After months of warnings, Russia invaded Ukraine in the early morning hours of February 24th.
According to reports from the United States, Russia had amassed up to 190,000 troops on Ukraine’s borders over the course of several months. Around Russia’s neighboring and former Soviet Union state, a buildup of forces started in late 2021, and it increased this year.
Russian President Vladimir Putin had ordered so-called “peacekeeping” troops into the Russian-backed breakaway provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk, both of which are located in the disputed Donbas region.
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Andriy Yatsenyuk called it “the most blatant act of aggression in Europe in more than 70 years,” and it’s only getting worse.
It is impossible to predict what will happen in the future but the origins of the conflict can be traced back to experts. A combination of Russia’s ongoing rifts with NATO and Vladimir Putin’s ambitions are cited as possible causes of the tense relations between Russia and the United States.
What is the history between Ukraine and Russia?
Both Russia and Ukraine can point to a shared or divergent history going back more than a thousand years. Since 1991, Ukraine has been known as Europe’s breadbasket, and the Council on Foreign Relations says it was one of the most populous and powerful republics in the former Soviet Union before it became an independent state. Russia has kept a close eye on its western neighbor ever since, and the independence of Ukraine has been marked by protests and corruption in government.
The council notes that Russia has responded aggressively to Ukraine’s attempts to align itself more closely with Western countries, including its publicly stated interest in joining NATO, which was founded in part to deter Soviet expansion. After Ukrainians ousted a Russia-aligned president in 2014, tensions rose to a new level. After Russia annexed the Crimea region of Ukraine, it claimed that it was doing so to protect ethnic Russians and Russian speakers from Ukrainian persecution.
At the same time, Russia supported a separatist movement in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions of eastern Ukraine, which led to armed conflict. As the standoff raged on, the regions declared their independence from the rest of the country. Since then, at least 14,000 people have been killed in the conflict between the two countries, according to the council.
When did the current conflict between Russia and Ukraine begin?
During the late 2021s, Russia began increasing its military presence around Ukraine, including in Belarus, which is a close Russian ally to the north of Ukraine. When Russian troops began massing along the border in December, it created such an uncomfortable situation that Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke with US President Joe Biden on the phone.
As the number of Russian forces encircling Ukraine increased earlier this year, people’s concerns grew. Since then, Biden and Putin have spoken again, the United Nations Security Council has convened to discuss the crisis, and numerous leaders from NATO, the United States, and other countries have urged Russia to de-escalate or face retaliation in some form. Pre-invasion estimates put the Russian contingent on the border at around 200,000 soldiers.
What does Russia want when it comes to Ukraine?
One of Russian demands is that Ukraine not join NATO, a military alliance of 28 European countries and two North American nations that aims to maintain peace and security in the North Atlantic. A handful of countries in eastern Europe, including the former Soviet Union, do not belong to the NATO alliance. NATO expansion is seen as a “fundamental concern” by the Russian government, according to a transcript of a phone call between Vladimir Putin and French President Emmanuel Macron on January 28.
It’s worth noting, however, that according to William Pomeranz, the acting director of the Kennan Institute at the Wilson Center, a nonpartisan policy forum for global issues, NATO likely has “no intention right now” to admit Ukraine to the organization.
That NATO invitation to Ukraine to join NATO is just a pretext for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is what I believe,” he tells CNN. In the absence of NATO membership, Ukraine lacks the security guarantees afforded to members of the alliance.
According to Bradley Bowman, senior director of the Center on Military and Political Power at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a nonpartisan research institute focused on national security and foreign policy, Putin specifically does not want Ukraine to join NATO “not because he has some principled disagreement related to the rule of law or something.”
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko believes that he is more powerful than Ukraine, and thus has the authority to dictate to the country what to do and who to associate with, says Bowman.
Aside from a concern over NATO and other demands related to weapons and transparency regarding Ukraine, Russia’s nature of expansion is also at play. Some Russians, including Vladimir Putin, believe that Russia has a legitimate claim to the territory of the former Soviet republics, despite the collapse of the Soviet Union.
“The imperialist policy of the Russian Federation demands from us and all our allies complex activities and complex deterrence and defense,” U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said during a Feb. 18 news conference.
What does Vladimir Putin want out of Ukraine?
Vladimir Putin’s demands are inseparable from those of the Russian government. Putin’s broad ambitions, particularly those tied to his nostalgia for the territorial integrity of the USSR, have been made clear by his actions, even though analysts are quick to say that they cannot read Putin’s mind – Biden himself admitted as much during remarks on Feb. 18.
The collapse of the Soviet Union, according to Bowman, was a disaster for Putin. “We know he’s not happy about NATO’s success. We know he truly despises NATO’s eastward expansion. When he’s older, he’s more aware of how he’ll be remembered in the history books, and so he sees himself as a kind of “neo-czar who would like to reconstitute as much of the Soviet Union as possible,” he tells a reporter.
A “critical element” of this ambition, Bowman says, is Ukraine. Russian President Vladimir Putin has a history of annexing countries that are close to NATO membership. As Georgia sought to join the NATO alliance in 2008, Russian forces invaded the country. It was only for a short period of time before they retreated back to the separatist areas that they still control today. On Feb. 22, Russian President Vladimir Putin said that the world should recognize the annexation of Crimea in 2014 as legitimate Russian territory. According to his reasoning, Russia has the right to exert its influence in Ukraine because the two countries share a common history and culture, which the Ukrainians deny.
“I think Ukraine has always been a sore spot for Vladimir Putin,” Pomeranz believes. When he wrote a lengthy article on Ukraine, he stated that “basically, Ukraine and Russia are one people in one country.” He does not recognize its independence or its right to exist as a sovereign state. Ukraine’s independence from the Soviet Union has long been a source of resentment for many Ukrainians. It appears to be his goal, therefore, to bring an end to it.”
He may have been surprised to see the international community’s strong reaction to the buildup on the Ukraine border, however. Since Putin is “the most persuasive billboard for NATO membership,” according to Bowman,
As Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” on February 16, “What we’ve seen from President Putin is basically to precipitate everything he says he wants to prevent.” NATO should be further away from Russia, according to him. As a result of the threat of Russian aggression, NATO has become more unified, more solidified, and, of course, is moving more forces closer to Russia.”
Why is Russia invading Ukraine now?
Pomeranz believes that Russia’s resources could be the deciding factor in the current political climate. With over $600 billion in foreign currency reserves and significant investments in Russia’s army, Putin believes it is the “most opportune time” for him to intervene.
Wilson Center analyst Pomeranz believes Vladimir Putin believes this is the best time to correct what he sees as an injustice and reverse Ukraine’s independence and sovereignty.
Pomeranz points out that Putin’s view of the West, including the United States, is likely to have an impact on how much assistance he thinks Ukraine will receive. As Bowman points out, the U.S. handled the withdrawal of its troops from Afghanistan in August with aplomb.
Former Republican senator Bowman says he has no idea how Bowman could have read that as anything other than American weakness. According to a source, “I think he wondered whether the Biden administration would be weaker in dealing with aggression toward Ukraine as Obama administration was.”
According to Biden administration officials, the U.S. response is quite different. Before news of the invasion broke, Blinken said on “CBS Evening News” on February 23 that any further Russian aggression in Ukraine would result in “a price that Vladimir Putin and Russia will pay for a long, long time.”
In response to Blinken’s statement, “We’re not merely observing.” For Russia’s sake, we’ve worked for months with our allies and partners to build these very significant consequences.
Putin may have other reasons for taking action right now. Kimberly St. Julian-Varnon, a presidential doctoral fellow at the University of Pennsylvania, says that a combination of factors – including the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and the lack of political experience of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy – have led to a “perfect storm” for the Russian leader to act now.
In her opinion, “It’s his greatest work,” she says. As far as I’m concerned, this is the pinnacle of Putinism.
How are the U.S. and other countries responding to Russia’s invasion?
The North Atlantic Council, the political decision-making arm of NATO, held an emergency meeting on Feb. 24 at which it activated its defense plans, which include the NATO Response Force. Biden had said before Russia’s attack that he would be sending more U.S. troops to Eastern Europe to defend NATO allies such as Poland but has repeatedly stated he will not be sending U.S. troops into Ukraine.
Some countries had already responded to Putin’s actions related to the Donbas, which the U.S. called the “beginning of an invasion.”
There were a series of sanctions against Russian financial institutions and the country’s elites announced by Vice President Joe Biden on February 22, 2014. After he issued an executive order prohibiting U.S. citizens from making new investments, trading or financing in Donetsk and Luhansk, this happened. Boris Johnson, the British prime minister, announced his country’s sanctions against Russian banks and billionaires on February 22, according to the BBC.
US President Trump also ordered sanctions against Russia’s Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline company and its corporate officers on February 23, according to an official White House statement. Moscow and Western Europe are becoming increasingly reliant on Russian energy supplies to meet their growing energy demands, but the contentious project that runs from Russia through Europe has not yet gone live. It was already known before Vice President Biden announced the sanctions that Germany would halt certification of the pipeline because of Russia’s actions.
In a statement released late on February 23, Vice President Biden promised to announce “further consequences the United States and our Allies and partners will impose on Russia for this unnecessary act of aggression against Ukraine and global peace and security.”
What ever the rest of the world does, St. Julian-Varnon prays that it doesn’t divert attention from the urgent needs of Ukraine.
On the humanitarian and migration crises that will follow, she adds, “We must focus on what we can do to help the Ukrainian armed forces, but also help prepare for the migration crisis and the humanitarian crisis.”