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A Bloody Borderland: Insight into the Ukraine Crisis

By Fabio Capano, Transatlantic Security Analyst


The Crimean War of 1854-1855 deeply challenged Russian military dominance over the European continent and significantly upset the balance of power that was established in Vienna in 1815. More than a century and a half later, Russia’s aggressive strategy in Crimea is reawakened the ghost of former Czarist ambitions of westward expansion. Although different in their scope and nature, these wars seemingly defied the geopolitical order established after the end of the Napoleonic Revolutionary Wars in the former case and the Cold War in the latter. Today, Russia’s territorial ambition in Crimea represents the greatest challenge to the widely shared principles of national sovereignty, territorial integrity and peoples’ right to self-determination that emerged from the ashes of two world wars. More than a year after Russia’s annexation of Crimea, this specific feature of the conflict deserves the attention of the international community as it has major implications for the European order.

Putin’s War: The Return to Cold War Politics

The fall of the Berlin Wall inaugurated a season of unprecedented geopolitical changes within the Soviet bloc. Shortly before the formal dissolution of the Soviet Union, the Ukrainian Parliament declared its independence in the summer of 1991. Within a few months, many countries, including Russia, recognized Ukraine’s right to be an independent and sovereign nation. Ukraine’s new territorial borders also included the Crimean region, a political entity that showed strong autonomous ambitions. Nonetheless, Crimea remained an integral part of the Ukrainian state until the Euromaidan Revolution of February 2014. By the end of March of that year, life in the country had changed dramatically: its president had fled, its Crimean region had been occupied by Russian forces and quickly annexed, and its military had entered into an armed conflict in the Donbass region with separatist forces supported by Russia.

Despite the short-lived optimism of the Minsk cease-fire agreement, these events have further reignited Cold War practices and rhetoric that views Moscow as the main threat to European peace and stability. This tense relationship can be traced back to President Putin’s election in 2012, which effectively distanced Russian politics from Medvedev’s moderate progressivism. Over the years Putin’s image has transmuted into “something close to idolatry” despite a strong economic recession, which has been further aggravated by increased spending on national and military defense. His cult of personality has been facilitated by fears of Western encirclement over “free market imperialism” and NATO expansion to former Soviet satellites.

Therefore, the Ukraine crisis is both a test and an opportunity for NATO, the West and the European Union. On one hand, it is upon these powers to defy Russian aggressiveness by holding economic sanctions, supplying humanitarian aid and strengthening defenses. On the other hand, opposing Putin and his aggressive strategy may also represent a unique opportunity in which European partners can achieve energy independence, unveil Moscow’s corruption and populist demagogy, and further advance transatlantic relations toward a safer and freer world. Ultimately, the transatlantic partners’ legacy will be measured by their ability to effectively preserve what is truly at stake: the territorial integrity of independent and sovereign states.

An Unprecedented Challenge to Postwar Europe

The inviolability of the frontiers that were established after 1945 has become one of the main “victims” of the Ukraine war. This principle, sanctioned by the Helsinki agreements of 1975, long guaranteed geopolitical stability and invaluably contributed to the peaceful settling of state disputes while refraining from the use of military force. At that time, 35 countries, including the former Soviet Union, signed the agreement. Nonetheless, the Russian Federation, one of the successor states of the Soviet Union and a signatory of the Helsinki Act, has bluntly violated its obligations.

Interpreting Russia’s breach of international law by simply attributing it to Putin’s political leadership may be inaccurate. This breach is better understood within the broader frame of regime transitions that followed the disintegration of the Soviet bloc. Different from its Eastern satellites that quickly gravitated toward the European community, the Russian Federation and the other former Soviet Republic experienced a more troublesome and complex transformation from a communist into a post-communist state.

What George Kennan described in his Long Telegram from Moscow in 1946 as “Kremlin’s neurotic view of world affairs” survived the end of the Cold War. In a context of unprecedented political, economic, and social transformation among its neighbors, Russia also had to witness the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact, the communist-led military alliance that for almost 50 years guaranteed the cohesion and security of the Eastern bloc. Its counterpart, however, did not disappear. Indeed, NATO has reinvented itself by becoming the leading military response force to threats to Western security. These threats were not related to international communism, but rather the resurgence of ethnonationalism and later, religious extremism.

These changes in NATO’s scope and nature have faced major criticism from Moscow, which has often perceived NATO’s new role as an instrument of Western interference into domestic affairs of sovereign nations. When looking at today’s Ukraine, this critique appears incredibly hypocritical, yet NATO’s military interventions in the Yugoslav wars as well as multiple peacekeeping and peacebuilding missions in both Southeastern Europe and Africa have attracted more founded concerns from its detractors. Moreover, NATO’s role in the military campaigns that followed 9/11 and the harsh debates inside the UN reignited the feasibility of Western “mission civilizatrice.” However, following the Crimean events, NATO re-embraced its original raison d’être as a shield from Russian aggressiveness and an integrative force for its former republics.

The Russian-sponsored separatist war in Crimea marked a new chapter in post-war international affairs. For the first time since 1945, a country has supported the secession of a region that is part of a bordering sovereign and independent state while also using military force to invade and occupy the same region in the name of peoples’ right to self-determination. The use of force and the rebuttal of diplomacy as a means to settle state disputes certainly represent one of the most frightening features of this crisis and calls for an enduring response from the international community.    


The violent confrontation between Ukraine and Russian separatist forces is being played upon opposing nationalist ambitions over a region whose conflicting ethnic and political identities reemerged after 1989. Russia’s violation of the territorial integrity of Ukraine, an independent state, has been largely perceived by Western countries as a direct attack on one of their leading principles: national sovereignty and territorial integrity. The United States and the European Union’s response has largely relied on the use of soft power: economic sanctions against Russia, partnership agreements with the former Soviet Republics, and humanitarian aid. While the United States has gone as far as to grant military training to Ukrainian troops, EU members are still entangled in internal debates. The EU’s inability to deepen common defense capabilities has further reaffirmed NATO’s role as the single most credible instrument of defense for crisis management of the West.

More important, analyzing the Crimean conflict through the lenses of geography, politics and identity tackles the Ukrainian crisis at its core. Territorial changes in the geography of an area also imply changes in its political allegiances. According to Moscow, the local population in Crimea never strayed from its political loyalty to the Russian motherland. Thus, it argues that its reincorporation simply fulfills Western principles of peoples’ right to self-determination. In Moscow’s view, both the transatlantic partners and Russia are fighting to affirm the same principle. This message is clearly misleading and oblivious to the true nature of the issue. Conducting a referendum during military occupation impairs voters’ ability to freely express their will.

Thus, transatlantic partners need to first counter Moscow’s misleading rhetoric. Although repression and censorship is rampant in Russia, the use of international media provides an opportunity to enter into the hearts and minds of the Russian people. Therefore, supporting domestic opposition to President Putin appears to be the best means to contain Russian aggressiveness. Although some analysts have pointed out that political opposition to Putin is extremely fragmented and an easy target for governmental repression, providing financial and political support to underground grassroots movements could actually enhance voices of dissent within Russian national public opinion.

Second, European partners need to quickly overcome their divergent strategies and budget constraints. Although asking European constituencies to devote more resources to defense can be extremely unpopular in a context of the recent recession, the EU can no longer postpone the creation of an autonomous military force to rapidly and effectively respond to challenges on its borders. As the wars in the former Yugoslavia amply demonstrated, Europe was incapable of containing localized ethnopolitical violence that produced waves of atrocities unseen since 1945.

Finally, the transatlantic partners need to firmly sustain current economic sanctions against Moscow while also leaving room for dialogue with both the Kremlin and its partners. In this respect, the Ukraine crisis is proving the United Nations’ inability to serve as the defender of international peace and security. Its outdated system of governance needs to be deeply revised and rethought; otherwise, it will continue to lack the capacity to fulfill its mission.   

As history has shown, the fluidity of state borders has caused much more harm than good to Europe over the years. After 1945, the impulse to expand was subdued by the imperatives of international peace and geopolitical stability. The mutually accepted permanence of national frontiers assisted both sides during the Cold War. While it greatly helped Moscow minimize Western interference in its internal affairs, it also fostered Soviet satellites’ ambitions for national independence and territorial integrity. And just as the Soviet Union attempted to contain these ambitions through political violence and military force, it is clear that the Russian Federation has taken on the same task more than two decades later.


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