It is one of the hottest topics in the news right now: Russia has stationed troops at the Ukrainian borders, and the whole world is scared about an upcoming war. The media reports updates in hourly intervals and often depict a quite dark future with very detrimental outcomes for Europe and even the world. However, does anybody remember how this whole crisis started and developed until its current, tense situation? Luckily, this article provides all of those who don’t read the newspaper daily with an overview of how it all began, and how we ended up here.
Turn back time to the end of the Soviet Union | 1991
To go back to the roots of this conflict, I will have a closer look at the quite complex Russian-Ukrainian relationship. Ukraine was one of the former Soviet Union’s satellite states and played a very important role in its territorial and political system. Not only was Ukraine the largest “satellite”, but it also controlled and stored the third-largest atomic arsenal in the world (I guess here we start to understand why the Soviet Union only very unwillingly gave up its control over its atomic satellite). The US mediated several agreements between the two parties, and finally, Ukraine agreed to return huge amounts of nuclear warheads to Russia, which in turn promised to refrain from any attempts to influence Ukraine politically or to attack it. However, this agreement later proved to stand on very unstable feet.
Kiev, Ukraine | 1992 – 2010
Ukraine and NATO start their relationship with negotiations about Ukraine’s potential membership. However, this development is halted with the election of the pro-Russian politician Yanukovych as president, whose politics aim to prevent Ukrainian-NATO membership.
Crimea, Ukraine | 2014
Russia perceives an increased attempt of the West to approach Ukraine and lure it into its sphere of influence by making it a NATO member. Putin believes that he cannot let the West expand its power right to his doorstep, and thus Russia supports pro-Russian separatists on the Crimea peninsula to annex its territory. Moreover, the Ukrainians start to demonstrate against their president Yanukovych, who flees the country, which is another sign for Putin to take Ukraine back under his control. Armed conflicts between pro-Russian separatists and Ukrainian military forces continue for the whole year in Eastern Ukraine.
Washington, USA | 2014
President Obama condemns Russia’s activities in Crimea as illegal but decides to not support Ukraine with heavy weapons. He wants to avoid an escalation of the already very tense situation and aims to handle it with a diplomatic solution.
Eastern Ukraine | 2015 – 2018
These years are characterized by ongoing circles of violent fights, approaches to and agreements on ceasefires, and violations of these ceasefires resulting in fights again. The most powerful NATO members, mainly the US, Britain, France, and Germany, hold several meetings and summits regarding the conflict situation in Ukraine but no proposed measure seems to have a deescalating effect.
Kiev, Ukraine | 2019
The comedian and actor Zelensky played a president on a satirical TV show and later went on to run for legitimate presidency. He is actually elected president although he has no political experience, and Russia sees this development as a chance to influence the political newcomer. Hence, Moscow tries to pressure Zelensky to implement the so-called 15 Minsk Agreements which aim to increase Russia’s leeway for action in Ukraine. After that, Zelensky asks the West for help and confirmed that he is open to negotiations about a NATO membership of his country.
Europe and USA | 2020 - 2021
Several powerful states and global organizations struggle with internal profound changes and fractures. The UK and the EU must deal with the consequences of a long, complex Brexit process. In Germany long-term chancellor Merkel, who speaks Russian fluently and developed a good working relationship with Putin, resigned. Therefore, Germany must re-establish its foreign politics under the new Chancellor Scholz who has not taken a clear position in the Ukraine-Russia conflict yet. France and its president Macron are equally involved in presidential elections just like the US and President Trump, who are dealing with the chaotic and controversial withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan. Moreover, all major powers must focus on and deal with is the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. All these factors combined provide Russia and Putin with the perfect opportunity to re-establish their influence in Eastern Europe while most other states are busy with domestic challenges and reorganizations. In addition, the circumstance that Russia supplies many European states with gas, give Putin another leverage to push his demands.
Ukrainian-Russian border and Ukrainian-Belarusian border | 2021
Russia deploys approximately 90,000 soldiers at the Northern and Eastern borders of Ukraine. With the additional troops on the Crimea in the South, which have been there since the annexation in 2014, Ukraine is finally surrounded by Russian forces. Putin threatens Ukraine with an invasion “for protection of the Russian citizens”, and simultaneously demands the following from NATO: NATO must stop its eastward expansion, withdraw its troops from Eastern European countries, and reject Ukraine as a member. Putin argues that this would be necessary to ensure Russia’s national security.
Worldwide developments | 2022
NATO rejects Putin’s demands and calls them unacceptable. Moreover, the US implements its announced measures and deploys 3,000 soldiers in Romania, Poland, and Germany. Meanwhile, Putin visits the Olympic Winter Games in Peking and meets China’s President Xi, who assured him support regarding protecting Russia’s security interests. The situation in Eastern Ukraine becomes more and more intense and first fights have already started to break out. Russia’s approach to Ukraine’s borders especially sparks Ukrainian nationalism and citizen militias form to fight a potential full-scale Russian invasion.
The Russia-Ukraine crisis is very complex and has a long-lasting history. Hopefully, this article will give you a rough overview of its roots and developments, although the story includes much more twists and events. It remains to be seen how the situation develops and what its consequences will be.