March 27, 2023

The crisis between Ukraine and Russia, despite several diplomatic attempts, resulted in an invasion by Moscow’s troops. Russian President Vladimir Putin gave the dawn invasion order on Thursday 24 February, after — on Monday 21 — he had ordered the entry of troops into the separatist regions of Donbass. But what are the causes of this crisis? What is at the root of this war?

Why did Russia start the war in Ukraine? It is the question that, with the start of the military operation, those who do not constantly follow international politics are asking themselves. To understand why, it is obviously necessary to take a step back.

What is the origin of the conflict between Russia and Ukraine?

In February 2014, after months of protests, the Ukrainian people ousted the pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovich, who did not want to sign the Treaty of Association between Ukraine and the European Union, establishing a pro-European interim government not recognized by Moscow. The clashes of the Maidan revolution caused about 130 deaths ago demonstrators and police officers (here the photos of the attack).

Vladimir Putin has responded by annexing Crimea and encouraging the revolt of pro-Russian separatists in the Donbass region in the southeast of the country.
Since then the conflict has remained low intensity, but in eight years it has caused about 14,000 deaths between both sides.

Today the younger generations are pushing Ukraine towards Europe, and even the current president Volodymyr Zelensky — elected in 2019 — is close to the West.

The conflict, however, has older and deeper roots (which we will explore later). The Russian president believes that his country has a “historic right” over Ukraine, which was part of the Soviet Union until the collapse of 1991 : he also wrote openly in a long article published last year, in which he defines Russia and Ukraine «one nation» .

The collapse of the Soviet Union has left deep scars in part of the Russian people: Putin himself had called it “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe” and Ukraine had been the most painful loss . In his speech on Monday , 48 hours before ordering the invasion, he accused Bolshevik leaders of wresting chunks of territory from the Soviet Union to form Ukraine. Many, writes David Sanger in the New York Times , believe that Putin now considers himself “on a mission to correct this error” .

Why has it blown up now?

Last year, Ukraine passed a law prohibiting 13 oligarchs from owning media to influence politics, directly affecting Putin’s friend Viktor Medvedchuck, one of the richest men in the world. In addition to his oil tanker business, Medvechuck — who is still under house arrest, accused of high treason — is the leader of Ukraine’s main pro-Russian party, Platform of the Opposition, and owns a television empire through which he spread Moscow propaganda and influenced Ukrainian politics. Shortly after his arrest, Putin began to amass troops at the border: for the Kremlin leader, the law represented a decisive step in the process of bringing Ukraine closer to the West and NATO.

What does NATO have to do with all this?

Ukraine wants to join NATO, Russia opposes it. Since 2008 — following the Bucharest summit and before the arrival of the pro-European government not recognized by Putin — Kiev has been working to join the Atlantic Alliance, which however cannot accept new members already involved in conflicts.

Furthermore, to be admitted, Ukraine needs to fight the corruption that dominates the country and to embark on a path of political and military reforms. At this moment, therefore, entry into NATO is highly unlikely, not only for Russia’s opposition: for Putin, Ukraine’s entry into the Atlantic Alliance is the point of no return, even if Moscow formally has no veto power. Ukraine, on the other hand, is asking for a precise timeline for joining the Atlantic Alliance, as President Volodymyr Zelensky repeated in his address to the nation after Putin gave the order to invade.

Putin Said He Wouldn’t Invade Ukraine: Why Wasn’t He Believable?

The facts – especially after the Russian troops entered the territories of the republics of Donetsk and Lugansk, which Russia recognized as independent on February 21 – already indicated a different situation for some time: Putin had amassed 190,000 soldiers on the borders of Ukraine, as well as military means of all kinds. Although he now claims that the goal is not to occupy Ukraine, the troop allocation is what is necessary for a very large-scale invasion of the country.

Putin had already attacked Chechnya in 1999, Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine itself in 2014.

As noted by Henry Foy in the Financial Times , however, there was also a rather unusual approach for modern diplomacy:the White House, NATO and the European Union have released a large amount of briefings, intelligence information, threats and accusations of various kinds – material generally reserved for negotiations – in order to avoid a war.

But how did Putin justify the deployment of soldiers on the border?

Russia believes it can move troops at will within its territory, explains BBC Moscow correspondent Steve Rosenberg. Just as it considers itself free to organize exercises with Belarus : according to information released by Ukraine, Russian troops have also entered the country from there.

Why is the United States interested in Ukraine?

The United States certainly want to limit the influence of Vladimir Putin – they fear Russian expansion in Eastern Europe – and defend the principle whereby every country has the right to choose its own destiny and its own alliances: not only for Ukraine, but for all the countries that were part of the Warsaw Pact and that passed with NATO in the 1990s.

The American president did not seek confrontation with the Russians: his agenda was different. At the beginning of 2021, the US administration thought it could “stabilize” relations with the Kremlin, offering collaboration on terrorism and a gradual disarmament plan. Today she is forced, in spite of herself, to have to manage a confrontation with Moscow that hasn’t been seen since the days of the Cold War. The White House did not want to be found unprepared at any level, at the cost of appearing alarmist. That’s why he had urged American citizens to leave Kiev: he didn’t want to repeat the disastrous and humiliating panic scenes seen in Kabul last August.

What are Putin’s historical motivations for invading Ukraine?

For Vladimir Putin, Russians and Ukrainians constitute a single nation. The logical consequence is that there is one state too many, which in his mind is naturally the Ukraine. In an essay published in July 2021 – «On the historical unity of Russians and Ukrainians» – the Russian president writes that the main reason why Russians and Ukrainians (and also Belarusians) would be the same people today is that they are all « descendants” of “Kiev Rus”, a collection of Slavic, Baltic and Finnic tribes which in the 9th century created a monarchical entity that included part of the present Ukrainian, Belarusian and Russian territory. The Russian identity, its culture and its people were born then, in Ukrainian territory, and only later did they spread to other Slavic territories, those of present-day Russia. It was Prince Vladimir of Kiev who converted to Christianity, who started the long history of the Russian Orthodox Church. Ukraine then becomes a marginal, frontier region (as its name suggests), and is subdued by Poland. Russia, in 500, imposes its hegemony with Ivan the Terrible.

Language is one of the main components of a people’s identity . Russian is spoken in Ukraine (predominantly in the east), Ukrainian (in the west) and Surzhyk (in the countryside), a mixture of the two (but Hungarian, Romanian and Tatar are also spoken in Crimea). Most of the population is bilingual. President Zelensky, anti-Putin, is a native speaker of Russian. Ukrainian and Russian are related but distinct languages. The state language is Ukrainian, which after centuries of marginalization has returned to being listened to above all during the Soviet Union. Russian is currently still widely spoken but attempts are made to discourage it, sometimes considering it “the language of the occupier”. In 2019, a law was passed that aims to increase the use of Ukrainian. The Europeanisation of the country has brought with it an increase in the use of Ukrainian. The insistence on language can become a tool of nationalism and oppression of minorities. And Moscow pushes this point, as the Washington Post writes , using the question of language to paint the rulers of Kiev as ethnocentric “fascists” inclined to bully the Russian-speaking population of Ukraine. The accusation against the marginalization of Russian speakers was also used as a weapon for the annexation of Crimea.

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