Analysis & Opinions - METRO U.N.

Ukraine: Root Causes of a Prolonged Conflict

| Jan. 23, 2019

Today Ukraine remains the scene of Europe’s most destructive and potentially most dangerous conflict. Military clashes constantly add more victims to the ten thousand Ukrainians who have died so far. One and half million Ukrainians have become refugees. The cost to Russia in terms of military expenditures, casualties and stinging sanctions is also enormous. It is here that the East West understanding forged after the end of the Cold War came to a halt with Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its military intervention in East Ukraine to support separatists. The danger of an escalation to open war is always present, and Russia’s blockage of the Kerch Strait to the Sea of Azov in November 2018 is the latest reminder of the tenseness of the situation.

If one searches for deeper causes of the conflict, two elements are central: first is the   open-ended character of Ukraine’s status between Russia and the West, that each side attempts to resolve in its favor. The West stipulates Ukraine’s right to freely choose its alliance according to the CSCE principle (once espoused by the Soviet Union) and promised Ukraine a long-term prospect of membership in NATO.  Russia fiercely resists this posture and went so far as to break with the very principles it had agreed to for the post-Cold War period when it changed a border by force, annexed Crimea and claimed the right to protect Russians living outside its borders when militarily intervening in East Ukraine. 

What Russia considers a step toward a return to its established global role the West condems as a violation of an agreed regional order and international law. This discrepancy also explains why most of the obligations of the Minsk II agreement of February 2015 (between Ukraine, Russia, France and Germany) on elections, constitutional reform, withdrawal of heavy weapons and foreign forces etc. have not been implemented, although the Agreement did substantially reduce violence.

This divergence will persist as long as there is no understanding between the West and Russia about the future status of Ukraine. And this in turn would require an understanding of the roots of the second major dimension in the conflict, namely the historically grown internal structure of the Ukrainian body politic.

Ukraine is characterized by a diversity in its internal composition. Its Western region was added as a result of the Hitler-Stalin agreement in 1939, and it was given Crimea only in 1954. The West speaks Ukrainian and is Catholic, the East speaks Russian and is Orthodox. Having existed as an independent state for only 28 years its skills in compromise and reconciliation, without which there is always the danger of a break up, are underdeveloped. There is a majority for NATO membership in the West and among the elite, but not in the country as a whole.

Consequently, as Henry Kissinger wisely observed: “…if Ukraine is to survive and thrive, it must not be either side’s outpost against the other – it should function as a bridge between them….To treat Ukraine as part of an East-West confrontation would scuttle for decades any prospect to bring Russia and the West -especially Russia and Europe - into a cooperative international system.”

Since the disagreement between the West and Russia on Ukraine is profound, only a patient effort, aimed at a broader vision of a more secure European order, that is in the interest of both Russia and the West is likely to overcome the roots of this conflict. While this precludes a membership of Ukraine in NATO, it should allow a deepening association with the EU, a viable democracy and a strong capacity for self-defense. 

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Kaiser, Karl.“Ukraine: Root Causes of a Prolonged Conflict.” METRO U.N., January 23, 2019.

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