After months of tension and escalation between Russia and Ukraine, with more than 150,000 soldiers, equipped with armored vehicles deployed on the border, and reports of exchanges of fire between Ukrainians and pro-Russian rebels in the Donbas region, Moscow has finally invaded: it announced on 24 February the start of special military operations in Ukraine.
Days earlier, Vladimir Putin, President of Russia, had recognized the separatist territories in Ukraine – Donetsk and Luhansk, controlled by pro-Russian rebels since 2014 – and announced the sending of soldiers to Donbas, further fueling tensions.
Since then, Russia has intensified attacks against civilians in Ukraine, and according to the UN, there are more than 500 dead. The war has unleashed a humanitarian crisis of great proportions.
But why did Russia decide to invade Ukraine?
The situation has political, historical and strategic edges. This is a look at each of them.
The tense history between Ukraine and Russia
The history of Ukraine and Russia is intertwined and goes back at least to the Middle Ages, in the context of Kievan Rus, an East Slavic state. But both evolved separately, each having a language and culture, starting from a common root.
Beginning in the 17th century, large portions of the Ukraine became part of the growing Russian Empire. While in the 20th century, with the exception of a brief period of independence in 1917, Ukraine was incorporated into the Soviet Union.
Lasting independence finally came in 1991, after the dissolution of the USSR, and from then on, Ukraine looked to Europe and its interest in belonging to NATO, the US-led military alliance that had clashed during the war. Cold to the Warsaw Pact, led by the USSR.
Meanwhile, many in Moscow see Ukraine’s history as still intertwined with Russia.
In July 2021, Putin himself said in a long essay that Russians and Ukrainians were “one people”. He also pointed out that the West had corrupted Ukraine and taken it out of Russia’s orbit through a “forced change of identity.”
Crimea and Donbas, centers of the crisis
In 2013, a historic political and trade agreement between Ukraine and the European Union strained relations with Russia. Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych called off the talks — apparently under pressure from Moscow — and violent protests erupted in Kyiv for weeks.
The escalation culminated in the most direct antecedent of the current crisis: the annexation of Crimea, a peninsula that is part of the independent Ukraine in 1991, by Russia in 2014. To justify it, Russia claimed that it was defending its interests and those of the Russian-speaking citizens in Crimea, a region with strong loyalties to Russia.
Months later, pro-Russian rebels rose up in the Donbass region of eastern Ukraine, sparking a civil war in the region that continues to this day and pits the Ukrainian government against the self-proclaimed Russian-backed people’s republics of Donetsk and Luhansk -who considers themselves its protector-, who on Monday recognized its independence, eight years later.
The expansion of NATO after the fall of the USSR
Moscow insists that it is not seeking a war and that the responsibility for the crisis rests with NATO, although the United States and its allies have said that the authorship of the crisis belongs to Russia.
“They have blatantly deceived us. Five waves of NATO expansion. And there it is: now they are in Romania and Poland, with weapons systems,” Putin said in December, assuring Russia “does not want military action.” “We ask directly that there be no further moves by NATO to the east. The ball is in their court.”
Former Warsaw Pact members Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Bulgaria, Romania, and Albania joined NATO between the late 20th and early 21st centuries. While East Germany also became part of the alliance after reunification in 1990.
On the other hand, the Baltic countries Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia, independent from the USSR in 1991, joined NATO in 2004.
Jens Stoltenberg, NATO Secretary General, said in late January that countries have “the right to choose their own security arrangements,” referring to NATO membership in recent years, and that “Russia must refrain from adopting postures based on coercive force, aggressive rhetoric”.
What do Russia and NATO accuse each other of?
Putin accuses NATO of violating the Founding Act of Mutual Relations, Cooperation and Security between NATO and Russia, signed in 1997 as a reference framework between both parties after the fall of the USSR, by deploying “offensive weapons systems on the borders of Russia”, specifically in Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia and Poland.
NATO instead points out that it has complied with the Founding Act, committing itself not to deploy permanent military forces in the new members without nuclear weapons, two of the pillars of the agreement, and instead accuses Moscow of non-compliance.
The 4,500 soldiers deployed in Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia and Poland are “rotating and defensive forces”, according to NATO, and arrived in reaction to the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014.
“By signing the NATO-Russia Founding Act, Russia undertook not to threaten or use force against NATO Allies or against any other State. It has broken this commitment, with the illegal and illegitimate annexation of Crimea, territory of a State sovereign. Russia also continues to support militants in eastern Ukraine,” the Alliance said in an official statement.
Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky has in recent days reiterated his call for NATO to declare a no-fly zone over the country.
Political changes in Ukraine
After gaining independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, Ukraine has had strained relations with Russia, which began to worsen in the early 2000s.
In 2004, Russian-backed candidate and former prime minister Viktor Yanukovych defeated pro-Western opponent Viktor Yushchenko and won the presidential election amid accusations of fraud.
A wave of demonstrations advanced throughout the country. The so-called “Orange Revolution”, because of the color used by the protesters and Yushchenko’s campaign, shook the country, and the Supreme Court ordered a repeat election, in which Yushchenko won this time.
Yanukovych was finally elected president in 2010 -Yushchenko obtained only 5% of the vote-, and in 2013 he abandoned plans to bring Ukraine to the European Union due to pressure from Russia, after which a new wave of protests began.
In February 2014, the Ukrainian parliament voted to remove Yanukovych from the presidency, and acting president Oleksandr Turchynov took over. Soon after, Russia annexed Crimea and the conflict in Donbas began.
Petro Poroshenko was elected president in 2014 and ruled until 2019, when current president Volodymyr Zelensky took over. Both are considered pro-Western and anti-Moscow.
In this context, a regime change in Ukraine is seen as one of the Kremlin’s possible goals.
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