Analysis | Ukraine: Out of Sight Out of Mind

Analysis | Ukraine: Out of Sight Out of Mind

Taylor Valley

- Eastern European Affairs & Latin American Affairs Specialist
- Graduate Student in Russian, Eastern European, & Central Asian Studies at Harvard University

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 U.S. - Russian Relations Three Years Later

President Donald Trump wants a better relationship with Russia. Seven months into the Trump administration, however, U.S. - Russian relations remain just as low now as they were under Obama. While there are several points of hostility between the two powers—NATO enlargement, Syria, cyberattacks—it’s easy to forget that the illegal annexation of the relatively unknown Crimea, was the springboard for this current era of animosity.

President Trump’s flattery of Putin is a symbolic gesture at best. By invading and annexing Crimea, Russia crossed the Rubicon and no amount of presidential pleasantries can understate the severity of this offense. The United States and Russia may never see eye to eye in this conflict, but it’s necessary to understand both sides of the situation if the two countries ever hope to improve bilateral relations.

A Brief History of Crimea
Crimea, roughly the size of Massachusetts, occupies a greater portion of Russian cultural identity than its geographical size may suggest. For most of history, Ukraine (more accurately, the Eastern region of Ukraine) and Russia were practically inseparable. In fact, the word “Ukraine” itself can be roughly translated to mean “on the edge”—of Russia. Moreover, in Russian saying the equivalent of “the Ukraine” versus simply “Ukraine” can even reveal whether you see Ukraine as a territory or a sovereign country (Read more: The Washington Post).

Crimea, a Ukrainian peninsula along Russia’s border, has spent its fair share of time under both Ukrainian and Russian rule. The last legal changeover of Crimea occurred in 1954 under Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev when he gifted the peninsula back to the Soviet Ukrainian Republic. This administrative detail was symbolic and neither the Russians nor the Ukrainians lost access to their Jewel of the Black Sea. In Crimea, life went on as usual, that was, until the Soviet Union collapsed as a geopolitical entity in 1991.

More than two decades after what Putin referred to as “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century,” the cultural connection between Eastern Ukraine and Russia is still palpable. The Russian language is used almost exclusively in Crimea and native Russian speakers are overwhelmingly concentrated in Ukraine’s East.

The Crisis
On November 21st, 2013, then-Ukrainian-President Viktor Yanukovych opted to sign a deal that would move Ukraine towards greater economic cooperation with Russia instead of pursuing a highly anticipated economic relationship with the European Union. Protests against the president and his corrupt bargain cropped up across Ukraine’s West accentuating the divide between the Ukrainian people. The tension eventually erupted into full-scale violence in February of the next year when armed-Ukrainian forces shot and killed protesters in Ukraine’s, now infamous, Maidan Square in the capital Kiev. Within just two months time President Yanukovych fled the country, Russia illegally annexed Crimea, and Russian-backed rebels held key cities in Ukraine’s industrial East.

Three years later the Ukrainian government has completely lost control of two major provinces and Crimea. We are no closer to finding peace now than we were in 2014. All sides claim to want to find a solution, but two broken ceasefires later show that diplomacy, at least in its current form, is not working.

Where are we now?
The conflict in Ukraine remains unresolved. The rebels continue to occupy the Donetsk and Luhansk provinces (Donbas) yet the conflict rarely makes it into mainstream news coverage. According to the European Commission on Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations, the security situation in Eastern Ukraine remains “extremely volatile with daily hostilities.” Ceasefire violations have been reported all across the Donetsk province with casualties totaling 327 in the first half of 2017.

In July 2017, the U.S. House of Representatives overwhelmingly voted (419-3) to approve a new packet of sanctions on Russia for interfering in the 2016 presidential elections. President Putin retaliated just a few days later with an order to expel 755 U.S. diplomats currently working in Russia. And just like that, the honeymoon between Vladimir and Donald has come to an abrupt end.

In the past three years we have seen that sanctions do little to deter Russian aggression. We also know from history that reducing the number of diplomatic contacts foments rather than ameliorates conflicts. So what exactly is each side trying to achieve? Dominance. Instead of finding common ground and working towards compromise each side has taken a stance of non-negotiation.

Just last month President Trump expressed an interest in arming Ukrainian fighters in the Donbas and both “the Pentagon and State Department have proposed to the White House a plan to supply Ukraine with anti-tank missiles and other arms.” Shipping arms into Ukraine to fight the Russian-backed rebels sounds eerily like a proxy war with Russia. While all proposed weapons are intended for defense, it should be noted that anti-tank missiles have the capability to destroy armored military vehicles.

U.S. - Russian relations must not be a zero sum game. With the two largest nuclear arsenals, limited cooperation, and a new arms race, we are no closer to peace now than we were during the height of the Cold War.

What’s next?
What the Trump administration must begin to understand about Russia is that there is no quick “deal” that can put the two countries on the path to partnership. Years of political tension, military insecurity, and aggressive posturing have made the United States and Russia adversaries in every domain. If President Trump wishes to salvage relations with Russia, he must be willing to work to establish trust with the Russian government.

There are a number of issues on which the American and Russian positions align: fighting drug and human trafficking, and disease control; just to name a few. Why not grab the low hanging fruit when the option is still available? This soft diplomacy path could lead to a strategic dialogue in areas where working together does not mean political suicide.

Arming Ukraine is the quickest way to escalate the bloodshed. The U.S. and Russia have become complicit in the violence by allowing the status quo. U.S. - Russian engagement is essential for resolution in the conflict in Ukraine as well as for international stability. Believe it or not, diplomacy still works and the future of humanity depends on it now more than ever.


All views expressed in this article are solely those of the author, and do not represent the views of The International Scholar or any other organization.


Banner Photo Credit:

  1. By Sasha Maksymenko, Flickr Military conflict. Crimea. Ukraine.
    https://www.flickr.com/photos/112078056@N07/13284887813/in/photolist-meWwiT-meXzrA-pv9Xfm-meWvdg-meWvEt-oyeyKT-meVL7Z-oFmhjc-meVKPz-oXzCV2-meXzJ9-oYh6aP-9oYwn9-oYh1j6-pV9xE7-pV18NP-D1Re3c-pV9yuU-pUQquR-pCzwEa-pBKbQA-o6PgA2-ofjsYs-ooawVi-5hrcn9-9oVmk4-kD9kix-9oVrgr-pzCiLK-FYieK6-maArNg-pzEzeY-oVdacy-oFmvN7-oVcXtd-qoZAxv-pSUJgw-9oVn34-9oYwgh-9oYARA-9h1afX-5irLrq-GTHVoR-phMwSB-pfK2c1-9oVjZr-b1raUc-kGdsN7-9oVfbg-9oYGp1

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