Eight years after Russia annexed Crimea, Ukraine faces a new threat from its eastern neighbour. Russia has amassed around 130,000 troops and military equipment along its borders in recent weeks.
Ukraine is literally surrounded by Russian troops: along its northern border with Belarus, in Russian-occupied eastern Ukraine (Donetsk and Lugansk), in Crimea to the south, and in Transnistria, part of Russian-occupied Moldova to the west.
Despite these disturbing developments, Russia continues to deny any planned aggression against Ukraine. Russia is not only the second largest producer of natural gas in the world, it is also extremely efficient in gas lighting.
Russia’s “reflexive control” strategy
According to official Russian rhetoric, Ukraine and Russia are “one people” belonging to the same historical and spiritual space.
However, this claim is a historical invention. It is strategically deployed to delegitimize Ukraine’s claims to nationhood – and by extension, sovereignty – and bring it back into Russia’s orbit of influence.
The massive military buildup on the Ukrainian border is part of a larger coordinated geopolitical offensive called “reflexive control.”
Read more: How Russian is Ukraine? (Hint: not as much as Vladimir Putin insists)
Reflexive control involves a wide variety of hybrid warfare tactics, such as deception, distraction, deterrence, and provocation. We have seen these tactics translate into the growing number of cyberattacks on Ukrainian government servers and energy grid, as well as Russian state-sponsored disinformation campaigns aimed at sowing distrust and discord in the country.
In many cases, these disinformation campaigns have been launched online with the help of the Internet Research Agency, a troll factory in Russia.
Reflexive control also involves the possibility of so-called false flag operations – terrorist acts allegedly committed by Ukraine on Russian territory or involving Russian citizens. These types of incidents can be used to justify a military incursion into a sovereign state.
A history of interference and misinformation
The roots of Russian interventions in Ukraine run much deeper than its illegal annexation of Crimea and occupation of large parts of Donetsk and Luhansk in 2014, and its actions on the border today. In fact, Ukraine has been subject to Russian interference since becoming an independent state in 1991.
This influence has manifested itself in many ways, from economic and political coercion to cultural conformity. This includes the weaponization of Ukraine’s energy dependence on Russia, a near-complete Russification of Ukrainian media, attempts to install pro-Kremlin governments, and even high-profile assassinations of journalists and political activists.
Ukraine has seen two major waves of popular protest against rising Russian influence. The first was the Orange Revolution of 2004, following Russian attempts to rig the Ukrainian presidential election in an attempt to guarantee the victory of pro-Russian candidate Viktor Yanukovych.
Another protest erupted in 2013 after then-president Yanukovych refused to sign a political association agreement with the European Union, opting instead for a customs union with Russia. It was known as the Dignity Revolution, or the Maidan Revolution.
In both cases, official Russian rhetoric has used these revolutions as evidence of Western subversion of Ukraine. This effectively delegitimized their true causes and the public sentiment around them.
One of the most prominent Russian narratives was that Ukraine was a “failed state” – a country ruled by chaos, teeming with radicals and fascists, and on the brink of civil war. Ideally, this defamation also served as a cautionary tale to prevent any pro-democracy protests from breaking out in Russia.
The Maidan Revolution eventually succeeded in removing Yanukovych from office. But Russia took advantage of the transition of power by sending men in uniforms without insignia to secretly take over government buildings in Crimea. This is the most significant violation of territorial integrity in Europe since the Second World War.
A referendum on secession then took place in Crimea, exactly the kind of “democracy” that the Ukrainian people fought so hard to overthrow.
It doesn’t take a math whiz to question the validity of a near-unanimous vote to secede (96.77%) in a region made up of just 60% ethnic Russians, many of whom held Ukrainian citizenship and did not support secession.
“Insurrection” orchestrated by Russia in the East
Russia’s next step was to orchestrate an insurgency in eastern Ukraine, fueled initially by Russian special operations units and paramilitary groups.
I’ve written extensively about how a handful of citizens from the eastern Ukrainian city of Mariupol managed to put down a so-called “insurgency” after seeing their city suddenly flooded by foreigners who spoke an unfamiliar Russian dialect, had trouble paying in Ukrainian currency, and repeatedly asked locals for directions.
These foreigners – locals called them “political tourists” – were sent to Mariupol from the Russian city of Rostov-on-Don to spark pro-Russian protests. Similar operations took place throughout 2014 in many other Ukrainian cities.
Looking back, Ukrainian militants were perhaps the only reason the Russian military could not advance further into the country eight years ago. They quickly identified these patterns across the country and organized against the intruders.
Yet, as is often the case with gaslighting, the burden of proof lies with the victim – many in the West still repeat the narrative of Russia’s “civil war” today.
Read more: Don’t call it a civil war – the Ukrainian conflict is an act of Russian aggression
Reasons to hope
Faced with such an existential threat, Ukraine has undergone profound social, political and cultural transformations.
Over the past eight years of occupation, hundreds of grassroots volunteer initiatives have intensified to help the country recover from the humanitarian crisis resulting from the long-running conflict and counter a large-scale military invasion.
This type of civil society activism is the cornerstone of democracies around the world. There is still a long way to go in Ukraine, but these emerging foundations can now be seen in almost every aspect of public life.
Ukrainians don’t want democracy because they are “subverted” by the West, as Russia claims. Ukrainians want democracy because it paves the way from an imperial Russian border to a sovereign state.
Allowing Russia to thwart these aspirations and re-invade Ukraine sets a dangerous precedent for other sovereign states trying to break away from their violent and traumatic past.