Deep dive: Why Putin wants control over Ukraine
(WILX) - Vladimir Putin has ordered Russian forces to invade Ukraine. It’s an unprecidented move since the end of the Cold War, and one which has met with condemnation from across the globe. Yet, many are left with the most basic question unanswered: Why?
News 10 spoke with Scott Lingenfelter, a professor of history at Grand Valley State University and author of Russia in the 21st Century, who explained the significance Ukraine has both strategically and symbolically to the current Russian president.
In 1990, Ukraine, Russia and Belarus announced the end of their membership in the USSR, followed in the days after by the rest of the countries that considered themselves Soviet. This was by default the end of the Cold War.
“Immediately following that they had to create a new kind of architechture,” Lingenfelter said. “The way we view the collapse of the Soviet Union and the way Putin... views the collapse of the Soviet Union are in two completely different ways, and it’s connected with the invasion actually.”
Lingenfelter said that, in Putin’s mind, Ukraine is historically part of Russia. But Lingenfelter points out that historians disagree.
“Well before the 17th century Ukraine has it’s own history and culture and identity,” he said. “It maintained that identity all through the Russian Imperial Period and the Soviet period. ... Putin’s speech was startling simply because of the way in which he is rewriting history, but he essentially made it out to be an artificial creation of the early Soviet state.”
In 1996 Ukraine, which still held the world’s third largest nuclear stockpile, agreed to dismantle it’s nuclear weaponry in a move that was largely supported by the west. By the 2000s Putin had taken power in Russia, and yet successive Ukraining governments were seeking closer alliances with western powers, particularly in the form of joining a defensive alliance called NATO.
Then in November 2013, protests erupted after Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych refused to sign a political association and free trade agreement with the European Union, choosing closer ties with Russia instead.
“The pro-Putin candidate for president was removed,” Lingenfelter said. “There was decision before the country: Whether to allign the country more institututionally with the west.”
These protests lasted into 2014, led to Yanukovych fleeing the country and Oleksandr Turchynov being appointed as interim president.
During the chaos that followed Putin declared Ukraine’s Crimean penninsula, on the eastern side of the country, to be culturally Russian. He cited arguments made by a minority of the population and sent troops to occupy the pennisula.
This is also where the majority of Ukraine’s recently discovered oil was located, which then went under Russian control.
“Russia believed the move it could make to demonstrate it’s commitment... was to take a chunk of territory that’s been extremely sensitive and important in Russian history, which is to take that piece of territory right on the Black Sea,” Lingenfelter said. “It was a way of saying, ‘We might have lost Ukraine’s government, we might have lost an ally in power, you might impose sanctions, but this is ours to take.’”
Russia was sanctioned for that invasion, but in the years that followed the west became friendlier with Putin. In 2019 the US froze $400 million in military aid for Ukraine, causing the country to appear vulnerable and having it’s own impact at home. Among other defense priorities, that money was for the purchase of anti-tank missiles of the kind that Ukraine is now using to try to hold off the Russian military.
In 2021 the White House again froze $100 million in military aid to Ukraine, though this was in response to Russia announcing it would draw down troops stationed near Ukraine in the occupied Crimean penninsula. In early 2022 Russia built up forces at the border regardless in the prelude to the current invasion.
“This is all part of a pattern. And that pattern is that the Soviet Union is still collapsing,” Lingenfelter said. “From Russia’s point of view, it still has not accepted the collapse.”
Now, Russia has invaded Ukraine, stating that Russian-speaking Ukrainians were calling for the two countries to become one.
Lingenfelter said, “I think what he wants, whether he holds the territory or not, is control of Ukraine. Control of its internal politics, control of its foreign policy, control of its basic institutions.”
With the future of Ukraine in question, that leaves the distinct possibility of a Russian occupation in a country that shares a border with NATO allies. Then, the world is once again facing the sobering discussion of what conflict may look like between nuclear powers.
“With NATO forces and Russian forces so close together, there’s always a chance of a miscalculation,” Lingenfelter said. “I worry about that as much as anything.”
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