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The Ukrainian Chessboard: The Implications of the Ukraine Crisis

The Ukranian Chessboard: The Implications of the Ukraine Crisis


Following the end of the Cold War, NATO-Ukraine cooperation began with Ukraine’s contributions to NATO operations and NATO’s aim to improve Ukraine’s security and defence. While Ukraine is not a member of NATO, it has numerous partnerships with NATO such as the North Atlantic Cooperation Council and the Partnership for Peace Program. As a state bordering Russia, Ukraine is of geopolitical importance for NATO.


Starting in late 2013, Ukraine was destabilized in the wake of mass protests aimed against pro-Russian President Yanukovych. Shortly after the removal of Yanukovych, the Russian parliament enabled Putin to intervene in Eastern Ukraine. While the primary goal of the NATO-Ukraine relationship has been to stabilize the region and provide security for both Ukraine and NATO, the Kremlin has perceived NATO’s influence in a Russian border state as a threat.


Even though Russia defends its actions in Eastern Ukraine, its actions in Crimea cannot be defended. Since the Ukraine crisis came into existence, NATO has increased its support for Ukraine. The Allies condemned the illegal interference in a sovereign state and have supported Ukraine through the Comprehensive Assistance Package. This article will discuss the Ukraine crisis, the reasons behind it, and its implications as well as Ukraine’s relations with NATO. 


By Arjan van Tongerlo


Six years ago, the sudden emergency of the Ukraine crisis shook the West-Russia relationship. Today, the crisis is still unresolved and the cause for many debates. This article will discuss the Ukraine crisis, the reasons behind it, and its implications.


Ever since the end of the Cold War, Ukraine has had an interesting relationship with both NATO Allies and Russia. Geographically, Ukraine is located in between NATO Allies and Russia, which makes Ukraine a ‘buffer zone’ for both parties against the other. Since 1991, both Allies and Russia have searched for increased cooperation with Ukraine. Even though Ukrainian leadership has vouched for a strong and independent Ukraine since the end of the Cold War, its ties to Russia are undeniable, and the separation of Ukraine from Russia was seen as a severe loss by Russia. Not only is Ukraine home to over seven million Russian immigrants, Eastern Ukraine is an important part of Russian industry. With a large ethnic Russian population and elements of Russian culture imminent in Ukraine’s eastern and southern landscape, the remnants of Russian occupation remain strong in the country.[i]


Shortly after the end of the Cold War, cooperation between NATO and Ukraine emerged. In 1991, Ukraine joined the North Atlantic Cooperation Council (NACC), followed by the Partnership for Peace (PfP) program in February 1994. Interestingly, Russia also joined the PfP only four months after Ukraine. The NACC was succeeded by the Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council in 1997. The same year, the NATO-Ukraine Commission (NUC) was founded, ensuring the deepening of cooperation between both parties. In the decades that followed, ties between NATO and Ukraine have deepened with cooperation in numerous areas such as defence and security. Ukraine has contributed to NATO operations such as providing assistance to training missions in Afghanistan and Iraq, providing engineering units in Kosovo, and contributing to the NATO Response Force (NRF).


Both NATO and Ukraine benefit from their partnership. On the one hand, partnering with NATO provides Ukraine with a strong partner that can provide assistance in meeting Ukrainian security requirements. On the other hand, a strong Ukraine driven by liberal values and Western partnerships provides NATO with a stable region and another strong ally in Russia’s previous sphere of influence.


The Beginning of a Crisis

The relationship between Allies and Ukraine changed in 2010 after the election of President Yanukovych. The election of Yanukovych marked a shift in the dynamics between NATO, Ukraine, and Russia. Yanukovych, known for his pro-Russian stance, began to increase Ukrainian cooperation with Russia. Yanukovych extended the Russian lease of the Sevastopol naval base, while the Ukrainian parliament decided to halt its process of NATO’s Membership Action Plan (MAP), which it applied for two years earlier.


Even though Ukraine’s stance toward NATO and the Western Allies had changed, Ukraine still moved ahead in the process of agreeing to a Free Trade Deal with the European Union until Yanukovych suddenly retreated from the deal on 21 November 2013. Yanukovych’s sudden withdrawal from the deal sparked mass protests in Ukraine. After months of protests destabilizing Ukraine, President Yanukovych fled the country, which subsequently led to his removal from office on 22 February 2014 and marked the starting point of the Ukraine crisis. Violence in Ukraine’s eastern parts erupted in which separatist and Russian forces tried to take control of Ukrainian territory. Ever since the beginning of the conflict, thousands of civilians have become casualties, with the most notable incident being the downing of flight MH17 in July 2014.


In the wake of the developing conflict, Ukraine slowly became a chessboard in the international political game between NATO and Russia. Both NATO and Russia accused the other party of influencing Ukrainian political affairs, with Russia claiming that the Allies were responsible for the protests.[ii]


On 1 March 2014, the Russian Federation Council enabled Putin to use limited military force in Ukraine in order to protect ethnic Russian citizens in Eastern Ukraine. While Russia denies any involvement regarding the actions of separatists in the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts, Russia officially recognized the annexation of the Crimean Peninsula. After a referendum in the Crimean Peninsula in which 97% of the voters approved of the annexation, the peninsula became an official part of the Russian Federation on 18 March 2014.


Dynamics of the Conflict

In the wake of the illegal annexation, many politicians and scholars alike wondered how such an event could have happened within a NATO partner state. In order to properly analyse the reasons behind the Ukrainian crisis, three different aspects have to be taken into consideration: people, perspectives, and (geo)politics.


The first aspect, the people, relates to the cultural diversity within Ukraine. As a state marked by occupation throughout its history, Ukraine has struggled with its national identity for decades. Currently, Ukraine can be divided into two primary groups. The first is the Ukrainian-speaking population. This group is the dominant group in Western Ukraine and primarily supports pro-Western ideas. The second group, the Russian-speaking population, has a strong presence in Eastern Ukraine. This group, marked by its support of pro-Russian politics, has been wary of Ukraine’s relationship with NATO and its member states. The cultural sensitivities of the differing identities in Ukraine was recently underlined after President Zelensky’s New Year’s Eve address, in which he stated his vision for one national Ukrainian identity. Zelensky’s remarks sparked many conversations within Ukraine, with people fearing that a national identity would render their own cultural identities obsolete.[iii]


Being aware of the pro-Russian support in the Eastern Ukraine regions, Russia managed to use this to their advantage through implementing hybrid warfare elements. Through the use of media platforms, Russia was able to spread (dis)information in an attempt to gain more support in the regions. One example of the use of hybrid warfare tools is the alleged blocking of Ukrainian TV channels in the build-up to the Crimean referendum.[iv]


Secondly, perspectives play a vital role in the crisis. In order to properly analyse this aspect of the crisis, one can draw upon the theories of liberalism and realism. In the aftermath of the Cold War, liberalism became the most dominant political theory in the world. Liberalism is associated with strong support for democracy, which is considered vital for the legitimacy of a government, strong support for private property and free enterprise, a belief in open societies, strong support for international cooperation, and a strong commitment to human rights.[v] According to the liberal school of thought, the democratisation of states will prevent war amongst these states, because war amongst democratic liberal states is unlikely.


In regard to the Ukraine crisis, the liberalist perspective offers a number of insights. While some NATO Allies, such as Turkey, have seen a decline in their democratic and liberal institutions, all Allies still identify with liberal values. This liberalist point of view can easily be identified in NATO’s approach to the Ukraine crisis. NATO has repeatedly referred to Article 2 of the Charter of the United Nations, which states that all signatory states’ territorial integrity should be upheld and that another country cannot interfere in state affairs.[vi] Besides the legitimacy of the Ukrainian territory, NATO and its member states have drawn upon the human rights violations in the region that have taken place as a result of the crisis. While NATO is a political-military organisation, NATO Allies have also responded to the crisis by enforcing economic sanctions against Russia.


On the other side of the coin, the Russian perspective is marked by realism. In short, realism can be defined as the belief that the international system generates competition between states. Due to the lack of an international authority, states are in a  ‘self-help’ system. This principle leads to a competitive dynamic between states, in which states try to protect their own interests. To ensure their own security and protect their own assets, states have two options: internal and external balancing.[vii] Internal balancing means that through increasing a state’s sphere of influence and economic and military capability, a state attempts to increase its power position. External balancing means that a state ensures its own power through alliances with other states.


Based on this theory, one can infer that from a realist perspective that Allies’ liberal approach to the crisis, which was meant to ensure peace amongst the Alliance’s eastern border, might have actually caused the opposite effect. One of the most prominent realist scholars, John Mearsheimer, argued that the promotion of liberal-democratic values and the expansion of NATO into the eastern part of Europe were triggers for the Russian response.[viii] Russia, a country which has seen an increasing Western influence along its borders ever since the fall of the Soviet Union, historically has been threatened by Western influences, which resulted in conflicts such as Napoleon’s invasion in 1812 and the Nazi German invasion in 1941. This realist view is confirmed in the 2010 and 2015 Russian Defence doctrines, which states that the move of NATO infrastructure toward the Russian border poses a military threat against Russia.[ix]


When the removal of pro-Russian President Yanukovych led to the emergence of a new, pro-European president, the Kremlin perceived the increasing Western influence next to its border as an increasing threat to Russian security. Seeing its sphere of influence shrinking and NATO moving closer to its borders, Russia decided to take action in an already weakened Ukraine. By establishing a larger zone of influence next to its borders, Russia attempted to decrease the threat the Allies pose. Furthermore, it has been argued that NATO Allies have neglected Russia’s threat perception, as can be seen in both the Minsk Accords, where no measures were taken in regard to changing the Russian security perception.[x]


In essence, NATO-Russia dynamics since 2014 have created a security dilemma. Due to the uncertainty of the intentions of other states, defensive actions can be perceived as an offensive threat. In this dilemma, the attempt to increase one’s own security, such as NATO expansion toward the east, can cause a reaction from another state. While both states/parties intend to increase their own security, their collective actions decrease the actual level of security.


The last of the three aspects that has to be taken into consideration is the (geo)politics of the Ukrainian conflict. Especially as seen from a Russian point of view, the geopolitics of Ukraine are closely related to the realist argument. It has already been mentioned that Ukraine is perceived as a buffer state between NATO Allies and Russia, with increased influence of either one leading to suspicion by the other. However, when analysing Ukraine’s geopolitical context, one can see a number of other motives for Russian interference.


From a geopolitical perspective, the Crimean peninsula is of strategic importance for Russia. The peninsula, with its long-standing Russian history, still has connections with its Russian past. Most notably, the Crimean city of Sevastopol is host to the Russian Black Sea fleet. While President Yanukovych extended the lease on the Russian military harbour until 2041, the removal of Yanukovych combined with the pro-Western stance of the former interim president could easily be perceived as a threat to the Russian military fleet. Even more so, by integrating the peninsula into the Russian Federation, Russia has increased its influence in the Black Sea and has a larger claim to its territorial waters. The Black Sea offers Russia an alternative route for sea transport, with its northern harbours being shut down during the winter.[xi]


Furthermore, at the time of Russian interference in the Ukrainian conflict, Ukraine consisted of numerous pipelines that transported natural gas to 18 European countries, with the Crimean peninsula hosting five gas fields. By exporting gas to European countries, Russia is able to exert a certain measure of influence over these countries. Russian influence in Ukraine can be seen as a way to ensure the continuation of its gas exports to Europe.[xii]


Implications of the Crisis

As a response to the crisis in Ukraine, NATO has deepened its relationship with Ukraine through the Comprehensive Assistance Package (CAP), through which it enables Ukraine to provide for its own security and defence. The support NATO offers to Ukraine is divided into numerous so-called ‘Trust Funds’ through which NATO Allies can provide assistance regarding resilience against cyber and hybrid threats, the command and control of the Ukrainian army, and an increase in training and education.[xiii] Furthermore, as a result of the escalation in Ukraine, NATO decided to increase the size of the NRF and deployed the enhanced Forward Presence in the Baltic states on request of Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland who felt threatened by an aggressive Russia.


Whether Ukraine will ever become an official NATO member remains unclear. In October 2019, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg addressed the Ukrainian parliament, stating that NATO sees Ukraine as an important partner in defence and security cooperation and that NATO will continue its support of Ukraine with the door to NATO membership remaining open. There is, however, no mention of Ukraine’s Membership Application Plan, or its original application in 2008, on NATO’s website.[xiv] The new Ukrainian parliament also remains hopeful in its aspirations of becoming a full-fledged member of the Alliance. The new parliament has acknowledged its plans to move toward the West through integration into Western markets and providing as much support to NATO as possible.[xv]


While NATO membership does seem beneficial to both parties involved, there are a number of concerns. First, NATO members might be concerned about the possibility of Ukraine invoking Article V shortly after acquiring membership, which would result in the Allies having to deploy troops in the Ukrainian conflict areas. Second, while the Ukrainian parliament currently supports the country’s NATO aspirations, previous occurrences such as the sudden halting of NATO integration under President Yanukovych prove how quickly attitudes can change.[xvi]


Furthermore, the Ukraine crisis has been a wake-up call for Allies. After the fall of the Soviet Union, Allies were able to establish a liberal hegemony, with the United States being the sole global superpower. While international conflicts still occurred, Allies perceived their ‘new world order’ as a place where the liberalization of nation states created a relatively stable environment. The sudden emergence of the conflict in Ukraine and its effects have been perceived by many as the tipping point in the return of realpolitik and the remerging importance of geopolitics. This change has not gone unnoticed by Allies, who later on that same year declared their ambitions to increase defence spending to 2% of national GDP.[xvii]



This analysis of the Ukraine crisis has provided many insights into not only the dynamics of the crisis itself but also the broader international context. Ukraine, a country marked by a lengthy history of occupations and a variety of cultures, has yet to find its cohesive post-Cold War identity. Due to its geographic location and political-cultural context, Ukraine has been an important partner for both NATO and Russia. The internal division amongst its population combined with the actions of both NATO and Russia eventually led to the emergence of conflict in late 2013, which escalated in early 2014.


Now, six years after the emergence of separatist forces in Donetsk and Luhansk and the annexation of the Crimean peninsula, the crisis remains unresolved, with attempts at reconciliation such as the Minsk Accords not having the desired effects.


While it seems unlikely that the Ukraine crisis will be resolved anytime soon, there are a number of key actions that need to be taken in order to increase the defence and security of both Allies and Ukraine. First, NATO, and more specifically its European Allies, can no longer solely rely on their liberal point of view. Allies need to relearn the language of power and need to understand the importance of the new geopolitical environment. They simultaneously need to be able to understand the realist point of view and how their actions such as NATO expansion can be negatively perceived by their adversaries. Furthermore, with NATO’s open door to Ukraine’s membership, Allies need to continue deepening their relationship with Ukraine. Under the new parliament, Ukraine has already seen a shift toward a more pro-Western attitude, with increasing cooperation between NATO and Ukraine. This process will, however, be a lengthy one, since a successful relationship between NATO and Ukraine not only requires political acceptance but also social acceptance among a split society. Altogether, while it is not likely that Ukraine will join NATO in the near future, NATO must remain committed to a long-term, mutually beneficial relationship, which will see the security of both NATO and Ukraine improve.


Arjan van Tongerlo is a Dutch undergraduate student pursuing his degree in Integral Safety and Security Management at Avans University of Applied Sciences and an intern at Krijger & Partners. His main areas of interest include public safety, international security, and European/Transatlantic relations. Arjan has conducted research pertaining to (European) conflict studies and is currently writing his thesis on European Strategic Autonomy.




[i] World Population Review, ‘’Ukraine Population 2020,’’ last updated 17 February 2020, accessed on 11 April 2020, https://worldpopulationreview.com/countries/ukraine-population/.

[ii] Peter Rutland, An Unnecessary War: The Geopolitical Roots of the Ukraine Crisis (Bristol, UK: E-International Relations, 2015), 129–140.

[iii]  Bohdan Nahaylo, ‘’Zelenskyy’s vision for Ukrainian national identity,’’ Atlantic Council, 15 January 2020, accessed 11 April 2020, https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/ukrainealert/zelenskyy-reinvents-u....

[iv] Damien McElroy, ‘’Russian TV swaps airwaves in Crimean propaganda war,’’ Atlantic Council, 13 March 2014, accessed 11 April 2020, https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/ukrainealert/zelenskyy-reinvents-u....

[v] Patrick Morgan, Contemporary Security Studies (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2014), 30–43.

[vi] United Nations, ‘’Charter of the United Nations,’’ last updated 6 February 2020, accessed 11 April 2020, https://legal.un.org/repertory/art2.shtml.

[vii] Charles Glaser, Contemporary Security Studies (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2014), 14–27.

[viii] John Mearsheimer, ‘’Why The Ukraine Crisis is The West’s Fault,’’ Foreign Affairs 93, no. 5 (September/October 2014), https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/2930/73c0febf174ae904bea3d7f1524e143077....

[ix] Russian Federation, ‘’The Military Doctrine of the Russian Federation,’’ 5 February 2010, accessed 11 April 2020, https://carnegieendowment.org/files/2010russia_military_doctrine.pdf.

[x] John Grover, ‘’A Case Study of the Minsk II Accords,’’ May 2017, accessed 11 April 2020, https://www.beyondintractability.org/casestudy/grover-minsk-II-accords.

[xi] Association of Accredited Public Policy Advocates to the European Union, ‘’ The Importance of the Black Sea for Russia,’’ 23 March 2019, accessed 11 April 2020, http://www.aalep.eu/importance-black-sea-russia.

[xii] Aleksander Georgiev, Bisser Zlatkov, Yordan Trendafilov, and Svetlin Denchev, ‘’Conflict in Ukraine,’’ March 2016, accessed 11 April 2020, https://www.cmdrcoe.org/download.php?id=458.

[xiii]  North Atlantic Treaty Organization, ‘’NATO’s support for Ukraine,’’ November 2018, accessed 12 April 2020, https://www.nato.int/nato_static_fl2014/assets/pdf/pdf_2018_11/20181106_....

[xiv] North Atlantic Treaty Organization, ‘’Membership Action Plan (MAP),’’ last updated 23 March 2020, accessed 25 April 2020, https://www.nato.int/cps/en/natolive/topics_37356.htm.

[xv] North Atlantic Treaty Organization, ‘’Speech by NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg to the Parliament of Ukraine,’’ last updated 31 October 2019, accessed 12 April 2020, https://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/opinions_170450.htm?selectedLocale=ru.

[xvi] Aaron Mehta, ‘’Ukraine sees two paths for joining NATO. Will either work?’’ 13 January 2020, accessed 12 April 2020, https://www.defensenews.com/smr/nato-2020-defined/2020/01/13/ukraine-see....

[xvii] North Atlantic Treaty Organization, ‘’Wales Summit Declaration,’’ last updated 30 August 2018, accessed 12 April 2020, https://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/official_texts_112964.htm.


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Friday, 8 May, 2020 - 15:15