Russia-Ukraine Conflict Intensifies | What You Need to Know

Amidst the convoluted news headlines and social media posts, it is beneficial to dig into the deep-rooted history of this foreign affair in order to understand the events unfolding before us and ask the important question: How did we arrive at this pivotal moment?


Vadim Ghirda, Associated Press

Ukrainian servicemen sit atop armored personnel carriers driving on a road in the Donetsk region, eastern Ukraine, on Thursday, Feb. 24, 2022. | Vadim Ghirda, Associated Press

After months of military preparation and fruitless diplomatic efforts, Russian forces on February 24 carried out an assault on Ukraine as a part of what Russian President Vladimir Putin calls a “special military operation”. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, in a video recorded outside of his office in Kyiv, responded, “Our weapons are our truth; it’s our country, our children, and we will protect them.”

As Russian ground forces encroach on the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv, the situation is the most critical that it has been in the country’s history since its independence from the Soviet Union on August 24, 1991.

A Ukrainian Army soldier inspects fragments of a downed aircraft in Kyiv, Ukraine, Friday, Feb. 25, 2022. It was unclear what aircraft crashed and what brought it down amid the Russian invasion in Ukraine. | Associated Press, Vadim Zamirovsky

Ukraine is in a quandary, with Russian and Russian-backed separatists challenging Ukraine’s validity as an independent and sovereign state. “Ukraine has never had its own authentic statehood,” claims Vladimir Putin in a televised speech to his nation. But amidst the convoluted news headlines and social media posts, it is beneficial to dig into the deep-rooted history of this foreign affair in order to understand the events unfolding before us and understand how we got to this pivotal moment.


The collapse of the Soviet Union (1991)

The Soviet Union was once a dominant and formidable global superpower during its existence from 1922 to 1991. Covering an area of over 22 million square kilometers, the Soviet state was made up of 14 republics, including Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus. On August 24, 1991, Ukraine officially declared itself an independent country from the Soviet Union. Ukraine’s decision to declare independence was soon formalized when a referendum was called by the Parliament of Ukraine. This referendum was met with an overwhelming 90% of Ukrainians voting for independence, and 56% of people voting for independence in Crimea, a predominantly Russian ethnic region of Ukraine.

Ukrainians waving their national flag rally for independence in Kyiv in September 1991, during the dying days of the Soviet Union. | Associated Press

However, the fall of the Soviet Union and the wake of the Cold War still left a massive amount of nuclear weaponry sprinkled around post-Soviet states. This left Ukraine with the third-largest nuclear arsenal in the world, having around 1,900 nuclear warheads. This prompted then United States President, George H. W. Bush, to take action in ensuring the fall of the Soviet Union did not create tension in these nuclear-armed states. Carrying on into the Clinton Administration, an agreement was formed, known as the Budapest Memorandum. The agreement required Ukraine to give up its stockpile of nuclear warheads and in return be granted compensation and the commitment of the United States, The United Kingdom, and Russia to guarantee the security and independence of Ukraine as a sovereign state.


Ukrainian Revolution & The Annexation of Crimea (2004-2014)

As temperatures continue to fall, demonstrating on the streets is becoming more challenging. | BBC

The 2004 Ukrainian election prompted a dramatic turn of events when Viktor Yanukovych, backed by the former Ukrainian president, Leonid Kuchma, and Russian President Vladimir Putin were pitted against the pro-democracy leader, Viktor Yuschenko. Protests and public outcry rang through the nation as Russian-supported candidate, Viktor Yanukovych, won the election despite accusations and reports of electoral fraud. The protest ensued by the election results became what is known as the Orange Revolution, signifying the color of Viktor Yushchenko’s political campaign. It was only after a third vote that Yushchenko prevailed. In January 2005, he took office as president alongside Yulia Tymoshenko as prime minister.

A predominant reason for Yushchenko’s support from the people of Ukraine was because he vowed to eliminate Russian corruption and, like many other post-soviet states, seek NATO membership to further reinforce the sovereignty of Ukraine. In January 2008, Yushchenko and Tymoshenko began efforts to bring Ukraine into NATO, and after a formal request, Ukraine was granted a MAP (membership action plan), which is the first step in joining the NATO alliance. This process came to a halt, however, after Russia voiced its opposition to Ukraine’s NATO alliance. Although there are quite a few reasons for Russia’s displeasure with a Ukraine-NATO alliance, a big factor has to do with the presence of oil and natural gas in Ukraine, as well as the cumbersome position of NATO frontlines.

February of 2010 saw a return of Viktor Yanukovych with claims that Ukraine should be a “neutral state”, stating that Ukraine should cooperate with both Russia and the European Union. It wasn’t until 2014 that conflicts fired up again when Yanukovych ditched his plans to sign Ukraine into a trade agreement with the European Union. Although Yaukovuch blamed pressure from Russia for his sudden switch, mass protests ignited across the nation, reminiscent of those of the Orange Revolution. Protesters gathered at Independence Square in Kyiv, pushing for the resignation of Yanukovych. These protests are now considered the bloodiest day in Ukraine’s history since its independence from The Soviet Union with more than 100 protesters, civilians, and police officers dead.

State flag of Ukraine behind a wall of anonymous protesters in Kyiv, Ukraine. Events of February 18, 2014. |

This intense backlash from protesters prompted Yanukovych to flee to Russia just days before his impeachment was set to occur on February of 2014. This resulted in the removal of Yanukovych and the installment of an interim government, a form of government that served as a placeholder in an instance of transition of government. Vladimir Putin, opposed to this decision, claimed that Ukraine’s actions were an “illegal coup”. At this point, Ukraine was in a state of instability whilst undergoing a governmental revolution. This vulnerability caused Putin to send in armed Russian forces to the Crimean Peninsula.

With a population of 2.4 million people, Crimea’s ethnic population is mostly Russian. When Russian forces ultimately took control over the territory, The Crimean Parliament decided to secede from Ukraine. In fact, 97% of voters supported the Russian-backed secession of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014. With just around 25,000 Ukrainian Military personnel evacuated from Crimea, Vladimir Putin formally signed to make Crimea a part of Russia on March 21, 2014.


The Minsk Agreement (September 2014 – February 2015)

With Crimea in the hands of Russian forces, thousands of Russian troops gathered at the easter border of Ukraine, an area known as the Dombas Region. This caused massive outbreaks of violence with Ukrainian forces clashing with Russian and Russian-backed separatist forces.  14,000 people have been confirmed dead since the conflicts in Donbas first originated. On September 5, 2014 representatives from Russia, Ukraine, France, and Germany met in Belarus to discuss the actions needed to end the conflict in Donbas. They signed what is known as the Minsk Agreement, a cease-fire. The efforts of the Minsk Agreement were to no avail, however, since the violence between Russia and Ukraine continued. In 2015, a second attempt to ease the tensions at the Ukrainian border was made when the Minsk group mets again in Belarus to discuss the Minsk II Agreement. Much like the agreement before it, Minsk II seemed to have no impact on the ongoing violence at Ukraine’s eastern border.


Russia has been building its presence at Ukraine’s eastern border since 2014. Ukraine had also undergone full-scale cyber-warfare involving damages to its critical infrastructure. These attacks stemmed from the annexation of Crimea in 2014 and promoted Ukraine’s interests in involvement with NATO and the EU in recent years. In 2019, Ukraine elected Volodymyr Zelensky, Ukraine’s current president, who has since repeatedly expressed his intentions to strengthen involvement in the West. With concerns of Ukraine’s involvement with NATO, Putin sent about 100,000 troops to Ukraine’s borders in April of 2021. Ever since then, analysts have insisted that an invasion of Ukraine was imminent. This turned out to be true because, on Thursday, February 24, 2022, Russia did just that. This is the largest military operation in  Europe since World War II. Missiles rain down on Ukrainian cities with Russian forces advancing on several fronts. The citizens of Ukraine are now taking matters into their hands, arming all men over the age of 18 to fight on the front lines. Civilians are doing all that they can, going as far as making homemade Molotov cocktails.

It is difficult to know what comes next for Ukraine. With the rise of misinformation and fear-mongering propaganda that exist in our society, the best thing that we can do is stay informed. The intricate history of Ukraine is now more relevant than ever. The first step to ending violence in foreign countries is understanding how it begins.