As you may have already heard, late last month, Russia had begun an invasion of Ukraine. Russia and Ukraine have a complex and deep-rooted history with each other, with both countries tracing their origin to the federation of Kievan Rus’ in the 9th century. The name “Russia” is derived from “Rus”, and the capital of Kiev (or Kyiv in Ukrainian), is Ukraine’s capital to this day. Following the breakup of the federation and its conquest by the Mongols shortly after in the 13th Century, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth eventually gained control of the modern states of Belarus (under Lithuania) and Ukraine (under Poland), resulting in distinct culture and languages for the two nations, as compared to Russia, which was formed from Moscow reclaiming and uniting the eastern remnants of Rus’ from the Mongols. Russia eventually gained control of its fellow Eastern Slavic nations in the 1700s during the partition of Poland, but their distinct culture and language remained.
The origins of this current conflict go all the way back to the founding of the USSR in the 1920’s. During the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, which led to the fall of the Russian Empire and formation of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), the government in Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv, was overthrown, leaving behind a power vacuum. A civil war erupted within Ukraine between those who sought for Ukraine’s independence from Russia, and those who wanted to join in the formation of the Soviet Union. Eventually, the Bolsheviks prevailed and Ukraine became a founding member of the newly formed USSR. As a member of the Soviet Union, Ukraine experienced severe persecution during Stalin’s reign, despite being one of the more prosperous and industrialized members of the federation.
A key term that I’d like to highlight is “Russification”, which is essentially how satellite states within the USSR were forced to assimilate to Russian culture, often at the cost of their own. It could even be described as a form of cultural genocide, which was used as a means of eliminating ethnic minorities such as Ukrainians within the USSR. Ukraine’s Russification was further exacerbated by Russia’s efforts to emigrate and spread its citizens to other states within the USSR, which is why there is such a large ethnically Russian population in Ukraine today. For more overt forms of Russia’s treatment of Ukraine, we can examine the Holodomor famine which took place from 1932-1933. Several countries, including Ukraine itself, classify Holodomor as a genocide planned by Stalin in an effort to curb the Ukrainian population and keep Ukraine dependent and loyal towards Russia.
In spite of these adversities, Ukraine managed to become an independent nation after the dissolution of the USSR in 1991. Russia had previously invaded Ukraine back in 2014, which led to the annexation of Crimea. Russian president Vladimir Putin had believed that Crimea needed to be liberated in order to protect ethnic Russians within the region from far-right extremists, which will be further expanded upon later in this article. This was the result of the ousting of the former Pro-Russian Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, earlier that year, which was perceived as a Western-backed coup by Russia to instil a democratic system similar to that in the USA, thus threatening the autocratic/oligarchical system within Russia. Though Russia and Ukraine were generally on good terms and there was some pro-Russian sentiment within Ukraine before 2014, Crimea’s annexation soured their relationship and simultaneously bolstered Ukrainian nationalism. Though Putin has made claims that Ukrainians and Russians are “one people” in the past, many such as Ukraine’s own current president, Volodymyr Zelensky, rebuked his statements. Furthermore, Putin has refused to acknowledge Ukraine’s status as a legitimate, distinct nation, which is evident in his support for the separatist People’s Republics of Luhansk and Donetsk in Eastern Ukraine.
Another major factor that contributed to Russia’s invasion was Russia’s fears of NATO expansion. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization or NATO was formed in direct opposition to the USSR after WWII. Fearing the growing power of the Soviet Union, many nations joined NATO for protection, as an attack on one of its members would be constituted as an attack on the entire alliance. A major point of contention between NATO and modern Russia is NATO’s promise not to expand further east. After Germany was reunified in 1990 and joined NATO, US secretary, James Baker, promised the Soviet president, Mikhail Gorbachev, that no additional troops or military structures would be deployed into Eastern Germany, specifically (as stated in Article 5 of the Treaty on the Final Settlement with Respect to Germany). Although Putin claims that Russia was a victim of deception by the West and NATO, even Gorbechev himself says that the cessation of NATO expansion was never formally discussed nor listed on any written contract. To be fair to the other side though, Gorbachev further added that NATO’s expansion betrayed the spirit of the deal they made. Nevertheless, Russia feared that if Ukraine were to join NATO, they would lose a precious buffer state between them and the West. Despite applying for membership in NATO, Ukraine’s requests have been denied. One of the more technical reasons for why Ukraine was denied is because of their disputed territories of Crimea, Donetsk, and Luhansk, as ongoing territorial disputes are a barrier to admittance to NATO’s Membership Action Plans.. Informally, however, Ukraine’s proximity and contested territories with Russia could further worsen the West’s relations with Russia, and having Ukraine as a member would necessitate that other members such as the US would have to send troops in and intervene (direct conflict between US and Russian soldiers risks escalating to nuclear warfare).
Briefly, I’d like to discuss the Minsk Agreements which occurred in the aftermath of the war between Russia and Ukraine in 2014. A common talking point by those in support of Russia’s current invasion is that Ukraine is in violation of the Minsk Agreements, but there are several reasons why these arguments are not applicable. The agreements were originally signed by Russia, Ukraine, and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), with the Luhansk and Donetsk People’s Republics (LPR and DPR, respectively) being added to the agreement after it had already been signed by the initial three parties. This undermined Ukraine’s authority and gave undue legitimacy to the LPR and DPR’s claims as separatist nations. Additionally, even after the agreements, Russia did not uphold the contract’s requirements, which include a ceasefire and withdrawal of military forces. Many of the points in the Minsk Agreements were vague and contradictory, which made it difficult for Ukraine to fulfill its requirements without drawing ire from Russia, Ukrainians, or even the LPR and DPR.
Regardless of the outcome of the conflict, Russia has taken severe losses, especially with the hit to its economy as a result of its ban from SWIFT and the freezing of foreign assets. SWIFT, which stands for the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication, is a financial messaging service that effectively allows banks to relay evidence of transactions to one another. This ban dramatically hinders Russia’s ability to mitigate damages caused by other sanctions and isolates them economically. Perhaps, the more serious hit to the Russian economy was the sanctions imposed by the US and European Union. The Russian Central Bank had approximately $643B USD worth of foreign assets and gold, with half of that now being unusable by Russia. The most damning evidence of how severely Russia has been affected by the sanctions is the drop in value of the ruble. At the time of writing, $1 CAD is worth 104 rubles, a huge spike from its worth of 60 rubles before the conflict. In addition, many notable western companies have completely pulled out their operations from Russia, including major tech firms like Microsoft, Intel, AMD, Alphabet, Meta, and Apple. Russia’s response has been to ban most western media and social networks, isolating the country from the rest of the internet.
Although most of the world is in agreement that Russia’s actions in Ukraine are condemnable, it is shocking how flagrantly one-sided and propagandistic the coverage of the invasion has been by Russian state-controlled media and even by Putin himself. Putin has claimed that the invasion into Ukraine is a peacekeeping mission intended towards demilitarizing and denazifying Ukraine and ceasing an alleged genocide of ethnic Russians transporting either the region. Putin’s statements are likely referring to the Azov Battalion, an extremist right wing and neo-Nazi military regiment based within eastern Ukraine. While the ideologies that this group promotes are deplorable, the Azov Battalion is composed of a mere 900 volunteer infantrymen. Putin is attempting to ascribe the actions of a relatively small and politically insignificant faction to the entirety of Ukraine and use that as Justification for their invasion. The term “denazify” is also grossely misleading, as Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is himself of Jewish descent, and had family members killed in the Holocaust. As for his genocide claims, what Putin fails to mention is that the 14,000 killed in Donbas in 2014, includes both Ukrainian and Russian casualties for combatants as well as civilians. While it is still a tragedy that over 3,000 Russian AND Ukrainian civilians died as a result of the past conflict, it is a gross misrepresentation of the facts by Putin to call it a genocide. It might even be more fair to compare Russia’s own actions to those of the Natzis, considering the clear video evidence of war crimes committed on citizens posted on various social media platforms. Putin, and by extension, the Russian government have a clear narrative which they seek to spin this conflict around. Russia recently passed a law that individuals who disseminate false information regarding the conflict can receive a sentence of up to 15 years jail time. But when the war is being lauded as a “peacekeeping mission” by officials, it really calls into question what they could deem as misinformation, and whether this is an attempt to quash dissenting opinions. Unfortunately, this propaganda has been working on many Russians who are unaware of what exactly is happening in Ukraine, including many members of Russia’s army who were unaware of the true purpose of their mission. Some like the hacktivist group Anonymous have been successfully hijacking communication channels in Russia to attempt to spread the truth.
Many in the world were astonished by the resilience of the Ukrainian people and their willingness to take up arms to defend their nation’s independence, when nobody would blame them for wanting to run away. Ukraine’s military has experienced remarkable growth since they were first invaded by Russia in 2014, and resources provided by NATO and other foreign aid have further allowed Ukraine to hold the line against Russia’s forces. While it is highly unlikely that Ukraine will manage to defeat Russia’s full forces, we can only hope that the heavy losses they’ve received from their initial invasion in addition to the strain on their economy caused by the sanctions will force Russia to pull out themselves to lick their wounds.