“Poor Mexico, so far from God and so close to the United States!,” said former President Porfirio Diaz about Mexico’s uncomfortable relationship with its much stronger neighbor, the United States of America (US). Following Mexico’s defeat in the Mexican-American War (1846 – 1848), Mexico ceded 1.37 million sq. Km (529,000 sq. miles), over half of its entire territory, to the US in exchange for $18 million. Earlier in 1845, Mexico lost 1.01 million sq. Km (390,000 sq. miles) when the US annexed Texas. Sharing a fence with a bully certainly has its price.
Just as Mexico suffered at the hands of the US 173 year ago, Ukraine has, since 2014, been bullied by Russia. Like the US did to Mexico, Russia too has been dismembering Ukraine, and still wants more of Ukrainian territory.
The on-going Russian invasion of Ukraine is not the first time the two Slavic neighbors have clashed. The two countries’ history have been intertwined as far back as 879 CE when the Kievan (Kyivan) Rus’ federation was founded, with Kiev (now officially, Kyiv) as its capital for all but three of its 361 years of existence before it fell to the Mongols in 1240.
Following the collapse of the Mongol Empire, some former Kievan Rus’ lands were later united with Poland. In 1648 Hetman (military leader) Bohdan Khmelnytsky led a Cossack rebellion against Catholic Poland, leading to the creation of the Hetmanate. In 1654 the Hetmanate signed the Treaty of Pereiaslav for the Orthodox Russian Tsar to protect them from Poland, but in 1764, Catherine II abolished the Hetmanate, ending Ukrainian autonomy.
Following the overthrow of the Russian monarchy in 1917, the Russian Provisional Government granted Ukraine autonomy. The Bolsheviks, who won the Russian Civil War, refused to recognize Ukrainian sovereignty, but appeased Ukrainians by creating the Soviet Ukrainian Republic, later called the Ukrainian Socialist Soviet Republic, a founding member of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) or Soviet Union in 1922, and the United Nations (UN) in 1945.
Ukrainians suffered immensely from Soviet leader Joseph Stalin’s collectivization policies which killed an estimated 10.8 million people in the 1932-1933 Great Famine (sometimes called the Holodomor [“to kill by starvation”]) which some term a Genocide.
Ironically, Russian Tsars, and the Soviet Union handed over a lot of territory to Ukraine. In September 1939, Stalin annexed 201,015 sq. Km (77,612 sq. miles) of Eastern Poland, and incorporated them into the Lithuanian, Byelorussian, and Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republics (SSRs). At the Yalta and Potsdam Conferences in 1945, the Allies allowed the Soviets to retain the annexed Polish lands, in exchange for part of East Germany.
In 1944, the Soviet Red Army captured and occupied parts of Carpathian Ruthenia (of the then Czechoslovak Republic) which were ceded to the Soviet Union in June 1945 and became part of the Ukraine SSR in January 1946. In 1954, the Soviet Union controversially transferred Crimea to the Ukraine SSR, to commemorate the 300th anniversary of the Treaty of Pereiaslav, and appease Ukrainians.
Following the abortive coup in August 1991 against President Mikhail Gorbachev, the Ukraine SSR declared independence. In December 1991, Ukrainians voted for independence from the USSR, and Ukraine, Russia and Belarus signed the Belavezha Accords, which ended the Soviet Union, and the US recognized Ukraine. The USSR was formally dissolved on December 21, 1991, following the signing of the Alma-Ata Protocol which also transferred the USSR’s membership of the UN and its Security Council to the Russian Federation.
Following the collapse of the USSR, the Ukrainian, Russian and US presidents signed a statement in January 1994, reaffirming Ukraine’s commitment to transferring its strategic nuclear warheads to Russia and, with US assistance, dismantling strategic nuclear weapons launchers in its territory. Furthermore, Ukraine was to be provided “security assurances” following its accession to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).
In February 1994, Ukraine joined the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO), Partnership for Peace, and following its accession to the NPT, signed the Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances in December, 1994, along with Russia, the UK, and the US. All of them committed to respecting Ukraine’s territorial integrity and sovereignty, and promised not to threaten, or use force against it. In 1997, NATO deepened its relationship with Ukraine by establishing the NATO-Ukraine Commission, and Russia signed a Treaty on Friendship with Ukraine, which recognized their existing borders, and mutual commitment not to invade, or declare war on each other.
Following presidential run-off elections marred by fraud and voter intimidation in November, 2004, nationwide protests called the Orange Revolution resulted in fresh elections in December, 2004. The pro-Europe candidate Viktor Yushchenko, defeated the pro-Russia candidate, Viktor Yanukovych, upsetting Russia, coming shortly after the 2003 Rose Revolution which overthrew the pro-Russia government in Georgia, Russia’s neighbor and former Soviet Republic.
President Vladimir Putin of Russia raised the alarm in February 2007 in his Munich Speech at the Munich Security Conference, warning about the dangers of a unipolar world and unilateralism. He also spoke against NATO’s expansion, which he said would not ensure security in Europe, and was a “serious provocation that reduces the level of mutual trust.”
Despite this, Ukraine requested in January 2008 to join NATO’s Membership Action Plan (MAP), but President Putin opposed it, telling US President George W. Bush that Ukraine was not “a real nation-state.” NATO debated Ukraine’s request at its Bucharest Summit in April 2008, but because France opposed it, could only promise Ukraine that it would join later.
In February 2010, Viktor Yanukovych was re-elected President of Ukraine, and promptly abandoned Ukraine’s plans to join NATO. Yanukovych was later accused of political witch-hunting when charges were filed against his pro-European opponent, delaying the finalization of the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement.
Although the Verkhovna Rada, Ukraine’s parliament, overwhelmingly supported the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement in February 2013, the Ukrainian government under Russian pressure, decided in November 2013 not to sign it, and sought to join the Russia-led Eurasian Customs Union. Ukrainians immediately protested Yanukovych’s decision, and launched the Euromaidan protests or Maidan Uprising; later called the Revolution of Dignity.
The Euromaidan protestors also called for the resignation of President Yanukovych, and an end to government corruption. The government violently dispersed protesters and introduced harsh anti-protest laws. The protests, which started in Kyiv spread across the country, and climaxed in February 2014, with 130 people killed.
Although an agreement was reached between the opposition and President Yanukovych to form an interim unity government, Yanukovych and other government officials fled to Russia in February 2014. In a controversial vote Yanukovych called a coup, Parliament impeached him and installed an interim government.
Following the overthrow of Yanukovych, protests and counter-protests broke out in Crimea, with Russophile nationalists, pitted against pro-Ukraine Crimean Tatars. Unidentified Russian soldiers called Little Green Men entered Crimea on February 26, 2014, and organized a controversial referendum in which 97 percent of voters supported Crimea joining the Russian Federation.
In contravention of the UN Charter, the 1991 agreement among former Soviet Republics accepting their borders when the Soviet Union collapsed, the 1994 Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances for Ukraine, and 1997 Russian-Ukrainian Treaty on Friendship, Russia formally annexed Crimea and Sevastopol on March 21, 2014.
In early 2014, pro-Russian protests started in Luhansk and Donetsk Oblasts (Regions), which are predominantly Russian-speaking, and collectively form the Donbas area of southeastern Ukraine. The demonstrations quickly turned violent and armed Russia-backed separatists declared the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR), and Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR).
Ukraine launched a counteroffensive in April 2014, and by August 2014, had considerably reduced the separatist-held territory. In response, Russia invaded the Donbas in late August 2014 with artillery, personnel, and what it called a “humanitarian convoy.”
As a result, the Ukrainian government lost much of the territory it had captured from separatists in its April 2014 counteroffensive. The Ukrainian government was thus forced to sign, in September 2014, a ceasefire agreement known as the Minsk Protocol with Russia, the DPR, and LPR. The agreement was however violated many times by both sides and collapsed by January 2015. A new ceasefire, called Minsk II, was agreed to in February 2015, although fighting quickly resumed.
At the Munich Security Conference in February 2017, the US Vice President Mike Pence said the US would hold Russia accountable in Ukraine, and demanded its adherence to the Minsk Agreements. In reply, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov accused NATO of sparking unprecedented tensions in Europe because of its expansion, and President Putin tightened the screws on Ukraine by recognizing official documents (birth certificates, identity documents, etc.) issued by pro-Russian authorities in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions.
In January 2018, the Ukrainian parliament passed a bill to regain control over the separatist-led areas of Donbas and Luhansk, calling them “temporarily-occupied territories.” Russia condemned the bill, which came after the US announced its readiness to supply lethal weapons to Ukraine, calling it “preparations for a new war,” and a violation of the Minsk Agreement.
In April 2018, Ukraine replaced its “Anti-Terrorist Operation” in the Donbas with a “Joint Forces Operation” signifying it was protecting Ukraine’s “territorial integrity, sovereignty and independence” and fighting the Russian military, not “separatist militants.” On the same day, the US confirmed the delivery of Javelin anti-tank missiles to Ukraine.
Although the Javelin missiles were to be kept away from the frontline, Russia had expressed its displeasure when the deal was announced in December 2017, claiming it would encourage “the resumption of large-scale bloodshed in Donbas.” Sure enough, all three ceasefires agreed to between June and December 2018 failed, with each side blaming the other for their collapse.
Another ceasefire was entered into in March 2019, although there was not much hope for its success. Against this background, Ukraine held its 2019 presidential elections without the participation of parts of Donbas occupied by Russia or pro-Russia separatist. Volodymyr Oleksandrovych Zelenskyy won the elections on an anti-establishment and anti-corruption platform and became President of Ukraine in May 2019. Zelenskyy also called for unity between Russian- and Ukrainian-speakers, and promised to end the conflict with Russia.
The exclusion of parts of Donbas from the presidential elections prompted the Russian government to consider easing the provision of Russian passports to residents of DPR and LPR, and toward that end, published three Decrees between April and July 2019, calling them humanitarian and practical measures which did not violate the Minks Agreements.
The European Council considered this “passportisation” of the Donbas by Russia a contravention of the Minsk Agreements, and the EU Commission issued a guidance for member states to reject such passports. Nevertheless, naturalizations increased about 85 percent to 497,817, and the proportion of Ukrainian applicants for Russian passports almost doubled to 60 percent, between 2018 and 2019.
In October 20019, Russia, Ukraine, DPR, LPR, and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) signed the “Steinmeier Formula” which envisaged free elections in the LPR and DPR, followed by their integration, with a special status, into Ukraine. Following the signing of the Steinmeier Formula, Ukraine and separatist withdrew their troops, and Russia exchanged prisoners with Ukraine. In addition, presidents Putin and Zelenskyy, French president Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel resumed the Normandy Format peace talks in December, 2019.
Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic worsened living conditions in the conflict zone, and by March 2020, fighting escalated. The 29th ceasefire since the war started in 2014 came into in July 2020, and this largely held until November 2020.
2021 got off to a bad start, with 25 Ukrainian soldiers killed in the conflict zone, compared to 50 soldiers being killed in 2020. Tensions increased around early April after Russia moved thousands of military personnel as well as large quantities of arms and materiel into Crimea and its border with Ukraine. The UK and EU expressed their concern about Russia’s military buildup and promised their “unwavering support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.”
On their part, Russia said some of its troops were deployed to practice fighting enemy drones and that the military movements posed no threat to Ukraine. However, a Russian official added that an escalation of the conflict in Donbas would mean the “the beginning of the end of Ukraine.” Chancellor Merkel asked Putin to reduce the Russian troop buildup, while US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken and his German counterpart emphasized the importance of supporting Ukraine in the face of Russia’s provocations.
Tensions increased in April 2021 when Ukraine flew its Turkish-made Bayraktar TB2 military drones over Donbas for the first time. A week later, President Putin warned that any country which takes Russia’s good intentions for weakness or indifference, and crosses its red lines should know that Russia’s response will be “asymmetrical, swift and harsh.”
In early October 2021, eight members of the Russian mission to NATO were expelled because they were “undeclared Russian intelligence officers.” Russia accused NATO of duplicity, and in retaliation, closed its mission to NATO, which it declared was “not interested in equitable dialogue and joint work.”
On October 19, 2021, US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said in Kyiv that Russia was an “obstacle to a peaceful resolution” of the conflict in Ukraine. In clear reference to Russia, he added that “no third country” could veto NATO’s membership decisions. Secretary Austin also discussed with Ukrainian authorities the implementation of the US-Ukraine Strategic Defense Framework which underlines US support for Ukraine’s right to decide its own foreign policy, its desire to join NATO, as reaffirmed in the June 2021 NATO Summit Communique.
Secretary Austin’s remarks in Kyiv were criticized for reflecting US policy makers’ failure to accept geopolitical realities in eastern Europe, and risking drawing the US and NATO into a war with Russia. Furthermore, his remarks were said to encourage Ukraine to take a hardline against Russia, instead of accommodating Russia’s interests.
A few days after Secretary Austin’s statement in Kyiv, Ukraine destroyed a separatist artillery gun manned by “Russian occupation forces” in the Donbas using, for the first time, a Turkish-made Bayraktar TB2 drone. Although Ukraine claimed that the drone did not cross the Contact Line, the 427-Km long frontline between the government and non-government-controlled areas in Donbas, the LPR said the drone attack was in violation of the Minsk Agreements. Germany’s Foreign Office expressed its concern about the drone strike, while a Russian government spokesman said the drone attack was destabilizing and would not help settle the conflict.
In a November 2021 speech, President Putin said that Russia’s Western partners were aggravating the situation in Ukraine by supplying the Ukrainian government with lethal weapons and conducting military exercises in the Black Sea and other regions close to Russia. In addition, Putin said, their partners ignored Russia’s warnings about its “red lines,” including NATO’s expansion eastward toward Russia.
In December 2021, President Putin said that Russia wants to negotiate agreements with the US and its allies to stop NATO from deploying weapons near Russian territory, and expanding eastwards. A few days later, Ukraine claimed that Russia was sending tanks and snipers to the conflict areas.
By mid-December, Russia published draft US-Russia and NATO-Russia agreements to guarantee it’s security, and defuse the tension in Ukraine. The US government said some parts of the proposals were “unacceptable” while others saw them as a ploy by Russia to justify an invasion of Ukraine. Meanwhile, Russia had a massive buildup of over 100,000 troops along its border with Ukraine, in readiness for what many called another invasion of Ukraine.
Fighting escalated in February 2022, with the Ukrainian military reporting 60 incidents of weapons fire in one day, and about 135,000 Russian troops on the Russia-Ukraine border. On February 15, 2022, the Russian State Duma (lower house of the Federal Assembly of Russia) passed a non-binding resolution asking President Putin to recognize the DPR and LPR.
A few days later, the DPR and LPR leaders requested President Putin to recognize the independence of their republics and proposed signing a treaty of friendship and cooperation (including military cooperation) with Russia. Putin signed the State Duma resolution recognizing the republics, along with their treaties on “friendship, co-operation and mutual assistance” with Russia.
In his address to Russia following his recognition of the breakaway republics, President Putin said that Ukraine was created by Russia, and never was a genuine state. He also said that although many European allies of the US knew of the risks of admitting Ukraine into NATO, the US forced them to carry out its anti-Russia policy. Putin concluded by saying that those in power in Kyiv should immediately cease hostilities or their conscience will be burdened by bloodshed from the conflict.
On February 21, 2022, President Putin ordered more Russian troops into Donbas for a “peacekeeping mission,” which the US called an invasion. Putin raised the ante on February 24, 2022 when he announced the start of a “special military operation” in the Donbas. The much-anticipated full-scale invasion of Russia by Ukraine was on.
The global reaction to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine came thick and fast, with President Biden condemning it, but adding that US will not send its troops to Ukraine to fight Russian forces. The US also provided $4.6 billion in security assistance, and $914 million in humanitarian assistance to Ukraine since Russia’s invasion began, and announced an additional $700 million in funding on June 1.
NATO Heads of State and Government condemned the Russian invasion, calling it “brutal,” “wholly unprovoked,” and “unjustified.” They also said that Russia had rejected the path of diplomacy and dialog offered by NATO and its Allies and violated international law. They vowed to continue supporting Ukraine and reaffirmed their support for its sovereignty and territorial integrity.
For its part, the EU imposed restrictive measures on Russia to weaken its ability to finance its war on Ukraine. Thus, it imposed many sanctions against Russia starting in March 2014 following the referendum on Crimea’s accession to Russia. More rounds of sanctions followed Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, and by early June 2022, the EU had sanctioned 1,175 Russian individuals (including President Putin and Foreign Minister Lavrov), 101 Russian entities, and imposed its sixth package of sanctions against Russia. In addition, the EU has extended every six months, economic sanctions it imposed on Russia in 2014, and covering the finance, energy, defense and other sectors.
On the diplomatic front, the EU cancelled the 2014 EU-Russia summit, and ended the privileged access of Russian diplomats, officials and business executives to the EU. The EU also provided humanitarian and financial assistance to Ukraine, including €355 million to help civilians affected by Russia’s invasion of the country.
Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, President Zelenskyy, who advocated for dialog with Russia, became a belligerent leader of Ukraine’s fierce resistance against Russia. Since the start of Russia’s invasion, Zelenskyy has addressed Ukrainians nightly, rallying them to fight, using his oratory and communications skills. Zelenskyy has also, via video link, addressed Heads of State, parliaments, and conferences around the world pleading, with little success, for more support (especially military support) for Ukraine.
President Zelenskyy has pleaded numerous times for NATO to impose a no-fly zone over Ukraine, and provide them more lethal weapons to fight Russia. Unfortunately for Ukraine, his appeals have fallen on deaf ears because NATO said it won’t risk a direct confrontation with Russia. Zelenskyy should have seen this coming, because he admitted in March 2022 that NATO had categorically told him that while they will maintain in public that NATO is open to Ukraine joining the organization, the reality was that it won’t.
The war in Ukraine seems to have no end in sight because both President Biden, and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said at the June 2022 NATO Summit in Madrid, Spain that NATO will continue to provide Ukraine with weapons as long as necessary. Furthermore, the US has been absent from efforts to bring peace to Ukraine – if not outrightly opposed to them. Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov also accused the US and its NATO allies of pouring oil on the fire in Ukraine by arming it, and increasing the risk of nuclear war.
For its part, the US said that one of its goals in the war in Ukraine was to “see Russia weakened” so it won’t be able to conduct similar invasions in the future. Although President Biden asked his officials to tone down their position, Russians will remember former President Gorbachev’s advice that the only Russia the US loves is a weak Russia.
Ukraine clearly is a proxy in the US and NATO war on Russia. What matters therefore, is not peace and security for Ukrainians, but the desire of the US (9,181 Km or 5,705 miles from Ukraine) and NATO to bring Russia to her knees. As such, a negotiated peace between Ukraine and Russia is far off, and this pathetic, needless war which has killed thousands and made millions refugees will drag on. Poor Ukraine, so far away from the United States, and so close to Russia!