Russian involvement in Ukraine: A historic risk. 

Putin Views Russian Arms On Display At ExpoFierce conflict continues between the Ukrainian army and pro-Russian separatists across the eastern provinces of Ukraine. Over the past weekend the Ukrainian army launched a large-scale ground offensive. Reports indicate the separatist city of Slavyansk has been captured. However the separatists continue to fight on, with weapons allegedly supplied by the Russian Federation. On the 1st of July President Vladimir Putin stated that he wanted “everyone to understand [that] our country would continue to actively defend the rights of Russians, our compatriots abroad, [and will] use all available means for the purpose — from political and economic [measures] to humanitarian operations permitted by the international law”. 

With regard to the ongoing conflict in Ukraine, an historic perspective is helpful. The modern Russian state was created during the reigns of Peter the Great and his successor Catherine the Great. By the time Catherine died, in 1796, the Russian state’s borders were roughly what they are today. This imperial expansion was accompanied by great violence. Ferocious campaigns of conquest were fought against the Ottomans along the Danube, the Cossacks of southern Russia, and the peoples of Crimea and the Caucasus. In the distant East Russia also expanded; the Muslim Khanates of Central Asia were crushed and brought under Russian administration. Across vast Siberia the many different indigenous peoples were massacred in their thousands by Russian forces.

Today 12 federal Russian republics, nominally independent, are a consequence of the expansion of Russia. These federal republics have their own constitution, governmental administration, official languages and are designed to be the home of specific ethnic minorities. And there are a lot of ethnic minorities across the vastness of Russia, according to the 2010 census of Russia only 81% of the Russian Federation is ethnically Russian. Many of these republics have vast reserves of natural gas and abundant mineral wealth. These resources are drained daily to prop up the densely inhabited and economically stagnant western regions of Russia. This remains a source of lingering resentment in places. Indeed, drawn into the Russia at the point of a sword, these ethnically disparate republics have never been easy to govern.

Rebellions, guerrilla warfare and cultural divides still characterize the relationship between Moscow and Russia’s more unruly regions. During the 1800s Siberian intellectuals formed a movement supporting Siberian nationalism. In 1918, during the Russian civil war, Siberia proclaimed independence, though this independence was swiftly crushed. To this day an independent spirit lingers in Siberia; during a census in 2000 many Siberians chose to identify themselves as Siberian, not as ethnically Russian. Across the mountainous Caucasus Russian rule has always been fiercely resisted. An Islamic insurgency is ongoing, terrorists from the region recently launched attacks across Russia before and during the 2013 Winter Olympics. In Chechnya, invaded by Russia in 2000, a notoriously brutal pro-Moscow president now presides. Punitive military operations are still conducted across Chechnya against Islamic guerrilla fighters. 

In 2004 a new government was elected in the nearby independent Republic of Georgia. The administration began sweeping reforms and increasingly looked to the EU for its economic and political future. As part of this process the Georgian government attempted to regain control of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, strategically important provinces, which had declared independence from Georgia in the early-1990s. In 2008 the Georgian army launched an offensive into Ossetia. This prompted a counter-attack by forces of the Russian Federation. Russia stated it was involved in order to protect the ‘independence’ of the Ossetian and Abkhazian people. Russian forces devastated the Georgian army and both, now self-proclaimed republics, remain independent from Georgia to this day. The Republic of South Ossetia has recently extended formal diplomatic recognition to the pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine. 

Earlier this year, following months of violent protests in Kiev, the corrupt, Russian aligned administration of President Victor Yanukovych was driven from office. The Crimean Peninsula – sovereign Ukrainian territory – was then seized by the Russian Army. A hasty and dubious referendum followed this military operation, and the Crimea is currently being integrated into the Russian Federation as the Republic of Crimea. The United Nations has declared this referendum invalid. Simultaneously pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine declared their autonomy from Kiev, as the Donetsk People’s Republic and Lugansk People’s Republic. NATO satellite imagery has confirmed that over the last few weeks’ small numbers of tanks and rocket launchers were supplied from the Russian Federation to these newly declared republics.  

Recent events in the Ukraine exemplify Russia’s aggressive territorial policy, which has been prevalent over the last fifteen years. This policy has perhaps been orchestrated by Vladimir Putin. Under his leadership, and with the Kremlin’s backing, it is apparent that Russia seeks to maintain a sphere of influence over neighbouring independent states. Whenever one of these nations pursues an agenda that does not suit Moscow, Russia intervenes militarily. Time and again Russia has justified this intervention on the basis that it is protecting an ethnic group’s rights. That this policy is actually used to protect Russia’s political control over neighbouring states is clear. However there is a long term flaw to this policy, which has the potential to cause irreparable damage to the federal Russian state. 

Many of Russia’s ethnic republics, many of which are a long way from western Russia and share little in common with its ‘European’ culture, were drawn into Russia by force, and remain restive as a result. So long as the Kremlin and Putin continue to encourage and support separatist agendas in places where it suits them, they flirt with the dissolution of the entire federal Russian state. There are genuine separatist agendas across Russia. People may look at the situations in Georgia and the Ukraine and draw a startlingly different conclusion to Moscow; that the use of force to pursue independence is justified and that a successful separatist revolt is possible. Time will tell if Putin and the Kremlin’s cynical policies will come back to haunt them.   

edward eastEdward East has an MA in Archaeology from Durham University. Edward researches Late Antiquity in the Middle East, Central Asia and the Caucasus. During his career he has worked on archaeology projects across Australia and in Papua New Guinea, Kuwait and the United Kingdom.


  1. Secretary of State John Kerry on Sunday defended his administration’s measured response to a passenger jet being shot down over Ukraine and mounting evidence of Russia’s involvement, saying the United States shouldn’t “shoot from the hip” while the facts are emerging.

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