Sometimes it’s best not to poke the Russian bear

As fighting continues in Eastern Ukraine, the latest truce is in tatters. Now, it’s time to examine what, truly, caused the conflict that has left over five thousand people dead and displaced almost a million people.

It’s just over a year since the image of a burning Kiev was projected in homes around the globe; today the Ukrainian capital may be producing less smoke but that doesn’t mean that the country is back on it’s own two feet.

The fires, but more importantly the rioters that set them, kick-started a conflict that led to an ousted president, the horrific downing of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 and the annexation of Crimea.

With Russia sitting in the corner of their living room, it’s pretty hard for Ukrainians to move on and it’s no surprise that it only took twenty minutes before this latest ceasefire was broken – a rebel rocket connecting with a house, killing an elderly couple in Luhansk.

The Russian occupation is completely against everything that the Western world stands for, and against international law, but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t have seen it coming. There’s only so much baiting one ex-superpower can take.

Despite their role the West rallied, mainly in an American drawl, and spoke against the Russian occupation. US Secretary of Sate John Kerry, hopefully aware of the ironic undertones, denounced the occupation last March by saying that in the 21st century you don’t invade countries on a “completely trumped-up pretext”.

The Russian pretext, of “humanitarian intervention”, may indeed be “trumped-up” but it isn’t on the same level as “weapons of mass destruction” and it certainly doesn’t lessen the Western role in the conflict.

U.S. and EU powers openly supported the protests to oust the corrupt but legitimately elected Viktor Yanukovych government, protests triggered by controversy over the all-or-nothing EU association agreement. The agreement would have brought European safety regulations to Ukraine, ending almost all-future trade with Russia.

Following the removal of Yanukovych the, apparent, western discontent toward the Russians led to them backing a Ukrainian government containing neo-Nazis. A slight irony, considering the western world has been more than liberal with their Putin-Hitler comparisons. Vladimir Putin isn’t Adolf Hitler, Crimea isn’t Sudetenland and this, certainly, isn’t 1938.

British Prime Minister David Cameron was one of the first to draw this comparison, conveniently or, more possibly, ignorantly forgetting that Hitler’s annexation of Czech Sudetenland was done with British backing.

Former US Presidential candidate John McCain also stood side-by-side with the leader of the, far right fascist, Svoboda Party and told a crowd of protesters that “America is with you”. America may be with the Ukrainians, but are they really there for them?

It’s rather easy to accuse both sides of using Ukraine as a prop in their geo-political chest beating but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t come with an ounce of truth.

Ukraine is divided in two, with the western side seeking closer integration with the EU and the east favouring closer ties with Russia. This creates the perfect environment for each side to show their might and the Russians wouldn’t be wrong in feeling, just a little bit, provoked. Ukraine was formerly a part of Russia, after all.

Ukraine may no longer be Russian but many would argue that Crimea always has been. A referendum, since labelled “illegal” by the international community, took place in March 2014 with 96% of people voting to join Russia. Combine this with a population where 82% of people speak Russian and some would argue that the peninsula is closer to Moscow than Kiev.

The Western powers, particularly the US, have been peddling NATO membership on Russia’s neighbours for a long time. The Russians see NATO as a challenge to their own power; which is understandable as it was founded at the height of the Cold War in order to protect against the Soviet threat. Despite having lost its only reason for existence, the group has never disbanded and has only continued to add members.

The Kremlin has consistently, rejected any NATO expansion and the Georgian willingness to join in 2008 played a large part in the subsequent conflict. Ukrainian membership was also put on the table in 2008; this led to Putin calling the possible admission of the two countries a “direct threat” to Russia.

A 2009 poll showed that 40% of Ukrainians agreed with Putin and saw NATO as a “threat”, with only 17% seeing NATO as a protector. Putin’s fear of NATO being used to accommodate Ukraine into the western fold makes a little more sense when it becomes clear than more than a third of the country feared the alliance.

The West using political treaties to entice Ukraine is a theme that continued with the, ill-fated, association agreement. The agreement was tabled without any negotiation with the Ukrainians and without any funding strategy.

This, some-what, justified fear of all things NATO coupled with EU policies has left the Kremlin believing that Russia is being surrounded by Europe. The Russians see this as a challenge to their status as one of the great superpowers, a title they desperately cherish.

The Kremlin reject any potential damage to their status so much that they are more than willing to endure months of sanctions, and the subsequent economic ruin, in order not to look weak on a global scale.

You could argue that it’s working. With Crimea annexed, and Ukraine embroiled in a civil war it is impossible for the country to join NATO. Precisely what the Russians wanted and, in reality, all they could hope for. In their current economic state, the rouble recently fell to its lowest ever point against the dollar, there is no way Russia could afford to take on the responsibility for the ruined towns and cities of eastern Ukraine.

With a dwindling economy and an aging population, Putin feels his country is more vulnerable than it’s ever been, since he joined the top table in 1999. Couple this self-awareness with Europe making moves on the Russian doorstep and you can see why the Russian bear was coaxed from its slumber.

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