The Once Known Borderland

It is widely known in linguistic collectives that the name Україна (Ukraine) derives from the term Окраїна (borderland). However, people who live in Ukraine know that the term Окраїна also means land which stands alone. Before the collapse of the Soviet Union the most known definition was embraced by all. Since then, Ukrainians have embraced the latter.  The strategic importance of Ukraine to Russia, NATO, USA, and the EU is undeniably significant. This post will examine how Ukraine’s push towards Liberty has impacted the relationship between the East and West.

NATO is without a doubt the most successful defense grouping in history. And, without a successful defense of liberty, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) alliance has no prospects for the future. NATO has succeeded in its main mission, the one it was founded for. It won the Cold War, which was caused by the launching of iron curtains across the European continent. The result and confirmation of this success is precisely the membership of former communist countries in the Alliance.

NATO’s success in the Cold War was so clear-cut that some called for its cancellation, because it had fulfilled its purpose. But, in the defense of liberty, the Alliance is not and cannot be a tool for one use. There is no end to history; therefore, liberal democracy is not a definitive victor in history. Maybe it’s on the contrary. In some ways, NATO today is back at the beginning with new administrations coming into power. But, its basic mission – the defense of liberty – remains. Liberty is the alpha and omega of NATO’s existence, the reason for its birth and its guarantee of survival.

Even if NATO is above all a defense alliance, one whose military strength depends directly on economic potential, it has really always achieved its goals due to the right political decisions. To its citizens, the free world was worth defending, and what’s more, it has also attracted inhabitants from Ukraine. Ukraine’s pro-Western leaders are also pushing for membership after Russia annexed its Crimean peninsula and supported pro-Russian insurgents in a two-year separatist conflict in the east of the country. Russia vehemently opposes both bids as a threat to its security.

However, Ukraine missed its best opportunity to join NATO in 2006 when “pragmatic” national democrats prioritized a grand coalition with the Party of Regions rather than working for Ukraine in receiving a Membership Action Plan (MAP). If President Viktor Yanukovch had supported an orange coalition then US President George W. Bush would have visited Kyiv in June, Ukraine would have received a MAP in Riga summit in November and by 2010, Ukraine could have been a member of NATO deterring Russia from attacking Ukraine.

Any Ukrainian move towards NATO will also cause a further integration with the European Union. Which is a direct threat to Russia, because it would solidify EU dominance in the region and move NATO closer to a choke hold on the Kremlin. This led President Yanukovych to opt out of the agreement and moving towards closer ties with Russia. Subsequently, this move led to the Euromaidan revolution and the ousting of Yushchenko.

Post-Euromaidan, Ukraine must recognize that Poland is an extremely important supporter of in offering a pathway to future integration to the EU or NATO. At the 2016 NATO Warsaw Summit Poland’s President Andrzej Duda told leaders that NATO should uphold an open-door policy, especially when it comes to countries that are strategic in terms of their character and location. He continued by stating that Poland should always be ready to assist countries which have been attacked and against which international laws have been broken.

The new President of Ukraine, Petro Poreshenko, approved the National Security Strategy of Ukraine in the summer of 2015. This strategy’s primary aim was the integration of Ukraine into the European Union. According to the Strategy, Ukraine – EU Association Agreement defines strategic guidance for realization of systemic political and socio-economic reforms in Ukraine, comprehensive approximation of Ukrainian legislation to the EU norms and rules.

The EU has recently expressed its support for Ukraine by issuing statement on the worsening security situation in eastern Ukraine. The EU condemned an increase in heavy fighting from pro-Russian rebels in the government-controlled town of Avdiivka. This situation was debated by the European Parliament’s Security and Defense Subcommittee and Ivanna Klympush-Tsintsadze, Ukraine’s Vice Prime Minister for European and Euro-Atlantic Integration. Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) urged Russia to stop testing the West’s reactions and continue following the Minsk agreements.

However, in response to a new US administration, Russia rejects suggestions that the Kremlin and the west may try to negotiate a deal over the war in eastern Ukraine. After a recent call between Presidents Trump and Putin there was a surge in fighting between government forces and Russia-backed separatist rebels. This surge killed more than 30 people.

Ms. Klympush-Tsintsadze indicated that the ceasefire continues to be violated by Russia and its proxies in eastern Ukraine. She pointed out that Russian-backed militants had recently used tanks and heavy weapons, such as Grad multiple rocket launchers, which are prohibited by the Minsk agreements. Currently, Avdiivka is on the verge of humanitarian crisis, as the fighting had resulted in electricity and heating supply cuts, and repairs had been hampered by pro-Russian rebels.

Some MEPs call on the EU to be more proactive and to start discussing the possibility of deploying an EU Common Security and Defense Policy mission as well as delivering on its promises to grant Ukrainian citizen’s visa-free access. A majority of Security and Defense Committee also backed a call to debate the situation in eastern Ukraine at the Parliament’s next session in Strasbourg and to vote on a resolution.

MEPs also reiterated that EU sanctions are linked to the implementation of the Minsk agreements and should therefore be maintained. Most importantly, they were concerned about the deteriorating situation in eastern Ukraine. Many thought that Russia is testing the new US Administration.

The Trump Administration recently stated that it stands with the people of Ukraine. Remarks from new US Ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, stated that until the Russian backed separatists respect Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, this crisis will continue. The Trump administration called on Western leaders to continue condemnations and call for an immediate end to the Russian occupation of Eastern Ukraine and Crimea. It is obvious that sanctions will remain unless there is a decrease in territorial infiltration of Russian separatist in Ukraine.

However, if the sanctions are lifted, Russian President Vladimir Putin would lose some control over the rhetoric spread throughout Eastern Europe telling citizens that Russia’s problems are created by the west alone, and not by corruption within the Kremlin. The war in Ukraine (and, in Syria) is a good political strategy for the Russian government. It solidifies their climb back to prominence in the minds of their citizens and allows them to push the blame onto the west for any economic downturns.

But, sanctions have in fact affected the Russian economy in various ways.  The main short-term impact comes from restrictions on Western lending and investment in Russia. Oil and gas  production  remains unaffected  for  the  time  being,  but in the  long term energy exports are  likely to suffer. Meanwhile, Russian counter-sanctions are benefiting the agricultural sector, but consumers are losing out in terms of choice and price. So far, the overall impact of sanctions has been to isolate Russia from the global economy and hold back economic modernization.

What should concern the EU and NATO members are aggressive actions from a Trump administration. Republicans in the House and Senate have wanted to provide lethal aid to Ukraine for many years. A Trump presidency may give them the opportunity to do so. Rex Tillerson, the new US Secretary of State, stated during his Senate confirmation hearings that he is not against provide lethal weaponry to Ukrainian soldiers. The situation will dramatically escalate if Ukrainian soldiers will be given offensive and defensive weaponry which will allow them to become more aggressive and mount an offensive to gain back territory occupied by Russian backed rebels.

Any escalation would mean that the EU, USA, and NATO will need to be on high alert. We have seen the beginning of a massive military surge in east Europe. At the beginning of 2017 President Obama deployed 4,000 troops to Poland. The greatest mass of US troops deployed to Poland since the Cold War. Troops will also be deployed on a rotational basis to Estonia Latvia, Lithuania, Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria. Russia has branded this move as an aggressive transition toward instability in the region.

The road ahead is uncertain and no one can see into the future. No one can foresee the impact that a buildup of American troops in NATO countries will have on the region. “Час покаже,” is the term often used by Ukrainians when refereeing to further integration with the west. The phrase translates to “time will show” or “time will tell.” Time will tell if the fight for liberty will escalate competition for strategic positioning in the once known border land.
*These are the thoughts and opinions of Richard J. Roman, not a representation of the Peace Corps or the U.S. Government.

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