Rolling Series

Summary of the CCLG Discussion on the Geopolitics of Ukraine Conflict

The blog is authored by,  Mr. Saurav Sarmah, Assistant Professor of Political Science at Rajiv Gandhi National University of Law, Punjab. 


Geopolitics is the study of the interaction between three elements – geographical, historical and political to understand (i) the strengths and weaknesses of nations, (ii) strategies to utilize the strengths and overcome the weaknesses by them and (iii) implementation of these strategies in their foreign policies. Ukraine is a part of the Eurasian Steppe, an immense grassland settled by numerous tribes and historically open to invasions due to absence of geographical barriers. The Slavic people settled down in Ukraine in the beginning of the first millennium and founded the Kievan Rus’ in 879 CE, with the people of Scandinavian origin forming the ruling aristocracy, according to some sources. In 988, Prince Vladimir along with his subjects were baptized into Christianity under the auspices of the Patriarchate of Constantinople. The Rus’ was conquered by the Mongol Golden Horde in 1240 and the Rus’ principalities became tributaries of the Great Khan. As the Mongols declined in power, two powers emerged to the West and East of Kiev, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and the Muscovy respectively. The Western part of Ukraine developed closer relations with the Western powers and the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern part with Moscow and Eastern Orthodox Church. Eventually, as Poland was partitioned thrice in 1772, 1793 and 1795, the Russian Empire came to occupy most of Ukraine. The title of Tzar was held by the Russian Emperor as the ruler of three Rus’ – Great Rus (Moscow), Little Rus (Kiev) and White Rus (Minsk). During World War I, in 1917, the Bolsheviks seized power in Moscow and surrendered most of Ukraine to the German Empire in the Brest-Litovsk Treaty. After the defeat of the German Empire by the Western powers and anti-Bolshevik armies by the Red Army, the Eastern portions of Ukraine were reconquered. Together, Russians, Ukrainians, Belarussians and Transcaucasians formed the Soviet Union in 1922. The politics of World War II led to incorporation of more Western territories in Ukraine, first through the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact in 1939 and then Soviet victory over Nazi Germany in 1945. In 1954, Crimea was also incorporated into Ukrainian Soviet Republic. So, when Ukraine became independent of the Soviet Union in 1991, that entire territory was recognised in its sovereign jurisdiction. In 1994, Ukraine became part of the Budapest Memorandum that guaranteed its sovereignty and territorial integrity in return for dismantling the nuclear arsenal present in its soil.

The gradual eastward expansion of NATO and the phenomenon of Colour Revolution began to change the balance of power in Eastern Europe. In Ukraine, the pro-Russian politician Viktor Yanukovych was not allowed to take office as President, when hundreds of Ukrainians came out in protest in the 2004 Orange Revolution. In the re-election, he was defeated and Ukraine proceeded on the path of more integration with EU and NATO. The Russian President Vladimir Putin, who began as a Euro-enthusiast, became sceptical of the intentions behind the eastward expansion of EU and NATO. The 2008 Bucharest Declaration of NATO envisaged incorporation of Ukraine and Georgia into its collective defence agreement. As a retaliation, Russia invaded Georgia and created two new independent republics, South Ossetia and Abkhazia in Georgian sovereign territory. Except for condemnation and minor sanctions, NATO could not take any action to support Georgia against Russia, the largest nuclear weapon power in the world. Viktor Yanukovych, who won the Ukrainian presidential election in 2010, started disengaging with EU and signed several agreements for closer cooperation with Russia. In 2014, another protest movement, the Euromaidan Revolution started and Yanukovych had to flee to Russia and a new interim pro-Western government was formed. Russia retaliated by annexing Crimea and supporting rebel insurgent movement in the Donbas region of Ukraine. Both Crimea and Donbas are ethnic Russian majority regions. Except for more sanctions, NATO could not intervene. Due to the America First foreign policy of the US under President Donald Trump (2017-2021), Ukraine adopted a more balanced approach without surrendering its territorial integrity. In 2019, a moderate candidate Volodymyr Zelensky became the President of Ukraine, promising peaceful resolution of the conflict with pro-Russian rebels.

When Joe Biden became the US President in 2021, his administration reprioritised American foreign policy towards isolating Russia and eastward expansion of NATO again. Without a viable peaceful resolution in sights, Ukraine began militarisation to counter any further Russian aggression. To prevent Ukraine from developing defensive capabilities and in the future joining NATO, Russia launched a full-fledged invasion of Ukraine on 24 February 2022. The US has been able to galvanise the international community in the condemnation of Russian action and severe economic sanctions have been imposed on Russia.

Views expressed are personal.

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