It has been said that one of the most prolific and memorable images of 2014 is the Before and After take of Ukraine’s Independence Square. On the global scale, 2014 was arguably one of the most dangerous and violent years in recent memory. The world witnessed everything from the spread of Ebola, the rise of ISIL in the Middle East as well as the United States’ response, to Taliban bombings of Pakistani schoolchildren, the ongoing Syrian civil war, the kidnapping of 185 women and children by Boko Haram, and the crisis in Ukraine.
The armed conflict in Ukraine has ravaged the country for almost a year now. Beginning with the Russian invasion and hostile annexation of Crimea in February of last year, the conflict quickly escalated when separatist factions of eastern Ukraine wanted to break off and forge stronger ties with Russia. The war in eastern Ukraine has claimed the lives of more than 5600 people, and displaced 1.5 million more. A shaky ceasefire between the Ukrainian government and separatist forces established in September has been completely shattered in recent months, with recent peace talks between the sides coming to a full halt.
Behind this conflict lies a former superpower: Russia. In recent months, through routine denials of all accusations of its continued support of the war, Russia sent thousands of their own troops into Ukrainian territory, as well as allowing countless numbers of volunteers through their borders to fight a “holy war” on behalf of the “Russian Empire.” Evidence has surfaced showing that Russia had planned an invasion of Ukraine even before the previous government collapsed last February. Despite the agreement of a recent ceasefire agreement, both sides have been slow to fulfill their promises, with fighting continuing and a key strategic town, Debaltseve, recently falling under rebel control. While there has been minor progress in fulfilling the terms of the recent Minsk ceasefire deal, the conflict, continually escalating, has no foreseeable end in sight.
Since the beginning of the conflict, the United States has issued a number of executive orders and legislation to both aid Ukraine financially, promising $1 billion in loans, and sanctioning sections of the Russian economy and specific personnel close to Vladimir Putin. As a result, combined with the recent dip in oil prices, the economy in Russia has grounded to a near halt. Yet, the United States has failed to dissuade Russia from its continued involvement in the proxy war. Despite recent news such as the extension of European Union sanctions against Russia, the fighting continues on in Ukraine, with Russian troops and volunteer supporters continuing to flood over the border.
President Obama continually emphasizes that “it’s not a new Cold War,” and that sanctions are the key to forcing Russia to back down. In his recent State of the Union speech, the President mentioned Russia basically in passing, and only emphasized that we must “stay the course” in our current answers to Russian aggression. By this logic, it would seem that by now, with the Ruble almost completely devalued, Russia would be considering pulling out of Ukraine and ending their proxy war in the face of total economic collapse. And yet, the war rages on.
One major mistake that President Obama made in his calculations is exactly how far Putin, and the Russian people, are willing to go to see this conflict through to the end, the impact his sanctions are having. 76 percent of the Russian people consider state media to be the trustworthy news source, with only 5 percent saying that Western media is trustworthy, Gallup polls have shown. Russian approval of Putin skyrocketed by nearly thirty percent in the last year to an all-time high, while favorable opinions of the West simultaneously fell into single digits. Most Russians believe the war in Ukraine was caused by the CIA and Western intervention, in an attempt to cause a collapse of Russia. The economic sanctions imposed on their country only embolden the Russian people, causing them to coalesce around their leader. It paved the way for Putin to win popular support, and to centralize his power and fashion it into a new dictatorship. Recently, an anti-West, pro-Putin demonstration in Moscow drew 40,000 people, as a testament to the dangerous current of thought in Russia today.
With recent sharp comments claiming that Russia is “undermining the global order,” the United States appears to be reconsidering its previous approach, albeit slowly. With the recent Minsk ceasefire agreement shaken, new sanctions against Russia are being considered. President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry are looking closely at the possibility of supplying arms to the Ukrainian government for defensive purposes. As Ukraine’s air force is mostly eradicated, and with troop casualties mounting daily, this sort of aid is desperately needed. But is it enough? Or is it too little, too late?
There is no question that the situation in Ukraine is a grave one. This is however only a symptom of a larger issue, that of an aggressive and reinvigorated Russia. The events taking place in Ukraine today mirror that of Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2008, except on a wider, bolder, and deadlier scale. The United States, through its inaction, effectively granted Russia permission to invade a neighboring country, forcibly annex parts of it, all at the cost of a few months, possibly a year of economic and travel sanctions. It is no wonder Hillary Clinton compared Putin to Hitler last year. The continued sanctions that President Obama presses upon Russia does naught but invigorate the Russians against the West, making them more willing to support warmongering, authoritarian dictators and the wars that they are bound to start. The climate in Russia is a strongly patriotic, nationalistic one, with general ire directed toward the West. The President’s continued underestimation of this fact may lead the world down a very dark path in the coming years.
Perhaps President Obama is right in saying that we are not headed toward a second Cold War. However, the President cannot deny there is a growing gap, a rivalry between the East and the West that seems to draw ominous parallels with the Cold War. Russia may not be as powerful as the Soviet Union once was, but it certainly likes to think so, and that can be just as dangerous, particularly when some countries think they could not withstand an attack from it.