Over the past month the news has been dominated by one thing: the Ukraine Crisis. Located in eastern Europe, Ukraine, the largest country in Europe, borders Russia to its west. Recently, Russia put 40,000 more troops on the Ukrainian border (making a total of 190,000 troops) and launched a full scale invasion.
Many people wonder why Russia was placing troops on the Ukrainian borders, and now that Russia has invaded Ukraine it is important to understand the story of the two countries’ relationship. Tensions have existed between Ukraine and Russia over the past century, so to get a full picture of the conflict, we need to go back to the first world war, when Ukraine was first becoming a country.
At the beginning of World War I Ukraine, only a territory, was between two large monarchies: Austria Hungary and Russia. Because of this, Ukraine was heavily influenced by its neighbors throughout the 20th century.
During the bolshevik revolution Russia took Ukraine’s land, tried to destroy Ukrainian culture, and established an apartheid-esque system designed to suppress Ukrainian culture. This system did not allow the Ukrainian people to speak their own language, go to Russian universities, or attain the same status as Russians.
At the same time, many Russians migrated to east and south Ukraine for its natural resources and soil. This focused the impact Russia’s culture had on Ukraine more to the east than the west.
Today, Russian influences are still present in Ukraine; 67% of Ukrainians speak Russian. Indeed, in eastern Ukrainian cities, much of the population is Russian. In Donetsk and Luhansk (two territories that the Russian government considered ¨independent¨ of Ukraine) Russians make up ⅓ of the population (1 million people).
Over time, heavy Russian influence stunted Ukraine’s nationalist identity, creating a cultural divide between eastern and western Ukraine which is still the source of conflict today.
The other monarchy that impacted Ukraine´s identity was the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Unlike Russia, which was a communist monarchy, the Austro-Hungarian Empire was a dual monarchy, combining the Austrian Empire and the Habsburg Monarchy. In a dual monarchy one king rules over two kingdoms that share the same foreign policy and customs; Austria Hungary made each territory autonomous with their own constitution, government and parliament.
Before WWI, the Hungarian Empire controlled a large part of western Ukraine. During that time, people western Ukraine had a higher quality of life and more opportunities than those in eastern Ukraine controlled by Tsarist Russia.
Western Ukrainian peasants benefited from the limitations of personal bondage and new agricultural technologies. They experienced the progressive ideals that came out of western European governments during this time.
Because of the Hungary empire, west Ukraine was introduced to enlightenment ideals much earlier than the east. Today, western Ukraine is still more influenced by western European culture than eastern Ukraine.
Ukraine was officially founded on August 24, 1991 after the collapse of the Soviet Union. During that time it was said that 90% of Ukraininas agreed with their decision to become independent. However, it’s also important to note that some areas of Ukraine—like Crimea, which is in eastern Ukraine—only 56% of people approved of independence.
Regardless,Ukraine’s transition to independence was smooth; Ukraine helped with the formal disbanding of the Soviet Union and elected Leonoid Kravchuk as their first president in December of 1991.
Under its first two presidents, Ukraine dug itself into an economic hole that it has since not been able to get out of.
During Kravchuk’s presidency from 1991 to 1994, Ukraine’s economy dropped by more than 30%, creating hyper inflation and decreasing exports. His successor Leonid Kuchma, who served from 1994 to 2005, did not fare better. Kuchma was known for corruption within his cabinet and making no meaningful effort to improve the economy.
Around the time of Ukraine’s denuclearization, Russia was growing wary of western powers. Since the beginning of the Cold War, Russia had been determined to stand up to western forces and NATO. This is the basic context to Ukraine’s current conflict with Russia.
Now, Russia’s invasion can be broken into three parts: the West, Russia, and Ukraine.
Before Russia started moving troops into Ukraine on February 23, NATO had been trying to de-escalate the situation, while also taking necessary steps to defend European nations from a Russian attack.
In earlier negotiations, NATO and Russia were at a crossroads over international policy, specifically, NATO ‘s policy of welcoming additional member countries. Ukraine could have potentially joined NATO at some point in the future.
Russia does not want this for two reasons. First, because it feels threatened by western countries. It believes that Ukraine joining NATO would have a domino effect and lead other countries nearby to follow suit. This would lead Russia to being surrounded by countries allied against it.
Last week and since the start of Russia’s invasion, NATO has been placing sanctions on Russian industries and officials. These sanctions stop Russia from investing in the West and ban high ranking Russian officials from traveling in Europe. The goal of the sanctions is to hurt the Russian economy and pressure Putin to leave Ukraine.
In addition to negotiating with and placing sanctions on Russia, Western powers have been sending supplies to Ukraine. In December 2021, the U.S. sent rifles, anti-artillery weapons, mines and ammunition to Ukraine.
Moreover, the U.S. has spent over 2 billion dollars on Ukrainian military development since 2014 when Russia annexed Crimea. Despite this, U.S. government officials believe these provisions will only slow down Russia’s nearly 200,000 troops.
Russia, which has now launched a full scale military operation in Ukraine, has initiated the largest land grab in the past half century.
Russia had been slowly gathering troops and artillery across the Ukrainian border; now there are around 190,000 Russian troops around Ukraine’s borders and the invasion has begun.
Russia has a couple reasons for invading. In addition to being scared of the West, Russia sees a lot of potential in Ukraine. Occupying Ukraine would give Russia “border states” between them and Western powers, serving as a buffer between the West and their own borders.
Furthermore, Russia believes it has a claim to Ukrainian territory because it used to be part of the Soviet Union.
This is not the first time Russia has used this argument to justify taking territory. In 2014 Russia annexed Crimea under the claim that it was more Russian in population and culture and therefore deserved to be controlled by Russia. Even today, Putin recognizes Luhansk and Donetsk as independent nations, justifying his own ambition to govern these areas.
Putin has strong ties to the old Soviet Union. He was a KGB operative before the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Putin views the collapse of the USSR as a massive loss for Russia. The economy shrank and many Russian citizens (like those living in Ukraine) were displaced.
Putin himself said that he had to work as a taxi driver to survive. Because of this, Putin considers Ukraine to rightfully belong to Russia.
In Ukraine, citizens are either leaving or preparing to defend themselves. Since the start of bombings early Wednsday, Febuary 23, Ukrainians have been running to their cars and bus stops in hopes of leaving the country west.
Gas stations and ATM lines are swelling and panic fills the air. The frenzy is caused by Ukranians caught off guard by how quickly Russia pulled the trigger on invasion.
Many Ukranians who had planned to stay have left in fear of approaching artillery strikes. On the other hand, some Ukranians still plan to stay and defend their country.
In the weeks leading up to the invasion, Ukrainians have been buying weapons and ammunition to defend themselves.
Ukrainian defense minister, Oleksiy Rexnikov, called on Ukrainian citizens to take up arms and join defense units where they can, and President of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky, said Ukraine is ready to defend themselves against the Russian invasion.
Regardless, for a country and region that has been a pawn of larger powers throughout its history, it seems that all Ukraine can hope to do is come together in solidarity and stay strong.