Understanding the root cause of the current Russia-Ukraine conflict

06May 2022
The Guardian
Understanding the root cause of the current Russia-Ukraine conflict

The Russia-Ukriane military conflict has been ongoing for more than two months, and there is no sign for an end in the near future.

George Muntu.

By George Muntu

According the latest data of the United Nations, over 12 million people are believed to have fled their homes in Ukraine since the conflict began, which accounts for nearly 30 percent of the total population in Ukraine. The conflict and the subsequent economic sanctions have dealt a heavy blow to the world economy, resulting in soaring prices of oil and natural gas and greater food insecurity in parts of Africa and the Middle East.

Then what’s the root cause of the conflict? How has the dispute between Russia and Ukraine evolved during the past years? What’s the right way to end the conflict? What should we do to maintain long-term peace between the two countries? There questions are crucial for understanding the current conflict and bringing about a fair and feasible solution to it.

To understand the root cause of the ongoing conflict, we must know the history of the US-led North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and its relations with Russia during the past several decades.

To begin with, let’s review the purposes of establishing NATO. The North Atlantic Treaty was signed by the United States, Canada, and 10 western and northern European countries on April 4, 1949. Guided by the Truman Doctrine, the main purpose of establishing NATO is to to contain Soviet geopolitical expansion during the Cold War. NATO constitutes a system of collective security, whereby its independent member states agree to mutual defense in response to an attack by any external party.

Given the aforementioned goals, it was expected that NATO would cease to exist after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War in 1991. However, the alliance continued to expand by incorporating former Soviet republics, contrary to its promise of “not one-inch expansion eastward”. Even after the Warsaw Pact was dissolved, NATO has continued to exist and enlarge itself. With the accession of Baltic countries into the alliance in 2004, NATO is already an immediate neighbor of Russia.

It should also be noted that, in the whole process of German unification, several Western leaders, including the then U.S. Secretary of State James Baker and German Foreign Minister at that time Hans-Dietrich Genscher, assured the then top leader of the Soviet Union Mikhail Gorbachev that NATO would not expand further east  after East Germany became part of the Federal Republic of Germany and NATO. But all these assurances were not fulfilled.

Due to the breach of their promises and NATO's determination to continue expanding toward Russia’s borders, it has pushed President Vladimir Putin to come up with the demand calling on NATO to abandon its plan to incorporate Ukraine into the alliance as well as to withdraw troops and military equipment from some former Soviet republics. However, Putin's demands were rejected by NATO and U.S. leaders.

The continued expansion of NATO and its failure to keep its promises have reinforced Russia’s belief that it has been cheated by NATO and Western countries and a strong sense of insecurity has emerged on the part of Russia.

It should be noted that NATO is an instrument of the US-led Western bloc to promote their political systems and values, and maintain its dominance in global affairs. To join NATO, nations are expected to respect the values of the North Atlantic Treaty, and to meet certain political, economic and military criteria, which include among others a functioning democratic political system based on a market economy and a commitment to democratic civil-military relations and institutions.

In the view of Western countries, Russia under Putin’s rule is a centralized, authoritarian state, which does not meet the criteria for NATO membership. NATO’s eastward expansion will further isolate Russia, and aggravate Moscow’s security concerns.

Despite Russia’s repeated warning, NATO has undergone five rounds of eastward expansion since the end of the Cold War, granting membership to 14 countries which were in the past the territories of the Soviet Union.  

Although NATO claims that its enlargement is not directed against Russia, it has deployed anti-ballistic missile launchers in Poland and Romania, which can be easily converted into offensive weaponry. In addition, NATO has been frequently conducting military exercises in the Baltic Sea, the Black Sea and central as well as eastern European regions during the past decade. It’s quite natural that Russia sees these moves as provocative and threats to its national security. 

Moscow’s legitimate security concerns have been largely ignored by the United States and its NATO allies. From 1992 to 2013, the U.S. government has spent about $5.1 billion to support democracy-building programs in Ukraine. In 2008, the then US President George W. Bush said he “strongly supported” Ukraine’s attempt to join NATO, and warned he would not allow Russia to veto its membership bid. The current US President Joe Biden has also announced his support on Kyiv’s bid to join NATO. 

In November 2013, under Russia’s pressure, the then Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych ordered the suspension of preparations for signing an association agreement with the EU. However, his decision triggered strong protests from pro-EU forces, and finally resulted in his exile in southern Russia and taking control of domestic politics by pro-West forces in Ukraine. 

The annexation of Crimea by Russia in 2014 has further strengthened the position of pro-West forces in Ukraine. The country has since abandoned its non-alignment policy and amended its Constitution to include such poisonous clauses as “acquiring full-fledged membership of Ukraine in the European Union and in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization”.

By now, Ukraine has completely sunk into the arms of the US-led Western alliance. As the country shares a 2,000-kilometer border with Russia, its accession into the NATO would cross a red line in terms of Russia’s security concerns.

Russia has repeatedly called for dialogue with Ukraine, the United States and NATO in order to address its legitimate concerns, but these requests were rebuffed. Meanwhile NATO conducted several joint military exercises with the Ukrainian army, and this triggered Russia's military operation in Ukraine.

Therefore, to end the current Russia-Ukraine conflict, we must take into consideration the legitimate security concerns of Russia, while at the same time upholding the basic norms governing international relations, such as the sovereign equality of States, the prohibition of the threat or use of force, and peaceful settlement of international disputes.

(The author is an independent writer based in Dar es Salaam, Email: [email protected])

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