Image Courtesy of Gennady Grachev at commons.wikimedia.org
Andrea Douglas, Queen’s University
Edited by Brendan Sheppard
Since 2014, there has been a low-grade war playing out along Ukraine’s Eastern border with Russia. In Donbas, a region of south-eastern Ukraine, approximately 14,000 lives have been claimed in Russian-Ukrainian armed conflicts. Over the last few weeks the crisis has intensified with the world presently witnessing a build-up of Russia’s troops along the border with over 100,000 soldiers currently mobilized, a number higher than in 2014. In 2015, after the illegal annexation, the former American Vice-President Joe Biden advised Ukrainian political leaders to be vigilant in strengthening and preserving their democracy, as well as being more forceful in pushing back against Russia’s aggression. In a speech that same year in Munich, Biden predicted that what happens in Ukraine “will resonate well beyond Ukraine. It matters to all — not just in Europe, but around the world”.
Back in 2013, Viktor Yanukovych, the pro-Russian Ukrainian president, was pursuing an economically advantageous trade agreement with the European Union. The possibility of closer relations with the West aggravated Russian President Vladimir Putin who pressured Ukraine not to sign the agreement, angering pro-Western Ukrainians who were eager to have increased access to European markets. Political turmoil increased and over 100,000 protestors gathered in Kyiv’s renowned Maidan Square to demonstrate. Security forces with Russian backing began arresting hundreds of protestors and in February 2014, over 100 civilian protestors were killed in what has now been coined the Revolution of Dignity. Despite living in exile in Russia, Yanukovych’s efforts to crush the demonstrations led to him being convicted of treason in a Ukrainian court in 2019.
Days after the Ukrainian government fell and Yanukovych fled the country, Putin “deployed special operations troops and irregular forces— soldiers without Russian insignias that gave Putin plausible deniability, who came to be known as ‘little green men’”— to illegally take over Crimea, a strategically and historically important peninsula in Ukraine’s south. The illegal annexation of Crimea is the biggest land-grab in Europe since World War II and like many of Adolf Hitler’s land-grabs in the 1930’s, appeasement has been the protocol followed by Western nations. The current resurgence of Russian aggression shows plainly that the sanctions imposed by Western countries in the years since 2014 have done little to deter Putin’s designs on Ukraine.
NATO and the West’s insufficient rebuke to Putin’s illegal annexation of Crimea has set a dangerous precedent. The political world order is being tested by illiberal, anti-democratic states and leaders like Putin. When the consequences for stealing land are minimal, the countries still trying to enforce the political order are made to look weak. The United States and its allies can no longer credibly claim to be the defenders of democracy if they stand by and allow nations to be invaded and annexed. If China sees Russia’s unpunished annexation of Crimea as evidence of waning Western willpower to enforce world order, what would stop them from invading Taiwan?
The United States is now sending 2,000 troops to Poland and Germany, two members of NATO, in order to prepare for what is seemingly Putin’s inevitable invasion of Ukraine. However, unless NATO and Western allies are definitive of what the consequences for ‘bad behaviour’ will be, countries like Russia and China will continue to push the envelope and attempt to structure a new illiberal world order in which they are the principal powers.
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