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Understanding the Roots of Russia’s War in Ukraine

Author: Patrick Donahue

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has set off the most dangerous struggle between Moscow and NATO allies since the Cold War. The conflict traces its roots to Ukraine’s decision to forge closer ties with the European Union and NATO, setting a course away from Russia, a nation with which it shares powerful social and cultural ties stretching back to the Middle Ages. In a speech days before ordering the assault, Russian President Vladimir Putin made clear that he considers Ukraine’s place to be in Russia’s fold -- a position it held from the days of the Russian Empire under Catherine the Great in the 18th century through the nations’ shared history in the Soviet Union. The invasion, which has become one of Europe’s gravest security crises since World War II, shows that Putin is determined to settle the matter by force.

1. How did this round start?

Tensions have dominated relations between Moscow and Kyiv since Ukraine’s 2004 Orange Revolution marked its realignment in the direction of Europe. At the end of 2013, Moscow-backed Ukrainian leader Viktor Yanukovych’s decision -- under Kremlin pressure -- to renege on a trade pact with the EU prompted mass demonstrations, which culminated in Yanukovych’s overthrow in February 2014. Putin, who accused the U.S. and EU of instigating a “fascist” coup, responded with the most significant land grab in postwar Europe: the seizure and annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea Peninsula. The move, which drew rounds of U.S. and EU sanctions, gave Russia full control over the Sevastopol naval base, home to its Black Sea fleet. Russia went on to back separatist groups in Ukraine that proclaimed two independent republics in the eastern Donbas region along the Russian border. Ukraine has suffered since economically, with disrupted supply lines, lost revenue, and resources channeled to a war with the Russian-backed separatists.

2. Was it always this way?

Not always. Russia and Ukraine share a long common history, though the former dominated the latter in the days of the Russian Empire and Soviet Union. Russian and Ukrainian families share a longstanding level of kinship, even if the Soviets took it further with enforced codes of brotherhood between the two. Some Russian-speaking Ukrainians retain sympathy for the Kremlin, though a sizable majority of the nation of 41 million backs integration with the EU. Almost everybody, even those whose first language is Ukrainian, speaks and understands Russian. For his part, Putin, in his speech setting up the invasion, invoked his preferred notion that Russians and Ukrainians are one people. It’s a core element in his claim, derided by Kyiv, that Ukraine is somehow not a real country; in an ad-hoc version of history, he asserted that it was “completely created” out of Russian imperial land by Soviet planners. Putin’s claim that Ukraine is a fiction ignores elements of the country’s national identity. For one, the 1930s famine, or Holodomor, that killed millions and that Ukrainians blame on Soviet leader Josef Stalin. In any case, linguistic and ethnic differences have always existed, including between the mainly Russian-speaking population in Ukraine’s east and the Ukrainian-speaking regions of the west near the border with Poland, Slovakia and Hungary.

3. How does Putin justify a full-scale invasion?

Russia's War in Ukraine

Keep up with the latest news and the aftermath of one of the worst security crises in Europe since World War II.

Putin and his allies increasingly began to accuse the Ukrainian government of “genocide” against Russian speakers in the Donbas breakaway regions, an unfounded allegation wholly rejected by Ukraine as well as U.S. and EU states. In fact, the fighting between separatists and the Ukrainian military, particularly in the year after the Crimea fallout, left an estimated 14,000 people dead. Russia and Ukraine consistently accused each other of not adhering to the Minsk accords, peace deals brokered by Germany and France that sought to end the violence and establish a political settlement. Fulfilling Minsk would have empowered the Russian-speaking breakaway territories through de-centralized authority, potentially giving the Kremlin veto power over national policy shifts such as joining the EU or the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Days before the invasion, Putin effectively scuppered Minsk by officially recognizing the separatists’ self-styled republics. On Feb. 24, he justified the invasion by proclaiming an objective of “demilitarization,” presumably dismantling Ukraine’s military capability, rendering it incapable of defending itself -- and unable to join NATO. He said another aim was “denazification” of the country.

4. Why is Putin talking about Nazis?

The Nazi reference was puzzling to outsiders. Russia has for years complained about political ultra-nationalism in Ukraine. To be sure, there is such a strain within Ukraine, and neo-Nazi paramilitary fighters have fought alongside the military. But Russia, whose complaint is tied to a history of Ukrainian nationalists collaborating with Germany in World War II in an effort to create an independent state, exaggerates the presence. Many read in Putin’s Nazi reference an implied threat to oust the Ukrainian government. It is led by President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, who is of Jewish heritage and dismisses allegations his government includes neo-Nazis.

5. Is Putin’s real beef NATO?

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, NATO, originally founded to protect Europe against Soviet attack during the Cold War, has expanded eastward into countries that were once within Moscow’s sphere of influence. Putin has made it clear that he views this as an encroachment on Russian interests and a historic betrayal by the U.S. and its allies, who, he claims, vowed not to expand the organization into the former Eastern Bloc. NATO leaders say no such promise was given and that the people of eastern European nations chose to join the alliance, eager to escape the embrace of their Cold War masters in the Kremlin. Ukraine in 2008 was promised eventual NATO membership. In reality, joining was always a distant prospect, a source of frustration for Ukrainian leaders in recent years. But Ukraine’s NATO ambitions -- as well as its aspirations for fast-track EU accession -- were a red line for Putin, who bemoaned the Soviet Union’s collapse as a “catastrophe.”

The Reference Shelf

— With assistance by Daryna Krasnolutska, and Andrew Langley

DMU Timestamp: March 02, 2022 01:01

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