Reviewing the Forgotten War

Whilst Parliament stumbles through the Brexit latest, an old spectre is rearing its ugly head on the European subcontinent. Russia’s recent lunge for exclusive control of the Sea of Azov marked by the capture of 24 Ukrainian soldiers last week, has thrust Europe’s forgotten war into the limelight for the first time in a long while.

February next year will mark four years since Putin annexed Crimea and fomented rebellion in east Ukraine. In this time, the death toll has reached 10,000 – including 3000 civilians – and more than 1.7 million have been displaced. Ukraine and Russia have been embroiled in this messy conflict for half a decade, but the world has turned its gaze elsewhere, with more pressing matters dominating the headlines. The fate of the contested eastern territory of the former Soviet state has slipped down the order of priorities, which elicits little surprise. It is worth a reminder that in 2015, the Minsk agreement was signed by the warring parties, which stipulated a tentative ceasefire. Yet naturally, true to form of countless ceasefire agreements, little has come into effect and the number of violations is ticking into the thousands. As such, this low-intensity conflict has become the routine grinding backdrop for a region inexorably trapped by its geography. All at Europe’s backdoor.

At base, by refusing to release both soldiers and ships a week on with little justification, Moscow has again provoked direct confrontation with Kiev. This latest skirmish (with the contested Straits serving as the battlefront) witnesses the first direct clash between the two hostile neighbours since they officially parted ways in 1991. Russian actions in the Strait in recent weeks have only augmented fears that Moscow’s ultimate goal is to make the Sea of Azov an exclusively Russian body of water, with ever-desired direct access to the Black Sea. To add to the concern, recent reports from President Poroshenko this week indicate that Russia is amassing ground forces and weaponry along the border of the two states in an act to ‘…test the strength of the global order’, with the beleaguered premier predictably launching an appeal to NATO. Whilst these recent series of events serve as unsettling yet anticipated news, it should be noted that by calling upon the Western powers for assistance, the contestation could provide the unsavoury backdrop for an upcoming direct clash between Russia and NATO. Frosty behaviour at the weekend’s G20 Summit has done nothing to quell fears of this. Some say a Crimean War 2.0 is on the cards. Whether one plays into this concern or not, these actions are surely worth more than half-baked condemnation and restrained considerations. We cannot afford to turn a blind eye for much longer, especially having viewed that sinisterly friendly high-five between Putin and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman at the weekend.

At base, Ukraine’s very legitimate fear is that the latest Russian naval squeeze is a prelude to a larger attack on eastern provinces that Moscow has been thus-far unable to seize with its proxy militants. This is not a groundless concern, and is legitimised further by recent aggressively expansionist Russian actions. But to be blunt – why should this matter to the West? As is frequently iterated by the likes of President Trump, Ukraine is not a member of NATO. In short, if reports are confirmed, Russia’s actions indicate nothing less than a brazen violation of international law – and to accept Moscow’s jurisdiction over these shores would be to condone Russia’s neo-imperialist bullying, setting a new precedent worldwide that the international community cannot negate with ease. We can all admit that Syria, Brexit, and Trump’s trade war have diverted attention from the threat of conflagration on the edge of Europe. But it is high time (and some would argue beyond time) for international attention to refocus on Russia and Ukraine. Can’t Brexit wait?