One reason stressed in this book is that the underlying disagreements were deep and fundamental. The second reason is that three underlying structural constraints ‒ the security dilemma, democratization, and domestic politics ‒ hampered efforts to manage those conflicts of interest and principles.
Ever since the Russia invaded into Ukrainian territory, I have read many articles, blog posts, opinion pieces and YouTube videos analysing the motives behind it. Most of them are obviously biased, more interested in assigning blame on any one party among the three that are involved and not particularly bothered about objectivity. I scanned several books written on the subject, to find at least a partially objective one that can help me understand the conflict.
I found such a book when I came up on Ukraine and Russia: From Civilized Divorce To Uncivil War by Paul D'anieri, a political scientist who is an expert on Ukraine and Russia. The uncivil war referred in the title is not the present conflict. It is the one in 2014 in which Russia annexed Crimea after a protest in Ukraine that ousted its government, which Russia backed. In that sense, the book is incomplete by a very small degree for my purpose, but it can be still crucial in comprehending the current episode.
As evident from the quote in the beginning, D'anieri states two fundamental causes of conflict. First one is the deep and basic disagreements between the three major players of the conflict- Russia, Ukraine and the West. During the disintegration of Soviet Union and the formation of Russia, the new Russia believed that it will get to maintain the same hegemony that it did in its former position as USSR. Russia assumed that all the nations that seceded from it will accept its influence in their economy, military and foreign policy. It desired the power to veto any security measures by the Europe in its region of influence and west will still consider it as a major power.
But, the west- EU and the US, were under the impression and relief that the tense cold war situation is diffused and the new era will see the rise of democracy and mutual cooperation. They felt that Russia would limit its field of influence and would choose reforms and become a liberal state like proper European democracies. They envisioned Ukraine as a totally independent and sovereign state that align with the European ideals.
After seceding from Russia, Ukraine considered itself independent and not answerable to anyone. It considered itself worthy of becoming a part of European Union by virtue of its size and geopolitical importance. It desired to deal with Russia as equals and expected total support from the Western world to forward its causes. But its leaders faltered in maintaining its balance in dealing with both the forces and ended up serving as a bridge between Europe and Russia, ultimately being trampled upon by both of them. Rampant corruption and the lack of an integrated nation further complicated its politics. Its rulers wanted all the benefits, but never intended to undergo the reforms needed to receive these benefits. It used its relation to Russia and Europe as bargaining chip to extract more consideration from both parties and ended up pushing a wedge between them.
The initial stays quo formed between the three players was maintained painfully for some time. Ukraine transferred its nuclear weapons that it inherited from USSR, though it did some bargaining while doing it. It maintained its trade with Russia and started the process to become part of NATO and EU. Russia had economic interests in Iraq, which were hurt when USA invaded Iraq. But it didn't make it an issue then. The West also tried its best to accommodate Russia whenever there was scope of a conflict.
But gradually the second set of factors started threatening the status quo- security dilemma, democratization and internal politics. Any step taken by one party was perceived as an attempt to disrupt the initial status quo by other parties. This caused more tension and distrust in their relationships with each other. Russia's tough dealing of situation in Chechnya, NATO's interference in Yugoslavia, Ukraine's interest to join NATO were only a few examples when other parties perceived a threat and started escalating the issue.
Russia saw that many of its neighbors are turning into liberal democracies and regarded these attempts as a threat by Europe with an eventual intention to topple its government. When there were public protests in many nations, uprooting the existing democratic or autocratic governments, Russia interpreted it as a Western conspiracy to apply pressure on its sovereignty and challenge its security.
The book also puts forth an interesting point about the rulers being severely constrained in their capability in decision making due to the pressure from inside their country. Even for autocratic nations like Russia, the leader is compelled to make their decisions by keeping public opinion also in consideration. For example most of the Russian public still consider Ukraine as part of Russia and any move showing leniency to Ukraine when it tries to align towards EU or NATO will be suicidal for a Russian leader. Likewise, European or US leaders cannot let Russia get away easily with an undemocratic act. Incase of Ukraine this aspect is more complex due to its regionalist mindset. Russia effectively used the Crimean people's affinity towards Russia and Russian language to mount an annexation. Ukraine also has the presence of powerful and corrupt oligarchs who involve heavily in its internal politics.
Ukraine and Russia: From Civilized Divorce To Uncivil War, expands all these political and geopolitical affairs, especially that of security dilemma and the incapability of leaders to break their constraints due to internal and external factors, severely hampering their power to be decisive in crucial times, resulting in escalation of minor situations into uncivil war between nations. Each major incident effecting the crisis, from the end of USSR to the accession of Crimea, is examined in light of these factors and its ultimate impact on the conflict is explained in the book.