On February 24th of this year, Russia began its full-scale invasion of Ukraine. It was shocking to be sure, but hardly surprising. Tensions between Russia and Ukraine have been escalating for years.
Russian-Ukraine Relations Before 2014
While it is common to offhandedly to refer to the Soviet Union and Russia as interchangeable states, it is not accurate. Russia was a part of the Soviet Union and undoubtedly the largest part, but it wasn’t actually the only nation in the confederation. It consisted of 15 other nations, including Ukraine. So when the iron curtain in Europe fell and the Soviet Union was disbanded in 1991, Ukraine became its own independent state with a vote of 90%.
When Ukraine first became independent, it was supportive of Russia and allied itself closely with the government. Many Ukrainians speak Russian and have Russian roots due to decades of integration. However, since the 1990s, Ukraine has been inching ever closer to the West and potentially joining the European Union. However, after 2014, the Ukrainian opinion of joining the European Union and the West skyrocketed in popularity.
Crimea & Fighting in Donbas
In 2014, Ukraine ousted a pro-Russian president from power and replaced him with someone who favored the West. This was the catalyst for Russia annexing Crimea, under the guise of claiming that the citizens in the region belonged to Russia. Since then, there has been fighting in Donbas where Ukraine and Russia have been fighting since 2015. Until February 24th, most of the fighting had been contained in that region. Then Putin decided to escalate the conflict by invading the entire region with the help of Belarus in a last-ditch effort to gain back control of the region.
How Does NATO fit into all this?
The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) is a security organization that was originally created as a response to the increasing power of the Soviet Union after World War II. Since then, NATO has come to represent the West; all western nations (the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, France etc) are in the organization. Ukraine is essentially working to make itself more “Western” by wanting to align itself with NATO. This, in turn, threatens Russia’s sense of stability.
Russia has a fear of being attacked by the West and of Western invasion. Putin, specifically, wanted to return Russia to pre-1991 power and reestablish a Russian empire. In Putin’s worldview, “the West promised back in 1990 would [not] expand” but the joining of 14 former communist states betrayed that trust. This implies a sense of entitlement over its former allies that is founded; the West did not take these states away from Russia. They joined NATO out of their own volition.
Currently, Ukraine is trying to fast-track join NATO in an attempt to gain support in the war effort. President Zelensky has not been shy in his desire to support NATO nor has other Eastern European countries. How that will unfold has yet to be seen as of March 9th. While NATO supports Ukraine, it is difficult to say for certain if Ukraine will join NATO.
In short, tensions between Russia and Ukraine have been escalating for years now. With the current conflict, it is easy to find social media posts praising Zelensky and decrying the effort of Putin’s war efforts. No one can truly say how the war will play out, but however it does, it seems unlikely this will end any time soon.
Written by Claudia Piwowarczyk
“Why has Russia invaded Ukraine and what does Putin want?” by Paul Kirby of the BBC
“What You Need to Know About Russia and Ukraine’s Complicated Relationship” by Macy Alcido, Rashaan Ayesh, Maria McCallen, and Kamini Ramdeen-Chowdhury of the Skimm’
“How Ukraine views Russia and the West” by Steven Pifer of Brookings
“Relations with Ukraine” from the NATO website
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