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Not just a snapshot: The history of the Russia-Ukraine conflict

Photo courtesy of Samuel Weinmann via Canvas

The current conflict between Russia and Ukraine has recently been dominating the daily news cycles; everyone wants to know, will there be war or not? Newspaper headlines show a brief snapshot of history, but to understand any current event, it is important to rewind and see a whole movie instead of a photograph. 

Understanding the conflict in Russia and Ukraine requires an in-depth understanding of the complex history between the two countries, and a recognition of the historical patterns that lead to conflict in the first place.

From the 9th century to the mid 13th century, what is now Ukraine was controlled by the Kievan Rus’ Federation, a collection of Slavic tribes and principalities. Modern day Russian and Ukrainian languages and cultures were derived from tribes in this federation.

However, the Mongolian Invasion in the 13th Century caused the collapse of this federation, and the division of Ukrainian territory among many groups: the Tsardom of Russia, the Austria-Hungary Empire and the Ottoman Empire. 

By the 1600s, modern-day Ukraine was split between Poland and the Russian Empire, and it remained that way until the 1900s. Despite being ruled by other empires, Ukrainian culture and language persisted, and there were several attempts over the centuries to gain independence. 

Ukraine first became a sovereign state after the Russian Revolution and the establishment of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic (SFSR). The Ukrainian People’s Republic was established on June 23. 1917, and it faced a series of civil wars with Poland and Russia before reemerging in 1919 as the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic (SSR), a part of the Soviet Union. Nikita Khruschev, a Ukrainian, emerged as the leader of the USSR after Stalin died in 1953, and promoted friendship between Ukraine and Russia. 

As a sign of this peace and friendship, the Russian SFSR transferred Crimea to the Ukrainian SSR in 1954. This friendship continued until the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, when Ukraine regained its independence.

Following the end of the Cold War, Ukraine worked to establish itself as an independent state with ties to both Russia and NATO countries. In 1994, Ukraine signed the Budapest Memorandum with the U.S., U.K. and Russia. In this treaty, Ukraine traded away its intercontinental ballistic missiles and other nuclear weapons for guarantees that the international community would respect the independence of Ukraine and its existing borders. 

Additionally, there was an understanding in the international community that NATO would not expand further east. However, NATO did not follow through with this decision and ultimately expanded their territory in 1997 and 2004. After the Russian invasion of Georgia in 2008, Ukraine requested a membership action plan to join NATO. After Russia’s harsh response, NATO compromised and promised eventual Ukrainian membership in NATO, but did not state a specific timeline of events.  This compromise infuriated Russian leadership and sparked the chain reaction that has led to recent events.

In January 2009, the Russian gas company Gazprom suddenly stopped pumping gas to Ukraine and the rest of Europe. This gas crisis put tremendous pressure on Tymoshenko, the Prime Minister of Ukraine, who had to renegotiate the gas deal with President Putin of Russia. This deal put Ukraine and Europe at a serious disadvantage as gas prices became much higher than they were before.

In response to Russia’s acts such as the gas crisis,  the newly elected President Viktor Yanukovych of Ukraine began negotiating a free trade agreement with the European Union. However, just days before it was supposed to be signed in 2013, Yanukovych was pressured by Putin and was convinced to not sign the agreement. This decision caused mass protests across Ukraine, calling for Yanukovych to resign. This movement became known as the Maidan Revolution, or the Revolution of Dignity. 

At its worst, police violence against protesters left over 100 dead in a week. On Feb. 22., Ukraine’s parliament voted unanimously to remove Yanukovych and establish a new government that would prioritize the free trade agreement and hold Yanukovych accountable for the alleged mass murder of the Maidan protesters. 

Putin declared the Revolution of Dignity an illegal coup and sent Russian soldiers to the Crimea peninsula and instigated a vote in the Crimean parliament to secede from Ukraine and join Russia. A public referendum reported that 97% of the population favored secession; although these results are very disputed and likely tampered with, especially because the document is not available to the public.

On March 18., 2014, Putin finalized the annexation of Crimea in Russia’s Parliament. The international community harshly rejected this illegal annexation and imposed heavy sanctions on Russia. The following month over 40,000 Russian troops instigated violence in the Ukrainian region of Donbas and stormed governmental buildings in several eastern cities. 

In Sept. 2014, the Minsk Agreement was signed by Russia, Ukraine, France and Germany to establish a ceasefire in Donbas. However, this ceasefire was very fragile and the fighting resumed almost immediately. A Second Minsk agreement was attempted in February 2015, but that too failed to end the conflict. Since 2014, tens of thousands of people have been killed or injured in this area. 

In 2016, Russia was suspected to have escalated this conflict by initiating a series of cyberattacks against Ukrainian infrastructure. These cyberattacks have affected the power grid, national bank, elections and government websites. In response to these attacks, President Poroshenko of Ukraine suspended all military cooperation with Russia in 2017 and pushed for further cooperation with NATO and the EU, including joint military drills. In Nov. 2018, Russia fired upon and then seized three Ukrainian Naval Ships off the shores of Crimea. These vessels—and their crew—were not returned for more than a year despite harsh disapproval from the international community. 

From 2019 to 2020, the conflict in Ukraine was fairly stable. However, in April 2021, it escalated when Russia sent over 100,000 troops to the border of Ukraine. President Volodymyr Zelenskyy of Ukraine petitioned NATO leadership for a timeline for membership but was told by U.S. President Joseph Biden that Ukraine did not meet the requirements for NATO membership. However, NATO leadership were able to convince Russia to remove most of their troops from the border. This agreement did not last, and in Nov. Russia re-stationed its troops along the border. 

In Dec. of 2021,, Biden and Putin had a phone call to discuss this conflict. Biden warned Russia against invading Ukraine, and Putin issued a set of demands for NATO and the United States. These demands included a permanent ban on Ukrainian membership in NATO and the removal of all forces from countries that joined NATO after 1997. 

Despite the large numbers of troops surrounding Ukraine, Russia has repeatedly denied that it has plans to invade.. Several countries have attempted to talk with Putin and de-escalate the situation, but these attempts have all been unsuccessful. On Jan. 23., the United States and other European countries ordered the families of embassy staff to leave Ukraine and placed NATO forces on standby. 

On Jan., 26., representatives from the states and NATO responded to the Russian demands, saying that Russia did not have the right to dictate NATO membership. However, NATO would be willing to negotiate other issues such as arms control. Although diplomatic conversations have continued, both sides have increased troops in the area. 

In February, Biden deployed 1,000 U.S. troops to Romania, and 2,000 troops to Poland and Germany. On Feb. 10, Russia began joint military exercises in Belarus, moving almost 30,000 troops to the Northern border of Ukraine. On Feb. 11, Biden and other European leaders advised all citizens to leave Ukraine as soon as possible; he also deployed another 2,000 U.S. troops to Poland. 

Most recently, on Thursday morning, around midnight, Russia officially attacked Ukraine. Explosions were heard in multiple Ukrainian cities, and citizens fled into trains and cars. 

According to AP News, Russian President Vladimir Putin seemed unbothered by the sanctions that followed, saying that any foreign country that intervened with this military operation would meet “consequences you have never seen,” referring to Russia’s nuclear capabilities. 

Biden has since responded to the attack, and in a statement on Wednesday, said “President Putin has chosen a premeditated war that will bring a catastrophic loss of life and human suffering.” 

Biden and other Western allies are now in the planning process for punitive sanctions to be imposed on Russia. 

Some experts say this issue is simply a stunt on Putin’s part to gain more attention on the international stage. But if you look at the history of Russia and Ukraine, this conflict was inevitable. The identity of Russia has always been intrinsically linked to the concept of empire. 

At its peak, the Russian Empire covered almost nine million square miles, and stretched from the Baltic Sea to the Pacific Ocean. Even after the end of the Romanov dynasty and the traditional Russian Empire, Soviet Russia and the Soviet Union still essentially functioned as an empire that included modern-day Ukraine. So, from the Russian perspective, Ukraine has always been a part of Russia, and should remain a part of the Russian sphere of influence. However, the Ukrainian language, culture and identity have existed for far longer than the Russian Empire or the Soviet Union. So, from the Ukrainian perspective, Ukraine has always been its own separate entity, and deserves to have its own territory and sovereignty. 

Despite the disagreement over sovereignty, the current dispute between Russia and Ukraine is over Crimea and Eastern Ukraine. The Russian SFSR gifted Crimea to the Ukrainian SSR in 1954, under the assumption that the two countries would continue to run the Soviet Union together. From the Russian perspective, the Crimean Peninsula rightfully belongs to Russia. However, from the Ukrainian perspective, Crimea has belonged to Ukraine since 1954, and sovereignty should not be debatable under the Budapest Memorandum in 1994 where Russia agreed to Ukrainian sovereignty and its current borders. 

This issue has been “solved” diplomatically many times since the fall of the Soviet Union; however, none of these attempts have remained successful. At some point, this conflict will turn violent and be resolved militarily. Unfortunately it is likely a matter of when, not if. 

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