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The Deep-Seated Causes Behind the Russia-Ukraine Conflict and Its Effects


The executive director of the Center for Russian Studies at East China Normal University argues that the Ukraine war is the “inevitable result of the long-term squeezing of Russia’s security space by the United States and NATO,” built out of “long-standing historical grievances.” As a prognosis, he argues that the conflict will result in a fundamental transformation in the European security architecture.

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Today, the Ukraine conflict has attracted the world’s attention. Ukrainians and Russians all belonging to the same Slav nationality, why this taking up of arms against each other. There is a series of deep-seated causes behind it.


The conflict in Ukraine is a concentrated manifestation of the development and worsening of the contradictions in bilateral relations between Russia and Ukraine since the crisis in Ukraine in 2014. The crisis in Ukraine in 2014 initiated the process of deterioration of bilateral relations between Russia and Ukraine, especially after the referendum in Crimea on integration into Russia, which kept the two countries in a state of hostility over a long period. This was coupled with the secessionist tendencies in the eastern part of Ukraine and Russia’s support for the two “republics” in eastern Ukraine, which deepened the military confrontation on the Russian-Ukrainian border. These were all a prelude and rehearsal for the outbreak of today’s Russia-Ukraine conflict. The core of the Russia-Ukraine conflict lies in three issues: First, the issue of Ukraine’s NATO membership. Second, the issue of territorial disputes in Crimea and the independence of the eastern part of the country. Third, the issue of Russia’s security claims. Ukraine has been seeking to join NATO since the time of its second president, Leonid Kuchma [July 1994 to January 2005], and now NATO membership has been written into the Ukrainian Constitution. Ukraine believes that only NATO membership can guarantee national sovereignty and prevent the Russian threat. Ukraine’s active demand for NATO membership is strongly opposed by Russia, and the game of eastward expansion and counter-eastward expansion between the two sides has become a focal point of conflict. For Russia, Ukraine, a country of geostrategic importance in the Soviet Union, joining NATO would be a direct threat to Russian security. In the face of NATO’s continuous eastward expansion after the Cold War, Russia wants to have enough of a strategic buffer zone on its western border, and thus, Russia will not agree to Ukraine’s joining NATO no matter what. In addition, the Crimea issue has been a major problem between Russia and Ukraine from the start. Ukraine has never given up its territorial claims to Crimea and strongly opposes the independence of the two “republics” in the east of the country. Russia is worried that Ukraine will use NATO’s collective defense force to try to take back Crimea and increase its offensive efforts in the east of the country after joining NATO, so it has preempted Ukraine by first recognizing the independence of the two eastern Ukraine “republics,” and then implementing a special military operation to force Ukraine to surrender, promote peace through war, and thereby achieve its strategic goals.


The United States and NATO must bear responsibility for the outbreak of the Russia-Ukraine conflict. This conflict is also the inevitable result of the long-term squeezing of Russia’s security space by the United States and NATO. Viewed externally, the outbreak of the Russia-Ukraine conflict is also the result of the United States and NATO adding fuel to the fire with their long-term push to undermine and weaken Russia, and reflects the long-standing historical grievances between Russia and the United States and NATO. In the three decades since the end of the Cold War, except for a brief honeymoon period, Russia-United States relations have basically developed against a background of constant confrontation. After the 2014 Ukraine crisis, Russia-U.S. relations have moved toward spiraling hostility. Political denigration, diplomatic expulsions, economic sanctions, military confrontation, sanctions and counter-sanctions, containment and counter-containment, and deterrence and counter-deterrence are the norm in the development of Russia-U.S. relations. In the framework of great power competition and confrontation between Russia and the United States, Ukraine is a pawn of the United States and the West for confronting Russia, and a large amount of U.S. and NATO military aid and economic aid, including offensive weapons, have entered Ukraine. NATO follows the U.S. policy of undermining and weakening Russia and carries out military deterrence and front-line confrontation against Russia, which greatly threatens Russia’s security interests. Overall, the negative role of the United States and NATO in the outbreak of the Russia-Ukraine conflict is reflected in three ways: First, irritating Russia’s sensitive security nerves. Second, supporting Ukraine against Russia. Third, artificially promoting the escalation of tensions and indirectly promoting the outbreak of conflict. Russia is a country that is particularly sensitive to security issues. Historically, its location on the vast plains of Eastern Europe has allowed both Eastern nomads and Western colonizers to drive straight in. Since Peter the Great, it has been pursuing access to the sea, pioneering frontiers, and opening up new territory, creating a vast space for Russia. However, this vastness breeds insecurity, which in turn drives Russia to again look for more space, and Russians are therefore inherently insecure. After the end of the Cold War, Russia generally believed that the West had promised that NATO would not expand eastward, but five consecutive rounds of expansion, with 11 Central and Eastern European and former Soviet countries joining NATO and military fronts deployed closer to Russia, have greatly irritated Russia’s nerves. Since Biden came into office, he has reintegrated the transatlantic alliance, counteracted Russia through NATO collectively, and conducted forward confrontation through a series of military exercises, with the threat and shadow of conflict always present. In addition, the United States and NATO also took advantage of Ukraine’s eager desire to join NATO to support Ukraine against Russia. Before the outbreak of the conflict, a large amount of military equipment and offensive weapons entered Ukraine. At the same time, they also directly deployed military forces in the territory of NATO member states in Eastern Europe, and also deliberately created rumors of conflict to artificially raise tensions and indirectly promote the outbreak of conflict.


The outbreak of the Russia-Ukraine conflict will not only have a profound impact on the European security structure and Eurasian geopolitics, but will also reshape the global geopolitical landscape to a certain degree. The Russia-Ukraine conflict will bring about fundamental changes in the European security landscape and structure, and make the geopolitics of the Eurasian region move toward a return of the Cold War. After the end of the Cold War, a new problem for the European security structure based on the United States control of European security affairs was how to assure Russia’s security demands. The common European homeland that began to be advocated toward the end of Soviet Union—a Europe from the Atlantic to the Urals—was obviously only a utopian fantasy, and not only was it impossible for Russia to integrate into the original European security system, but it was gradually excluded. That is, in Russia’s view, Europe’s security is divided security, the security of the United States and NATO is based on Russia’s insecurity, and Russia’s security concerns have not taken seriously for a long time. Therefore, the Russia-Ukraine conflict is a general outbreak of Russia’s security contradictions with the United States and NATO have intensified to a certain extent, and signifies a return of Eurasian geopolitics to the Cold War. The outbreak of the Russia-Ukraine conflict will also have a profound impact on global geopolitics. Russia-U.S. relations in particular will see the most fundamental changes since the end of the Cold War. The original dialogue mechanisms between Russia and the United States will all cease, and the unprecedented U.S. sanctions against Russia, including kicking Russia out of SWIFT and the sanctions against President Putin personally, plunge Russia-U.S. relations into a state of mutual hostility for a long time.


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刘军 (Liu Jun). "The Deep-Seated Causes Behind the Russia-Ukraine Conflict and Its Effects [俄乌冲突背后的深层次动因及其影响]". CSIS Interpret: China, original work published in China Social Sciences Network [中国社会科学网], March 1, 2022

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