Ukraine Crisis: Historical Context and International Implications

Photo Source: Reuters


On 24 February 2022, following escalating tensions during the preceding months, and several years of unresolved armed conflict in eastern Ukraine, the Russian military invaded the territory of Ukraine. The stated aims of the Russian military operation are to incapacitate Ukraine’s military, destroy ultra-nationalist elements of the Ukrainian armed forces, and secure Ukrainian neutrality in military and security affairs, including a constitutional guarantee that Ukraine will not join NATO. Russian actions have provoked harsh condemnation, particularly from western leaders and media, while numerous countries – notably the EU, UK and USA – have implemented sanctions aimed at pressuring Russia to withdraw from Ukraine by damaging the Russian economy. Western states have also sent large quantities of military aid to Ukraine, while international organisations are delivering humanitarian assistance in Ukraine’s border regions.

On 2 March, the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) voted majority in favour of a resolution condemning Russian actions in Ukraine. However, numerous members, which together represent a large proportion of the world’s population, abstained, including Algeria, Bangladesh, China, Cuba, India, Iran, Pakistan, South Africa, Tanzania and Vietnam. Several other members voted against the resolution or did not participate in the vote. In addition, various countries which voted in favour of the UNGA resolution, such as Brazil, Indonesia, Mexico, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, have declined to apply sanctions or end economic cooperation with Russia, further highlighting the growing international division over the Ukraine crisis.

Fundasaun Mahein is extremely concerned about the humanitarian situation in Ukraine, particularly in the eastern and southern parts of the country where most of the fighting has taken place. Millions of people have fled their homes, and many have sought refuge in neighbouring countries. Thousands of soldiers on both sides and an unknown number of civilians have died. The crisis has also led to sharply increased tensions between western countries and Russia, which seriously threatens international security and millions of people’s lives. Unfortunately, instead of calling for de-escalation of the conflict through negotiations, many western commentators have demanded that their governments take increased military and economic measures. FM views such comments as irresponsible and dangerous, as they ignore both the immediate risks such actions would bring for civilian populations, especially in Ukraine, the unpredictable consequences for international peace and security, and the impacts that economic disruption will have on vulnerable people around the world.

Despite our Government’s gesture of solidarity with Ukrainian civilians, as a small country located on the other side of world, Timor-Leste cannot resolve this crisis. Nonetheless, FM believes that it is important that people here understand the context and implications of the current conflict. Therefore, we have produced the following analysis of historical and political issues surrounding the current crisis, and some of its implications for Timor-Leste and the world, including its political, economic and security dimensions. Due to the complexity of these issues, the analysis will be divided across two articles. The first article discusses some of the history and context around the current conflict, while the second will explore broader political and economic implications of the crisis, including for Timor-Leste, and will be published in the coming days.

The current crisis has complex historical roots

The root causes of wars are always more complex than the picture presented in mainstream media and viral social media posts, and we see that it is important to discuss these complexities to achieve a better understanding of the current conflict. While the Russian Government is directly responsible for the recent escalation of the war in Ukraine, the current crisis did not begin with Russia’s invasion, nor indeed with the Russian build-up of troops on its Ukrainian border in late 2021. In fact, armed conflict has been ongoing in eastern Ukraine since 2014, which itself is linked to tensions which have developed since the dissolution of the USSR in 1991 and the emergence of Russia and Ukraine as separate nation states with a complex and deeply interconnected history.

Tensions between Russia and its smaller neighbours which formed part of the Russian Empire and then the USSR have existed for a long time, as Russia has used its political and military weight to dominate ethnically non-Russian regions on its margins. At the same time, Russia’s relationship with Ukraine is more complicated than other regions such as the Baltic states or Central Asian ‘Stans’, primarily because many Russians believe that Ukraine is an integral part of Russia due to their historical inter-connections, while Ukrainian nationalists have insisted on a separate Ukrainian cultural and political identity.

Ukraine’s political history is further complicated by the fact that territories which comprise today’s Ukraine have been part of several different states during the last one hundred years, including the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Nazi Germany, Poland, Russian Empire and the USSR. These changes – which have been accompanied by several devastating wars – have led to major shifts in the demographic makeup of the region, which have heavily influenced the political development of the modern state of Ukraine. A result of this has been the concentration of Ukrainian nationalism – which often expresses itself as strongly ‘anti-Russian’ – in western Ukraine, while the Russian language and cultural identity dominates in eastern and southern Ukraine.

In addition to the regional complexities and historical tensions which underlie the current crisis, it is also important to note the role played by external actors in the current conflict. During recent years, western governments and NATO have provided billions of dollars in military and other aid to Ukraine, and some analysts – and even US officials – have openly described the conflict in eastern Ukraine as a an indirect confrontation between Russia and the US/NATO. As a result, many western experts on regional politics, international relations and military and security affairs have warned that policies of western states towards Ukraine – particularly continued suggestions of Ukraine joining NATO and provision of military assistance – were increasing the likelihood of direct armed conflict between Russia and Ukraine. Since the Russian invasion, US officials have revealed that they aim to “bleed” Russian President Putin by using military support to Ukraine to extend the war, tacitly acknowledging that they consider the current conflict to be a proxy war between the US/NATO and Russia.

Euromaidan and the path to war

To understand the immediate causes of the current crisis, it is also necessary to examine events which took place in Ukraine from late 2013 onwards. In November 2013, a protest movement known as “Euromaidan” began after the Ukrainian President Yanukovych cancelled an association agreement with the European Union. After several months of protests, Yanukovych was finally ousted in February 2014. The Euromaidan movement was composed of various elements, including pro-EU citizens, anti-corruption protestors and smaller but extremely violent ultra-nationalist militias, including known neo-Nazi groups. While many Euromaidan organisers were from grassroots organisations, there was also significant external funding for media and other organisations involved in the movement, while prominent US officials spoke to crowds and distributed food during the protests. Descriptions of the protest movement and overthrow of Yanukovych vary widely, with some describing it as a grassroots and mainly peaceful movement, while others have described it as a US-backed coup enacted by extreme right-wing paramilitaries.

Immediately after the removal of President Yanukovych, the Russian military invaded the Crimean Peninsula, which it justified based on the claim that the Russian-speaking majority was in danger from the post-Euromaidan Ukrainian Government, and that the territory was historically part of Russia (Crimea was transferred from Russia to Ukraine in 1954 while both republics were part of the USSR). Of course, a major underlying reason for the Russian annexation is that Crimea contains a major Russian naval base and is a key access point to the Black Sea and Mediterranean for Russian ships.

Protests against the new Ukrainian government also emerged in the predominantly Russian-speaking – and Yanukovych-supporting – Lugansk and Donetsk regions of eastern Ukraine, and in April 2014 the protest leaders declared the independence of these regions from Ukraine, sparking the Donbas War. Although Russia did not formally recognise the independence of the Lugansk and Donetsk “People’s Republics” (LPR/DPR), it provided military support to their pro-Russian leaders, while Ukraine has received extensive military assistance from western states to fight the war in Donbas.

During 2014 and 2015, Russia and Ukraine negotiated and signed the Minsk Agreements, with support from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, in an attempt to end the Donbas War. However, while fighting was reduced temporarily, the measures contained within the agreement – including a ceasefire by all parties – were never fully implemented. As a result, fighting between the Ukrainian military and pro-Russian groups has continued, with the result that eastern Ukraine has experienced armed conflict for eight years. It is estimated that over 14,000 people have died in Donbas since 2014, including at least 3,400 civilians, while over a million people had been displaced from their homes by 2016.

Tensions escalate

Between 2019 and 2021, alongside negotiations with Russia and LPR/DPR, Ukraine increased its efforts to join NATO and the EU. In June 2021, NATO reaffirmed that Ukraine – and Georgia – would join the alliance based on promises made in 2008. In November 2021, Russian President Vladimir Putin warned that expanded NATO activity in Ukraine was a “red line” and requested guarantees that weapons systems which can reach sensitive military and civilian targets in Russia would not be placed in Ukraine. The Russian military also began amassing large forces along its border with Ukraine, while denying that it was planning to invade.

President Putin officially recognised the independence of the DPR and LPR on 21 February 2022, and the Russian armed forces finally invaded Ukraine on 24 February. They focused their efforts on disabling Ukrainian military infrastructure, encircling the bulk of Ukrainian forces deployed in the east of Ukraine and surrounding several major cities, mainly those located in the east and south of Ukraine. Parts of eastern Ukraine have already fallen under Russian control, but Ukrainian resistance has been significant. An unknown number of military personnel and civilians have been killed, and millions of civilians have fled their homes.

As military operations continue, Russian and Ukrainian representatives have engaged in direct negotiations, but so far have failed to reach an agreement. Meanwhile, Ukrainian President Zelensky has spoken virtually to various foreign governments and parliaments to request additional western support, such as implementing a “no-fly zone” over Ukraine, which the US Government has rejected. Zelensky has also recognised that Ukraine will not become a NATO member, while the two countries have reportedly made progress towards agreeing on Ukraine’s neutral status and ending the war. According to recent reports, the Ukrainian President has stated he wishes to achieve peace quickly through negotiations.

Fundasaun Mahein hopes that all parties to the conflict can commit to negotiating a ceasefire and resolving the long-term problems which led to the current crisis. Millions of people have already been affected by the conflict, while continuation and escalation of the fighting threatens the lives of millions more Ukrainians. The risk of the war spreading beyond Ukraine’s borders remains high, which threatens international security and tens of millions of lives. In addition to the immediate humanitarian consequences of military escalation for both Ukrainian people and millions of others in the region, the political and economic impacts of this crisis will be felt by people around the world, including in Timor-Leste.

Due to the complexity of these issues, FM will discuss them in another article which will be published in the coming days. This article concludes with a discussion about “the indivisibility of security” and its implications for state sovereignty and international security.

Indivisibility of security, state sovereignty and geopolitical realities

The concept of “indivisibility of security” was outlined by the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe in the 1970s, and has more recently been emphasised by China and Russia when describing their national security concerns. Essentially, it means that the security of one country is tied to the security of its neighbours, because when one country’s security is threatened, this increases the likelihood of conflict, which threatens the security of the entire region. This concept of security also has implications for state sovereignty, as it understands that while countries should be “free” to make choices based on national interest, certain choices can ultimately undermine a state’s own security interests by directly threatening another state and provoking regional tension and conflict.

Russian leaders have frequently referred to the indivisibility of security when describing their security concerns related to Ukraine and other bordering countries, particularly regarding military alliances and support from third parties such as NATO. Russian leaders – as well as numerous western diplomats and experts on regional and strategic affairs – have argued that such support has increased the likelihood of regional conflict, as Russia considers the expansion of NATO to bordering states as a direct threat to its national security. On the other hand, some have argued that Russia is using the concept of “indivisibility of security” to prevent sovereign states on its border from freely choosing to be involved in military alliances, and to bully its neighbouring countries into entering unequal security arrangements with Russia.

Regardless of the specific claims of various parties to the conflict between Ukraine and Russia, it is obvious that states exist within a broader geopolitical reality, and that this shapes the decisions taken by individual states. This applies particularly to policies such as security cooperation and military alliances in strategically important or sensitive regions. For example, Timor-Leste is part of a region where complex geopolitical interests intersect. As a small country with limited political, military or economic weight, Timorese decision makers understand that this limits the policies which they can implement, and that ignoring this could provoke tension or conflict with neighbours in the region, which would undermine Timor-Leste’s national interests.

On the other hand, we can consider what might happen if Timor-Leste was to adopt policies which its main security cooperation partners consider as threatening to their security interests, such as inviting a rival country to build a military base inside the territory. Most likely, these partners would immediately voice strong concerns, including warning that Timor-Leste was provoking regional tensions through its irresponsible action. They may also apply further pressure by withdrawing aid, cancelling security cooperation activities and reviewing economic programs. If Timor-Leste ignored this pressure and continued to pursue its policy, we can imagine that current security partners would escalate their response. This response would lead to immediate negative effects for Timor-Leste’s security and economic development. Neighbouring countries could also escalate their military  response, which would contribute to increased regional tensions while threatening Timor-Leste’s security.

The above example illustrates the concept of indivisibility of security as well as how small countries must adapt to bigger geopolitical realities. History is full of examples of political leaders balancing between national interests and these realities, including in post-independence Timor-Leste. Likewise, there are many examples of governments or leaders being overthrown or attacked when neighbouring countries felt threatened by their policies, which has often led to wars and massacres, which Timor-Leste has also experienced directly. Thus, while in an “ideal world”, sovereign states should be free to pursue any policy they believe to be in the national interest, in practice most politicians recognise that their decisions are limited by the broader political and economic reality, which puts practical limits on state sovereignty.

Fundasaun Mahein sees that most public discussion about the Ukraine-Russia crisis has failed to understand the importance of the indivisibility of security, especially how it relates to individual state sovereignty. Many commentators have instead argued idealistically that Ukraine “should” simply be free to enter into any military alliance, regardless of the concerns or interests of any other parties. However, even if Ukraine’s current ruling class really represents the interests of the whole population (a problematic assumption), this view ignores the fact that small states are usually careful to avoid conflict with their neighbours, while powerful states regularly intervene in other countries when they consider that their “national security interests” are being threatened. While such behaviour is contrary to the ideals of international law and state sovereignty, it is the unfortunate reality of how political power operates in the world.

Finally, many western policy makers and analysts have tacitly recognised the indivisibility of European security by pointing out that Ukraine becoming a member of NATO does not benefit regional security, including the security of Ukraine itself. Despite this, statements from Ukraine, NATO and its member states about Ukraine’s accession to NATO have been contradictory, which has likely contributed to the recent Russian decision to invade of Ukraine. However, rather than “blaming” this or that group for the current crisis, we see that the only way to resolve the conflict is to try to understand the motivations and concerns of opposing sides, as well as the logical outcomes of military escalation, which are extremely concerning from a humanitarian and security perspective. An important concept which can assist with understanding the roots of the current conflict – as well as finding a potential solution – is the indivisibility of security, which we have attempted to outline here.


To conclude, Fundasaun Mahein sees that much public discussion related to the Ukraine crisis and Russian invasion has relied on oversimplifications and emotional arguments which ignore historical and political complexities, as well as the realities of modern warfare and geopolitics. Not only does this limit public understanding of the causes of the crisis – it risks serious escalation of this armed conflict by promoting external military involvement as a solution. Any military escalation brings huge risks not only to the Ukrainian population, but also to the people living in the region, as well as to international peace and security. From our perspective, any escalation of the conflict must be avoided, and we hope that all parties will commit to peaceful resolution of the conflict through a negotiated settlement.

This article has attempted to provide an overview of the historical and geopolitical context of the current crisis. The issues being are discussed are extremely complex, and FM’s ability to provide a complete analysis is therefore limited. However, we hope that this article can contribute to increased understanding of this important issue in Timor-Leste. FM’s next article will describe some of the broader political and economic implications of the Ukraine crisis, including its possible impacts for Timor-Leste.

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