The Roots of the Russia-Ukraine War: How the World Got Here

Russia-Ukraine War

Piercing air raid sirens, gunshots, smoke-filled clouds and chaos engulfed the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv as the country woke up to a dark, drizzly morning and a Russian invasion on 24th February 2022. Shortly after Russian president Vladimir Putin announced a “special military operation” in the early hours of Thursday, reports of explosions near major Ukrainian cities began to surface. Russia launched a devastating attack on Ukraine, a democratic country with 44 million people, shelling cities and closing in on Kiev, forcing millions of Ukrainians to abandon their homes. Ukrainians witnessed a tumultuous war unfolding before their eyes with cruise missiles falling out of the sky, Russian troops parachuting in, and explosions happening all around them. The death toll continued to rapidly mount since troops invaded in February and the consequences are being felt far beyond Europe. But why did Russia rip up a peace agreement with its neighbouring country? How did the two countries, which were once entwined by the Soviet Union, end up here? The following are the significant events that precipitated the crisis.

What Has Happened So Far?

For three months, people were divided over whether Vladimir Putin would follow through with his threats of war. Some who had been calling for calm were now warning of the danger posed by Russian troops near the border and in Crimea. Others maintained that Putin was only seeking attention and that there was no cause for alarm. But things came to a head when Putin delivered an hour-long combative speech on February 21 in which he repudiated Ukrainian statehood. He acknowledged the independence of two breakaway areas in eastern Ukraine, where Moscow has supported a separatist uprising since 2014 and dispatched so-called peacekeeping forces. As analysts predicted, that was most likely only the beginning of a much greater tussle. That greater dispute manifested itself a few days later.

After months of Putin amassing tens of thousands of troops near the Ukrainian border and a series of failed diplomatic negotiations, Russia declared a full-out war on Ukraine. In an early morning TV broadcast on February 24, President Vladimir Putin expressed his concerns that Russia could no longer feel “secure, develop, or exist” because of what he sees as a persistent threat from modern Ukraine. Putin argued that military intervention was required to impede Ukrainian attacks on the two breakaway territories of Donetsk and Lugansk, which Moscow recognizes as sovereign republics. 

Immediately, airports and military offices were bombarded, and tanks and troops rolled in from Russia, Russia-annexed Crimea, and its ally Belarus. Cities have been pounded, neighbourhoods have been razed, and millions of Ukrainians have been forced to flee their homes. President Putin stated that his purpose was to defend individuals who had been bullied or subjected to genocide, as well as to “demilitarise and de-Nazify” Ukraine. He warned Ukraine that if it did not lay down its weapons, it would be held “responsible for the bloodshed.” By the afternoon, Russian troops and tanks had entered Ukraine on three fronts: from Belarus in the north, Ukraine’s east, and Ukraine’s south. Putin anticipated a swift invasion, with his forces storming Kyiv and ousting President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s government. His troop, however, encountered fierce resistance from Ukraine’s armed forces, preparing the ground for the ongoing conflict in numerous major cities.

But What Set The Stage For The Crisis? 

To answer this question, we need to look back at some of the events leading up to it. 

  • The Breakup Of The Soviet Union 

The Russia-Ukraine war can be traced back to the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. Ukraine gained its independence, and Russia was left with a large population of Russians living outside its borders. The Russian government has consistently asserted its right to protect these citizens, while Ukraine has tried to assert its independence. This conflict has played out in a number of ways, including military conflict and political maneuvering, and it shows no signs of abating. As per the media reports, Ukraine’s independence from the Soviet Union and strengthening connections with the West paved the way for the current conflict. 

  • The Orange Revolution and its aftermath 

The first significant event to affect Russia-Ukraine relations was the Orange Revolution. This movement, which took place in 2004 sought to overturn the results of a presidential election that had been deemed fraudulent. The 2004 presidential election in Ukraine eventually featured two main candidates: Viktor Yushchenko, a western-oriented candidate, and Viktor Yanukovych, who was supported by Russia. Viktor Yushchenko won the Ukrainian presidential election amid allegations of electoral fraud. This led to the “Orange Revolution” when thousands of Ukrainians took to the street wearing orange, which was Yushchenko’s campaign color. The Ukrainian government responded with violence and intimidation, but the protesters persisted. Finally, the protests were successful in overturning the election results and this led to the victory of Viktor Yushchenko in the subsequent re-election poll. The revolution was marked by some controversial events, including the poisoning of Viktor Yushchenko with dioxin. This poisoning was allegedly carried out by agents of then-Ukrainian president Leonid Kuchma, who was widely seen as corrupt and close to Russia; his replacement by Yushchenko was not welcomed by Vladimir Putin. In addition, Putin saw Ukraine as part of Russia’s sphere of influence and wanted a friendly government in Kyiv. Tensions between the two countries increased after the Orange Revolution.

  • Ukraine’s Connection with NATO

Ever since the fall of the Soviet Union, NATO has been growing, expanding eastward, encompassing most of the Eastern European countries, including Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia. Following the suit, Poland, Romania, and others also joined NATO. As a result, NATO, an alliance that was formed to counter the Soviet Union, moved hundreds of miles closer to Moscow, and in 2008, they indicated that they would like to have Ukraine as a member one day. This didn’t sit well with Russian President Vladimir Putin, who saw NATO’s expansion as a direct threat to its security and began to militarize in response.

By the end of 2021, Russia issued an eight-point proposed security pact for the West which included contentious measures such as barring Ukraine from joining NATO, limiting NATO’s future growth, and limiting drills in the region, among others. The US and NATO, as expected, rejected such demands. At the end of the Cold War, some leading American foreign policy intellectuals contended that NATO should never have pushed so close to Russia’s territory in the first place. NATO’s open-door policy, on the other hand, states that members are free to choose their ownsecurity alliances. Accepting Putin’s demands would grant the Kremlin veto power over NATO decision-making and through it, the security of the entire continent.

What is Next? 

For now, diplomacy and counter-measures have done little to change the mood in Russia, and a resolution to this conflict seems difficult to come by. War in Ukraine and a military buildup in Eastern Europe only promise more crises down the road. The rising threat necessitates ongoing discussions about European security and nuclear and conventional arms control, though unfortunately, they appear to be far from reach. As tanks rumble across European borders for the first time in decades, it may be tempting to find hope somewhere. Sadly, that is in short supply. So, right now, it’s time for countries to demonstrate unity and gird themselves to meet the challenges that lie ahead with prudence and resolve.