Tensions between Ukraine and Russia reach boiling point

Tensions between Ukraine and Russia reach boiling point

Aidan Rogers

Over the past few weeks, tensions between Russia and Ukraine have dominated media coverage of foreign affairs. Russia has been amassing thousands of soldiers on the border of Ukraine, worrying the governments of many countries that an invasion is imminent. In response, the Biden administration has sent weapons to the Ukrainian government, as well as American soldiers to Poland. Russia blames the expansion of NATO to the east for the rising tensions, while Ukraine has pointed to Russia’s annexation of Crimea and funding of rebel militias in East Ukraine as the main cause for the current situation. The following text is an excerpt of an interview with Michael Hilliard about the issue. Michael Hilliard is a conflict journalist and analyst specializing in Russia and the former Soviet states. He is the Communications Director for the Oxus Society for Central Asian Affairs, and the host of the geopolitics podcast The Red Line. Michael can be found on the Twitter handle @MikeHilliardAus. 


Do you think there will be war? 

Well, ignoring the fact that the LPR and DPR* are already at war with Ukraine, I don’t think we will see a large-scale war breaking out, unless some series of miscommunications or accidents happen that forces both sides into an armed response. Russia achieves most of its goals by keeping the status quo, and NATO doesn’t want to call everyone to war as NATO commanders aren’t 100% sure everyone would show up (Hungary, France, and North Macedonia are examples of countries that would have some ties with Russia). NATO is meant to be a completely united organisation, and NATO doesn’t want to publicly put that to the test. 

The main reason though is nuclear war, war with Russia always runs the risk of nukes being used. Nobody wants to see New York being wiped out, in exchange for Kharkiv.

*The LPR (Luhansk People’s Republic) and DPR (Donetsk People’s Republic) are two pro-Russian rebel groups who control substantial territory in Eastern Ukraine

Why the tensions now? 

Russia right now is in a great position as we are in the dead of the European winter. When it comes to countries like Germany in particular they are very reliant on Russian gas to heat their houses and power their plants, so if sanctions were to be imposed the EU would be in for a really really bad winter. This is the time of year when Russia has maximum leverage in its negotiations with the EU states. 

Russia has recently demanded that Ukraine be barred from NATO membership as a point in negotiations, citing offensive operations in states such as Libya as cause for concern. Do you believe NATO has any aim of offensive action towards Russia? 

This is a very complicated question but a NATO spokesman would tell you from the start that the alliance is a strictly defensive one. This is largely because NATO is limited by the domestic politics of its member states. If you were to ask a mother in Atlanta, or a father in Bucharest “Should we engage in war with a nuclear power to expand NATO’s boundaries?” you’re not going to find much enthusiasm there. But if Russia was to bomb Latvia and kill American troops, the conversation would be very different. Russia has constantly tried to assert that NATO is inherently aggressive, but that doesn’t really match up with how the alliance works in practice. NATO is always looking to expand and continue building its partnerships, but historically it does this through political maneuvers, not armed incursions. 

Do you think Russia will militarily coordinate an attack on Ukraine with the separatist rebel governments in Luhansk and Donetsk, which already coordinate with Russia on civil matters? 

It’s 2 a.m. on the 29th of January as I am looking at this, and at this point, there has been no invasion, so the data I am putting forward here may be out of date by the point of publication. 

Russia does coordinate very closely with the Rebels in the Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR) and the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR), in fact, Russia pretty much gives them direct orders, just through a proxy. In the event of an invasion these forces would most certainly work with the Kremlin, but their primary aim is more about giving the Russians legitimacy for being there, rather than as a cutting edge fighting force. The Kremlin saying We’re here to defend the ethnically Russian people of the LPR and the DPR from Ukrainian tyranny” is much more justifiable and appealing to the Russian electorate than “We’re here to keep Ukraine out of NATO”. 

Does Russia stand to financially gain from instability in Ukraine? 

Yes, Russia would love investors to see Ukrainian gas pipes as risky, and their new underwater Nord Stream 2* as a safe investment.

*An underwater pipeline from Russia to Germany built by the Russian government.


Further aspects of and updates on the situation in Ukraine will be discussed in the upcoming Spring issue of Carpe Diem magazine.