As everyone is by now aware, Russia has launched a military invasion of Ukraine. The invasion, which began on the night of Feb. 23-24, has been cast in a certain light by most of the mainstream media as an act of unprovoked and naked Russian aggression aimed at subduing an Eastern European democracy. This description contains some truth, namely the indefensible action taken by Russian President Vladimir Putin in invading Ukraine. The issue is in understanding the previously ignored broader context of what got us here, where only the full context can allow the true impact of this event to be understood.
The roots of this current conflict lie squarely in the events that occurred eight years ago during the government crisis of Ukraine. What is remarkable about this is looking back at how this event was covered then compared to now — one would think we were talking about two separate events. The summary is this: The then-president of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych, pursued a middle path between Russia and the European Union rather than join explicitly one camp or the other. In early 2014, a series of demonstrations occurred centered around Maidan square in Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine. A group mainly consisting of the far-right Ukrainian group, Svoboda, stormed parliament and forced Yanukovych to abdicate his position, which he did. This was done in harmony with Obama-era officials pressuring Yanukovych to flee. While mainly depicted as a popular ousting of a puppet leader, even back in 2014, this act was largely seen as a right-wing coup that violated Ukraine’s constitution. The far right government backed by neo-Nazi groups, like the now infamous Azov battalion, began an intense anti-Russian campaign. This included attacks on Russians in the country as well as cracking down on the left along with drawing closer to the western sphere and the EU. While cracking down on the left, the far right operated with impunity, most infamously the Odessa massacre of May 2, 2014, where masked far right militants burned down a trade union building in Odessa, killing 39 people.
All of this violence and anti-Russian sentiment led to a rising up of ethnic Russians living in Eastern Ukraine in a region called Donbas. They proclaimed the “Donetsk People’s Republic” and “Lugansk People’s Republic.” This began a civil war that has now become consumed by the larger war. Ironically, the first weapons used on Ukrainian soil of the 21st century were used by Ukrainians, not Russians. The shelling by Ukraine on rebel held areas has killed an estimated 13,000 people since 2014, including 3,000 children.
Putin used these humanitarian crises as the excuse for his invasion, but it seems obvious that the actual reason was geopolitics and the expansion of NATO. Since the 1990’s, the North Atlantic military alliance has continuously expanded into the former Eastern Bloc, something that even back then, top American foreign policy giants argued was a bad idea and could provoke Russia. Fifty foreign policy experts signed an open letter to Bill Clinton urging him to not expand NATO into the territories of Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic. The famous George Kennan, the man credited with the communist containment doctrine, even said that he wondered, “whether the advancement of NATO eastward has increased the security of European states or made them more vulnerable.” The reason Russia is concerned is that the placement of weapons systems in these territories exposes Russia to a wide array of NATO weapons systems that could hit targets deep inside Russia. As far back as 2008, Putin had warned Ukraine was a red line. The west, having gained a pro-Western Ukrainian government continued to push the notion of Ukraine joining NATO while supporting the government and its military — including several neo-Nazi battalions — with weapons while Russia supported the anti-government rebels.
With that stage set it becomes quite clear that the crisis in Ukraine was very much a proxy conflict between the U.S. and Russia where much like in the Cold War, the superpowers would support factions in smaller wars favorable to their interests or designs without having to directly fight each other. It is also clear that like the Cold War, this one cuts along hegemonic lines. Camps have been firmly drawn. While the traditional western powers have acknowledged the Ukrainian government, countries like Cuba, Venezuela, Syria, Iran, Nicaragua and the DPRK (North Korea), have joined Russia in recognizing the independence of the Donbas regions.
While this Cold War is not united ideologically, as the members of the various camps cover a wide range of ideology unlike the black and white divide of capitalism versus communism of the original Cold War, it seems that this time the focus is purely on pro or anti-Western stances for a variety of reasons. Whatever the view, Ukraine will likely be a case study for future conflict as western interests will inevitably clash with the anti-Western camp in the future. It is only a matter of time.