The Causes of the Conflict in Ukraine Beyond Russian Interests, part 2

By Gustavo A Maranges on March 4, 2022

Victoria Nuland hands out cookies to nationalists in Ukraine

As was shown in the first part of this research, Ukraine is a country with nationality-related problems, which have very strong historical foundations. The integration of two different social groups within the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic was a catalyst for a national conflict that was kept relatively under control during the Soviet period.

However, after Ukraine’s independence from the USSR, the polarization of this society grew considerably. The Ukrainian independence referendum held on December 1, 1991, is a perfect example of it.

In the western provinces, turnout levels were over 90%, and they exceeded 95% in several cases. Meanwhile, the average turnout did not surpass 85% in the east. In regions such as Crimea, Sevastopol, and Odessa, it did not go over 75%. These stats are very illustrative, but if we take into account the fact that most of the large cities are located in the east, the figures become even more significant. However, it is worth noting that a vote for Ukraine’s independence does not mean moving away from Russia, as these are not opposing options.

Ukraine’s independence gave nationalist elites the possibility of occupying positions in government at local and national levels. It also created a dichotomy ever since senior government officials strove to maintain a friendly stance towards Russia, while nationalist forces pushed domestic anti-Russian policies. The main expression of this was the revival of the Ukrainian language, which was established as the only official language in a country with almost 20% Russian population and a larger number of Russian speakers.

There were also marked differences in the economic and religious spheres. The nationalist sectors launched campaigns against those who were followers of the Moscow Patriarchate and founded the Kiev Patriarchate in 1991. Regarding the economy, the country’s industry is located in the eastern region, while agriculture and import trade is predominant in the western part, which is closely linked to Europe.

This means that if a pro-European government wins the elections, the east would be greatly affected since Russia is the main client of the regional industry, whose products are not competitive in Europe. On the other hand, a pro-Russian government would limit integration with Western Europe. Consequently, more obstacles for Western farmers to enter the European market or access its subsidies will come.

As with the independence referendum did in 1991, each presidential election has demonstrated the differences between eastern and western Ukraine. Pro-Russian candidates have their strongest electoral base in the east, while their pro-European opponents generally win in the west.

This internal division has been exploited so much by foreign powers that they constantly try to draw Ukraine into their sphere of influence. However, history, economic and cultural ties often tip the balance to the Russian side. The United States and its NATO allies are fully aware of it. Hence, they spared no resources to promote the destabilizing actions of Euromaidan in 2014.

The role of the West in these events was proven by the leaked telephone conversation between the Assistant Secretary of State for Europe of the US State Department Victoria Nuland and her ambassador in Kiev, who together decided the members of the Ukrainian government after having consummated the coup d’état against Victor Yanukovych (pro-Russian) in 2014. The United States spent more than 5 billion dollars to destabilize Ukraine and install a nationalist government that would diminish Russia’s influence in this country. This not only weakened Russia’s sphere of influence but also posed an even greater threat, ever since the new Ukrainian government had the clear intention of joining NATO and the EU.

As a result of these changes in the composition of the Ukrainian government after the Euromaidan, the eastern regions of Donetsk, Lugansk and Crimea declared their independence from Ukraine in the face of advancing nationalist forces, which exhibited fascist tendencies and had proven to be not just against Russia but to be Russophobic.

Russia responded by accepting Crimea within the Federation and assumed the role of the allied power of the separatist regions due to their large number of ethnic Russians and the danger posed by an area of instability on its borders. Putin’s government, however, did not go further, as it did not recognize the independence of the self-proclaimed People’s Republics of Donetsk and Lugansk, even though it could have done so as it did with Crimea. After all, Putin was not interested in destroying Ukraine or dismembering it, but in keeping it calm. The Minsk agreements are maybe the best proof of it.

Russia worked tirelessly together with Germany and France to reach an understanding between the nationalists in Kiev and the Donetsk and Lugansk representatives. However, the agreements were not respected by the clashing parties. Kiev did not change its aggressive policy towards the separatists in the east, and the conflict has remained latent until today.

Zelensky’s accession to the presidency increased the chances of a solution to the conflict, as one of his campaign promises was to end the war in the east. However, the reality was different. Three years have passed since the presidential election, and tensions have only increased, with some impasses every time Russia has made pressure to enforce Minsk agreements.

On the other hand, the United States and NATO have continued to provide military and financial support to nationalist sectors in Ukraine ($1 billion in 2021 alone) and especially to far-right groups with fascist and deeply Russophobic tendencies. Therefore, the Ukrainian army has felt supported by the west and with enough dominance to wipe out the separatist forces in Donbass.

All this led to an escalation of the crisis during the last year. The Ukrainian army cut off the water supply to over 2.8 million people living in the eastern regions. It has often shelled civilian facilities, causing over 14,000 casualties over the last eight years, according to UN statistics. For its part, Russia has stepped up its support for ethnic Russian in the east and has consistently advocated compliance with the Minsk agreements.

The 2014 history is now happening all over again, but this time it will have worse consequences since Ukraine has been directly invaded by Russia. The United States and NATO have bet on the Ukraine card to destabilize Russia. The Kiev authorities have played along with the West to score more points for their NATO and EU candidacy, despite being aware that Russia’s response would be similar to that in 2015.

Finally, it is necessary to emphasize that, although the nationality-related problem within Ukraine has played a fundamental role in the way the conflict has developed; it is not the main cause. The crisis in Ukraine is the result of a geopolitical game between the major powers of the International System. It is an escalation that will only benefit the United States and its allies and whose cost will be paid for by the Ukrainian and Russian people.

Source: Resumen Latinoamericano – English