U.S. to Russia: “It’s Not Your Ukraine”

Nikki Haley, U.S. Ambassador to the U.N., tweeted a statement and gave a speech directed at Russia on Thursday, saying:

The dire situation in eastern Ukraine is one that demands clear and strong condemnation of Russian actions… The United States stands with the people of Ukraine, who have suffered for nearly three years under Russian occupation and military intervention.  Until Russia and the separatists it supports respect Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, this crisis will continue.

Since March 2014, there has been an insurgency in eastern Ukraine by those who seek to separate their region from the rest of the country (the “War in Donbass”).  If they were successful, it would be very likely that Russia would then annex the territory, similar to what they did in Crimea in 2014.  Russia has been accused (correctly) of helping to support, arm, and man the insurgency in Ukraine.

Some context helps to understand why the fighting is occurring.  During the Soviet era, Ukraine and Russia were both part of the Soviet Union.  Following the Soviet collapse in 1991, Russia formed the Russian Federation as the Soviet successor state and remained the dominant power in the region.  However, Ukraine chose to go its separate way from Russia; over time, Ukraine drifted towards Europe and NATO, and thus away from Russia and its influence.

This is one factor in Russia’s fixation on Ukraine.  Another is Ukraine’s ethnic makeup.  The western part of Ukraine is ethnic Ukrainian, while the eastern part has a large proportion of ethnic Russians (Crimea itself is majority ethnic Russian).  These people tend to identify more with Russia than Ukraine and therefore seek to bring their territory into the Russian Federation.

A third factor centers around the natural gas fields in eastern Ukraine as well as past disputes between Russia and Ukraine concerning natural gas.  Europe receives about a quarter of its gas supplies from Russia and over 80% of it flows through pipelines in Ukraine.  The two countries have been bickering over gas flows, prices, and Ukrainian payment defaults for over a decade.

Thus, the conflict in eastern Ukraine involves issues of regional power, ethnicity, and commercial interests.  Therefore, it will be difficult for Russia to unwind the chaos it has unleashed in the region.  However, it is necessary in order for a continued warming of U.S.-Russian relations and joint cooperation on other matters, such as fighting ISIS and Islamic terrorism in general.  As I speculated recently, one possible outcome would be for Russia to cease its activities in eastern Ukraine, helping the rebels there to reach a negotiated settlement with the Ukrainian government (possibly with some form of self-rule), while the U.S. tacitly recognizes Russia’s annexation of Crimea.  In addition, an agreement on future natural gas flows and pricing would need to be reached.  Then, both sides can move onto other matters.

Therefore, Nikki Haley’s statement seems to be another move in the chess match between the U.S. and Russia.  Notice that she simply “condemned” the actions and tossed the issue over to Russia for their turn to respond.  There was no ultimatum or “red line” issued, simply a recognition that if Russia does not act, then “this crisis will continue.”

It will be interesting to see how Russia does respond.  Will it work to tone down the fighting in Ukraine so as to reach a negotiated end to the conflict, allowing all sides to save face?  Or will it seek to annex eastern Ukraine?  Another factor in all this is Iran.  Hopefully the U.S. and Russia can work together to help temper Iran’s belligerence in the Middle East (the U.S. by mounting a more forceful response to Iran, and Russia by leveraging its commercial links with Iran).

The alternative to U.S.-Russian cooperation would be that Russia and Iran come closer together in their alliance.  This would be unfortunate, as the possibility of an armed conflict between the U.S. on the one side and Russia and Iran on the other is in nobody’s long-term interests.

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Aaron Simms

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