What is Putin’s problem with Ukraine?

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Recently, tensions have increased between Russia and Ukraine, leading some to wonder what’s the problem with Putin’s relations with Ukraine? While he has claimed that he wants to protect the Russian speaking people in Crimea, this might not be the only motivation behind his actions. Here are five reasons why Putin may have an issue with Ukraine that you may not have heard of before.

The roots of the conflict

Why does Putin care so much about what happens in neighboring Ukraine? It’s a complex history, but it boils down to three things: territorial integrity, historical ties and Putin’s own political popularity. First off, Russia has a well-established policy of favoring unity within its sphere of influence. One prime example: Russia opposes Kosovo’s formal independence from Serbia because it believes regions should never break away from states against their will (and because there are Russian Orthodox believers in Kosovo). Second, both Russia and Ukraine were part of an integral unit when they were both part of USSR. There are still thousands of families split by today’s border between these two countries. And thirdly, as has been extensively documented elsewhere , Putin uses nationalism as a source of legitimacy for his regime.

Putin’s Problem With Ukraine

Putin’s issue with Ukraine stems from his worry that its citizens will join NATO. Russia has long been opposed to NATO and perceives it as a threat to Russian national security. If a NATO-member country (such as Ukraine) were to become embroiled in conflict, Russia would have no control over how its resources are allocated, particularly if they were sold or distributed to other countries like Germany or Poland. This could cause a disruption in Russian relations at best, and incite hostilities at worst. If Putin can keep NATO out of Ukrainian affairs, he may be able to avoid another Cold War scenario similar to what unfolded after the Berlin Wall fell.

Russia can’t afford to lose Ukraine

From a geopolitical perspective, Ukraine is much more valuable to Russia than it seems at first glance. For one thing, and as Samantha Powers pointed out during her UN speech, all of Russia’s gas exports to Europe run through Ukrainian territory. In fact, nearly 70 percent of all Russian gas deliveries to Western Europe pass through Ukrainian pipelines—and that’s important because if Putin disrupts those shipments in any way, he could cause serious damage to his country’s energy-dependent economy. Additionally, no matter what Putin says about protecting Russian minorities in eastern and southern Ukraine (Donetsk), Russia has very real concerns about losing its only naval base on the Black Sea: The port city of Sevastopol, which has been a hub for Russian ships since 1892.

The future of EU-Russia relations

It all boils down to a complicated cultural history between Putin and Kiev. Putin has always claimed Crimea as part of Russia, and his relationship with Ukraine goes way back—to when it was part of Russia, then later, when it split off into an independent state (following the collapse of Soviet power). As a result, there’s long been mutual hostility between Putin and key Ukrainian leaders. In 2013, protests broke out in Ukraine in response to President Viktor Yanukovych’s sudden decision to pull away from a proposed trade agreement with Europe.

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