Standoff in Ukraine

(Bloomberg) -- The allure of the West has helped shape Russian history since Peter the Great three centuries ago. Now it’s shattering even older bonds with Russia's neighbor, Ukraine. In 2013, a rebellion sparked by pro-European Ukrainians seeking a decisive break from the nation’s Soviet past set in motion a chain of events that created the tensest standoff between Russia and the West since the Cold War. Russian President Vladimir Putin annexed Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula in March 2014, proclaiming a duty to defend the ethnic Russians who dominate the population there and sending shockwaves through the post-World War II order.

The Situation

More than four years of conflict in rebel-held eastern Ukraine have claimed in excess of 10,000 lives. Diplomatic efforts have run aground, with the government in Kiev and Russian-backed separatists blaming each other for reneging on a 2015 peace accord. In a dramatic renewal of tensions in November, Russian forces fired on Ukrainian warships, injuring crew members and capturing three vessels. Up to then, fighting had been largely down from peak levels, with Ukraine's military reporting periodic flare-ups. The casualties have included the passengers and crew of a Malaysian Air jet shot down over the conflict zone in 2014. The U.S. and the European Union have imposed sanctions on Russia over Crimea and its military backing for separatist militias in Ukraine. What began as peaceful street protests in Kiev in 2013 turned into a global geopolitical impasse when a popular uprising turned deadly and Ukraine’s Moscow-backed President Viktor Yanukovych fled. Ukrainians voted decisively to tighten ties with Europe in a 2014 election, though many are frustrated by the pace of change. Disbursements from a $17.5 billion International Monetary Fund bailout, sealed after the conflict choked the economy and drained reserves, have been delayed by heel-dragging on reforms. U.S. President Donald Trump's rapport with Putin has raised questions about continued Western support for Ukraine, while cracks are starting to appear in the EU unity needed to maintain the bloc’s sanctions against Russia.

Standoff in Ukraine

The Background

Ukraine and Russia trace their roots to the ninth century, when a collection of tribes founded Kievan Rus around modern-day Kiev. Ukraine struggled to carve out a national identity, falling under Moscow’s sway through most of the Russian and Soviet empires. More recently the two countries have been bound together by energy: Ukraine's pipelines provide transit for Russian natural gas en route to European markets, though the country has found alternatives to Russian supplies for its own gas needs. The Soviet legacy still looms large and Ukrainian unity has often been in short supply. While language and ethnic differences don’t tell the whole story, and the conflict with Russia has brought many Ukrainians together, the country of 42 million remains divided with mainly Russian-speaking regions in the east and the Ukrainian-speaking provinces of the west near the border with Poland, Slovakia and Hungary. One side backs pursuit of EU and NATO membership; the other prefers a Russian-led customs union.

The Argument

What began as a dispute over whether Ukraine would face east or west has raised broader questions about its future as a unified state. Western-oriented Ukrainians hope that aligning the country’s future with the EU will strengthen institutions, bolster democracy and stem a slide back toward the days of Soviet rule. The enthusiastic support in Russia for Putin’s actions underscored the growing gulf between the worldviews of Moscow, Kiev, the U.S. and Europe. Russia’s oil and gas once tied all sides together. While Putin has revoked discounts that amounted to a crucial subsidy for Ukraine, his country still provides one-third of the EU’s gas imports. The longer-term durability of the EU's sanctions, which prompted Russia to put a retaliatory ban on food imports from the bloc, is unclear. The populist government elected in Italy in 2018 is sympathetic toward Putin and its vote could be enough to prevent the penalties from being extended.

The Reference Shelf

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