The World Finally Takes Notice

Europe is on the brink of war. Beginning this past fall, approximately 100,000 Russian troops have amassed on Ukraine’s borders, threatening the state’s independence. Russian President Vladimir Putin demands that Ukraine agree to security measures irreconcilable with its sovereignty, prompting threats of sanctions from the United States and United Kingdom, as well as NATO military escalation. This crisis is attributed to two causes: Putin’s obsession with restoring Russian imperial glory over Ukraine and competition against the United States.

The current tensions between Ukraine and Russia find their roots in the Euromaidan, a series of pro-democracy demonstrations in Ukraine during the winter of 2013–14. Following Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych’s last-minute refusal to agree to a trade deal with the European Union in favor of closer ties with Russia, the Ukrainian people took to the streets to demonstrate against human rights violations and widespread corruption.

Their efforts against authoritarianism strengthened Ukrainian civil society by uniting the people around liberal democratic values, which culminated in the ousting of Yanukovych and the nation’s pro-Russian government. Putin proceeded to capitalize on the political instability caused by the regime change, invading Crimea and backing a pro-Russian insurgency in eastern Ukraine that has taken over 14,000 lives to date.

Since this seismic shift in Ukrainian civil society—known today as the Revolution of Dignity—Ukraine has drawn Putin’s ire by severing cultural ties with Russia and developing a stronger national identity. The past eight years have seen extensive decommunization, autocephaly for the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, and the increased use of the Ukrainian language.

Putin now seeks concessions from Ukraine to ensure that the nation remains within Russia’s sphere of influence. Chief among his demands are a ban on Ukrainian membership in NATO and the withdrawal of NATO forces from its eastern flank. U.S. officials and their NATO allies have rejected all such proposals, leaving diplomatic solutions unlikely. Without an agreement, Russia may further invade Ukrainian territory.

During his 2005 State of the Union Address, Putin claimed, “The demise of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.”

According to Professor Taras Dobko, Senior Vice-Rector at the Ukrainian Catholic University and Visiting Scholar at the University of Notre Dame, Putin views Ukraine as an “indispensable part” of the mythical “ancient triune Russian nation … destined to live together in one state under the Russian tsar.” Ukraine, however, remains distinct from Russia in its “natural and not externally imposed openness to Europe and to the West as opposed to the self-isolation tendency of the so-called ‘Russian world.’”

Putin fails to recognize the differences between Ukraine and Russia. In his July article, “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians,” Putin declares, “Russians and Ukrainians [are] one people.”

Putin “does not believe in any civil society,” Dobko affirmed in a comment for the Rover, yet it is civil society that “opposes any attempts to introduce authoritarian trends in Ukraine.” This cultural distinction marks a deep disconnect between the Ukrainian and Russian people that is fundamental to Ukraine’s independence.

Dobko also asserted that Putin’s worldview has inspired an aspiration for proxy war with the United States. In order to reinforce its sense of importance, Russia must maintain an adversarial relationship with the United States, which it views as the premier global power. However, the implausibility of direct war against the United States leads Russia toward Ukraine, an American ally.

Russia’s attention to the United States is further reflected in its exploitation of U.S. foreign policy mistakes during the 1990s. Michael Desch, professor of political science and Director of the Notre Dame International Security Center, told the Rover that the United States undermined Russian democracy by “expand[ing] NATO into the former Soviet space, in contradiction to assurances [the U.S.] gave the Soviets at the end of the Cold War.” This incursion upon the Soviet sphere of influence may be viewed as grounds for Russian involvement in Ukraine, which seeks integration with Europe.

Desch additionally maintained that the U.S.-led denuclearization initiative during the mid-1990s left Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan “in a weak position vis-à-vis a much larger and more powerful Russia.” Without a nuclear deterrent, neutralization becomes a difficult goal to achieve. Ukraine’s lack of security leaves it susceptible to intervention from its eastern neighbor.

However, in an opinion piece for USA Today, the co-chairs of the Congressional Ukraine Caucus argue that this denuclearization initiative should provide the basis for Ukrainian security. The United States’ and United Kingdom’s agreement to the Budapest Memorandum in 1994 offers a commitment “to provide assistance to Ukraine … if Ukraine should become a victim of an act of aggression.”

Russia’s 2014 invasion of Crimea constituted a violation of the memorandum, and any further encroachments upon Ukrainian soil will offer greater justification for foreign involvement. Though not legally binding, this assurance may offer the key to Ukrainian national security if upheld.

Christian McKernan is a junior from Yardley, Pennsylvania, majoring in finance and minoring in constitutional studies. He is Co-Founder and Treasurer of the Ukrainian Society of the University of Notre Dame. Please direct any comments to

Photo credit: President of Ukraine, licensed under Creative Commons CC BY 4.0 license