Putin’s Aggressive Steps in Ukraine

After Russia invaded Crimea in 2014, Angela Merkel commented that Putin is a 19th century leader who lived and reigned in the 21st century. Regarding how Putin views the former Soviet Union member countries, Angela indeed is not wrong. Take Ukraine for example. In Putin’s eyes, Ukraine is part of Russia and should remain part of Russia to this day. Indeed, from the Tsarist Era until the end of the Soviet Union, Ukraine became an important part of Russian history. But when the Soviet Union disbanded in 1991, under pressure from Boris Yeltsin, who heroically managed to save Mikhail Gorbachev from a coup, Ukraine and Belarus were agreed to stand alone.

In the era of Boris Yeltsin’s leadership, Russia has tried to play a minimal role in Kyiv, although not always dominant. This does not mean that Boris Yeltsin is less “aware” of the expansion of NATO and the EU, Yeltsin is actually angry to see the former member states of the Soviet Union one by one become members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Undeniably, the joining of Eastern European countries into NATO, followed by the three Baltic states after that, became one of the reasons why Yeltsin was willing to relinquish his power to Vladimir Putin, who was assumed to have a chance to raise the Russian flag again in the international arena, besides the Putin factor that saved the Yeltsin family from lawsuits for alleged corruption cases

But after Putin came to power, alarms began to sound in the Kremlin during the orange revolution in Ukraine in 2004 which later installed Viktor Andriyovych Yushchenko as president in the 2005 election defeating Viktor Yanukovych, a candidate who was fully supported by the Kremlin. Yushechenko tends to be very pro-western. His ambition is to improve Ukraine’s economic performance by bringing it to Europe (European Union), including encouraging Ukraine to immediately become a member of NATO.

The Kremlin alarm also rang again in 2008 when Bush Junior gave a clear signal that Ukraine and Georgia could become members of NATO in the near future. For Putin, NATO expansion is more than enough and cannot be allowed to continue to creep into Russia’s backyard like the Yeltsin era. Therefore, Putin immediately gave a strong reaction by expressing support for the rebel groups of Ossetia and South Akbazia. The destabilization strategy was started to counter the western expansion

While Tbilisi sent troops to crush the southern Akbazia rebellion, Moscow unceremoniously sent troops to occupy its capital, then pushed about 30 km ahead of the Georgian capital. The situation was very tense. The world was alarmed that Putin was assumed to occupy Tbilisi and invade Georgia completely. Medelin Albright’s back channel diplomacy and the EU finally managed to bring Putin to a halt. However, Moscow’s message to the western world, NATO and the EU, was conveyed clearly by this action that Russia is very serious about all the countries of the former Soviet Union that are its backyard, especially those that are prone to turning towards the West.

Meanwhile on the other hand, Putin learned a lot from Yanukovych’s defeat in the 2005 Ukrainian elections. Putin began to use various means, ranging from subtle means such as spreading fake news and misinformation to destabilize the region or destabilize Yushchenko’s power to openly verbal threats to Ukraine if it dared to try to join the European Union or NATO.

These efforts bore fruit during the 2010 elections in Ukraine, where Viktor Yanukovich managed to get rid of Yushchenko. During his reign, Yanukovich tried to get economic support from Europe and Moscow at the same time. But when Putin promised liquidity for Kyiv with a note that Ukraine immediately stopped relying on Europe, Yanukovich immediately turned to Moscow which invited a massive reaction from the Ukrainian public and resulted in the Maidan Revolution in 2014. Inevitably, Putin invaded Crimea that same year, supported the insurgency in Eastern Ukraine, and stopped Russia’s oil and gas pipeline to Europe via Ukraine, costing Ukraine several billion dollars every year.

As a result, the Western World imposed economic sanctions on Russia. And the situation got hotter when Russia succeeded in securing an oil and gas pipeline deal with Germany, commonly known as Nord Stream II, to replace the oil and gas pipeline that had stalled in Ukraine, US actually imposed an embargo on the contractors involved. Now this series of events is the sequence that positions Russia, Ukraine, EU, and USA, today. Due to the high traction and echoes of the Ukrainian conflict, even Putin used it as an arena for “one bullet, three targets” at once, which made the world suddenly become hotter.

Putin not only uses the destabilization strategy in Ukraine as a geopolitical tool to prevent Ukraine from becoming a member of the European Union and NATO, but also to force US and the European Union to smooth out the Nord Stream II oil and gas pipeline project while increasing Russia’s status (read: Putin image) as one of the global superpower, which is parallel to the European Union, China and US which cannot be ignored, not only as a regional superpower. And regardless of how Angel Merkel described Putin after the 2014 invasion of Crimea, so far it seems that Putin’s strategy has been quite effective in getting what he wants.

Not without a Russian invasion minus western resistance, except for economic and financial sanctions. In the Stalin era, US did not intervene when Moscow sent troops to Hungary in the 1950s or when Kruschev made Berlin the Iron Curtain. What the West can do now is a reaction option like when Leonid Breznev invaded Afghanistan in 1979, namely backdoor assistance. In Afghanistan, this method was very effective. The Mujahideen frustrated the Soviets for 10 years with 13,000 coffins returning to Moscow, then leaving Afghanistan in 1989, and two years later disbanding the Soviets.

Putin has carried the American style on the Ukrainian border since 2014 with the rebels, notably in Donbas, Donetsk and Luganks. But the recent “stand off” in which the West does not provide certainty about Nor Stream II and the certainty of NATO’s position on Ukraine, even giving the impression that NATO is getting more and more unstoppable, actually make Putin feel uncomfortable and had to go further.

For Putin, this step is actually not easy, but must be taken. Resistance in the name of nationalism, historically, is a resistance that is almost always successful or very difficult to extinguish. Ukraine has been remaining in this position because it feels its nationalism is different from Russian nationalism, while Russia feels the opposite. Ukraine builds a “frame” of resistance in the logic of nation vs empire (Putin’s empire ambition). Physically and materially, Ukraine may be battered. But his spirit of nationalism will endure and will drain Moscow’s energy for a long time.

But US is in a difficult position and in a dilemma. Being directly involved means wasting energy, while the energy of Uncle Sam’s country must struggle to face China in the Pacific and on the global economic stage. Moreover, US recently came out of Afghanistan with tremendous reputational damage (equivalent to Vietnam moments). The outright option is an option that doesn’t make sense to Washington at the moment and Putin understands that position very well.

US expects Europe would step in. But Europe today is a mess, especially since the global financial crisis and Brexit. Without NATO, Europe “does not exist” or just nothing. And NATO without US is also “nothing.” So, “Putin’s show” can only be watched, condemned, then will be imposed economic sanctions. Therefore, although it is difficult for Putin, this aggressive choice is still considered a choice considering the geopolitical constellation which is quite wide, the room for Russian maneuvers is still quite wide. Only in this way, according to Putin, will Moscow’s hard code be read clearly by the West.

About the Author
Doctor of Sociology from Padjadjaran University, Indonesia. Defense and Environment Observer.
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