In a televised address on the morning of February 24, Russian president Putin announced that a special military operation was being launched in the Donbas region, but said that there were no plans to occupy Ukraine. Some hours later that day, President Zelensky of the Ukraine announced that Ukraine and Russia were severing diplomatic relations. At this point, Russian and Ukrainian swords have crossed.
Unlike many other war scenarios since World War II, this war is being waged by two countries with Slavic ethnic majorities. It should be said that the Ukraine issue has a complex historical context, and the evolution of the situation up to the present is the result of the combined effect of various factors. Some sober strategists believe it is NATO’s eastward expansion, in which the United States and the West have continued the Cold War mentality, that has triggered the Ukraine crisis.
1. Ukrainian-Russian friendship has been the main current for a thousand years
The Slavs are a Eurasian ethnic group, divided into Eastern Slavs, Western Slavs, and Yugoslavs. The ethnic majorities of Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine are all Eastern Slavs.
Around the 10th century A.D., Eastern Slav tribes combined to form the ancient Rus tribe. In order to change a fragmented situation of internal strife, the Eastern Slavs recruited the Varangian chieftain Rurik from Northern Europe to come reign in Novgorod, between present day St. Petersburg and Moscow. In the year 862, Eastern Slavs in Novgorod established the first Rus kingdom—the Rurik dynasty. Afterward, Grand Duke Rurik continued to penetrate inland, gaining control over some cities along the banks of the Dnieper River, including Kiev. The Varangians established a Slavic kingdom and started to Slavicize themselves. After Rurik died in 879, his successor, Oleg, led the Varangians in taking Kiev, then conquered several neighboring regions and established the Duchy of Rus, with Kiev as its capital. This was known in history as the “Kievan Rus,” or ancient Rus.
Thus, tracing the history of Russian and Ukrainian nations and peoples, there is no doubt that they are inextricably linked. On this point, China’s famous scholar and author of the book History of Russia, Zhang Jianhua, sees Kievan Rus, the Tsarist Empire, the Soviet Union, and the Russian Republic as a heritage relationship, included in the “general history of Russia.”
Between the 12th and 14th centuries, the fragmented ancient Rus tribe split into three branches—Russians, Ukrainians, and Belarussians. From the14th century, Ukrainians began to break away from ancient Rus, forming a single nation with a unique language, culture and living customs.
In 1648, unable to bear Polish-Lithuanian rule, Ukrainian Cossacks launched a major uprising, which was suppressed by the Polish army. In 1654, the Ukrainian Cossack leader Bohdan Khmelnytsky asked Russia for protection and signed the Pereyaslav Agreement with the Russian Tsar, who was invited to rule Eastern Ukraine. At that time, Eastern Ukraine, located on the left bank of the Dnieper River, was officially merged with the Russian Empire, starting a period of alliance between Ukraine and Russia. Within the Empire as a whole, Russians generally called themselves “Great Russia” and accounted for 44%, while Ukraine was called “Little Russia” and accounted for 18%.
In 1954, to celebrate the “300th anniversary of the fraternal alliance between Ukraine and Russia,” Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev led the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR to pass a resolution giving the Crimean Peninsula, which had been included in the Russian Empire in 1783, from the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic to the Ukrainian Republic as a “symbol of eternal friendship.” At the time, both Russia and Ukraine were both republics of the Soviet Union. In the final analysis, Crimea’s change of territory was carried out within one country, and did not make any big waves.
In the late 18th century, the Polish-Lithuanian kingdom became a vassal state of the Russian Empire. At the end of the 18th century, the Russian Empire colluded with Austria and Prussia to carve up all of Polish-Lithuanian territory, and all of Ukraine was incorporated into the territory of Tsarist Russia. In this period, the division of Ukraine into two lands, east and west, was evident. The people of eastern Ukraine, who were Eastern Orthodox and had been combined with Russia for over a century, were little different from Russians. The western Ukraine region, on the other hand, which was Catholic and had been part of the Polish-Lithuanian kingdom for more than a century, was dissatisfied with Tsarist Russian rule and clashed frequently with the east’s Eastern Orthodox adherents.
Russia’s February Revolution and October Revolution in 1917, which Ukrainian nationalists saw as a golden opportunity for independence, led to the establishment of the “Ukrainian People’s Republic.” Not long afterwards, the Bolsheviks also established the Ukrainian Soviet Republic in the east. Unable to resist the attack of the Soviet Red Army, the Ukrainian People’s Republic sought help from Germany, attacked Soviet Russia and occupied Kiev. After that, the Soviet Red Army defeated the armies of Petliura, Wrangel, and Makhno, and Ukraine became a political entity again. At the suggestion of Lenin, the Ukrainian Soviet Republic joined the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics as a state in 1922 and became one of the founding states of the USSR.
During the Great Patriotic War [World War II], Ukraine saw the emergence of “hero cities” such as Kiev, Odessa and Sevastopol, and groups that fought bravely against Nazi Germany. There were also many who chose to collaborate with Germany and become “Soviet traitors,” and tens of thousands of Ukrainians even joined the German SS. The Russian-Ukrainian conflict eased somewhat after the war, but the psychological rift always lingered.
2. The United States and NATO use Ukraine to “curb Russia” and “weaken Russia”
On December 8, 1991, at the government residence in the Bialowieza Forest in the Republic of Belarus, the leaders of three Soviet republics—the Russian Federation, Ukraine, and Belarus—signed the Agreement on the Establishment of the Commonwealth of Independent States, declaring that “the Soviet Union has ceased to exist as a subject of international law and a geopolitical entity.”
A widely held belief in Russian strategic and historical circles is that, in addition to a series of domestic policy mistakes by the party and state leaders, Western countries, led by the United States, also had a hand in the dissolution of the Soviet Union 30 years ago. In that process, the destructive activities conducted by Washington found collaborators within the Soviet Union and were carried out by the so-called “dissidents.” It would be more accurate to say that the Soviet Union did not “disintegrate” by itself, but was “destroyed,” and that foreign powers played a key role in this process.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the United States and the West celebrated. In The Grand Chessboard, former U.S. National Security Adviser [Zbigniew] Brzezinski proudly stated that “an expanding and democratic Europe has to be an open-ended historical process, not subject to politically arbitrary geographic limits.” He further said that if Russia was to avoid being dangerously isolated geopolitically, it had come to terms with a transatlantic, enlarged European Union and NATO.
Brzezinski also reminded the U.S. government at the time that the loss of Ukraine had a pivotal impact on Russia geopolitically, because it greatly limited its geostrategic options… With the loss of Ukraine and its more than 52 million Slavs, any attempt by Moscow to rebuild a Eurasian Empire would risk plunging Russia into a protracted conflict with ethnically and religiously awakened non-Slavs… With Russia’s declining birthrate and the dramatically increasing populations of Central Asia, any new Eurasian empire without Ukraine, built on Russian power alone, would inevitably see its European color fade over time.
For the past 30 years, the United States and NATO have constantly used the Ukraine issue to irritate Russia. Despite disagreements, in the first two decades, a stoic Russia was generally able to maintain normal state relations with Ukraine, which still had pro-Russian forces. In 2013-2014, the “color revolution” in Ukraine fundamentally altered the Russia-Ukraine relationship.
On November 21, 2013, then-Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych announced that he was suspending the signing of an Association Agreement aimed at strengthening trade ties with the EU, and would instead seek closer cooperation with Russia. The United States and Europe supported the opposition as it took the opportunity to launch a wave of protests that toppled the Yanukovych regime. In that process, the U.S. government made no secret of its support for the “color revolution,” with then-Assistant Secretary of State [Victoria] Nuland handing out cookies to the crowd of protesters occupying Kiev’s central square, in solidarity with the opposition.
During the presidencies of Petro Poroshenko and Zelensky, the United States and NATO increased their penetration into Ukraine. Through various kinds of conditional assistance, and in the name of fighting corruption, the United States not only actively supported “anti-Russian” and “pro-American” forces, and controlled strategic economic sectors in Ukraine, but also exerted a key influence on Ukraine’s judiciary.
The most disturbing thing for Russia is that the United States has not stopped promoting the process of Ukraine’s substantive “NATO entry” for even one day. The “real but nameless” bases that the United States, Britain, and other NATO countries have established on Ukrainian territory are the direct motivation for Russia’s showdown with Ukraine, the United States, and NATO.
According to media reports, NATO countries have so far established nine secret military bases in Ukraine—in Yavoriv in Lviv Oblast, Yuzhny in Odessa Oblast, Mikhaylovka in Mykolaiv Oblast, Oleshsky in Kherson Oblast, Mala Liubasha in Rivne Oblast, Goncharovskoye in Chernihiv Oblast, Zmiiny (Snake) Island in the Black Sea, Mariupol in Donetsk Oblast, and Shostka in Sumy Oblast—with thousands of military personnel. In these secret bases, the Ukrainian military has been trained according to NATO standards by instructors sent by the United States, Britain, and Latvia. The United States has built the Ochakov Naval Operations Center, as well as a naval base for future use by NATO forces. The U.S. Department of Defense has sent “transnational threat experts” to train Ukrainian Security Service agents in carrying out sabotage against Russia. And at the 73rd Maritime Special Operations Center in Ochakov, Britain’s MI6 organized a three-week training course for the Military-Diplomatic Academy of the Ukrainian Defense Intelligence Service.
In addition to building military bases against Russia and increasing military cooperation in Ukraine, over the past several years, NATO has also supplied Ukraine arms, ammunition, warships, and heavy equipment, radar, and other military technical equipment necessary for waging war.
3. The United States and the West treat Russia’s security concerns negatively
In fact, as early as last October, the Russian International Affairs Council, a leading Russian think tank, predicted “five endings” to the crisis in Ukraine. First, Russia abandons its national interests and “submits” to NATO, as it did in the 1990s. Second, Russia-NATO relations will be frozen at the current level, as reflected in the situation in eastern Ukraine, and the United States and NATO will restrain the behavior of Kiev, avoiding large-scale fighting on the line of contact in Donbas. Third, the relationship between Russia and the United States and the West deteriorates further, the Ukrainian government uses a local conflict to transfer domestic conflicts intensified by rising energy prices, and Russia is forced to copy the “Crimea model,” using a referendum to promote the Donbas region’s independence or even “incorporation into Russia.” Fourth, with the intensification of domestic conflicts and political turmoil in Ukraine, Russia supports the complete occupation of Donbas by the armed forces in the east and southeast of the country and encourages the secession of Ukraine’s eastern and southeastern oblasts, leading to the dismemberment of Ukraine. Fifth, there will be global reconstruction, that is, Russia and NATO launch a full-scale confrontation, one result being that Donbas and even all of Ukraine will be incorporated into Russia.
It is clear that the Ukrainian crisis is heading toward the most extreme fifth scenario. In fact, however, if the United States and NATO had treated Russia’s security concerns sincerely and seriously, the crisis in Ukraine would not have developed to such a situation.
Over the past two months, Russia has pursued two goals in the game with the United States and NATO over Ukraine: the “major goal” of forcing the West to provide security guarantees for Russia, and the “minor goal” of implementing the Minsk II agreement as Russia demands.
On December 15 last year, faced with the serious “point of no return” external situation and the suddenly increasing risk of gunfire over Ukraine, Russia submitted to NATO and the United States respectively, two draft agreements: the Agreement on Measures to Ensure the Security of the Russian Federation and the Member States of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and the Treaty between the Russian Federation and the United States of America on Security Guarantees. From January 10 to 13, Russia held an intensive dialogue with the United States and NATO on a range of security issues, including the situation in Ukraine and NATO’s eastward expansion, and presented Russia’s security concerns and vision for European security at a special meeting of the Permanent Council of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). However, Russia’s core concerns, such as its clearly drawn “red lines” and proposed principle of “indivisibility of security,” were ignored by the United States and NATO. The United States and NATO have shifted the focus of the security dialogue from the political to the military-technical sphere, raising specific issues such as the resumption of the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty, limiting military exercises and deployments, increasing the transparency of exercises, and resuming diplomatic missions between Russia and NATO.
The Minsk II agreement, a series of measures to implement the Minsk Agreement signed by Germany, France, Ukraine, and Russia in 2015 in the capital of Belarus and unanimously endorsed by the UN Security Council in Resolution 2202, has become the key to addressing the Donbas issue in eastern Ukraine. It deserves to be fully and effectively implemented by all parties concerned. However, most of the provisions of the agreement have not been truly implemented. In this process, the United States and Europe, which have influence on the Ukrainian government, did not play a constructive role, but rather did nothing.
On February 24, the crisis in Ukraine was triggered when Russia launched a special military operation in the Donbas region.
As things stand, the United States and NATO are avoiding like the plague scenarios could drag them in. President Joe Biden was the first to say that he was “monitoring the situation in Ukraine from the White House,” and his spokesperson reiterated that “under no circumstances will troops be sent to Ukraine.
Ukrainian President Zelensky said on the 25th that the West has completely abandoned Ukraine. He said he had asked the leaders of 27 European countries whether Ukraine could join NATO, but received no answer.
A Russian strategist offered reporters a metaphor for the Ukrainian crisis scenario: Thirty years ago, Russia and Ukraine, a pair of brothers, split into two households. At first, the two households had spats from time to time, but they were still at peace. At that time, NATO, and the United States, third parties with the mission of “curbing Russia” and “weakening Russia,” joined in and encouraged the younger brother every day to fight against his older brother, even using the little brother’s house as a fortress against him. And when the older brother unleashed a thunderous wrath, NATO, and the United States, the third parties, made a clean getaway.
Wu Dahui, deputy director of Tsinghua University’s Russian Research Institute, elaborated quite incisively on the current Russia-Ukraine crisis. He believes that NATO’s eastward expansion cannot maintain peace and stability in Europe, and is not conducive to the long-term stability of Europe. If NATO had made a commitment not to admit Ukraine, it would have prevented a war, but the United States and Europe did not do so. This fully reflects the “stupidity” of the European leadership, which cannot distinguish the current situation, and the “badness” of the U.S. leadership, which wants to use the crisis to “eat” Russia, “hold” Europe and “look” after its economic interests. Thus, a war that could have been avoided was ignited in Ukraine.
Ukraine, which was supposed to be a bridge between East and West, has now become a frontier of confrontation between major powers. The deterioration of the situation in Ukraine and the reality that the United States and NATO are pursuing a Cold War mentality to provoke confrontation and are concerned only with interests without regard to principles are enough to make those forces that were content to be the pawns and pieces of hegemonic powers think twice.