What is happening in Ukraine? Our expert on Russia and the post-Soviet region answers
Natia Gamkrelidze is a Ph.D. Candidate of political science at Linnaeus University. She is originally from Georgia and her expertise concerns the relationship between Russia and the post-Soviet region. Currently, Natia is a visiting scholar at the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies at Harvard University. We asked her about the unfolding of the current events in Ukraine. Here, she provides a background to the situation and explains what it might mean for the future.
“The tensions between Russia and Ukraine go years back. It should be emphasized that this is not the first time that tensions have ascended between Russia and Ukraine. We all know that in 2014, Russia invaded Ukraine and occupied the Crimean Peninsula. Therefore, we should be careful when we say that the war started in 2022. It started in 2014; there has been a hot war between Ukraine and Russia since then,” says Natia Gamkrelidze.
Natia Gamkrelidze mentions three main factors behind Russia’s moves.
“First, Putin’s actions might be driven by political goals. He believes that the dissolution of the Soviet Union has been a great geopolitical tragedy of the 20th century. Second, regime survival; he is afraid of democratic and economically prosperous Ukraine. With this invasion, he tries to contain the spread of democracy and economic development in Ukraine. Third, he thinks that Ukraine is just a territory, not a country; therefore, he does not consider Ukraine as a sovereign nation. In this speech on February 21, 2022, he said that Ukraine was built by Russia and had little to no culture or identity outside of Russia. Therefore, he does not think that Ukraine can or should exist independent of Russia. All these reasons, among many others, have been motivational factors of Putin's attack against Ukraine.”
What is your reaction to the events of the last week?
Even though U.S. intelligence accurately predicted Russia's invasion of Ukraine, it was shocking. This war is deeply personal, not only for me but for all Georgians. When the war in Ukraine started on February 24, it felt like I woke up in August 2008. At that time, Russia invaded Georgia and occupied 20% of Georgia's territory. Besides this dejavu, I have close friends in Ukraine who are fighting on the frontlines; some have already spent days in basements to protect themselves from Russian bombs. Every time I text them, I don't know if I will get a reply, which is horrific. It was clear in 2008, and it's even more obvious now that Putin wants to restore imperialist Soviet Russia and go down in history as the man who restored Russia as a great power.
How does the Russian leadership see Ukraine after the dissolution of the Soviet Union?
“Putin mourns the Soviet Union, and he does not regard Ukraine as a real country, nor Ukrainians as a people of their own. From his perspective, Ukraine cannot and should not exist independently of Russia's imagined or realistic influence. We all saw this in his video statement on 21 February this year, in which he told viewers that Ukraine as a country was "created by Russia," with Vladimir Lenin as its chief architect. Moreover, back in 2008, he told George W. Bush that "Ukraine is not even a country." This is his view. However, in reality Ukrainian independence, culture, people, and language go back to the 10th century. Unfortunately, since about the 13th century, when the Mongols conquered Kyiv, other countries have occupied and controlled Ukrainian territory.”
Your expertise is on the relationship between Russia and the post-Soviet region. What do the current events mean for the other former Soviet states?
“We should be certain that Putin's war in Ukraine will not stop at Ukraine. Russia's war in Ukraine is the largest conflict in Europe since the Second World War, and it will have implications not only for other post-Soviet States but for the whole world. On a macro level, we are witnessing how freedom, democracy, economic prosperity, and, most critically, nuclear stability are under siege. This is extremely dangerous. On a micro level, it's clear that the Russian attack on Ukraine has changed the security landscape of Eastern Europe as we know it.”
- Natia Gamkrelidze has co-authored an article about the events in Ukraine in relation to what happened in Georgia in 2008, for the Middle East Institute: The limits of the Georgia prism in Ukraine