Putin’s Gamble: The Ukraine Crisis and How it Started
Updated: Feb 9
It’s the night of January 21st in Ukraine as a Boeing 747 cargo plane lands and begins slowly taxiing to its parking zone. After coming to a stop, the ground crew begins its job of securing the aircraft and unloading its shipment. Soon, large boxes painted in military olive green appear from inside the fuselage. These crates hold the first shipment of ‘lethal aid’, recently approved by President Biden; 200,000 pounds of weapons designated for use by Ukraine’s armed forces. Across the border in Russia, videos of armored convoys and trains laden with heavy artillery and tanks began to appear on social media, hinting towards the military buildup on Ukraine’s Eastern boundary. An estimated 110,000 Russian troops have already gathered in the area in what the Kremlin calls a military exercise. Western intelligence agencies have scoffed at this explanation, saying that it is the pretext for invasion. As the drums of war seem to beat louder in Europe, it is important to understand the background of this dispute and what Russia hopes to gain.
While Ukraine and Russia have a long and intertwined history going back thousands of years, the current conflict can be traced back to November 21st, 2013. Viktor Yanukovych, President of Ukraine at the time, rejected a popular agreement that would have led to stronger ties with the European Union (EU), and instead sought to become closer to the Russian Federation. Outraged by the decision, large rallies were held across Ukraine, with 800,000 protesters gathering in the capital city of Kiev. Yanukovych refused to back down, instead signing deals with President Putin of Russia to lower gas prices and decrease national debt. Believing drastic action was needed, protesters began to dig-in for the long haul, refusing to leave government buildings or Independence Square in the center of Kiev. By the middle of January 2014, protests had begun to turn deadly while makeshift barricades reminiscent of the French Revolution were put in place by the protesters around Independence Square. Confrontations continued to become more violent with multiple deaths until climaxing on February 20th when military snipers opened fire, killing 88 people. This was the final straw for the people of Ukraine, and President Yanukovych was forced to sign a compromise with the opposition on February 21st before fleeing to Russia the next day. Opposition figures were soon given temporary positions in the national government, and it seemed for the moment that Ukraine was moving towards better days.
This feeling would not last, as the next week Russian operatives began seizing key sites in Crimea, a strategic southern section of Ukraine on the Black Sea. After a rigged referendum stated that Crimean citizens wanted to become part of Russia, the area was officially annexed on March 18th. Many countries, including the United States, have still not recognized this annexation, saying that it is a sovereign part of Ukraine. By April, three other countries on the eastern border of Ukraine had revolted in a Pro-Russian separatist movement, declaring independence and naming themselves the Donetsk People’s Republic and the Luhansk People’s Republic respectively. Ukraine has tried to retake these areas but has been unable because of Russian support for the breakaway republics. The war has dragged on to the present with no major moves by either side, leading to a type of trench warfare reminiscent of World War One. However, with Russia looming large on the border, it appears that this status quo will end very soon.
So why has Russia only just decided to threaten Ukraine with further invasion? The answer lies with Ukraine’s government, which has recently gained stronger ties with the European Union, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), and the United States. In 2019, Ukraine voted to change its constitution in order to outline a path towards membership of both the EU and NATO. This goal has continued under the current president of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky, with the nation becoming an Enhanced Opportunity Partner of NATO in 2020. This means that Ukraine’s military is formally recognized as a close ally of the alliance and has common interests. Over the last year, multiple NATO nations have begun to support further steps towards Ukraine’s membership in the organization. The Russian Federation has expressed their disapproval for such a move, as NATO is historically anti-Russian. President Zelensky has expressed the desire to formally apply for membership in the EU in 2024 with full ascension in the 2030’s. This would further pull Ukraine away from Russia’s economic influence, angering the Kremlin further.
President Putin has responded to these recent developments with a massive troop buildup on the Eastern Border of Ukraine, and requesting that all troops and weapons in NATO member states that joined after 1997 be removed. This would include Albania, Bulgaria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia. Putin also demanded that no additional nations be admitted to NATO, including Ukraine. NATO and several neutral European nations outside the alliance quickly condemned these desires, stating that all nations have the right to decide political and military alliances for themselves. While there have been high level talks between both sides, no progress has been made as of the writing of this article. NATO has not accepted any of these demands as it would be seen as a major political defeat. Russia has not backed down as they feel threatened by the enlargement of NATO into its old sphere of influence. If a resolution cannot be reached, western intelligence believes that Russia will annex parts of Eastern Ukraine and attempt a coup in the country to install a more Pro-Russian leader as president. Whether this assessment will hold true is yet to be seen.