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The Maastricht Diplomat

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The forgotten war.

Greta Koch | When was the last time you heard news from the war in Ukraine? Quite a while ago? No need to worry, you are not the only one. Even when you would google news from East Ukraine you would not find a quick and informative match I guess. Indeed, nothing very “world-shaking” happened in the Eastern parts of Ukraine. Since February 2015, there has not been a change in territory between the two sides, Ukrainian forces on the one hand and Russian-backed and often also Russian-led separatists that want to establish independent Republics for Donetsk and Luhansk on the other.  

For the past two years, this war has been in stalemate. But this does not simply mean that this conflict is frozen or insignificant. What people do not realize is that since the beginning of the war in March 2014, there has rarely been a day without a shot being fired. Any attempt for a ceasefire has failed. Ukraine, the largest country in Europe, is still in a state of war, with dozens of soldiers and civilians killed every month. It is a war that finds no ending, while the rest of the continent looks away – because right now, it is not “world-shaking”. This, of course, is not an uncommon phenomenon – there can only be one headline per day. When looking at the past two years, at 2016 especially, it seems understandable that these headlines have been preoccupied with Brexit, Syria, the refugee crisis, populism and of course the orange psychopath, aka Mr President. Our minds have been preoccupied with the very same topics. But why is the war in Ukraine still going on? And why is nobody finding a solution? 

Let’s take a quick recap to what led to the outbreak of war. In November 2013, Ukrainian President Yanukovych refused from signing an Association Agreement between the European Union and Ukraine at the last minute. This Agreement should have led to closer cooperation between the two, with access to the free market for Ukraine and help in structural reforms. Yanukovych suspended it after having received so-called “economic incentives” – access to Russian markets and subsidies worth of millions. In many cities, students started to protest in favour of European integration: not so much about the Agreement itself but for European democratic values and against Yanukovych’s regime. After a few days of students blocking the Maidan square in Kiev, police forces used violence against protesters – and that is what triggered the “Euromaidan” to become a revolution. More and more people joined because they could not believe that it was allowed for the police to use violence against its own people expressing their free opinion, instead of protecting them. Having more people in Kiev did not stop the police forces and in the beginning of 2014, the first innocent protesters died until the revolution succeeded and Yanukovych fled the country. However, not all parts of Ukraine supported the revolution and anti-Euromaidan protests started in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine, calling for independence of their regions. In Crimea, this led to unmarked forces – which only months later were confessed to be Russian – taking control of the Crimean parliament, forcing them to vote themselves out of control and establishing a pro-Russian government and called for the referendum. Crimea was annexed by Russia, breaking multiple international laws. At the same time, people from East Ukrainian regions were backed by Russian forces to fight for their independence from the new Ukrainian regime. 

Thus, this war started without a declaration – neither Russia nor Ukraine have declared war on each other and until today, Russia’s official position is to interfere because it wants to protect ethnic Russians in these areas. This defence is not an exception to international laws: one country cannot simply send troops to another country without the blessing of the government, even to protect its own people. This defence was also not accepted when Crimea was integrated into Russia. However, this remains a grey zone: Russia is not officially a fighting country in the region but supports one side, like many countries have done in wars before. This is certainly not enough reason for another country, especially the EU, to intervene and possibly cause a war of a whole bigger dimension. The only possible measure the EU could take was sanctioning Russia.  

As you might see, the Ukraine crisis is a huge problem in the relations between Russia and the EU. Why? Because in 2014, Ukraine was to choose a side. While Russia wanted Ukraine for its Eurasian Union, Ukraine started talks to move closer to the European Union. Russia wants a Union built on traditionalism and state authority, the EU offers liberalism and the protection of human rights. Integration in both Unions at the same time was deemed impossible, and thus occurred a zero-sum game. Choose, Ukraine. 

Why does Russia take such extreme measures to win Ukraine for its side? Obviously, Ukraine and Russia have been bound together in history, especially with Ukraine having been part of the Soviet Union. But Putin’s surge for power is not that irrational that he would annex a country simply because it “belonged” to Russia before. Other interests lie behind it: for one that Ukraine is a major market for gas and has important strategic connections to the Black Sea, but most importantly the fear that European integration would lead to NATO integration, possibly with NATO missiles stationed directly at Russia’s border.  

Thus, Ukraine has become a battlefield. The agreement in Minsk failed, although it set out to give control of Eastern Ukraine back to the Ukrainian government while promising to amend the constitution to give each region more independent powers. Nevertheless, fighting continued and Russia will not take its troops out of Ukraine, because these troops are not officially under Russian control. 

What both the EU and Russia do not anticipate is that this war, even the revolution, was never really about the EU or Eurasia. It was about a reckless regime that killed its own people. It was about freedom and justice, while different ethnicities did not see themselves represented on either side. Russia took advantage of these upsurges for independence to protect its interests, while the EU could only raise a moral index finger. It is the 21st century and still, we are in some kind of cold war, where the disagreement of two powers leads to an actual war, on the cost of small countries who do not get a say – and every month, people die because the solution is to sit and wait, no end in sight, and apparently more pressing problems ahead.  


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