The fall and dismantling of the Soviet Union humiliated the newly created Russian Federation and left it in grave economic trouble. The countries that emerged from this process chose diverging paths when it came to relations with Russia. 11 of the 15 ex-USSR countries joined the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), essentially vowing to collaborate and align with Russian politics. Most importantly for Russia, this union was a political successor to the Cold War-era collective defense treaty known as the Warsaw Pact. The ex-superpower hoped this would prevent its young neighbors from joining NATO and bringing American weaponry to their doorstep.
Ukraine was a founding member of the CIS, although it has never been an official member due to tensions with Russia. The country has been in a permanent, internal tug-of-war between a pro-EU faction largely focused in Western Ukraine asking for membership in the European Union and NATO and a pro-Russia faction concentrated in Southeastern Ukraine advocating for a return to traditional USSR-era collaboration and alignment with Moscow. This divide is a legacy of the USSR — many Eastern Ukrainians are Russian speakers and became very integrated during the Soviet period, while many Western Ukrainians saw Soviet Russia as an oppressor and rejected those ties.
The conflict between the two factions came to a head in the Winter of 2013 when Russia-backed President Yanukovych suspended the ratification of an association treaty with the EU. The treaty had been negotiated over many years and approved by both Brussels and Yanukovych’s cabinet. Instead, Yanukovych chose to join the Russia-backed Eurasian Economic Union. Protests immediately burst in Ukraine’s biggest cities, advocating for an immediate return to EU alignment rather than the continual courting of Russia. Repression from the Yanukovych regime was brutal. Led by the Berkut special police force, a remnant of the Soviet apparatus, security forces killed almost a hundred protesters at the February climax of the movement. But the opposition held its ground and the movement known as “Euromaidan” proved successful, forcing Yanukovych to sign an agreement mediated by the EU and Russia to end the crisis. He soon fled the country with his government officials. The EU association treaty took effect in March, and elections held in June 2014 brought the pro-Western Petro Poroshenko to power. But this wasn’t the end of the divide between pro-Western and pro-Russian supporters in Ukraine.
The Russian envoy refused to ratify the agreement at the last minute, saying it amounted to Yanukovych capitulating and accepting all of the opposition’s demands. In response, Russia promptly moved in on the Ukrainian province of Crimea, annexing it to the Russian Federation and drawing mass international protest. Russia then supported rebels in the Donbass, a strategic region in the Ukrainian East that broke away from Kyiv due to strong pro-Russian sentiment, though Russia denies any involvement in the conflict.
Western response to these acts of aggression was swift but underwhelming. Indeed, the U.S. and EU imposed strict economic sanctions on Russia, provoking immediate inflation of the ruble, but President Vladimir Putin’s regime emerged relatively unscathed. The Ukraine crisis had turned into a very public Russian tour de force. America, under President Obama, had left the Ukrainian situation to be resolved by Europe. Russia had committed a blatant land grab, but the West judged the disputed area too small to warrant supporting a Ukrainian military operation to reclaim its territory. Since then, Ukraine has been stuck in a trench war with Russia-backed separatists, effectively losing control over the Donbass region, alongside most of its access to strategic Black Sea harbors, now host to the Russian navy.
The West has been too lenient with Russia. Economic interests still motivate western countries’ political and military actions towards Russia. Within the EU, France has called for changes in the EU's approach to the situation, while Germany has remained conservative due to economic benefits it accrues from relations with Russia. The Nord Stream 2, a gas pipeline that Russia’s Gazprom has been building to continue supplying Europe, terminates in Germany. It would ensure steady revenues and critical energy supply to the European powerhouse. Interestingly, Nord Stream 2 would supplant pipelines that currently run through Ukraine and force Russia to pay its neighbor billions in transit fees. The new pipeline constitutes an economic threat to Ukraine and promises considerable benefits that Germany is not willing to give up.
Recently, emboldened by this ambiguous Western attitude, Russia has led a massive buildup of troops on its border with Ukraine. Western intelligence sources say 127,000 Russian soldiers are massed at the border, ready to face their Ukrainian counterparts. Russia maintains this buildup is for self-defense and that there are no plans to invade Ukraine, but Russian propaganda has been working to set the stage for such an operation for many years now. A recent cyberattack has heightened tensions, as has Belarus’ recent full realignment with Russia — signaling that a Russian attack might happen on multiple fronts, cornering a weakened Ukraine. The country is facing an existential threat, as it might not survive a Russian assault. President Biden’s administration signaled that it believes invasion might be imminent but has also laid bare divisions in NATO’s desired response. No troop deployment to Ukraine is planned, whether or not Russia invades. Even as President Macron of France calls for a unified European response that would embolden “EU strategic independence” regardless of U.S. plans for action, the EU is still reluctant to act, putting Europe’s general ability to face Russia in doubt.
Russia is driven by a strongly nationalistic stance and a desire to regain its former empire. NATO must offer strategic support to Ukraine — if not directly then through mass rearmament and a constant flow of intelligence to prevent any surprise assault. If Ukraine falls, Russia will have drawn a new Iron Curtain stretching from Belarus, deep into Eastern Europe and dropping down into Syria and the Middle East, thus setting the stage for a tripartite Cold War. If the U.S. refuses to act, it risks inheriting a war on two fronts: one with Russia and its evident attempts at expansion, and one with China and its growing influence on the world stage. The U.S. cannot afford to prioritize one over the other and sacrifice allies. The EU is not united enough and still doesn’t have the strategic strength to inherit the Russian situation if U.S. efforts are concentrated on China. A unified West, led by the U.S., must now strike with force and precision to maintain dissuasive power and prevent further emboldening of its developing rivals.