International Politics

At the Foot of a Volcano

While Ukraine and NATO are preparing themselves for a potential Russian invasion, Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping affirm their unity. 

Members of the Verkhovna Rada holding flags of the countries standing by Ukraine – Mykhailo Palinchak / Alamy Stock Photo

The eyes of the world are focused on the possibilities of a Russian invasion of Ukraine, with increased military firepower and deployment to the border regions.

And yet, the people of Ukraine have been living with this threat for a long time. “The conflict has been going on for eight years,” Yulia Gorbunova told The New Voice.

Speaking from a location between Kyiv and Moscow, Ukraine and Russia senior researcher for Human Rights Watch said: “The continued impact of fighting comes from damaged infrastructure, and difficulty accessing hospitals as the roads are not suitable for travelling. Close to three million have to rely on humanitarian aid.”

According to the Ministry of Social Policy of Ukraine, about 1.45 million people are still internally displaced after fleeing the conflict in the eastern region of Donbas and from occupied Crimea.

Tensions are high. Russia has amassed around 135,000 troops on Ukraine’s borders and in the contested regions of Crimea and Donbas. It’s the largest mobilisation of troops in Europe since the Cold War. The increased activity has been tracked on satellite images, with the Russian military at Ukraine’s southern, eastern and northern borders including tanks, artillery and air defence systems.

“The people definitely feel it’s a dangerous situation because it’s something they have been living with for a long time now,” says Gorbunova.

The response to the threat of invasion has been swift from other countries, aware that if Russia does invade Ukraine, it will have far-reaching consequences for Europe. The UK, Poland and Ukraine are forming a three-way cooperation, with gas, arms supplies, humanitarian and economic aid. As part of their emergency assistance, the UK is transferring 2,000 anti-tank grenade launchers.

Denmark is ready to send weapons to Kyiv, while the Czech Republic will send 4,000 large-calibre artillery shells to Ukraine. Estonia, Latvia and Lithia have pledged to send anti-tank systems and anti-aircraft vehicles.

“With the threat of a full-scale Russian invasion looming over Ukraine, it is now up to the democratic world to act before it is too late. Western leaders still have time to deter Russia and demonstrate that Ukraine does not stand alone,” says Oleksii Reznikov, Ukraine’s Minister of Defense.

Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskiy announced a boost of 100,00 troops to Ukraine’s forces and a pledge to raise soldiers’ pay. However, Ukraine’s military numbers are around 250,000, compared to the military might of Russia, estimated at 900,000.

The United States has also entered the fray. President Joe Biden ordered 2,000 US-based troops from Poland and Germany, as well as moving 1,000 armed forces from Germany to Romania. The Pentagon has also placed around 8,500 troops on high alert, ready for potential deployment to Europe.

Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said at a news briefing that “this force is designed to deter aggression and enhance our defensive capabilities in front-line allied states.”

The Russian president’s character of a macho military man is intrinsically attached with the current escalation of armed forces, Peter Sano, the EU’s lead spokesperson for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy told The New Voice.

“He is not in the mindset of normal 21st-century thinking. The only thing he knows is intimidation and aggression,” he adds. “Putin has closed the ranks of transatlantic allies. You see unprecedented unity and coordination with the US, the EU and Nato.”

Not only that, but Putin has also managed to alienate many Ukrainians who previously were pro-Russian or had no particularly strong views on Russia. 

Ukraine’s determination to work with Europe is evident in its exports and imports. Russia now accounts for just 8% of Ukraine’s international trade, while the European Union has now increased to 42%. Financially, Ukraine has the support of international organisations. The IMF has a budget of $2.2 billion available in loans with Ukraine that can be sent out from now and June. Ukraine received an initial tranche of $700 million in November 2021.

Putin’s actions of seizing Ukraine’s southern peninsula of Crimea in 2014 and supplying guns and materials to separatist forces have triggered the most condemnation, on the home front and also globally.

A ceasefire was declared in 2015 which has been breached by both sides, yet which continues to this day. Around 14,000 people have been killed, including 3,000 civilians.

As a result of the backlash and growing anti-Russian sentiment, Putin is trying to reverse this course of action. But he is doing this “like a bully who doesn’t know other means,” Sano says.

Why Putin has decided to bring so many soldiers to Ukraine’s border is anyone’s guess. Sano says the reason the Russian president has amassed so many armed forces on the border is “to intimidate Ukraine and send a political message.”

Putin has said that “Russians and Ukrainians were one people – a single whole.” He believes that the wall between Russia and Ukraine is “our great common misfortune and tragedy,” Sano adds.

He believes that Russians, Ukrainians and Belarusians are all descendants of Ancient Rus, the largest state in Europe.

“He still perceives the surrounding area of Russia – the former Soviet Union – as the natural living space for Russia. It’s about spheres of influence. He wants to control what’s going on in the neighbourhood, because this is the buffer zone for Russia,” Sano said.

This is also a war of words and a toxic mix of disinformation and propaganda. The rhetoric and florid metaphors of politicians are running high. 

Russia has denied any plans to invade Ukraine, and has accused the US of trying to “whip up hysteria,” said Russia’s ambassador, Vasily Nebenzia.

“There’s no proof to confirm these serious accusations” of a move towards war, he said, adding that they constitute “a provocation in itself”.

The senior diplomat also accused Western powers of “pumping Ukraine full of weapons”.

“You’re waiting for it to happen, as if you want your words to become a reality”, he added. 

Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki also weighed in with some powerful imagery. “Living close to a neighbour like Russia we have the feeling of living at the foot of a volcano.”

The consequences of Russia invading Ukraine would be “horrific” said US ambassador to the UN, Linda Thomas-Greenfield. She invoked the menace to the world order which “threatens Europe and the international order.”

UK Prime Minister Johnson added to the rhetoric during his talks with Zelenskiy, talking of the need to “avoid further bloodshed.”

Russia’s foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova had these words for the British foreign secretary. “Ms Truss, your knowledge of history is nothing compared to your knowledge of geography. If anyone needs saving from anything, it’s the world, from the stupidity and ignorance of British politicians.”

Kenya’s representative to the UN, Martin Kimani, saw the conflict as a power battle between Nato and Russia. He gave the most eloquent comment by quoting an African proverb: “When the elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers.”

Nato is one of the major bones of contention for Russia which demands legal, permanent guarantees against Ukraine ever being allowed to join the intergovernmental military alliance. The organisation has almost doubled its membership, including 14 new members in Eastern Europe, since the end of the Cold War.

“No Russian leader could stand idly by in the face of steps toward NATO membership for Ukraine. That would be a hostile act toward Russia,” Putin has said.

Nato has an open-door policy on members and has promised this to Ukraine as far back as 2008.

Jens Stoltenberg, Nato’s Secretary-General is attempting to steer a neutral course. “We have no plans to deploy Nato combat troops to Ukraine,” he said, further clarifying: “There is a difference between being a Nato member and being a strong and highly valued partner as Ukraine.”

While the allies close ranks around Ukraine, Russia looks to its strategic partner – namely China. During Putin’s visit to Beijing for talks with Chinese President Xi Jinping at the Winter Olympics, the two leaders issued a joint statement reaffirming that the “Friendship between [Russia and China] has no limits, there are no ‘forbidden’ areas of cooperation”.

The two former Communist countries have much in common. They are natural allies in that they are both opposed to the expansion of Nato and called on the alliance to stop what they call “cold war” approaches. Both countries oppose a world order in which the United States is the leading power, assuming control of world politics.

Together, Russia and China present a formidable foe for the west. The Russian Armed Forces are one of the world’s largest military forces, with around a million active-duty personnel, which is the world’s fifth-largest, and has the world’s fourth-highest military expenditure, with a budget of $61.7 billion. China has two million active military personnel and a military budget of $252.3 billion.

The link between the two superpowers is also based on economics and trade. China is Russia’s biggest trading partner, amounting to $140 billion in 2021, and looks to grow in future years.

Although Xi Jinping has warned that anyone who crosses China will have their “heads bashed bloody against a Great Wall of steel”, their military ire is not focused on Ukraine but thousands of miles away. China is only likely to take up arms when it concerns its own regional interests, such as the intended ‘reunification’ with Taiwan.

Beijing believes that Taiwan is a province of China and has pledged to retake it, by any means necessary. The situation escalated in October of last year, with China sending 15 warplanes into Taiwan’s air defence zone. Taiwan’s Defence Minister Chiu Kuo-cheng has warned China would be capable of mounting a full-scale invasion of the island by 2025.

It’s clear from negotiations that China is keen to maintain its neutral stance. However, Stano believes it is “a marriage of convenience. They are also rivals and business partners. It’s not like an honest friendship. They are doing things together – dictators stick together.”


Fiona Keating is a freelance journalist and editor, and has worked at the Independent and the Guardian, as well as OpenDemocracy. She specialises in world news and affairs as well as women’s issues, health, history and science. She was an editor at International Business Times, managing a team of journalists to create original content, breaking news and articles on current events.

Read More

A new exhibition at the Barbican examines the relationship between environmentalism and art. 
Simon Coates

© The New Voice 2022