Conflict in Eastern Ukraine: Geopolitical Considerations for US and Russia

In mid-January, deputies from Russia, the U.S., NATO and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe began discussion on policy positions with respect to the situation in Ukraine. Although the West cannot to Russia’s demand that NATO not restrained from expanding eastward, the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council issued a joint statement earlier on Jan. 3 addressing the prevention of nuclear war and avoiding an arms race, providing a buffer for continued negotiations.

There are two legal bases for how Russian President Vladimir Putin views the status Crimea and Donbass. First, Putin argues that Vladimir Lenin and Nikita Khrushchev’s Soviet-era decision to transfer the administrative ownership of these two regions from Russia to Ukraine was no longer the collapse of the Soviet Union. Secondly, the Moscow Arbitration Court granted the appeal of Ukrainian government officials who opposed the violent 2014 coup and ruled that it was unconstitutional. Accordingly, at the root of all Putin’s subsequent actions is the idea that these two regions are illegally occupied by Ukraine and people themselves should decide their future.

In February 2014, a bloody coup d’état took place in Kyiv, and the results of that color revolution support Putin’s claim that Ukraine was illegally seized. At the time, Russia’s fleet of 20,000 troops, which had been legally stationed in the Crimean Black Sea, drove approximately 200 NATO workers out of Crimea directly after the coup. In March 2014, the Crimean status referendum resulted in the decision to leave Ukraine and apply to Russia for membership in the Russian Federation.

In April 2014, Luhansk and Donetsk declared independence after they rejected the uprising in Kyiv, immediately bsparking an serious and deadly military conflict between Kyiv and the Donbass. In September 2014, the Normandy Format — a group consisting of Russia, Germany, France and Ukraine — signed the Minsk Protocol. Russia’s role was to ensure that the Donbass region could not use force to resolve its autonomous status. However, in August 2021, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s “Crimean Platform” gained momentum as a powerful anti-Russian coalition of Western countries working collectively to denounce Crimea. Russia views the “Crimea Platform” as a way that the West rationalizes its military involvement on Russian territory any time it wants.

As the West now continues to draw attention to Russia’s readiness to invade Donbass and expand globally, Putin faces two warning signs. First, the U.S. has declared that it will impose devastating economic sanctions, which sounds to Putin like it means Kyiv will deal forcefully with Donbass, and that the West is demanding Russia not intervene militarily. Second, if Donbass openly asks Russia for military help, it could mean direct confrontation. Then, with Kyiv in a situation where it cannot win, the stalemate between NATO and Russia will amount to what exists now. Russian military action will depend on containing the conflict in Donbass, and both Washington and Moscow intend to deescalate the tension.

The United States also has its own geopolitical objectives, First, it aims to take advantage of the conflict between Russia and Ukraine by imposing economic sanctions that will let the U.S. curb the revival of Russia’s geopolitical influence. Second, the U.S. wants to deter the EU from further economic integration with Russia through natural gas. Third, the U.S. hopes to disrupt the progress of Chinese-Russian cooperation in Central Asia following the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan. On the whole, the Biden administration would like to see a stronger American presence in Europe and the restoration of U.S. global leadership. Putin, on the other hand, would like to attract the great powers in an effort to achieve strategic stability, so that Moscow will not have to constantly respond to Kyiv’s interference and its adding to internal strife among the Slavic people.

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