In the past few weeks, Vladimir Putin’s administration has been amassing troops along the Russia-Ukrainian border. This move is reminiscent of the 2014 annexation of Crimea, a peninsula in Southern Ukraine, which sparked condemnation from the international community. While Russia controls Crimea and considers it part of their country, it is still internationally recognized as part of Ukraine. On February 20, 2014, unmarked Russian troops and local militia forces annexed the Crimean Peninsula in just a month, fully integrating the region with Russian currency and services in under two years.
Recently, estimates from satellite images have suggested that the Kremlin has amassed 175,000 troops on the Ukrainian border. This is a much larger force than the one used in Crimea. In addition to ground troops, entire supply and medical lines have been created all along the border, implying that the conflict could be more drawn-out than the last as well.
There are a few reasons why Russia has been so adamant about Ukraine’s annexation. Their stated reason for doing so has to do with the unification of Eastern Slavic culture and identity. The Kremlin’s stated goal is that Russia and Ukraine are “one people” who should be united under one government. The Kremlin does have a point with this assertion: Ukraine was a part of Russia until 1991, the Ukrainian and Russian languages are fairly mutually intelligible and (according to most Russians) the founding of Russia happened in Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital, with the creation of the Kyivan Rus. Ilya Ponomarev, a former member of the Russian Parliament and the only lawmaker to vote against the Crimea annexation, said that “One of the colossal problems pushing us into conflict is that Russian identity does not exist without Ukrainian identity.”
A great number of nations have historically been divided or conjoined with others in a way that may not follow the common idea of what a nation should be. Colonialism in Africa and Southeast Asia has led to most countries being formed, not out of common identity within a people group, but instead because of international politics happening thousands of miles away. Something that Americans often forget is that the same thing happened between the United States and Canada. While the two countries are culturally nearly indistinguishable, the politics of colonial Britain has led to a functionally arbitrary line being drawn between the two countries with no regard for geography or culture.
Many Russians view Ukraine in the same way, as a similar group of people divided arbitrarily, while many Ukrainians view the two countries as two separate nations with different types of people living within.
That said, this reasoning may not be why Putin himself is going forward with these plans. Gleb Pavlovsky, a longtime Kremlin adviser until he turned against Putin in 2011, said that Ukraine has now become a vehicle for Mr. Putin’s ambitions of fully resurrecting Russia’s status as a global power. “Ukraine is a field of strategic maneuvering for bringing Russia back into a strategic dialogue,” Pavlovsky said. “He’s interested in the global level, not the regional one.”
Additionally, Ukraine’s diplomatic ties with Russia have recently been pretty thin. Ukraine has had closer and better ties with Western European NATO countries than their mother country. This could be worrying to Putin, as having a NATO-sympathizing country so close to his border could undermine his power in that region. In fact, when addressing the Russian people earlier this year, Putin condemned Ukraine’s relations with Western nations. “It would be no exaggeration to say that the course of forced assimilation, the formation of an ethnically pure Ukrainian state aggressively oriented against Russia, is comparable in its consequences to the use of a weapon of mass destruction against us,” Putin said (in Russian). This sentiment is clearly rising among the Russian people as well. Rather than merely viewing the Ukrainians as brothers and sisters separated by a border, they are beginning to have a more negative sentiment towards them. Just this year, negative views of Ukraine among Russians rose from 31 percent to 49 percent.
This trend has also been reciprocated. In 2012, just 14 percent of Ukrainians favored joining NATO. Today, that number has shot up to a staggering 54 percent. The aggression shown by Putin towards Ukraine may have been the catalyst for this change in sentiment. Many Ukrainians wish to protect their national identity from the Russian takeover, and if it means closely aligning itself with Russia’s rivals, then it may do just that. Like a helicopter parent gone too far, Putin’s attempt to bring Ukraine closer to his nation may have just driven them further away.