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Decoding Ukraine’s Security Environment: Fears and Trends

Authors: Ruslana Kochmar & Suddha Chakravartti*

The key point to bear in mind is that Russia cannot be in Europe without Ukraine also being in Europe, whereas Ukraine can be in Europe without Russia being in Europe. Zbigniew Brzezinski— Chapter 4, The Black Hole, p. 122

Arguably, few countries are at the crossroads of the grand chessboard of international politics like Ukraine. A prisoner of geography, few countries have had to historically adjust to great power politics as Ukraine, and very few countries have a more complicated relationship with their identity and their territory than Ukraine. Straddled in the heart of the Eurasian continent, Ukraine’s prospects, it’s identity, national consciousness, and sovereignty will depend upon how international and Eurasian politics shape in the area. Even the name Ukraine (Okraina), roughly translated as “borderlands,” “periphery” or “frontier region” in Slavic (Rywkin, 2014), bears testament to its historical legacy as a geopolitical pivot. In fact, the current geopolitical tug of war is not merely international, but it’s fraught with internal ambiguities originating from historical complications. The west of Ukraine, the lands which have been historically influenced by Poland as well as the Austro-Hungarian Empire, is the hotbed of Ukrainian nationalism; the eastern front is ethno-linguistically Russian; the area around Kyiv is the birthplace of the Kievan Rus, and hence, crucial to Ukraine’s identity; and Crimea, which was historically occupied by the Ottomans. The recent conflict in Ukraine has highlighted the fragmentation of this historical land, as the river Dneiper dissects the country into different spheres of influence (Rexhepi, 2016). On one side, as Ukraine inches towards the west, its integration is restrained because its modern territory falls within the crucial “near abroad” limits of Russian foreign policy.

The Paradox of Ukraine’s Sovereignty

The security challenges presented by Russia’s intervention in Crimea in 2014 are crystalised in Ukraine’s fight for sovereignty. Ukraine emerged as an independent state post-1991 with the dissolution of the Soviet Union. The Budapest Memorandum signed at the OSCE conference in 1994, where Ukraine acceded to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, also saw the permanent members of the United Nations give security affirmations to Ukraine regarding its territorial integrity, the recognition of its autonomy, and its existing borders. In 1995, Russia and Ukraine consented to separate the Soviet Black Sea Fleet, whereas in 1997, Russia and Ukraine signed a Treaty on Friendship or also known as “Big Treaty.” Although Ukraine’s sovereignty and independence have been firmly embedded in an international framework, the multi-vector strategy is all but crumbling. The independence of Ukraine has been viewed as “the greatest geopolitical loss for Russia in the post-Cold War period” (Sarikaya, 2017). By Ukraine’s sovereignty, Russia had lost not just its influence over the Baltic States and Poland, but it also lost its capacity to lead the erstwhile Soviet Union’s southern and eastern non-Slavic population that Russia gained from the Ottomans under Catherine the Great (Marshall, 2016: 20). A neutral Ukraine is acceptable by Russia, and Ukraine has always been viewed by Russia as a buffer region till pro-Moscow regimes ruled from Kyiv (Ibid). This perspective also conveys the link to the important concept of “centre and periphery” in Russian Foreign Policy (Ferrari, 2020) that gained momentum under Vladimir Putin’s revisionist notion of Novorossiya (New Russia).

The fear of Russian interference in Ukraine’s sovereignty in 2013 led to the Euromaidan mass- protests in Kyiv which quickly engulfed the country, mainly its western parts. The protests resulted in the downfall of pro-Russian Viktor Yanukovych’s government, resulting in his exile. Fearing the worst geostrategic outcome, Russia was left with little choice but to annex Crimea in order to safeguard Crimea’s Russian speaking majority, but vitally, to protect and bolster Russia’s naval port in Sevastopol (Marshall, 2016: 16). However, through its military annexation of Crimea, Russia pursued to recapture its earlier influence and to reignite its image as a superpower. The Crimean annexation was evidence of Russia’s strategic importance of the Black Sea region and its historical necessity for access to warm water seaports. The annexation also reinforced Russia’s zero tolerance for losing its sway in its “near abroad,” something clearly witnessed in recent decades during the Chechen wars (1994-1996 and 1999-2009) and the Russo-Georgian war (2008).

Despite the international accords that recognised Ukraine’s territorial sovereignty, Ukraine’s military and economic security began to deteriorate when Russia forced Ukraine to surrender the Association Agreement with the EU in 2013. Russia set up trade barriers against Ukraine, specifically by offering credit to Ukraine as a ‘carrot.’ Prior to the Crimean annexation, Russia supplied a large portion of Ukraine’s natural gas requirements, after which imports diminished and halted in 2016. Regardless, Russia drastically depends on Ukrainian pipelines for transporting  its  natural gas  to  Central and  Eastern  Europe and  is  contracted  to  continue transporting gas through Ukraine for a few additional years (Masters, 2020).

Nonetheless, Ukraine’s energy sector is changing, and its battle over energy independence has only begun. The debates with Russia over transit arrangements and revenues have been pushed into the spotlight. Russian Gazprom accelerated the construction of new bypass pipelines such as TurkStream. Another large-scale transit route of Russian gas through Ukraine to Europe is immersed in the dispatch of Gazprom’s $11 billion Nord Stream II undertaking, which joins Russia to one of Europe’s significant gas consumers – Germany (Bros, 2015). And although the viability of the project is questionable, this possesses a serious threat to Ukraine’s and EU’s energy autonomy. The European Union leaders are now examining the new “clean’ energy” policies, whilst reflecting on the disruption created by Russia’s annexation of Crimea from Ukraine. This also mirrors the strategy of both EU and Ukraine to reduce its reliance on Russian gas to achieve greater energy independence and not be politically or economically diminished by Russia’s “big stick” foreign policy.

The Heartland Theory and the Strategic Weight of Western and Russian Manoeuvres

Halford Mackinder’s Heartland theory appears to be still relevant nowadays as evidenced in the growing geopolitical turmoil in Eastern Europe – the ‘Heartland.’ This theory conveys that the control of Eurasia and Africa could be only accomplished via control of the countries bordering the erstwhile Soviet Union, including Ukraine. In the 20th century, Mackinder assumed the ‘pivoting’ or controlling Eastern Europe as the locus of geostrategic access to the Heartland. By gaining influence in the pivot area, the controlling state would obtain the dominance of the global order (Alcenat, 2008). This geostrategic objective was further espoused in Zbigniew Brzezinski’s The Grand Chessboard (1997), whose implementation by the West resulted in the infiltration and spread of western influence and dominance into the erstwhile Soviet space. The western endgame, through these manoeuvres, were directed towards thwarting Russia’s ability to project power in Eurasia (Baldwin & Heartsong, 2015). Thus, the pivot area essentially provides further access and marks Ukraine as a primary geopolitical interest. However, it is mainly due to such hawkish neoconservative strategies that the hasty and unchecked spread of western influence has resulted in providing fodder for the resurgence of Russia as a dominant Eurasian  and global superpower (Baldwin & Heartsong, 2015). Russia’s counter as a reactionary power has stymied the dominance of the West in Eurasia, where today its “near-abroad” strategy continues to threaten Ukraine’s national security.

The conflict in Ukraine has truly sabotaged the whole Euro-Atlantic security. The key for the normalisation of relations between NATO, Russia, and Ukraine balances on Russia’s acknowledgement of Ukraine’s independence, autonomy and territorial integrity. About seven years have passed since Russia’s annexation of Crimea, and its constant support to pro-Russian uprisings and destabilisation in the Donbas region in eastern Ukraine. This scenario has not only destabilised the military and national security of Ukraine, but also led to suspended cooperation with Russia that has undermined its economic security. It is evident that Russia seeks its security tactics through a delineation of spheres of influence among post-Soviet powers. Similarly, this aggressive stance endangers European security too. Therefore, it is in the interest of the EU and NATO to seriously consider the sanctity of Ukraine’s sovereignty, which is key to containing Russia and its sphere of influence.

Currently, Ukraine stands at the forefront as a “geopolitical pivot” of another great power politics, pitting Russia against West, resulting in diplomatic coldness and reigniting the fears of another Cold War. The US and European views are centred around a solid, autonomous Ukraine, which is “a significant piece of building a Europe entire, free, and at peace”(Kaddorah, 2014). While the rapid expansion of NATO and the EU post-1990 is intended to strengthen and secure Europe, its expansion today is dangerously close for Russian liking. This is because the expansion of NATO and the EU to Eastern Europe and the Baltic States have greatly diminished Russia’s strategic depth it once enjoyed under the Soviet Union. The current endeavours to consolidate Ukraine under the umbrella of a western economic and security associations has shifted the balance of power, with the expansion of western influence into Russia’s previously controlled neighbourhoods. Through the reactionary policies of Russia, we can clearly observe its resurgent attempts to recapture its influence on those post-Soviet Union regions. Moreover, it manifests Russia’s reluctance to permit the West to accomplish any further its targets in the east.

An Independent and Sovereign Ukraine as the Key to Euro-Atlantic Security

International transformations and growing military  security threats in Ukraine directly or indirectly influence the security framework of Europe. Conferring to the ‘Western-Ukrainian Axis,’ we can notice the expansionist strategy of NATO and the EU with Ukraine. At first, NATO’s expansion towards the East remained frozen. However, after Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2008, the Euro-Atlantic community took it as a sign of the Kremlin’s desire to restore its authoritative reach in Eastern Europe and over the post-soviet territory.

Russia has effectively utilised Europe’s energy reliance to frame its ‘energy groupings’ inside the EU, in order to establish greater influence. Hence, Russia has managed to turn the table and undermine the security not only in Ukraine but in the whole Euro-Atlantic region. Through its intervention in the Transcaucasia region (Zakavkazye), Moscow demonstrated to the West that they should reflect on their expansionist strategy.

The conditions for territorial security around Ukraine are vital due to the following reasons:

  The accelerated ‘sphere of influence’ of major powers and the geopolitical position of Ukraine, which attracts the interest of major powers. This provokes external influences in the region and demands the preventive use of force to protect borders.

  Further escalation of ‘frozen’ clashes in the Black Sea-Caspian Sea region is another threat, which challenges the internal instability of neighbouring countries. This highlights the lack of perspectives and a common vision of regional reconstruction processes.

  The growing militarisation and foreign military presence in the region, added by the further risk of the deployment of new arsenal systems.

  Uncertain issues identified within the constitutional regulations. There is an increasing trend in nationalism, which additionally implies the importance of cultural rights of ethnic minorities that could revive territorial claim issues in the regional agenda.

Ukraine directly falls under the developing tension of distinctively coordinated centres of influence: Russia, the US, and the EU. Currently, it is difficult to imagine Ukraine guarantee its security in the modern world independently due to its destabilised economy and energy dependency. With the realisation of the EU integration strategy and its incorporation within NATO, Ukraine must politically manoeuvre in moulding new pan-European balances of power and embrace deterrent capabilities concerning ongoing security issues. The 1994 Budapest Memorandum and  other  international security  instruments  concerning  Ukraine should  be reinforced. The best ultimate outcome could be viewed as establishing a network of legally binding instruments. These instruments would secure a certain scope to the UN Security Council member-states and other contracting parties if there should be an occurrence of armed aggression against Ukraine. Moreover, Ukraine has the right to acquire such affirmations, most importantly as a result of it being one of the few voluntarily states to abandon its nuclear potential (Adamenko, 2012).

Some present operations involving NATOs alliance with Ukraine include peace-support actions,  defence and  security  sector  reform,  military-to-military  cooperation  and  defence technology. Since 2014, Ukraine has been the largest recipient of NATO’s Science for Peace and Security (SPS) Programme in accordance with the decision of member states to increase the inclusion of Ukraine. For instance, in the previous five years, there were 69 SPS activities conducted with Ukrainian researchers and specialists. Nowadays, Ukraine remains the leading partner of NATO through the ongoing 32 SPS ventures that contributed to 17% of all SPS Programme in 2019 (NATO, 2020). From Ukraine’s perspective, the urgency of military security also includes the importance of safeguarding national interests in the Black Sea region. This entails the development of dialogues with key neighbouring regions and receiving technical assistance from NATO.

Hence, Ukraine has been broadly cooperating with NATO, especially at a strategic level. The apex point of the strategic cooperation with NATO was the Brussels Summit Declaration on July 11, 2018. During the summit, Ukraine’s alliance goals were formally recognised, as well as NATO enrolment (The Cabinet of Ministers of Ukraine, n.d). Since then, Ukraine has been effectively integrating NATO norms in its Armed Forces, for instance, by redesigning military units of the General Staff of the Armed Forces around standards that are appropriate to NATO states. Due to this, Ukraine’s overall defence unit is experiencing improvements through the rebuilding of the infrastructure and mobilisation of training centres.

BLACK SEA SECURITY

The intensification of the struggle and competition for natural resources is a growing security challenge at both regional and global levels. Competition for natural resources exemplifies geopolitical tensions around the world. Since the Crimean annexation, the Black Sea region is experiencing a change in the balance of power. The Black Sea region is a strategic but a sensitive area, as it is located at the centre of regional tensions, natural resources and geopolitical competitions between Russia and Ukraine. The geopolitical transformation is not only about territorial integrity but also maritime security. After the Cold War, Russia diminished its leverage of influence over the Black Sea region. Subsequently, the prioritisation of geopolitical interest in the Black Sea Region was re-established due to the extensive transport network and energy reserves (Masters, 2020).

Ukraine has similarly adapted reforms of its armed forces to procedures that are NATO compatible in terms of the Ukrainian navy. Prior to 2014, Ukraine did not consider the Black Sea region as the key security threat, hence, the forces committed to maritime security were narrow, apart from Georgia (Wezeman & Kuimova, 2018). There was a lack of funding for the Ukrainian navy in comparison to the army and active personnel. Whereas the focus on land operations in eastern Ukraine was doubled, the number of naval personnel was halved since minor warships and non-combat ships were removed from the military service

Human Security and Human Rights in the Occupied Territories

The conflict in Ukraine has taken around 13,000 lives and has resulted in the ‘disappearances’ of hostages (UNIAN, 2019). Moreover, Ukraine’s security disputes have directly affected human security issues concerning the integration and adaptation of IDPs originating from eastern Ukraine. There are official reports that determined that the territory controlled by Russia-led  forces  exhibit  life-threatening  conditions  in  detention  centres  (US  Bureau  of Democracy, Human Rights and Labour, 2019).

In regions that are dominated by Russian influence, the Justice for Peace in Donbas Coalition showed that sexual violence was used pervasively in ‘unofficial’ detention facilities (Khylko & Tytarchuk, 2017). There is clear oppression on the freedom of expression, including blocked media outlets and the use of violence against individual journalists that undermine the country’s sovereignty. Additionally, Russia-led forces forestalled the transmission of Ukrainian independent TV channels and radio programming in territories under their control.

Under such security circumstances, there is an impulse to delay and overlook human security issues to ‘better occasions’ and focus only on military issues and territorial integrity. In any case, it is wrong to consider human security as a sort of stabiliser that restricts state security. In democratic states, human and state security are interconnected aspects in the strengthening of national resilience.

Referring to the Finnish Foreign and Security Policy, improving communication between the various components of security apparatus with citizens is fundamental (Khylko & Tytarchuk, 2017). For instance, the German Armed Forces, Bundeswehr, styles itself as a pro-democratic unit by drawing closer to individual and civil society issues. This also signifies the role of public communication that contributes to the responsive systems of human security threats. The new National Security Strategy of Ukraine (2015) presents an updated arrangement between citizens and state based on democratic values. In this regard, the primary function in ensuring security is given to military and law enforcement bodies, while adding the dynamic inclusion of civil society and NGOs.

Conclusion

The current insecurity in Ukraine is a consequence of deep-rooted ideological, informational, geopolitical, and domestic fault-lines. A revisionist Russia that claims the heart and centre of Eurasia pushes both Ukraine and the EU to strengthen its military and economic security and bolster policies to reach post-conflict settlement objectives. A sovereign and stable Ukraine that is firmly committed to a democratic order is key to a successful Euro-Atlantic security system. The evolution of circumstances in Eastern Ukraine demonstrated that Ukraine was not prepared to forestall and react to Russia’s growing influence. Thus, it is important to establish solid long- term security strategies so that the cycle of interventions in Ukraine’s sovereign matters does not repeat. This calls for the revision of medium and long-term policy strategies via reinforcing energy and economic security of the state.

In  the  new  geopolitical  setting,  the foreign  policy of  post-Soviet Russia  has long  been characterised as reactive rather than proactive. Historically, Russia has always felt trapped by the influences of its geography and geopolitical realities, which have prominently influenced its foreign policy to rely on catching up with other hegemonies and great powers to maintain its “sphere of influence.” Although Russian energy revenues are strong, it is a double-edged sword that is making Kremlin dependent on hydrocarbon exports. A partial switch to renewable energy is a great opening for Ukraine to become less energy-dependent and improve its economy. This transition and diversification would not just help Ukraine to advance its energy sovereignty, but would also bring more durable peace, self-reliance, and national security. If Ukraine would be able to resist its dependence on Russian hydrocarbons – energy and national security would be automatically strengthened. Russia’s deep economic isolation, which has only deepened since the beginning of the Crimean annexation and its intervention in the Donbas region, could be further used to destabilise Kremlin’s position. As the end goal for the achievement of military security, post-conflict reconstruction should be realised through the demobilisation of military groups in the non-government-controlled area. Conclusively, by reclaiming the control of the territory, the reintegration of society will be possible via the elimination of supplies of weapons.

Kremlin has used every opportunity to keep the Trilateral Contact Group paralysed on their commitments and has not shied away from using its proxies to destabilise Ukraine. Ukraine and Russia seem to interpret differently the execution of the arrangements of the Minsk Agreements. The key enquiry is now whether Russia can be convinced to accept a modernised version of the Minsk Agreements or a completely new framework. The OSCE delegates have raised this issue, as well as German and French interlocutors. It is likewise crucial that Ukraine is not standing by latently in negotiations. So far, the Minsk Agreements’ efforts have produced very limited results in the reintegration of the eastern regions that are under Russian occupation. On the optimistic side,  Ukraine has  discussed  its  second  part of  the Strategy  for  the Economic Development of Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts (Ministry of Reintegration of the Temporarily Occupied Territories of Ukraine, 2020). The Ukrainian Cabinet of Ministers ratified this report on December 23, 2020, whereas by summer 2021 they expect to prepare a roadmap and a package of bills to execute economic initiatives in the occupied eastern locale.

From the very beginning, the Ukrainian conflict has developed on two converging planes: one inside Ukraine and the other between Russia and the West, where Ukraine was just a ‘stumbling block’ in the process of democratisation. The Kremlin’s proxies in Donbas are demanding a) goodwill on  all sides, b)  a concrete detailed roadmap, c)  a group  of additional selected intermediaries who could guarantee the peace-making process, d) the acceptance and presence of all parties required for the reintegration of the eastern region. Talks must include the representatives of the “People’s Republics” to drastically increase their self-government on the condition of preserving the common border and some conditions that would determine their legitimate status. Meanwhile, Ukraine should invite new members of the EU (predominantly from neutral states) and the US to act as guarantors in their talks with Kremlin. These conditions would increase the chances for Ukraine as the sovereign state to achieve its “best scenario” and oppose external and domestic radical nationalistic forces in the future.

* Suddha Chakravartti is the Head of Research, and Lecturer in International Relations at EU Business School.

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