Russia, with the military support of Belarus, has invaded Ukraine in what Russian President Vladimir Putin called a “special military operation” to “demilitarize and denazify Ukraine” on Feb. 24, according to The New York Times. This comes after weeks of tension during the Olympics between Russia and Ukraine, as well as Russia’s recognition of the independence of the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region on Feb. 21, according to CBS News.
Drake University held a panel discussion on the topic in Cowles Library’s reading room on March 2. The panel included international relations professors Deb DeLaet, David Skidmore and Kieran Williams, history professor Rob Collis, and Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe Monitoring Officer and Drake graduate Amir Busnov. Busnov has been working in Ukraine to prevent and monitor conflict.
“It’s the typical aggression of the hegemonic country who believes it’s entitled to run other countries, other people’s lives. In some ways, it seems like Putin never woke up from the Cold War, that he’s still stuck there,” Busnov said. “Russia firmly believes that literally every single country on the border of Russia must submit and basically give up its entire sovereignty. It’s insane.”
The discussion centered on the history and politics of the conflict.
“What [Putin]’s essentially saying is that they’re all Russians, and that there is no separate identity for Ukrainians. I would beg to differ,” Collis said at the event. “There are intricate bonds just like there are between the English and the Scots.”
Russians and Ukrainians share deep cultural and historical ties. The two nations have coexisted peacefully for extended periods of time, though the past eight years have seen a rise in tensions between the two countries.
“Even when Russia was at its weakest in 1992, the Russian government was still coveting the Crimea and Donbass as early as 1992,” Collis said. “This is still a contentious issue for the Russians.”
According to Williams, after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, which included the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, operable nuclear weapons were still within Ukrainian territory. In 1994, an international agreement called the Budapest Memorandum was signed. The agreement was that if Ukraine gave up its nuclear weapons, Europe and America would ensure Ukraine’s security and territorial integrity.
“They inherited some nuclear weapons from the Soviet arsenal, where they were located on Ukrainian soil,” Williams said. “Under U.S. pressure or with U.S. assurances, Ukraine surrendered those weapons and at the same time also made arrangements for Russia to have access to Crimea for its Black Sea Fleet. And in return, he was supposed to be giving assurances of its territorial integrity.”
The question seemed to be settled. Then, in 2014, Russian military personnel without insignia occupied the southern Crimean peninsula, which violated the Budapest Memorandum and caused international outrage.
Williams said that “Russia today says that Ukraine is no longer the same country that [signed] that memorandum and therefore Russian does not feel beholden to it or does not feel obligated to it.”
Belarus’ military support of this invasion includes hosting Russian missiles and troops within its territory, according to TIME. Mutual economic and political support is the strongest explanatory factor as to why this is occurring, according to Williams.
“This is part of this long-term relationship to develop a union of sorts between Belarus and Russia, not always an easy one,” Williams said. “Sometimes there’s friction, but on the most part, Lukashenko is somebody who lost the last election last time around. There was a massive, sustained campaign of opposition and protest in Belarussian society which he has, for the most part, managed to contain and obviously survive to some degree with Putin’s help and support.”
Both the Belarusian and Russian governments survive on forms of autocracy, which is defined as a system of government by one person with absolute or near-absolute power.
“You know, they don’t like each other, Lukashenko and Putin, it’s pretty clear. They don’t like each other. They don’t trust each other,” Williams said. “There are times when they’ve [quarreled] over things like energy supplies, and all that kind of thing. But at the end of the day, they’re in the same world in terms of how they view government. They’re the same type of regime.”
According to al-Jazeera, Russian forces are traveling from the north, east and south and are currently fighting Ukrainian forces in an effort to capture the capital city of Kyiv in the north. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is on the ground in Kyiv fighting diplomatically and militarily for his country’s continued sovereignty and independence.
On Thursday, Ukraine and Russia met for the second of two recent rounds of talks, and Ukraine’s negotiator said that later Thursday negotiations ended “with an agreement on cease-fire corridors for civilians to escape heavy combat, but no progress on a settlement,” according to The Times.