By ATTY. ANGELO KARLO GUILLEN
National Union of People’s Lawyers (Panay)
Russia launched a large-scale military campaign against neighboring Ukraine.
On February 24, Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered airstrikes and missile attacks that targeted several Ukrainian military bases and cities. Russian troops and armored vehicles crossed the border in a three-pronged ground assault from the north, east, and south.
Ukrainian forces were able to repel some Russian attacks using weapons supplied by Western countries, but they remain largely outgunned and outnumbered. After less than a week of fighting, Russian forces are threatening to take the capital, Kiev.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy declared martial law and called for aid from the international community.
The United States and its allies are sending more missiles, rifles, ammunition, and other military aid to Ukraine, and imposed economic sanctions against Putin, key Russian nationals, banks and financial institutions that include the freezing of assets, trade restrictions, and blocking Russia’s access to financial markets.
Meanwhile, thousands of Ukrainian civilians have been displaced and are trying to cross the border into Poland, Hungary, and other European countries to the west and south.
While exact figures are unknown, there have been reports of hundreds of people either dead or wounded from the fighting.
What caused the crisis?
Ukraine is trying to become a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, a move seen by Russia as a direct threat to its security.
NATO is a military coalition formed in 1949 and currently made up of 30 countries, including the US, the United Kingdom, Canada, Germany, France, Belgium and other allies of the US.
During the Cold War, NATO served as a US-led alliance against the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, which included Russia and Ukraine.
Beginning in 1989, the USSR was facing collapse and there was a temporary drawdown of forces and a series of negotiations between the US and Russia.
Russia claims that an agreement was reached – albeit not in writing – that NATO would not expand eastwards, and, in exchange, the Kremlin agreed to the re-unification of East and West Germany.
Later, Russian President Boris Yeltsin tried but failed to secure a legally-binding guarantee from the US that NATO would halt its eastward expansion.
In the 2 decades since the USSR’s disintegration, NATO inched closer towards Russia, with a number of former eastern bloc countries joining up, including Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic in 1999; Bulgaria, Slovakia, Lithuania, Latvia, Romania, and Estonia in 2004; and Albania in 2009.
The US and its NATO allies also continued holding military exercises and deploying missile systems closer to Russia’s borders.
Early on, experts warned the US and its allies about antagonizing Russia and isolating it from the rest of Europe.
Some of the former eastern bloc countries that joined NATO were either relatively smaller nations or did not share a border with Russia. Ukraine, on the other hand, shares a 1,900-kilometer border with Russia and was the second-largest of the former Soviet republics.
Ukraine also has a sizeable ethnic-Russian population in the east and south of the country. The port city of Sevastopol, in the Crimean Peninsula in southern Ukraine, is also the headquarters of the Russian Navy’s Black Sea Fleet.
Expectedly, when Ukraine’s membership in NATO was being considered during the 2008 NATO Summit in Bucharest, Russia conveyed its opposition.
What happened during the 2008 Bucharest Summit?
The US, under President George W. Bush, endorsed Ukraine’s membership in NATO.
President Vladimir Putin, who also attended the summit, opposed the move since this would place NATO and its military forces right at Russia’s doorstep. He likewise raised concerns about Washington’s deployment of missile defense systems in Eastern Europe.
Eventually, the membership action plan for Ukraine was not approved due to opposition from European leaders, led by German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who were worried about Russia’s response.
Still, without setting a definite timeframe, NATO expressed its commitment to Ukraine’s future membership.
How did the Russia-Ukraine crisis escalate?
In 2010, under the leadership of President Viktor Yanukovych, and with pressure from Russia, the Ukrainian parliament passed a law prohibiting membership in military alliances and establishing its status as a “non-aligned” or neutral country.
In 2013, Yanukovych rejected moves towards integration with the European Union and sought to establish closer ties with Russia. This led to a series of protests that came to be known as the “Maidan revolution”, and in February 2014, Yanukovych was ousted and replaced by a pro-Western government.
In retaliation, Russian forces immediately seized Crimea – which has a predominantly ethnic-Russian population – and later that year formally absorbed the region as part of the Russian Federation.
Russia also began supporting separatist rebels in Donetsk and Luhansk, both situated in the Russian-speaking Donbas region in eastern Ukraine.
The US, for its part, began supplying and training the Ukrainian military.
Since 2014, fighting has continued between the Russian-backed separatists and Ukrainian government forces resulting in more than 13,000 deaths.
What triggered the recent Russian attack on Ukraine?
Amidst the fighting in its eastern flank, Ukraine pushed for NATO membership and passed legislation abandoning its “non-aligned” status and expressing intent to join the alliance.
In June 2021, President Zelenskyy publicly claimed that his country’s entry into NATO was guaranteed. While this later proved to be inaccurate – as some of the member-states were still wary about the repercussions – the statement, Zelenskyy’s continuing efforts to secure membership, and the prospect of US weapons systems at its borders triggered stern warnings from Russia, followed by a build-up of military forces.
By November 2021, thousands of Russian troops had amassed at the Ukrainian border.
In December, the Kremlin reiterated its demand for legally-binding guarantees that Ukraine would not be permitted to join the alliance, and called for a halt to NATO military activities in Eastern Europe.
These demands were rejected by the US and NATO, both insisting that any military arrangement was a decision solely between NATO members and Ukraine.
Russian military build-up continued over the next 2 months, while the US and some NATO member-states sent more weapons and military hardware to Ukraine.
On February 21, 2022, Russia officially recognized the secession of Donetsk and Luhansk from Ukraine, and deployed troops to the break-away provinces. Three days later, Russian forces launched an all-out attack against the entire country.
Is a peaceful resolution still possible?
The United Nations has called for an immediate cessation of hostilities and, while difficult, a diplomatic resolution of the conflict is possible.
Any settlement would have to address Russia’s demand for security guarantees from the US and NATO, the status of the breakaway regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, and the withdrawal of Russian forces from Ukraine.
Ukrainian and Russian delegates met briefly at the Ukraine-Belarus border for talks, but so far, no substantial agreements have been reached.
It also remains to be seen whether the US and NATO will commit or even negotiate on the issue of halting NATO expansion eastwards.
For decades, the US aggressively pressed to enlarge and fortify NATO territory in a bid to corral Russia and reduce its influence in Europe. The US also seeks to weaken the Putin regime, which has been strengthening military and economic ties with other countries such as China, India, and Pakistan.
Russia and China have also been seeking to build regional economic blocs that would reduce reliance on the US currency and Western-dominated trade and financial markets.
All of these developments pose a considerable threat to America’s political, economic, and military power not just in Europe but across the globe.
Is the refusal of the United States and NATO to halt military expansion reasonable?
Viewed historically, the position of the US on this matter – as well as its argument that Russia alone is to blame for the conflict in Ukraine – is deeply flawed.
As early as the 19th century, the US itself adopted a foreign policy – known as the Monroe doctrine – which dictates that the Western hemisphere is exclusively under the US sphere of influence, and that European powers are barred from interfering with political affairs in that part of the world. This policy views any such interference as a direct threat to US national security.
This policy became the basis for US intervention in the internal affairs of Latin American countries it viewed as either left-leaning or in danger of joining the Soviet bloc. It is the policy that spurred numerous coups instigated, planned, financed, and supported by the US that brought down democratically-elected governments such as those in Guatemala, Brazil, and Chile. The US also used this policy to justify invading Panama and Grenada, and deploying contras in Nicaragua.
When Cuba, a sovereign state, permitted the deployment of Soviet missile systems on its soil, the US carried out a naval blockade and threatened to invade the small island-nation. The crisis ended only when the Soviet missiles were removed from Cuba.
While Russia did violate international law by attacking Ukraine, the responsibility of the US and NATO in creating the crisis should not be ignored. Just like the US-led invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq that led to tens of thousands of civilian deaths, NATO’s military expansion into Eastern Europe upturned the entire region and endangered civilian populations.