Donbass was first subjected to the "Russification" decided by Stalin, with Ukrainians and Cossacks as victims of the Holodomor, and then occupied by Hitler, who deported the skilled workers, exterminating the rest of the population. Reunited with the USSR (1943), Moscow favoured the transfer of the Russian population to the region (45% in 1959). The conflict that began in 2014 was not determined in one direction or the other because neither faction, Russian or Ukrainian, prevailed over the other, controlled the territory or self-identified with a specific government (none of the three elements existed) as was the case in Crimea. Kiev has not implemented the new special status law foreseen by the Minsk agreements to protect the Russian minority. On the contrary, there is a significant emigration towards Russia and the legislation passed by former president Porošenko, which foresaw the conversion of Russian-speaking schools into Ukrainian-speaking schools by 2020: this threatens the principle of internal self-determination.

6. Is Russia really behind the cyber-attacks in Ukraine?

On February 15, 2022, Ukraine and the United States accused Russia of conducting Distributed Denial-of-Service (DDoS) attacks against two banking institutions and the Ministry of Defense in Kyiv. The offensive was preceded by a series of other hackings - perpetrated since early January against more than 70 government websites - and malware inside Ukrainian state systems, discovered by Microsoft. Russia denied it, but many clues are supporting these accusations: cyber offensive tactics have long been part of Russian military doctrine, indeed both military actions in Georgia (2008) and Crimea (2014) were preceded by cyberattacks. Along with what seems to be a modus operandi, there are numerous cases in which Moscow has exploited the cyber domain to strike Ukraine itself: for instance, in 2015 and 2016 the country's electricity supply network was partially knocked out, or in 2017 the NotPetyaransomware caused massive economic damage that reverberated globally. The February 15 operation could be Russia's response to theU.S.-Ukraine Charter on Strategic Partnership (November 2021), under which Washington is offering great support to Kyiv on the cyber front. The Cyber Attack Predictive Index (CAPI), based on cross-validation of cyber strength, motivation to attack, lack of repercussions, consistency with the country's strategy, and technological vulnerabilities of the target, also recently recorded the highest level of risk of Russian cyberattacks against Ukraine.

As an additional confirmation of Russian involvement and in response to Putin's despotic attitude, Anonymous has openly taken sides against the President, by hacking the Kremlin's and Defense Ministry's government sites and disseminating information previously denied by censorship to Russian citizens.

7. NATO and Ukraine: an impractical marriage?

Starting from the ‘90s NATO has undergone a transformation process which led to a progressive openesses towards the former Soviet countries. The process started in 1991 with the approval of the New Strategic Concept. The launch of the Partnership for Peace programme in 1994 was the first result of this approach and it reached its peak when Czeck Republic, Hungary and Poland were invited to begin accession talks in 1997 according to the “open door” policy. In the same year the NATO-Ukraine Commission (NUC) was established to support the development of the relationship with Kiev.

Between 1999 and 2009 seven former Warsaw Pact joined NATO, as well as the Baltic Republics which were part of the former Soviet Union. During the Bucharest Summit in 2008 NATO welcomed Ukraine’s and Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic aspirations for membership in NATO and agreed that these countries will become members of the Alliance.

Starting from 2016 NATO has been implementing the Comprehensive Assistance Package for Ukraine adopted at the Warsaw Summit and the Allies hold yearly joint military exercises with Ukraine.

In September 2020, President Zelensky approved Ukraine’s new National Security Strategy, which provides for the development of the distinctive partnership with NATO; therefore, Ukraine became one of just six enhanced opportunity partners, a special status for close NATO allies.

After Russia’s attack on Ukraine, NATO defined it is a grave violation of international law and a serious threat to Euro-Atlantic security.

8. The Primakov Doctrine pulls the strings of Russian foreign policy

In a context where the so-called "Gerasimov doctrine," actually non-existent, lures much of the analysts' hype to untwist the tangle of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict, another paradigm has instead shaped the Kremlin's modus agendi in recent decades: the Primakov doctrine.

Not only Gerasimov can not be regarded as the deus ex machina of current Russian strategic thought, but his efforts in crafting some military operational concepts (to prevent, and not advance, "hybrid warfare") are to be regarded as functional for Primakov's agenda. Specifically, to the four main postulates enunciated by the former Russian prime minister in the 90s, posing that Russia must: strive towards a multipolar world able to counterbalance US hegemony through a system of governance between the major global powers; exercise its primacy over the Post-Soviet space (i.e., ближнее зарубежье, "near abroad") and lead Eurasian integration; thwart NATO expansion; foster a privileged partnership with China.

In Moscow's eyes, several Western unilateral initiatives have contributed to undermining the Primakov creed, hampering the historic defensive operational concept of strategic depth and favoring a perception of encirclement. Among the most significant ones, it is worth mentioning the NATO enlargement to the East, the bombing of Yugoslavia(1999), the invasion of Iraq(2003), the deployment of anti-missile systems in Eastern Europe, the NATO "open door" policy to Georgia and Ukraine(2008), the following support for revolutions in those and other former Soviet republics(e.g., EuroMaidan2014), the NATO bombing of Libya(2011), and the current antagonism in Syria.

As a result, the legacy from Primakov's trajectory, combined with the western adventurism mentioned above, today fosters the Russian grand strategy, frames the national security strategy, and inspires the choices of the Moscow politburo, including the invasion of Ukraine.

9. The EU between diplomacy and sanctions: needle in the balance or sleeping beauty?

What about Europe? Individual Member States tried initially to defuse the crisis through diplomatic means, with rounds of high-level meetings in Moscow, Kyiv and Washington (to coordinate with US allies). However, this did not bring results. But the EU, which did not play any diplomatic role (especially through its High Representative for the Common Foreign and Security Policy, Josep Borrell), subsequently showcased a notable degree of unity in approving new sanctions to hit the Russian economy after the aggression of Ukraine.

Still, sanctions also hurt those who adopt them. Some countries suggested greater caution, but positions change rapidly. In one week, three sanctions packages have been adopted, and more may be forthcoming. The Russian political and economic establishment has been directly affected, as well as the energy, financial, commercial, transport and visa sectors. Several Russian banks have been excluded from the Swift international financial system, while for the first time the EU has supported the sale of lethal weapons to a third country (EU’s NATO members also continue to supply Kyiv with troops and equipment). Nonetheless, Russian gas – on which Europe is dependent – is notably excluded from the current round of sanctions. Russian flights have been barred from the EU’s airspace, and seas might soon follow suit.

Meanwhile, the “Kyiv momentum” is building for Ukraine to acquire EU-candidate status, but the issue is rather complex and will likely take several years for the country to access the Union.

10. Beijing's difficult equilibrium between Moscow, Kyiv and Washington

In contrast with Western countries, whose condemnation of the invasion was unanimous and immediate, Beijing has delayed avoiding excessive exposure and trying to maintain, at least in the early stages, an ambiguous position. Ukraine represents one of the main gateways to Europe for the Belt and Road Initiative (the new Silk Road) and therefore for commercial and economic penetration towards western markets. Moreover, Chinese foreign policy has always been in favor of supporting territorial sovereignty and against foreign interference in the domestic affairs of a third country. In this regard, it is significant the fact that China has never recognized Crimea as part of Russia. However, Moscow is Beijing's most important strategic partner (a bond recently strengthened by Putin's visit to the Winter Olympics), which finally, after maintaining an attitude of quasi-neutrality, has decided to take a stand. The Chinese Foreign Ministry has decided not to use the word "invasion" to describe what is happening in Ukraine and the Beijing government (which has not condemned Russia's actions) has firmly opposed sanctions against Moscow. On the contrary, in the last few hours, China has softened some restrictions on grain imports, providing Russia with a lifeline and an important counterweight to Western sanctions, attracting criticism from the United States and Australia.

To China, it seems that the days of Cold War triangular diplomacy, when Beijing was caught between Moscow and Washington, have returned.


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