With the Russian invasion of Ukraine dominating headlines, a lot of people are left wondering what exactly is happening and why. This article is intended to be a short introduction to the conflict and the reasons behind it.
What’s Happened so far
In 1991, as the Soviet Union collapsed, many regions that made up the former global superpower chose to become independent. One of the largest of these new independent countries was Ukraine.
As the newly formed Russian federation emerged, Russian influence over former Soviet territory was at an all-time low. The collapse of most of what were known as Soviet satellite states (independent communist countries in eastern Europe that were entirely dependent on Soviet support to survive) a year prior meant that those closed off were now open to the Western world. What had been described as the Iron curtain, which divided Europe since the second world war, was now gone as eastern Europe had now become open to American and Western European influence.
But fast forward to November 2013 and Ukraine is still feeling the divide between East and West. The question between being pro-Russia or pro-Europe was a major dividing line in the country’s politics. Pro-Russian president Yanukovych was due to sign the European Union–Ukraine Association Agreement which would open up borders for goods and ease travel restrictions but he walked away, citing pressure from Russia as the reason.
Following this decision, protests broke out, along with allegations of election fraud, a corruption scandal and criticism over human rights all being thrown at Yanukovych. His government made the decision to violently crack down on protesters and a wave of unrest engulfed the country.
In February 2014, Yanukovych was ousted and fled to Russia in what became known as the Revolution of Dignity or Maidan Revolution. But the country was still gripped by chaos and many in eastern Ukraine did not accept the newly established interim government.
Using this chaos as their justification, Russia intervened and annexed Crimea; a peninsula on the black sea that was formerly a part of Ukrainian territory.
Soon after, in 2015, Ukrainian pro-Russian separatists seized two eastern regions of Ukraine (Luhansk and Donetsk) along the Russian border and declared independence from Ukraine and allegiance to Russia.
On the 21st of February 2022, Russia officially recognised these territories and three days later, the invasion began.
Why did Russia Invade?
For the immediate invasion, Putin said Russian troops were deployed for self-defence and claimed the invasion was needed for the “demilitarisation and denazification of Ukraine”. This is amid claims from the Russian government that Russian people have become the target of mass killings in the country. However, these allegations appear to have been false, and while the far right are present in Ukraine, the “denazification” narrative rings especially hollow- not least because Ukraine’s current president is Jewish.
Putin also claims that Ukraine represents a more underlying threat to Russian security. This is something you might have heard being discussed in the lead up to the invasion: NATO expansion.
NATO is a military alliance pact formed after World War II, designed to protect western Europe from an attack from the Soviet Union. When Russian troops were situated on the Ukrainian border, Putin wanted to guarantee that NATO would rule out Ukraine’s membership to the organisation. Ukrainian NATO membership would mean NATO would have a legitimate reason to position troops on the Russian border. However, it would also mean any attack would trigger article 5, meaning that an attack on Ukraine would be considered an act of war and cause other members of the alliance to retaliate.
Either way, Russia took issue, but their anti-NATO rhetoric has deeper roots. Perhaps understandably, Russia has made it clear that it views NATO as, not just a defensive pact, but a tool for the West to antagonise and undermine Russia. Putin has put forward the claim that NATO expansion into the former Soviet satellite states is a violation of international law because of promises made in 1990.
But is There any Truth to This?
It is definitely true that following the end of the Cold War there was an initiative to enlarge NATO by including former Soviet allies. The Clinton administration regarded this as a means of promoting democracy and to later help integrate them into the EU. In 1999, The Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland joined NATO, Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia soon followed in 2004. The same year Poland, Slovakia and Hungary, who all border Ukraine, joined the EU.
However, the matter of the promise is more complicated as no formal agreement between Russia and NATO was ever signed. The last leader of the Soviet Union, Gorbachev, says that he was assured in conversation with American diplomats that NATO would not expand further than East Germany after German unification. Though he later clarified in an interview that NATO enlargement was not explicitly what was discussed, the talk was actually focused on whether armed forces would be deployed in eastern Europe. However, he was critical of NATO enlargement in general. The first president of the Russian federation, Boris Yeltsin, was similarly critical when Poland’s membership was first in question. To him, this violated the spirit of former agreements, but he decided to forego his complaints in the hope that Russia itself would join the alliance despite the fact the Americans never saw this as a potential reality.
Putin’s broken promise narrative is not true, there was no promise but NATO’S expansive actions since the Cold War only served to further the distrust in the minds of Russians, as did the fact that when agreements were being signed, Russia was in no position to reject demands of their former enemies. There was, and clearly still is, a Russian feeling that the West used every opportunity to take advantage of Russian weakness, and it’s exactly what allows Putin to push this narrative of betrayal.
But when it comes to treaties, international law has only been broken by one country: Russia. The invasion of Ukraine is a clear violation of the 1994 Budapest memorandum, in which Ukraine was guaranteed political independence in exchange for them handling over their nuclear weapons.
Given that Putin seems to have no regard for international law, whether this promise was actually given is not as important as it is made out to be. What is important is that it provides a pretext by which to use Russian aggression to get what Putin wants: economic and political influence over Ukraine.
With Ukraine moving further and further towards the west, it’s clear that Russia will not get its desired outcome while the current government still stands. What is unclear is how far it will go. Putin has not kept it a secret that if he could, he would return to Soviet era borders, however, there doesn’t seem to be any advantages to fully annexing Ukraine as it did with Crimea, especially when considering the strain it has already put on the Russian economy. It’s possible that Ukraine could end up similar to Georgia, who has had a portion of its territory occupied by Russia since 2008, but there is something else to keep in mind. It’s also possible that the invasion was not just for concrete political goals but also Putin’s nationalist ideas for a Russia that once was. In a harrowing speech given just before the invasion, he claimed that the country still lies on Russian soil, its borders were Soviet made, its people were Russians and Ukraine has no right to exist.