On February 24, the world watched as Russia invaded its neighbouring country, Ukraine. Today is the 51st day of Russian invasion. Once tied together by the Soviet Union, how did the two countries get to this point?
Following are the significant events that led to the formation of the Ukraine and present crisis.
Following the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, Ukraine and Russia continued to retain close ties. In 1994, Ukraine agreed to abandon its nuclear arsenal and signed the Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances on the condition that Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States would issue an assurance against threats or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of Ukraine. Five years later, Russia was one of the signatories of the Charter for European Security, where it “reaffirmed the inherent right of each and every participating State to be free to choose or change its security arrangements, including treaties of alliance, as they evolve”.
December 1, 1991: Ukraine Becomes Independent
Following the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, Ukraine voted for independence. The Ukrainian people overwhelmingly supported becoming a sovereign state. Ukraine is the second-largest country in Europe by land mass and has a sizable population of ethnic Russians.
December 5, 1994: The Budapest Memorandum was Signed
In 1994, Ukraine agreed to abandon its nuclear arsenal and signed the Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances on the condition that Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States would issue an assurance against threats or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of Ukraine. Five years later, Russia was one of the signatories of the Charter for European Security, where it “reaffirmed the inherent right of each and every participating State to be free to choose or change its security arrangements, including treaties of alliance, as they evolve”.
November – December 2004: The Orange Revolution Overturns Election Results
A presidential election between Viktor Yushchenko, a western-oriented candidate, and Viktor Yanukovych, who Russia supported, created a massive controversy. Yushchenko was mysteriously poisoned before the election but was able to recover. Yanukovych was declared victorious, but the election was widely seen as fraudulent. Ukrainians took to the street wearing orange, Yushchenko’s campaign colour. By December, protestors were able to force a re-vote, resulting in a victory for Yushchenko.
April 3, 2008: Russia Fights Ukrainian NATO Membership
Despite being a recognized independent country since 1991, as a former USSR constituent republic, Ukraine had been perceived by the leadership of Russia as being part of its sphere of influence.
In early April of 2008, a NATO summit began with an intense debate about extending a Membership Action Plan (MAP) to Ukraine. NATO is a military alliance between 28 European countries and two North American countries dedicated to preserving peace and security in the North Atlantic area. A prerequisite to a member of NATO, a country must first have a MAP. However, NATO did not offer Ukraine a MAP.
Putin made his opposition to Ukrainian membership known to NATO leaders, allegedly telling President George W. Bush that Ukraine is “not even a real nation-state.”
November 2013 to February 2014: Euromaidan Protests Sudden Prompt Change in Government
Following weeks of protests as part of the Euromaidan movement (2013–2014), pro-Russian Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych and the leaders of the Ukrainian parliamentary opposition on 21 February 2014 signed a settlement agreement that called for an early election. The following day, Yanukovych fled from Kyiv ahead of an impeachment vote that stripped him of his powers as president. Leaders of the Russian-speaking eastern regions of Ukraine declared continuing loyalty to Yanukovych, causing the 2014 pro-Russian unrest in Ukraine.
This unrest, fomented by Russia as part of a coordinated political and military campaign against Ukraine Amidst that Russia invaded and subsequently annexed Crimea in March 2014, followed by the War in Donbas, which started in April 2014 with the creation of the Russia-backed quasi-states of the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics. The Minsk agreements allowed the fighting to subside in Donbas, leaving separatists in control of about a third of the region. This stalemate led to the war being labelled a “frozen conflict”.
February 2014 to March 2014: Russia Seized Crimea, Creating International Outrage
Russia seized Crimea, a Ukrainian peninsula with a predominantly ethnic Russian population, after the Euromaidan protests. Russian troops occupied vital sites on the foreland, wearing military uniforms with Russian insignias removed. The annexation prompts international outrage and is condemned by the United Nations and the European Union.
April 21, 2019: Volodymyr Zelenskyy Elected President of Ukraine
In a presidential election, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, a former comedian, overwhelmingly defeated the pro-Russia incumbent Petro Poroshenko. Zelenskyy’s party also won a majority of seats in the parliament – this was a first in Ukrainian history. Zelenskyy’s campaign promises included ending the war with Russia and rooting out corruption from the Ukrainian government.
December 2021: Putin Demands Security Guarantees
Early in 2021, Zelenskyy cracked down on pro-Russian Ukrainian oligarchs, including Viktor Medvedchuk, a close friend of Putin. Subsequently, Putin deployed increasing numbers of troops near the Ukrainian border and published an article claiming that Russians and Ukrainians are “one people.” By December, tens of thousands of Russian troops were deployed to the frontier, and Putin issued demands to NATO and the United States. Among these demands is that Ukraine never is admitted to NATO – a request rejected by the Biden administration.
February 21, 2022: Russia Recognizes Breakaway Ukrainian Regions as Sovereign
In 2014, the Ukrainian regions of Donetsk and Luhansk broke away from Ukraine under the leadership of what the Ukrainian government considered to be Russian-backed terrorists. Following the breakdown of relations with NATO and the West in late February, Putin recognized these territories as independent states and sent troops to “keep the peace.”
February 24, 2022: Russia Launched Full-Scale Invasion of Ukraine
Days after recognizing the breakaway territories, Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine. The attack began in the eastern Ukrainian part of Donbas. Zelenskyy declared martial law in Ukraine and officially broke diplomatic ties with Russia. The entire world, including part of Russia, widely condemned Putin’s actions.
Why Did Russia Invade Ukraine?
Experts say the cause of the military conflict can be tied to a complicated history, Russia’s tensions with NATO, and the ambitions of Vladimir Putin.
Predictions of a full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine came true in the early morning hours of Feb. 24.
Russia had amassed up to 190,000 troops – according to reports from the U.S. – on Ukraine’s borders for many months. The build-up of forces around Russia’s neighbor and former Soviet Union state started in late 2021 and escalated earlier this year.
Before the invasion, Russian President Vladimir Putin recognized the Russian-backed breakaway regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, both located in the disputed Donbas area, as “independent” people’s republics and ordered so-called “peacekeeping” troops into those areas.
What started as a concerning situation but surrounded by hopes for dialogue and diplomacy has evolved into what the Ukrainian foreign minister described as the “most blatant act of aggression in Europe since” World War II.
In the last century, Ukraine, known as the breadbasket of Europe, was one of the most populous and powerful republics in the former USSR and an agricultural staple until it declared independence in 1991, according to the Council on Foreign Relations. But Russia has since kept a close eye on its neighbour to the West. In contrast, Ukrainians have found their independence tumultuous at times, with periods of protests and government corruption.
Ukraine’s ambitions to align itself more with Western countries – including its publicly stated interest in joining NATO, which was founded at least in part to deter Soviet expansion – have been met with aggression from Russia, the council notes.
Tensions came to a head in 2014 after Ukrainians ousted a Russia-aligned president. Russia – annexed the Crimea region of Ukraine under the dubious claim of protecting ethnic Russians and Russian speakers from Ukrainian persecution –widely condemned by the international community.
What does Russia want when it comes to Ukraine?
A principal demand of Russia is to prevent Ukraine from joining NATO, a military alliance between 28 European countries and two North American countries dedicated to preserving peace and security in the North Atlantic area. The former Soviet state is just a few countries in Eastern Europe that aren’t members of the alliance. The Kremlin, in general, views NATO expansion as a “fundamental concern.”
It’s noteworthy, however, that NATO likely has “no intention right now” to admit Ukraine to the organization, says William Pomeranz, the acting director of the Kennan Institute at the Wilson Center, a non-partisan policy forum for global issues.
“I think NATO, and the invitation for Ukraine to join NATO is simply just a pretext to invade Ukraine potentially,” he says, referring to Russia. “Ukraine is not a member of NATO, it doesn’t have any of the NATO guarantees, so there is no hint that Ukraine will become a member of NATO soon.”
Putin is against Ukraine joining NATO, not out of any moral agreement, but he believes in the ‘might make the right’ model. Some Russians, Putin included, remain aggrieved by the collapse of the USSR and feel Russia has a claim to the former Soviet republic.
“He believes, ‘Hey, Ukraine, I’m more powerful than you, and because I’m more powerful than you, I can tell you what to do and with whom to associate,'” Bowman says.
Beyond the concern around NATO and other demands related to weapons and transparency, Russia’s nature of expansion is also at play towards Ukraine.