The Echo Chamber: UCC expert explains what's happening between Ukraine and Russia 

As reports of Russian attacks cross the sea, The Echo asks UCC Professor Andrew Cottey, how the situation has developed.
The Echo Chamber: UCC expert explains what's happening between Ukraine and Russia 

Firefighters work on a fire on a building after bombings on the eastern Ukraine town of Chuguiv on February 24, 2022, as Russian armed forces are trying to invade Ukraine from several directions, using rocket systems and helicopters to attack Ukrainian position in the south, the border guard service said. - Russia's ground forces on Thursday crossed into Ukraine from several directions, Ukraine's border guard service said, hours after President Vladimir Putin announced the launch of a major offensive. Russian tanks and other heavy equipment crossed the frontier in several northern regions, as well as from the Kremlin-annexed peninsula of Crimea in the south, the agency said. Photo by Aris Messinis / AFP

Andrew Cottey is a professor in the Department of Government and Politics at University College Cork. The UCC professor breaks down the ongoing political tension between Ukraine and Russia which is rippling across the world. 

As reports of Russian attacks cross the sea, The Echo asks UCC Professor Andrew Cottey, how the situation has developed.

Black smoke rises from a military airport in Chuguyev near Kharkiv on February 24, 2022. Photo by Aris Messinis / AFP
Black smoke rises from a military airport in Chuguyev near Kharkiv on February 24, 2022. Photo by Aris Messinis / AFP

What is happening between Ukraine and Russia?

Russia has over 150,000 troops – with tanks, aircraft and other military equipment – on Ukraine’s eastern, southern and northern borders. Russia has now sent military forces into the separatist controlled statelets of Donetsk and Luhansk in eastern Ukraine.

People, some carrying bags and suitcases, walk at a metro station in Kyiv early on February 24, 2022. Photo by Daniel LEAL / AFP.
People, some carrying bags and suitcases, walk at a metro station in Kyiv early on February 24, 2022. Photo by Daniel LEAL / AFP.

What is the crux of the issue?

The core of the conflict is the international status of Ukraine. Russian President Vladimir Putin argues that Ukraine’s possible membership of NATO is a fundamental threat to Russia’s security and that Russia has to no choice but to act to address the issue. President Putin, however, also argues that Ukraine is not a real country and has no right to independent statehood. The existence of a democratic Ukraine may also be a threat to the authoritarian regime in Moscow – if Ukraine can be a democracy, why not Russia too?

The Ukrainians argue that they have their own national identity and the right to their own state and to choose their own international allegiances, including seeking membership of NATO and the European Union (EU). The West supports Ukraine’s right to independent statehood and, in principle, membership of NATO and the EU – even if membership of either organisation is unlikely anytime soon.

The current crisis is partly a continuation of the first Ukraine war of 2014. Then Russia intervened in support of separatists in eastern Ukraine and occupied and annexed Crimea. The real issue now, however, is whether Ukraine will be democratic and open to the West, as its people want, or under the sway of Russia.

What is North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) 

 NATO - North Atlantic Treaty Organization - is a defence alliance, established way back in 1949 to counter the perceived threat from the Soviet Union. NATO’s thirty members include the US, Canada, most West European states and Central and Eastern European countries such as Poland, the Baltic States and Romania. The heart of NATO is Article 5 of the NATO treaty – the security guarantee whereby by NATO’s members commit to come to one another’s defence if a member state faces attack. Since Ukraine is not a NATO member, NATO is not committed to defending Ukraine. US President Joe Biden and other Western leaders have made clear that while they support Ukraine, they will not go to war with Russia to defend Ukraine. NATO countries are increasing their forces in Central and Eastern Europe to deter possible Russian military action against countries such as Poland and the Baltic states.

Who are the main forces opposing Russia (supporting Ukraine)

Ukraine became an independent state in 1991 when the Soviet Union broke up. Like Russia and other former Soviet states, it is a member of the United Nations (UN). A Russian invasion of Ukraine would be a violation of the fundamental UN principles of state sovereignty and the inviolability of borders – which is why EU member states, the United States and many other UN member states are so concerned about the crisis.

Who are Russia’s allies?

Russia has few allies in all of this. Some other authoritarian former Soviet states, in particular Belarus, support Russia. Russia and China have become increasingly close in recent years because of their shared opposition to the US and the West. China supports Russia’s concerns about NATO’s eastward enlargement. China, however, also strongly supports the UN principle of state sovereignty. While partly allied to Russia, China is likely to pursue a careful middle ground, not directly support any Russia intervention in Ukraine.

What kind of military defence does Ukraine have and in relation to Russia, how large is their defence?

The political, economic and military balance between Russia and Ukraine tilts heavily in Moscow’s favour. Russia is a great power, with a large nuclear arsenal. Ukraine is a medium-sized but relatively poor country. Russia’s annual defence budget is about $60bn, whereas Ukraine’s is only $4bn. Russia probably has the power to defeat Ukraine militarily, but as the US experienced in Vietnam and Afghanistan, weaker countries can sometimes defeat great powers. If Russia mounts a full-scale invasion, whether that results in a rapid victory for Russia or a prolonged war remains to be seen.

A Ukrainian serviceman stands at his position at the line of separation between Ukraine-held territory and rebel-held territory near Svitlodarsk, eastern Ukraine, Wednesday, Feb. 23, 2022. AP Photo/Evgeniy Maloletka.
A Ukrainian serviceman stands at his position at the line of separation between Ukraine-held territory and rebel-held territory near Svitlodarsk, eastern Ukraine, Wednesday, Feb. 23, 2022. AP Photo/Evgeniy Maloletka.

What have you thought of the coverage of the Ukraine/Russia tension?

In general, Western media coverage of the crisis has been fair and balanced. In contrast, the Russian government line and virtually all Russian media are a mix of propaganda and paranoia. For example, the Russian description of the government in Ukraine as a Western puppet regime is nonsense. The Ukrainian parliament and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy were democratically by the Ukrainian people. Ukraine has a free press and robust political debate. Likewise, Russian claims of genocide in eastern Ukraine are simply untrue.

Websites such as BBC News and RTÉ News and newspapers such as The Guardian and The New York Times are providing detailed and balanced coverage of the crisis.

One area where there could have been more debate in the West is NATO enlargement. If President Putin’s primary concern is possible Ukrainian membership of NATO, then maybe some kind of compromise where Ukrainian membership of NATO was ruled could resolve the crisis. If President Putin is ultimately unwilling to accept an independent Ukrainian state, no diplomatic compromise seems possible.

What do you think of Ireland’s stance/actions/comments throughout this tension?

As a neutral state, Ireland is not a member of NATO, but it is a member of the EU and the UN. The Irish government has – correctly, in my view – strongly supported the UN principle of state sovereignty and the argument that smaller countries, like Ukraine, should not be bullied by their larger neighbours. Ireland has supported the sanctions which have been agreed collectively by the 27 EU member states. Further EU sanctions are likely if Russia escalates its action in Ukraine. At the same time, the Irish government has argued that all diplomatic avenues for resolving the conflict should be explored. Unfortunately, the prospects for a diplomatic resolution do not look good.

Andrew Cottey is a Professor in the Department of Government and Politics at University College Cork where he has been since 1999.

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