The Russia-Ukraine Crisis, Explained

1149

Could the conflict between Russia and Ukraine turn into a long-term war in Europe? Is World War III on the horizon? How will America be affected by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine? And what can China’s response to the situation tell us? 

Luke Coffey, director of The Heritage Foundation’s Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy, joins “The Daily Signal Podcast” to answer these questions and explain what Russia ultimately hopes to achieve from the invasion. (The Daily Signal is Heritage’s multimedia news organization.)

America, and many European nations, likely will face significant challenges because of the Russia-Ukraine conflict, Coffey says, because it “doesn’t take a great leap of imagination to see how this conflict could spill over, could spiral out of control.”

Listen to this bonus podcast episode below or read the lightly edited transcript.

Virginia Allen: What is happening in Ukraine right now? Here with us to break it all down is The Heritage Foundation director for the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy, Luke Coffey. Luke, thank you so much for being here. Welcome back.

Luke Coffey:
 Thanks for having me on again.

Allen: So, this is a rapidly-developing situation. President Joe Biden spoke this afternoon about the latest, what is happening in Ukraine between Russia and Ukraine. Russia has sent troops into eastern Ukraine. Luke, do we know how many troops have entered Ukraine? And then, should we be considering this an invasion? Can we call this an invasion?

Coffey: 
Well, it’s absolutely an invasion. When you have soldiers and troops that enter another country’s territory without any formal permission, I don’t know what that could be other than an invasion. Even though, for at least the first 24 hours so far, the White House has been unclear on what those troops, Russian troops, are actually doing, whether it’s an invasion or not.

But right now, I would say, according to open source estimates, there are about 10,000 Russian troops that have entered into eastern Ukraine. Yes, this is, I would say, the second invasion of Ukraine since 2014.

2014 was the first invasion. But I think what we’re seeing now is the tip of the iceberg on what we’re going to see militarily in the coming days. 

Basically, what Russia has done is formalize an arrangement that has already been in practice since 2014. Russia has already controlled this section of eastern Ukraine since 2014. It is well known there were Russian troops there, although Russia never admitted publicly that there were. And now it’s stated publicly that yes, indeed there are Russian troops there serving as so-called peacekeepers.

Allen: OK. So explain this a little bit further, because Russian President Vladimir Putin, he’s recognized the independence of these two regions of eastern Ukraine. So what exactly does that mean? What’s going on here?

Coffey: 
Well, we have to back up just a little bit on this. At the end of 2013, the Ukrainian president at the time, President [Viktor] Yanukovych, decided to sign a free trade deal with Europe. Russia didn’t like that. And President Yanukovych was very close to the Kremlin, and the Kremlin put pressure on him to change his mind. And he did. And the Ukrainian people didn’t like this. 

By the end of 2013 and early 2014, the Ukrainian people started to rise up and they ousted President Yanukovych and he fled to Russia, in fact. His government was replaced. 

At that time, Russia was very nervous by this. They thought that they had a good control over Ukraine. They were surprised that the Ukrainian people would feel so passionately about a trade agreement with the rest of Europe and Russia decided to act.

And what they did was they invaded and occupied part of Ukraine, called the Crimean Peninsula, which equates to about 6% or 7% of Ukraine’s territory. This is a significant chunk of land. 

And then … the Russians started a separatist movement in eastern Ukraine in two regions, one called Luhansk and one called Donetsk. And before 2014, there was no separatist movement in this region. Since then, since 2014, what we’ve seen is this frozen conflict between Ukraine and these Russian-backed separatists and the Russian forces who were in these two regions undercover over the past eight years.

Now, what happened over the weekend was the Russian parliament, it’s called the Russian Duma, requested to President Putin that he recognizes the independence of these two so-called countries. One is called the People’s Republic of Luhansk. The other one is called the People’s Republic of Donetsk. And then yesterday, Vladimir Putin agreed to recognize the independence and then moved in peacekeepers. 

Now, reportedly, the only other countries in the world that have recognized the independence of these two fictitious countries is Syria and it’s also a rumor that Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela have also done so. But it is a direct violation of international law. And these two so-called independent countries are, in fact, internationally recognized as being part of Ukraine. 

So that’s where we are today. Russia has essentially moved in troops to protect what they see as being two new countries that have requested Russian support.

Allen: As those troops over the weekend moved into Ukraine, was there a firefight or, because of that back history, was there actually sort of open doors and the Russian troops were able to just walk right in?

Coffey:
 Well, as I said, Russian troops have been going in and out of this region for eight years, but there has been an uptick in cease-fire violations and fighting along the front lines between Luhansk and Donetsk. Collectively, this region is called the Donbas. So you might hear this term Donbas. When people say Donbas, they’re referring to this part of eastern Ukraine, which includes Luhansk and Donetsk. 

So along the front lines in the Donbas, there has been an uptick in fighting, mainly artillery. There’s been some false flag operations over the past week or so where Russia has orchestrated these attacks inside Luhansk and Donetsk, whether it’s the shelling of a gas pipeline or the attempted assassination of one of the leaders of Donetsk, but as a way to try to justify military intervention, like they’re blaming the Ukrainians for these actions. 

But in this day and age with all the internet, the geolocating, and the internet sleuths that are out there, many of these false flags, these alleged attacks, have been debunked using metadata or geolocating or tools like this.

So they didn’t march in under fire, like you would see in a Hollywood movie, in terms of an invasion, but they have definitely moved in, into territory that is internationally recognized as being Ukrainian. 

Now the big problem for Ukraine and the big question mark is, how much further is Russia going to go? They have recognized these two entities as independent countries, Luhansk and Donetsk, but they’ve done so using the existing provincial borders inside Ukraine. 

So Luhansk is a province in Ukraine and Donetsk is a province in Ukraine, but the separatists don’t control each province in full. It would be like, take Virginia for example, it would be like separatists controlling Northern Virginia down to, let’s say, Richmond and then the rest of Virginia is controlled by the government. That’s what’s happening in Luhansk and Donetsk. 

Part of the province is controlled by the separatists but most of it is controlled by the government, the Ukrainian government. So would Russia take the steps to push the Ukrainian authorities out beyond the borders of the provinces? That remains to be seen.

Allen: And what is the response that we are seeing from the international community right now? Because we know that the U.S., Germany, Great Britain, they’ve all said, “If Russia invades Ukraine, we’re going to lay heavy sanctions on Russia.” So what’s the latest on the sanctions situation? Have any of these countries, including the U.S., put sanctions on Russia because of its actions in Ukraine?

Coffey:
 Well, it’s been a mixed bag so far. I would say the toughest response has actually come from Germany, where the chancellor announced that Germany was going to stop with the certification process of the Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline. 

Now, this was a pipeline that was designed to deliver natural gas directly from Russia to Germany under the Baltic Sea and not bypassing any of the other countries in Eastern Europe. This was very unpopular in Central and Eastern Europe for a number of reasons, mainly because they felt like it gave Russia too much control over Europe’s energy market. It also gave Germany too much control on accessing the European energy market. 

When [President Joe] Biden came into office, he lifted the sanctions that [former President Donald] Trump had in place regarding Nord Stream 2, and decided to greenlight the project as a way to try to improve relations with Germany. But it looks like Germany has now decided that, because of Russia’s actions, as part of the response, they’re stopping the certification process of Nord Stream 2, and that pipeline, as of right now, will not be used.

From the United Kingdom, we’ve seen a fairly robust response, but I was slightly disappointed. I felt like they could have gone further. 

Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced today that five Russian banks and three Russian oligarchs will be added to international economic sanctions. But the problem is, there are many more Russian banks that are bigger and more influential that should be sanctioned, in my opinion. And these three Russian oligarchs have already been under U.S. sanctions since 2018. 

And I think Boris Johnson, when he gave his speech today in the House of Commons, realized that he wasn’t in line with the mood of the House of Commons, that people were expecting more. So I wouldn’t be surprised if in the next few days we see more sanctions coming from the U.K.

And then for the United States, as of the time that we’re recording this podcast, we’ve only heard about very limited sanctions coming from the White House. Last night, President Biden signed an executive order basically preventing Americans from doing business in either one of these occupied regions of Luhansk or Donetsk. 

So I’m not sure what Americans were doing business there or how much business was being done. I can’t imagine there was any at all, and if there was any, it was probably very insignificant. But this has been the lackluster response so far. 

Now, of course, the president of the United States will be speaking later and perhaps he’ll announce more. But at the time of us talking today, the response has been pretty weak from the White House.

Allen: Yeah. Obviously, this is developing rapidly. What would you like to see America’s response be?

Coffey:
 I would like to see crippling economic sanctions that go from the top down. 

In the past, we have avoided targeting the most senior people in the Russian political establishment. We’ve only targeted middle or so ranking oligarchs. We should be sanctioning the foreign minister. We should be sanctioning President Putin himself, their defense minister, and all those senior officials close to them. 

They all like to educate their children in the West. In some cases, in a few cases, they literally keep their mistresses in the West and they have children that live in the West. They like to keep their money in the West. They like to have their real estate portfolio, property portfolios in the West, in London and New York and Paris. So we should be going after these assets. We should really be turning the screw on the Russian leadership to make them very uncomfortable.

And we should also consider sectorial sanctions. So we should be sanctioning the whole of the banking sector. We should be sanctioning the whole of the oil and gas sector. We should be sanctioning the whole of, let’s say, the mining sector. And we can perhaps give certain specific waivers if there’s a U.S. interest involved, but otherwise we should be sanctioning these whole sectors of industry. 

We have to raise the cost of Russia’s aggression to the point where they will think twice about doing it again, because right now Russia is using military force to change the borders in Europe in the 21st century. This isn’t something that has happened since World War II, for that matter. And so the price has to be there for Russia to do this sort of thing.

And then finally, I would say, we need to be arming Ukraine with advanced anti-aircraft and anti-tank weapons. And we need to tell them that it’s OK to fight the Russians. 

In 2014, when Russia first invaded, the Obama administration told the Ukrainians not to fight, just sit back, we’ll deal with this through diplomacy. Well, eight years later, clearly, this has not happened. And now we are where we are today again with Russia. So we should be providing these weapons to our friends in Ukraine and we should be telling them it’s OK to fight.

Allen: Well, literally, as you’re talking, we’re seeing that there’s breaking news being announced on Twitter. The president is speaking right now, and he’s saying that there will be new sanctions imposed on Russia by the U.S.

President Joe Biden: So today, I’m announcing the first traunch of sanctions to impose costs on Russia in response to their actions yesterday. These have been closely coordinated with our allies and partners and we’ll continue to escalate sanctions if Russia escalates. 

We’re implementing full blocking sanctions on two large Russian financial institutions, VEB and their military bank. We’re implementing comprehensive sanctions on Russian’s sovereign debt. That means we’ve cut off Russia’s government from Western financing. It can no longer raise money from the West and cannot trade in its new debt on our markets or European markets either. 

Starting tomorrow and continuing in the days ahead, we’ll also impose sanctions on Russia’s elites and their family members.

Allen: I want to talk a little bit about what exactly Russia’s endgame is here. What are they trying to get out of this, ultimately?

Coffey:
 Ultimately, Russia wants to keep Ukraine out of the Euro-Atlantic community, so that means basically out of the West, and wants to keep them aligned with Russia. 

A lot of people use NATO enlargement as an excuse: “Well, if it wasn’t for NATO adding new members, then Russia wouldn’t feel threatened.” Well, firstly, when President Putin gave his speech last night about his decision to recognize the so-called People’s Republic of Luhansk the so-called People’s Republic of Donetsk, he didn’t mention the word NATO for the first 30 minutes of the speech. 

This is all about empire-building. This is all about spreading Russian influence in a very imperial way, how Russia did during the time of the czar. This isn’t like the Soviet times where the Soviet Union was trying to spread an ideology, to spread communism. This is different. This is about building an empire. 

And … for the Russian political elite, they see themselves as being first and foremost European. They understand that unless they control Belarus and control Ukraine and have great influence in Eastern Europe, then they’re not European, they’re merely an Asian country, and they don’t like that idea. 

So they see it as almost their obligation to control Ukraine and their right to control Ukraine. But of course, Ukraine is an independent country. 

And while Ukrainians and the Russians may share many things in common, in terms of, in some cases, language and religion, and … they used to have close economic links and cultural links, and even though they have a shared history, they have a distinct history and they’re two distinct countries. 

Russia should be respecting the sovereignty of Ukraine and respecting Ukraine’s borders, not continuously trying to violate Ukraine’s borders and sovereignty.

And this is one of the paradoxes of this whole situation, is that, before Russia took these steps in 2014, there were many in Ukraine who liked the idea of having close relations with Russia. They wanted to trade with Europe, because this all started by a free trade deal discussion with Europe in 2013. 

They wanted to have trade with Europe because they wanted better economic opportunities. But they also didn’t mind the idea of having good relations with Russia because of the history and the cultural links. 

But since 2014, Putin has done everything possible to undo this sentiment and these feelings from your average Ukrainian to the point where they almost detest Russia. So, in the long run, Russia wants to absorb Ukraine and keep Ukraine under its sphere of influence.

Allen: Luke, I want to get your reaction to something that President Biden has just said during his speech Tuesday afternoon to the American people, speaking from the White House. He said that this is the beginning of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Is that a right characterization of what exactly is happening here? Is that correct language for the president to be using?

Coffey:
 Yes. Look, not to split hairs, but this is the second invasion. The first invasion was in 2014, but this is certainly, what we’re seeing play out is the opening salvos of Russia’s newest invasion of Ukraine. And I think it’s only going to get worse from here. 

Russia has about 75% of its ground forces around Ukraine, about 50% of its aircraft within a single flight distance to Ukraine. And they’ve also assembled the largest naval flotilla in the Black Sea seen in modern history. Now, you don’t do all of this just to consolidate the gains you’ve had in eastern Ukraine since 2014. You’re going to do more with this. 

And I’m glad that he’s actually acknowledged that this is an invasion. I’m not sure why it took the White House about 24 hours to come to this conclusion. I mean, if you asked like a middle schooler, a pop quiz, and you say, “Country X sends his troops to country Y uninvited. What is that?” I mean, it is pretty clear what Russia has done is an invasion. 

The problem is it’s not quite an invasion in the sense that we’re used to on TV or in movies. And Russia’s doing this strategically. They’re doing this in a very incremental fashion. So they know that the Western response will also be incremental, because there are only so many things we can sanction, there are only so many acts that we can take. 

And so, with each incremental step that Russia takes and with each incremental step that we take in response, our response almost inevitably looks weak because we try to keep it proportional to Russia’s actions. So instead of Russia going big from the beginning, they do this in a very deliberate, incremental process.

Allen: I want to look a little bit to the future here. So, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said that this situation between Russia and Ukraine is the most dangerous moment in European security for a generation. So does this have the potential to destabilize Europe? And could we see other nations aligning themselves with Russia or with Ukraine and this becoming one large long-term war? Are we looking at a World War III situation?

Coffey:
 Well, that remains to be seen. I do agree with the assessment that this is the greatest security crisis that Europe has faced in a generation. But the reality is nobody knows what’s going to happen now. We are in uncharted territory. 

And when the bullets start flying, when the troops start moving, anything can happen, and history shows us this. And not even history, I think Mike Tyson once famously said, “Everyone has a plan until you get punched in the mouth.” 

We have no idea how Russia’s going to react if they do meet stiff resistance from Ukraine. We have no idea how Russia will react if they don’t meet stiff resistance and they completely roll through the country in no time at all. They might think, “Maybe we should test our luck in other places.”

But again, conversely, if Russia receives stiff resistance and they start taking serious amounts of casualties, and then on top of this, a lot of Ukrainian civilians start dying, which actually would be deeply unpopular amongst your average Russian, there could be a coup by the military and Russia to replace Vladimir Putin and you might get someone who’s even more of a hard-liner than Putin in power. 

It doesn’t take a great leap of imagination to see how this conflict could spill over, could spiral out of control. And it would have a huge economic impact on the global economy. 

Almost half of the world’s [gross domestic product] is between North America and Europe. We’re each other’s No. 1 trading partners. … Collectively, we’re each other’s No. 1 source of foreign investment. Collectively, we’re responsible for the creation of millions of jobs on either side of the Atlantic for each other.

So when people say, “Why do Americans care what happens in Europe?” Well, we’re so intimately linked with our economies to Europe that it would have a knock-on effect to the American economy and the American worker. And then you talk about $8, $9, $10 a gallon for gas. And then the average American will immediately start feeling the impact of a major breakout in armed conflict across Europe.

Allen: Sure. Luke, before we let you go, I want to get your thoughts on China’s response. Does China see a foreign policy opportunity here in this current situation?

Coffey:
 China will be watching events very closely. They will want to see what the United States does to support and help Ukraine, in the same way that they looked at our response to Afghanistan. Because of course, they have their eye on Taiwan and they want to try to make their assessment on what a U.S. response to Chinese aggression to Taiwan might be. 

But I will say this, Russia could not do what they’re doing today without some sort of at least coordination and I would almost go as far as saying collaboration with Beijing. Because Russia’s eastern military district, the eastern part of Russia in Siberia and the part that borders the Chinese border, the Russian-Chinese border, is virtually empty of Russian soldiers. And this is historically unprecedented. All these soldiers are thousands of miles away along the border of Ukraine right now.

And so the fact that Russia felt comfortable enough to leave its backyard completely wide open to China or any other adversary, especially in the historical context of what are very complicated and at times fraught Chinese-Russian relations, just shows that there is some sort of an engagement between Moscow and Beijing on what’s happening in Ukraine.

Allen: That’s Luke Coffey, The Heritage Foundation’s director for foreign policy. Luke, thank you so much for your time today. We really appreciate it.

Coffey:
 My pleasure. Thank you.

Virginia Allen is a news producer for The Daily Signal. She is the co-host of The Daily Signal Podcast and Problematic Women.