Your Guide To The Ukraine-Russia Conflict

As of early 2022, Russia has been increasing its military presence along the Ukrainian border. Here is your guide to the history and importance of Ukraine and Russia, and the conflict between two countries.

Wedged between Russia and Europe, Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union until 1991. Since then, it has been a less-than-perfect democracy with a weak economy and shifting foreign policy agenda, wavering between pro-European and pro-Russian.

Internal Ukrainian conflict came to a boiling point  in November of 2013, when President Viktor Yanukovych rejected a deal for greater integration with the European Union, sparking mass protests. Yanukovych attempted to stop these protests using violence. Russia backed Yanukovych, while the United States and Europe supported Ukrainian protestors.

2013 and 2014 were pivotal years, as so many important events unfolded, including anti-government protests toppling the country, running Yanukovych out of the country in 2014, Russia invading and annexing Crimea, and pro-Russia separatist rebels seizing territory in Eastern Ukraine.

Ukraine-Russia conflict
Lviv, Ukraine. Photo by Andriyko Podilnyk on Unsplash

Today, a similar climate has emerged. Unpredictable Russian President, Vladimir V. Putin amassing thousands of troops on the border of Ukraine, with the imminent threat of invasion. This situation has only intensified, when President Biden announced that the United States was considering deploying thousands of U.S. troops, as well as warships and aircrafts, to NATO allies in the Baltics and Eastern Europe.

Russia has mobilized about 100,000 troops, and the United States has disclosed intelligence showing Russia has a war plan envisioning an invasion force of 175,000 troops. Ukraine’s military, despite U.S.-provided resources and training, would have little ability to stop this.

Russia has made a list of demands, including that NATO pledge to halt further eastward expansion and agree to not admit Ukraine as a member, however, the U.S. has already called those positions unacceptable. Russian officials have insisted that Moscow has no plans to invade Ukraine, rather the troop buildup is for exercises.

Ukraine Crisis Explained

As mentioned, tensions between Ukraine and Russia have been boiling since 2013 and 2014, when Ukraine ran out its pro-Russian president and the Russian military crossed into Ukrainian territory, annexing Crimea, and fomenting a rebellion in Eastern Ukraine.

Ceasefire was reached in 2015, however, peace has been elusive amid a war that has killed more than 13,00 civilians and soldiers.

What is Crimea?

Since 2014, Crimea is considered by most of the world to be a region of Ukraine that is under Russian occupation. Russia considers it a rightful and historical region of Russia that it helped to liberate in March of 2014.

Geographically, Crimea is a peninsula in the Black Sea. Its location is strategically so important, hence why it has been fought over for centuries.

Since Ukraine’s independence in 1991, up through February 2014, Crimea was a Ukrainian region that had autonomy and large Russian military bases. Crucially, it spent a long time before 1991 as part of the Soviet Union and the Russian Empire, and most of its citizens are Russians.

Siege of a Russian naval base at Sevastopol in Crimea
Siege of a Russian naval base at Sevastopol in Crimea. Wikipedia

In late February 2014, a few days after Yanukovych was ousted from power, bands of armed gunmen began seizing government buildings in Crimea. The bands of gunmen grew, later being proved they were Russian military forces, who brought the entire peninsula under military occupation.

On March 16, 2014, Crimeans voted for their region to become part of Russia. The U.S. and European Union imposed economic sanctions on Russia to punish Moscow, but Crimea remains under Russian military occupation.

Who was Yanukovych?

Viktor Yanukovych was elected Ukraine’s president in 2010. Yanukovych is pro-Russian and had a reputation for corruption. In 2004, mass protests after Yanukovych won a presidential election under widespread suspicion of fraud broke out, most notably known as the “Orange Revolution.”

Viktor Yanukovych during the Orange Revolution
Viktor Yanukovych during the Orange Revolution. Wikipedia

The protests during the Orange Revolution” succeeded in blocking Yanukovych from taking office, but he ran again in 2010 and won legitimately.

Ukrainian East and West Divide

Since declaring its independence in 1991, Ukraine has been divided. This divide usually refers to language. About two-thirds of Ukrainians speak Ukrainian as their native language, mostly in the West, and about one-third of citizens are native Russian speakers, mostly in the East.

The language divide is much more convoluted than that, however, as it is a complicated political and ideological division.

Based on research conducted by Vox, people in the West of Ukraine tend to regard Russia with suspicion, see themselves as European and want to break away from Russia’s orbit in order to join Europe. Protests were much larger in this area, and in every election, this half of the country voted overwhelmingly for pro-European political candidates.

The Eastern half of the country has overwhelmingly voted in favor of political candidates who are much more pro-Russian, including Yanukovych. The East tends to look more fondly on Russia and see its two countries are historically linked.

What is important to note is that Ukraine’s present borders are fairly new compared to its historical ties to Russia.

That line started blurring in the 1700s, when Russian leader Catherine the Great, began a process of “Russifying” Ukraine, which continued through the 1950s. This included sending in Russians, imposing laws that required schools to teach Russian rather than the Ukrainian language, and stationing Russian troops in the area.

Catherine the Great on the balcony in 1762 during a political coup
Catherine the Great on the balcony in 1762 during a political coup. Wikipedia

In the 1930s, Soviet leader Josef Stalin caused a famine in Ukraine that killed several million Ukrainians – mostly in the east. He then repopulated the area with Russians. In the 1940s, Stalin forcibly relocated the native population of Crimea, to repopulate Russians as well.

For much of this process, Russia focused on the east, which has some of the most fertile farmland on earth. Ukraine’s linguistic divide matches up almost perfectly with the line between its farmland in the east and forestland in the west as well.

The effect of this history has caused internal battles within this country. Many Ukrainians want nothing to do with Russia, but there is also a significant number of citizens whose families have substantial connections to Russia.

This national identity crisis has been centuries in the making and continues to exacerbate conflicts today.

Lily Adami

Content Editor Associate

Having a silly and hard-working personality, Lily loves getting to know people and is passionate about human rights around the world. She is enthusiastic about other cultures, history, and international affairs. Lily has a deep appreciation for traveling, her favorite places include: Amsterdam, Amalfi Coast, and South Africa.

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