Conflict In Ukraine: Autocracy Tests The Limits of Democracy On The Global Stage
As the Russian invasion of Ukraine approaches the two-week mark, heartbreaking images of the devastation and suffering inflicted by the war reverberate around the world and compound the complexity of the global response to the Ukrainian crisis. In a modern era dominated by media access and technology, the world’s viewers have been given instant awareness and visions of war unlike any other global conflict in world history. These searing images continue to leave many in disbelief, questioning how the most brutalizing invasion on the continent since World War II came to fruition.
The notion of Russian separatists providing the validation of Putin’s “liberation effort” reveals and reinforces his longstanding idealization of Ukraine as a country “created by Russia” and always has been a part of Russian identity. With Putin’s initial military orders to send troops to Ukraine’s separatist regions, these regions became the physical gateway to Russia’s declaration of independent territories and expansion of an invasion to deprive Ukraine of its sovereignty and independence.
While the invasion began on February 24, 2022, the origins of the conflict and Russia’s motivations for the conquest of Ukraine’s land and freedom trace back to years and decades before. In fact, this has not been Russia’s first attempt at militaristic overtake of Ukraine, noting others, such as the 2014 attempt that ended in a ceasefire negotiated by France. This time, Russian President, Vladimir Putin, defends his military invasion by pointing to the Russian separatists who have lived in Ukraine since the Soviet Union. Putin contends that the fractional Russian population in Ukraine serves as justification for entering and taking over the country, stating: “I have decided to conduct a special military operation… to protect people [separatists] who have been subjected to bullying and genocide… for the last eight years.”
Putin’s desired spotlight on separatist liberation as the dominant reason for his invasion bypasses the substantial economic and political underpinnings driving Russia’s invasion. Economically, the region of Ukraine is fertile with natural resources. These include natural gas and crude, which are Russia’s largest export industries to countries including the United States—which buys one-third of its oil from Russia. Additionally, Ukraine has multiple nuclear plants, such as the infamous Chernobyl, which would provide Russia with nuclear power and a source of sustainable energy at a far cheaper price than fossil fuels.
Politically, overtaking Ukraine would give Russia greater physical control of the region and place Western Europe under substantial pressure. It would also impact treaties such as NATO, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, as Putin’s ultimate goal to reestablish Russian dominance in Eastern Europe includes retaking countries that have joined NATO, such as Ukraine. If Ukraine indeed falls, Russia’s momentum of conquest could incentivize Putin to invade other Eastern European countries and lead to further devastating consequences in the region.
While Putin embarked on this invasion under the belief of a swift military operation that would see Ukraine crumble within days, he was mistaken. The Ukrainian military and civilians have held on stridently to their sense of nationalism and independence, creating one of the most inspiring military fronts in history to defend the cherished freedom they gained from Russia in 1991.
The surprising strength of the Ukrainian defense is grounded not in militaristic tactics or a wealth of arms, but in passionate national pride and unmitigated resilience. This inspiring spirit can be seen in the thousands of volunteers who have taken up arms, risking their lives to stand alongside the army to ensure that the Ukrainian flag continues to fly over Kyiv. These volunteers range from teenagers to shop owners and artisans to political figures such as the mayor of Kyiv, Vitali Klitschko, all united by pride and love of freedom, as brethren in defense of their home.
Perhaps one of the most surprising Ukrainians remaining in the fight for sovereignty is the Ukrainian President himself–Volodymyr Zelenskyy. Zelenskyy is well aware of his vulnerable existence in Ukraine, acknowledging that “the enemy has marked me as target No. 1.” Despite this, Zelenskyy, dubbed today’s Winston Churchill, remains in Ukraine with his people, continuing to plead for the world’s assistance and to show strength and persistence to the world that watches and to the country he anchors.
In defense of the existence of his country, Zelenskyy has repeatedly asked for military assistance from NATO nations but has largely been denied the aid requested, as the United States and other NATO countries seek to avoid an escalation that could put the world at the precipice of World War III. Ukraine has endured thousands of casualties and millions of rubles in damages, but Russia furthers its conquest unfettered, pushing towards the heart of Ukraine and its capital. Ukraine is unleashing all its military arms at Russia but lacks the threat of nuclear weapons due to the 1994 denuclearization treaty that ironically states that Russia would not invade Ukraine and that the United States would assist Ukraine in defense in a crisis such as this. Additionally, under the terms of NATO, if a member country is attacked by a communist regime, the other member countries such as Great Britain, France, and the United States, must provide immediate economic and military aid if needed.
However, while NATO member countries have assisted Ukraine through economic sanctions on Russia’s major industries, they have fallen short in providing the military aid Ukraine requests. The sanctions applied have predominantly targeted the fuel industry, which explains the recent rapid rise in gas prices here in Los Angeles and across the country, and have targeted the possessions of Russian oligarchs, the true leaders of Russia. While these sanctions have severely impacted Russia’s economy and global standing, Putin remains undeterred in his pursuit.
Over the past two weeks, despite the calamity seen, there has been a massive surge of hopeful messages and encouragement from the world to Ukraine, but perhaps even more powerfully, from Ukraine to the world. Ukraine’s bravery and refusal to give up in the face of an overwhelming fight has provided a model of true strength and perseverance. The world hopes that the bright blue and yellow flag that symbolizes the skies and wheat fields of Ukraine will continue to fly over a country that is free to define its own destiny.