Why is Putin so fixated on Ukraine?

Posted on : 2021-12-19 09:56 KST Modified on : 2021-12-19 09:56 KST
Russia appears to have concluded that it will no longer tolerate NATO troops arriving as far east as Ukraine, but its own incursions into the country come across as the logic of a hegemon
A warning sign reading “stop” stands in the Donbas region of Ukraine, along its border with Russia. (TASS/Yonhap News)
A warning sign reading “stop” stands in the Donbas region of Ukraine, along its border with Russia. (TASS/Yonhap News)

Tensions are rising on the border between Russia and Ukraine, where close to 100,000 Russian troops have assembled. As the situation grew more urgent, US President Joe Biden held a video summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Dec. 7 in an attempt to hammer out an understanding.

But their summit ended without any tangible results. When Biden warned that the US would respond with tough measures if Russia invaded Ukraine, Putin countered by demanding a guarantee that NATO won’t expand into Ukraine. About the only thing the two leaders accomplished was instructing working-level officials to follow up on the summit, leaving open the possibility of compromise.

Ukraine gained its independence in 1991 with the dissolution of the Soviet Union. During the Cold War, Ukraine and Russia belonged to the same polity, but thirty years have passed since Ukraine began handling its own affairs. So why is Russia so reluctant to let go of Ukraine?

In an article posted to the Kremlin website in July, Putin asserted the “historical unity” of Ukraine and Russia while examining their history over the past millennium. The Russian president described the two countries as being “one people” that originated in a medieval state known as Kievan Rus, as a community tied together through history, language and religion. The current separation between the two, he added, is a “tragedy.”

Putin also decried the “dangerous geopolitical game” played by the West as it seeks to make Ukraine a “springboard against Russia.”

But his argument has drawn a frosty response, with critics accusing him of spouting “self-serving logic” to deny Ukraine’s distinct culture and legitimize his own territorial ambitions.

Georgiy Kassianov, a professor at Poland’s Marie Curie-Sklodowska University and former director of the Institute of History of Ukraine, said Putin was “reinterpreting historical facts from a different past context to suit his current position.” As an example, he said that the “people” referred to by Putin was a concept that first arose in the late 19th century.

The concerns that Putin’s arguments amount to political propaganda dressed up in historical trappings have only been fueled further by his insistence that “true sovereignty of Ukraine is possible only in partnership with Russia.”

In exchange for agreeing to German reunification in 1990, the Soviet Union received a pledge that NATO would not expand eastward. That promise ended up falling by the wayside, as NATO picked up not only former Communist bloc countries such as Poland and the Czech Republic but also the three Baltic states as members.

Russia appears to have reached the conclusion that it could no longer tolerate NATO troops arriving as far east as Ukraine, which shares a nearly 2,000-kilometer border with it. But its one-way traffic approach — and its readiness to trample over a weaker country for the sake of its own interests — comes across as the logic of a hegemon.

Putin bears his own share of responsibility for the friction between Russia and Ukraine. When Ukraine’s pro-Moscow government fell amid the Revolution of Dignity in 2014, Putin moved to occupy the Crimean Peninsula, while encouraging rebellion by residents of Russian descent in Ukraine’s southeast. An armed conflict remains in progress, with 14,000 lives lost in the past seven years.

The situation has caused public opinion in Ukraine to take a sharp turn. As recently as 2008, 51% of Ukrainians supported solidarity with Russia; by 2021, 58% of them supported NATO membership, while less than 10% favored solidarity with Russia.

In 2008, NATO agreed to admit Ukraine as a member. But the implementation of that decision has been put off, owing to “unresolved differences” among existing members.

Ukraine regards the military threat posed by Russia as a reason for joining NATO, while Russia views the prospect of Ukraine’s membership in NATO as a threat. Is there no way for the two sides to resolve their conflict by means of a tradeoff between the things they each want — namely, security guarantees and NATO membership?

By Park Byong-su, senior staff writer

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

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