Once again, Ukraine is emerging as a focus of tension between Russia, the United States and Europe. An always-uncertain cease-fire has broken down, and substantial Russian troop movements in the region now accompany sporadic fighting.
In addition, Moscow is stating and signaling that diplomatic relations with the West in general, and the U.S. in particular, are deteriorating, perhaps ominously. Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has declared that dealings with Washington have “hit bottom.”
Moscow has no immediate intention of sending U.S. Ambassador Anatoly Antonov back into position. Antonov headed for home after President Joe Biden answered affirmatively when asked if he thinks Russia’s President Vladimir Putin is a “killer.”
NATO jet fighters scrambled numerous times at the end of March. They tracked exceptionally large numbers of Russian military aircraft appearing over the Baltic, Black and North seas and the north Atlantic Ocean.
On Friday, Biden spoke with Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan are in contact with their Ukrainian counterparts. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley has been on the phone with his Russian and Ukrainian counterparts.
Ukraine has been battling separatist forces in the eastern Donetsk and Luhansk regions since 2014, when Russia abruptly annexed the Crimean Peninsula. The European Union mediated a truce, which brought some fitful calm, in particular to the Ukrainian capital Kyiv.
Since annexation, hundreds of people on the peninsula have been jailed, accused of espionage on behalf of Ukraine. This includes at least one woman in her 60s, identified only by an initial, not by name.
Persistent violence within Ukraine reflects a wider tug-of-war for influence between Russia and the West. Moscow initially enjoyed strong influence, but since 2014, Ukraine has moved in the opposite direction.
EU membership is on the horizon and NATO cooperation grows. In June 2020, Ukraine joined a NATO partnership program, and the government lobbies hard for full membership this year.
Western leaders should condemn violations of human rights, while effective policy requires appreciation of broad historical context. War to the death with Nazi Germany has had a profound continuing impact on Russia, including the current generation. Totalitarianism fed traditional anxieties regarding territory and national security.
The tough-talking officials of the George W. Bush administration pressed eastern expansion of NATO, including membership by both Georgia and Ukraine. Not surprisingly, this alarmed Russia.
During this period, Georgia launched a military attack on breakaway South Ossetia. In reaction, the Russians invaded in 2008. France’s then-President Nicolas Sarkozy brokered the cease-fire. The Obama administration wisely ended the Bush administration emphasis on alliance expansion eastward.
Historically, Ukraine and Georgia are entangled with Russia in complex ways. The beginning of the Russian revolution in 1917 sparked independence movements. After years of struggle, Ukraine eventually was absorbed into the new Soviet Union.
Moscow forced collectivization of farms, resulting in great population dislocation. Ukraine was also the target of vast Stalinist purges and forced mass starvation. Russia’s authorities still suppress information about this period.
The Atlantic Council today is one of the most impressive sources of policy analysis on a wide range of topics, including current Ukraine developments. Access their report on the Biden Administration and Ukraine: https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/in-depth-research-reports/issue-brief/biden-and-ukraine-a-strategy-for-the-new-administration.
The U.S. and allies must stay mindful of history, while demonstrating through military moves as well as statements clear commitment to Ukraine defense.