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Ukraine: United front against Russian aggression needed to combat autocracy

Ruth Green, IBA Multimedia JournalistTuesday 22 February 2022

Unity march in Odessa against Russian invasion. Ukrainians in a square with the sign "United Ukraine, Odessa, Ukraine: 20 February 2022 Shutterstock/Olga Evans

After weeks of rising tensions on Ukraine’s borders and clashes on the ground, on 21 February Russian President Vladimir Putin announced he was recognising the rebel-controlled areas of Donetsk and Luhansk as independent states and ordered troops into the country.

As many as 200,000 Russian soldiers had reportedly been deployed along Ukraine’s borders in recent days, making the threat of a Russian invasion dangerously imminent. World leaders threatened to impose tough sanctions on Moscow. But as diplomatic negotiations show no sign of overcoming an impasse the influx of Russian troops, under the pretext of ‘peacekeeping duties’, suggests a full-scale invasion is now inevitable.

Following Russia’s incursion and subsequent annexation of Crimea in 2014, there were growing concerns that President Vladimir Putin would use the escalating situation in eastern Ukraine as a ‘false flag’ attack to justify invading the two separatist territories. Parallels have also been drawn with the 2008 Russo-Georgia war, when Russia invaded Georgia after violence broke out between Georgian troops and South Ossetian separatists.

Russia has demanded assurances that neither Ukraine nor Georgia will be admitted to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Olga Lautman is an expert in Russia, Ukraine and Eastern Europe and a Senior Fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis. ‘[The Russian government] just wanted a pretext and at the same time, a distraction,’ she says. ‘There hasn't been a pause now one time during these negotiations. All you see is an increase and an influx of military.’

Lautman commends efforts by some countries to provide military support to Ukraine and neighbouring Balkan states. However, she says global powers must not be naive. ‘You have to leave the doors open for diplomacy, but at the same time, you still have to have the realistic understanding that Putin wants Ukraine,’ she says. ‘In Russia, the most important thing for anyone is to leave behind a legacy. And he wants the legacy of reinstating territorial land lost during the collapse of the Soviet Union.’

In Ukraine, public support for NATO membership remains high. Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyi says the conflict transcends the country’s NATO ambitions and is focused on protecting Ukraine’s future. This sentiment was plain to see in Kharkhiv in early February as thousands of protesters held up banners in the country’s second-largest city stating ‘Kharkiv is Ukraine’ and ‘Stop Russian aggression.’

The fight for Ukraine is so important, because if we are successful, we send the message that democracy can win, that democracy is better than autocracy

Daria Kaleniuk
Executive director, Anti-Corruption Action Centre

The 2014 Orange Revolution and subsequent ousting of President Viktor Yanukovych gave a taster of this Ukrainian defiance. Daria Kaleniuk, executive director and co-founder of the Anti-Corruption Action Centre (AntAC) in Kyiv, says this drive to uphold democracy and the rule of law has only grown stronger. ‘Ukrainian people are fighting these constant attempts by the Kremlin regime to get us back under their influence,’ she says. ‘Ukrainian people eight years ago said very clearly and firmly: “We are for dignity. We are for justice. We are against corruption. We are for Western values and views which are grounded in liberty and dignity and in the respect of human rights”.’

Since 2012, AntAC has focused on tackling major corruption and building independent and transparent institutions in the country. Kaleniuk says the international community has a responsibility to ensure Ukraine can continue down this path of reform. ‘The fight for Ukraine is so important, because if we are successful, we send the message that democracy can win, that democracy is better than autocracy,’ she says. ‘That's actually what is threatening Vladimir Putin. He doesn't need this success story for the world.’

However, public confidence in Zelensky’s ability to implement reforms and effectively address Russian threats has steadily declined. This has only served to underline the gravity of the crisis facing Ukraine, says Anne Ramberg, Co-Chair of the IBA’s Human Rights Institute. ‘Ukraine needs strong support in upholding the rule of law and human rights,’ she says. ‘The wave of autocracy in Europe and elsewhere can easily gain support if the lack of trust in government and institutions will increase, as is the case in many parts of the world. A crisis in trust undermines democracy and alternatives to democracy may attain support.’

Lautman says Ukraine has long been Russia’s ‘hybrid warfare laboratory’ and continues to battle targeted cyber-attacks, disinformation campaigns and deliberate attempts by the Russian authorities to invoke civil unrest on Ukrainian soil.

More recent moves by Russia – to bolster support for President Lukashenko in Belarus and weaponise both Europe’s migrant and energy crises – could have even graver consequences. ‘With Putin assisting Lukashenko to hold onto power he increased his military, his territorial size, and he is now literally a direct threat on EU borders,’ she says. ‘That, for the future, is very dangerous. As much as everything is being firmly centred around Ukraine, it is not hard to imagine it falling over the borders of Ukraine and actually involving the NATO countries and turning into a bigger war.’

The US, UK and EU have vowed to impose more sanctions in response to Russia’s aggression. Both Lautman and Kaleniuk agree that stronger sanctions must be issued against the Kremlin, particularly against oligarchs close to the Russian authorities.

Kaleniuk says US sanctions must also target Nord Stream 2, a controversial pipeline aiming to bring 55 billion cubic metres of Russian gas directly to Germany under the Baltic Sea. The US previously voiced concerns that Moscow could use it as leverage to destabilise Europe. However, in May 2021 the Biden administration bowed to political pressure and waived sanctions on the Russian company in charge of constructing the pipeline. In early February, President Biden vowed to shut down the pipeline in the event of Russia invading Ukraine. On 22 February, Germany said it was halting the approval of the pipeline in response to Russian military action.

‘It was a mistake by the Biden administration to lift those sanctions,’ says Kaleniuk. ‘That encouraged Vladimir Putin to go further. If you are soft and if you're implementing demands of Vladimir Putin, he will have more demands. They will never end. You have to be strong. He understands only the language of power. Nord Stream 2 has to be sanctioned immediately without waiting for further invasion of Ukraine.’

Image:Olga Evans Shutterstock.com

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