• Matthew Inui

Eastern Ukraine: A Territorial Dispute Turned International Concern

Updated: Mar 9


American troops sent to Ukraine in 2017 worked with the Ukrainian military. One of Russia's terms for deescalation is the removal of all NATO troops in the region. (7th Army Training Command/Flickr)


For close to 70 years, Ukraine, formerly known as the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, had been a part of the Soviet Union. Following its collapse in 1991, Ukraine became an independent state and has remained as such since. However, through bold military action in the region, Russia is threatening to change Ukraine’s status.


What Is Happening in Eastern Ukraine?


In November of 2013, rioters filled the streets of the Ukrainian capital of Kiev, protesting the then President Viktor Yanukovych’s rejection of a European Union (EU) economic deal. Under Yanukovych’s orders, state police quickly and violently cracked down on protestors, which only exacerbated tensions and led to more protests. In February of 2014, the Ukrainian Parliament voted to remove Yanukovych from office, upon which he fled Kiev, reappearing weeks later in Rostov-na-Donu, Russia. Taking advantage of the political and social chaos in the country, Russian troops overtook the Crimean region of Ukraine. After a disputed referendum, Russia formally annexed the Crimean peninsula, with the Donetsk (Donbas) and Luhansk regions in eastern Ukraine quickly following suit. Since then, over 10,300 people have been killed and almost 24,000 more have been injured in the almost constant skirmishes between Russian-backed separatists and the Ukrainian military.


Recent Developments in Ukraine


Between the initial outbreak of violence in 2014 and 2020, conflicts died down to a stalemate. However, in early 2021, Russia began amassing troops along the Ukrainian border and tensions heightened again. According to Ukrainian Secretary of National Security Oleksiy Danilov, estimates for the number of Russian troops on the Ukrainian border are between 80,000 and 90,000, not including the tens of thousands more located in Crimea. “The point is,” said Micahel Kofman, director of the Russia studies program at the Center for Naval Analyses, “it is not a drill. It doesn’t appear to be a training exercise. Something is happening.” German and French officials quickly called for the cooling down of tensions. However, Ukraine responded to Russia by ordering a drone strike on the Russian troops in the Donbas region.


Outraged, Moscow laid out a series of demands to be met if there is to be peace in the region. Most prominently, they require the removal of all North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) troops from Eastern Europe, as well as a ban on Ukraine from entering the organization. While Jen Stoltenberg, the NATO head, has said the admission of new states will remain up to the other 40 members of the organization, Moscow says that if these terms aren’t met, they will retaliate with military action.


How Has Europe Responded?


Before the summer of 2014, this was solely a regional issue, with the U.S. and EU showing minimal involvement. However, after Malaysian Airline Flight 17 was shot down (most likely accidentally) by Russian separatists, the Eastern Ukrainian conflict became of international interest. Beginning in 2015, France and Germany tried to get Russia and Ukraine to sign onto the Minsk Accords, an agreement with provisions for an immediate ceasefire, removal of all troops from the region, and complete Ukrainian control. However, diplomatic efforts to these ends have remained largely unsuccessful. Other European countries have instead opted to send troops to deter further Russian advancements. In 2016, NATO sent four battalions to Eastern Europe, where they’re currently cycling between Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland.


NATO countries have also weighed the possibility of imposing economic sanctions on Russia. At a NATO foreign ministers’ conference, Stoltenberg warned that “aggression against Ukraine would come at a high price and have serious political and economic consequences for Russia.” However, Russia exerts much influence over the European powers because of its control of the gas supplies. Russia accounts for almost half of all gas imports into Europe, which raises serious questions about the willingness of NATO allies to leverage meaningful political and economic sanctions.


What Has the U.S. Done?


Under the Trump administration, the United States was one of the most prominent international figures in the conflict. In 2018, the US government issued sanctions on 21 Russian officials and nine companies connected to the conflict. They also sent two U.S. army tank brigades to join NATO troops in Poland. Later in 2018, the U.S. State Department authorized the sale of anti-tank weapons to Ukraine, representing the first sale of lethal weaponry to Ukraine since the conflict began.


The Biden administration, on the other hand, has said they will not be sending more troops to Ukraine, opting instead for diplomacy. In January 2022, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Labrov met in Geneva to discuss the conflict. However, the meeting ended in just an hour and a half, with both parties saying they hope to speak further in the future. Just two days after the meeting, the U.S. Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) decided to sanction four directors of the Russian Federal Security Service who had been instrumental in Russia's global influence and destabilization campaigns. These actions were taken to “expose and counter Russia’s dangerous and threatening campaign of influence and disinformation in Ukraine,” according to Deputy Secretary of the Treasury Wally Adeyemo.


The United States legislature has also unveiled plans for Russian policy. On January 12, 2022, Democratic senators presented their Defending Ukraine Sovereignty Act, which includes provisions to sanction key Russian officials and banks as well as bolster Ukrainian security. “This legislation makes it absolutely clear that the U.S. Senate will not stand idly by as the Kremlin threatens a re-invasion of Ukraine,” stated Senator Robert Menendez, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and main sponsor of the bill.


As Russian troops amass and tensions continue to rise in eastern Ukraine, a conflict similar to the Cuban missile crisis could arise, presenting massive international policy hurdles for the United States and its allies in Europe. While it’s impossible to predict the exact outcome of the current standoff, it is almost certain that Russia will not back down without a fight. Whether that fight will remain diplomatic or devolve into force is yet to be seen.