Ukraine, explained


Graphic illustration by Anwen Huang

The Russian invasion of Ukraine comes after a long history between the two nations.

Myles Kim, Editor-in-Chief


When Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered the 150,000 Russian troops at the Ukrainian border to move into Ukraine for a “special military operation,” it was a climax to an invasion decades in the making: From the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the creation of the Russian Federation to the annexation of Crimea and the revolution of dignity, Ukraine’s independence has ebbed and flowed as opportunistic imperialistic nations have tried to cut it up like cake. This is the Russo-Ukrainian conflict explained.


Kyivan Rus and the Russian Empire

The city of Kyiv, Ukraine’s current capital, was the center of the first rudimentary Slavic principality — the Kyivan Rus, one of many Feudalist states in Eastern Europe — and was the cultural and linguistic birthplace of both Ukraine and Russia, among other modern states. The Kyivan Rus was incredibly diverse, housing a majority of Slavic peoples, and also included Varangianic, Euro-Asian, Turkish and Bulgarian peoples. As time passed, the state slowly fractured apart. Mongol invaders in the 13th century successfully conquered the region, and after fierce resistance, burned Kyiv and surrounding areas to the ground while slaughtering much of the population. The center of power then shifted from Kyiv to northeastern Rus principalities and Moscow. In the 15th century, Polish and Lithuanian armies conquered the western regions of Ukraine, but the Mongols, known as the Golden Horde in Eastern Europe, still held power over Rus principalities in northeast Russia. After an uprising against their Mongol overlords in 1480, the Muscovy, or the Grand Duchy of Moscow, based in Moscow, declared independence. Through military expansion, Muscovy gained territory and power and became the predecessor to the Tsardom of Russia — meaning the empire of all Rus. The word Rus was often used to refer to Slavic people, whose culture and values differ from area to area.

In the 17th to 19th centuries, wars between western European Nations and the Russian Empire gradually brought modern-day Belarus and Ukraine into Russian territories. These regions had little in common with Russia, as after centuries-long rule by Poland and Lithuania, they had been heavily influenced by Western ideology and thought. To counter this, the policies of Russification were implemented to repress non-Russian languages and culture in favor of Russian language and culture. Ukrainian intellectuals resisted Russification by standardizing the Ukrainian language and promoting history that established Ukraine as a nation with ties to the Kyivan Rus. 

Ukraine remained a subject of Russia until the tail end of World War I. After losing the war, the Russian Empire collapsed and subsequently seceded from the territories that the Central powers had gained during the war in the treaty of Brest-Litovsk. This included the majority of modern Ukraine as well as Belarus. Once the Central powers lost the war, it created a power vacuum, and many factions vied for control of Ukraine. The Ukraine People’s Republic was the most successful in filling that void and declared independence in January of 1918. 


Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic and the Soviet Union

Ukrainian independence was brief — a civil war quickly ensued and was fought mainly between the Ukrainian Socialist Soviet Republic and Ukraine’s People’s Republic. Some other factions that were present but less significant included anarchists, monarchists and the Russian white army. The Ukrainian SSR, backed by the Soviets, won. The war was a part of the larger Russian Civil War, and after a Soviet victory, the Union absorbed the Ukrainian SSR into its territory in 1922. In the 1920s, Poland conquered the Western Ukrainian Peoples Republic, which had gained independence after the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. 

In the 1930s, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin’s policies of collectivization aimed to integrate private land and labor into state-controlled farms, resulting in a famine that killed millions of Ukrainians, dubbed the Holodomor or Terror Famine. There were allegations against the Soviet government that the famine was manufactured to discourage Ukrainian nationalism and to punish Ukrainians who were resisting collectivization. Stalin had Ukrainian intellectuals and priests killed. He also launched a propaganda campaign against Kulaks — wealthy peasant farmers who resisted collectivization — and exiled, imprisoned, or killed them. As the famine raged on and many sought to flee, Stalin closed Ukrainian borders and forced people back into their homes to starve. Ukraine’s active resistance to collectivization is cited as one of the reasons behind the creation of gulags, and labor camps used to fuel the industrial development of the USSR. 

In the late 1930s, Europe was on the brink of war, and a mere two months after the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact was signed, which limited hostilities between the USSR and Nazi Germany for 10 years, both nations invaded Poland. In 1939, the USSR took the eastern half of Poland and brought the territory under the arm of the Ukrainian state. In 1940 and 1948, Romanian territories were given to Ukraine, and in 1945, parts of Hungary were put under Ukrainian jurisdiction. In 1944, Stalin forcefully deported the Muslim ethnic group of Tartars from Crimea and allowed the immigration of Russians into the peninsula, resulting in a Russian ethnic majority. In 1954, the president of the USSR, Nikita Krushchev, transferred Crimea to the Ukrainian SSR. The borders of 1954 are geographically similar to the Ukrainian state today.

After the death of Stalin, Russification became more passive, as in preferential treatment toward Russian speakers compared to Ukrainian speakers. Nationalist Ukrainian movements were still brutally suppressed. In addition to the demographic changes in Crimea from Stalin’s deportations, as the Ukrainian SSR entered a period of industrialization, Russian migrant workers flocked to Ukrainian cities. By 1990, Ukraine had a sizable Russian-speaking population, the majority of whom were living in the eastern regions of the country. However, many are still identified as Ukrainian.

The Ukrainian SSR, under pressure from its citizens, declared independence in August of 1991. The newly independent Ukraine held a referendum in December of the same year on the question of Ukrainian independence, with a voter turnout of 84.2% — out of those people, 92.3% voted for independence. However, in Crimea, only around 54% agreed with the referendum, with many attributing the narrow margin to the immigration of Tartars back into Crimea and the Russian ethnic majority in the region. Because of their experience with Stalin, Tartars are consistently pro-Ukrainian and opposed to pro-Russian separatism. 


Modern Ukraine and the Russian Federation

The dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 led to the creation of 15 newly independent nations, including Ukraine and the Russian Federation. For a brief moment after independence, Ukraine held around one-third of the Soviet’s nuclear arsenal, making it the third-largest nuclear arsenal in the world. In 1994, the U.S., U.K., Russia and Ukraine signed the Budapest Memorandum to respect Ukrainian sovereignty and independence and to never commit military action against Ukraine in return for Ukrainian denuclearization. By 2001, the process of denuclearization was complete. Ukraine remained a close ally of Russia in the following decades, but an increasing majority of Ukrainian people began to look westward toward the European Union.

In 2004, hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians took to the streets in protest of a fraudulent presidential election between candidates Viktor Yushchenko and pro-Russian Viktor Yanukovych. Yanukovych originally won, but due to widespread belief in fraudulent activity, many did not accept the results. The protests were successful, and in December of that same year, the Ukrainian Supreme court ordered a revote. A run-off election, with domestic and international scrutiny, was declared where Yushchenko received 52% of the vote. In January 2005, the protests ended.

Due to poor economic policies, Yuschenko was voted out in 2010, and Yanukovych took his place. In 2013, after talks between Russian and Ukrainian Prime ministers and after Yanukovych’s party in parliament rejected six bills aimed at meeting the EU’s terms, Yanukovych ordered the suspension of a trade deal with the EU in favor of moving toward Russia and the Eurasian Union. This decision sparked protests, dubbed the Euromaidan protests in November of 2013. Protesters were opposed to what they saw as government corruption, abuse of power, violation of human rights and the influence of oligarchs. Government forces escalated violence against protesters, leading to the 2014 Revolution of dignity in which Yanukovych was ousted and fled the country. Civilians and police clashes resulted in more than 121 deaths, and a new interim government was established. In response, Russian troops moved into the Crimean Peninsula, occupied key strategic areas, and seized the Crimean Parliament in February 2014. Days before the Crimean parliament was taken by Russian troops, Crimean Tartars staged a demonstration near the parliament, which was larger than the pro-Russian rally happening simultaneously. Two months later, in March 2014, a referendum in Crimea showed an overwhelming 95.5% of people living in Crimea agreeing with the Russian annexation of Crimea, which prompted U.S sanctions, the suspension of Russia’s G8 membership, and a UN resolution with the support of one hundred countries calling the referendum illegal. 

The motivations behind Crimea’s annexation can be surmised as such: Russia accounts for 38% of the EU’s natural gas imports, and the pipelines that feed gas to Europe go through Ukraine. To decrease this overreliance on Ukrainian pipelines, Russia has been building new pipelines that avoid Ukraine entirely. In 2012, the Ukrainian government discovered a potential 2.3 trillion cubic meters worth of natural gas largely concentrated on the coast of Crimea, making Ukraine in possession of the 14th largest reserves of natural gas in the world. The Ukrainian government started to grant exploration and drilling rights to companies like Shell and Exxon to extract natural gas. Ukraine, with its newfound resources, could become a potential competitor to Russian natural gas dominance in western Europe. When Putin annexed Crimea in 2014, he seized an estimated 80% of Ukraine’s potential oil and gas drilling opportunities, as the western companies that the Ukrainian government originally contracted pulled out.

At the same time, pro-Russian protests erupted into a separatist movement in the Donbas region, resulting in the declaration of the breakaway states of Luhansk and Donetsk and igniting the Donbas War between Russian-backed separatists and government forces. Over the next two years, the Minsk protocols were signed by Ukraine, France, Russia, Belarus and the leaders of the breakaway republics to stop fighting in the region and included a ceasefire, which both sides repeatedly violated — fighting in the region has continued to this day. The confirmed number of deaths resulting from the war ranges from 13,000 to 14,000.

In the spring of 2021, Russia placed an estimated 110,000 troops and military equipment near the border of Ukraine and started deploying its airforce and navy for training exercises. Troops were deployed in six key areas: Yelnya, Kursk, Pogonovo, Maslovka, Volgograd, Crimea and Belarus. In February, western intelligence agencies counted 150,000 troops and multiple field hospitals being created, signaling an invasion. Putin addressed the world in February, recognizing the sovereignty of the Luhansk and Donetsk republics, calling for the reunification of Ukraine and Russia and initiating his country’s invasion of Ukraine. 



As the Russian invasion has dragged on for over a month, many are starting to wonder: What is Putin’s end goal? Russian forces seemed unable to break through Ukrainian defenses and have made little progress into Ukrainian territory besides the already occupied territories of Donbas and Crimea. Initially, it seemed that he was posturing; trying to get the west to bow down to his demands of Ukrainian neutrality and the ceasing of NATO military exercises in Eastern Europe. Now that Russian troops have officially moved away from Kyiv to focus on the eastern front and the Donbas region, some analysts say that Putin may try to vie for a divided Ukraine; similar to the Korean peninsula today. Western intelligence also may have overestimated Russia’s military capability; stating in the early days of the war that Kyiv would fall within in days. Russian forces have also been accused of war crimes, particularly in the city of Mauripool, where they bombed two hospitals and struck civilians trying to flee through humanitarian corridors. 

Leaked intelligence suggests that Putin and his allies planned for the war to end within two weeks. That did not occur and a Russian state media outlet even wrote an article in anticipation of the victory, but quickly took it down. The war is entering a new phase: Putin is refocusing their attacks on the east, and peace talks are forcing both sides to make concessions. NATO recently estimated casualties of Russian soldiers to be between 7,000 and 15,000. For comparison during the USSR’s ten-year occupation of Afghanistan, around 15,000 military personnel were killed, and over the course of the United States, 20-year occupation of Afghanistan around 2,460 military personnel were killed. 

Crippling economic sanctions are strangling the country and making the ruble worthless, Russian oligarch properties are being seized; and the world, especially Western Europe has reacted almost unanimously towards Putin: stop the war. 

As an example, post-WWII Germany pledged to not export weapons or military equipment to warzones; but when Russia invaded Ukraine, the German government announced that it would send 1,000 anti-tank weapons and 500 surfaces to air stinger missiles along with fuel to Ukrainian forces Hours after that announcement, the German Chancellor, Olaf Scholz, announced a 100 billion euro injection into the German military, making Germany possibly the third most funded military in the world. German remilitarization is in stark contrast to the pacifist policies of Germany in the past, adopted because of Germany’s experiences with Nazism. In addition, Countries that have historically considered themselves neutral like Sweeden and Switzerland are affirming their support of Ukraine and are now signaling that they want to join NATO. The last time Swiss troops fought in a military battle was almost 500 years ago against the french. For the first time in 500 years, Switzerland is waving away its neutrality. 

Time will only tell where the war goes next.


Word Box:

UKRAINE is a state in Eastern Europe with a population of 43 million, boarding Slavic countries such as Belarus, Russia, Romania and Hungary. Ukraine is considered one of the poorest countries in Europe. It is a member state of the UN, the Council of Europe, the OSCE and the GUAM organization among others. However, it is currently not a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Alliance or the European Union. The name Ukraine means “in-land” or “border-land” and first appeared in historical documents in the 12th century and historical maps in the 16th century. The eastern portions of Ukraine past the Dnieper River majorly consist of Orthodox Russian-speaking people, while the west are more Ukrainian-speaking and catholic. Historically, western Ukraine has had stronger ties with Western Europe, while eastern Ukraine has had strong ties with Russia.

The UNITED SOVIET of SOCIALIST REPUBLICS was a communist state that spanned from Eastern Europe to the Pacific from 1922 to 1991, when it was dissolved. The country had a one-party state governed by the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, with its capital based in Moscow. It was a federal union of multiple republics such as the Ukrainian SSR, but the government was highly centralized in Moscow. The Ukrainian SSR was considered the second most powerful republic within the union. The word soviet is derived from the Russian word “sovet“, meaning council, or assembly. The Soviet Union covered an area of over 22,402,200 square kilometers and encompassed many different ethnic and cultural groups, such as the Russians, Turkic, Ukrainians and Belarusians, among others. The USSR was the adversary of the United States during the Cold War. 

RUSSIAN FEDERATION is the Russian state formed after the death of the Soviet Union. It is the largest country in the world by area and has a population of around 143 million people, excluding Crimea. It extends eleven time zones and borders 16 sovereign nations. Since Vladimir Putin’s election in 2000, he has dominated the political landscape in Russia, slowly receding from democratic norms into authoritarian and oligarchical tendencies. The Russian economy heavily depends on oil and gas exports. Russia has the fourth largest military expenditure in the world and has used it thoroughly: when in 2000, the Russian Federation annexed the Chechen Republic, or when the Russian armed forces helped establish the breakaway states of Transnistria, South Ossetia and Abkhazia. 

CRIMEA is a contested peninsula in the southeast of Ukraine. Around 2.4 million people live in Crimea, consisting of an ethnic majority of Russians. The peninsula was considered to be a part of the Russian Empire until a brief period of independence after the end of World War I. In 1921, Crimea was absorbed into the USSR, and later the Ukrainian SSR.

The war in the DONBAS concerns two federal cities in Ukraine, Luhansk and Donetsk in the southeastern areas of Ukraine. Both of them declared independence from the Ukrainian government in 2014, calling themselves the Luhansk People’s Republic and the Donetsk People’s Republic, respectively. Since 2014, pro-Russian separatists have collaborated with the Russian military, receiving military training and equipment against government forces. In 2015, the Minks protocols attempted to end the conflict, which failed. There has been no international recognition of said republics except for Vladimir Putin’s declaration of friendship when he moved his troops into Ukrainian territories on Feb. 24.

ORANGE REVOLUTION was a large-scale protest of the 2004 presidential election in Ukraine, which the pro-Russian candidate Viktor Yanukovych had won. It resulted in a run-off election with international scrutiny, leading to the victory of the opposition, Viktor Yushchenko, who received 52% of the vote. 

REVOLUTION of DIGNITY resulted in the ousting of the pro-Russian president, Viktor Yanukovych, and the implementation of a new interim government in Ukraine in 2014. The revolution originated from the Euromaidan protests — a wave of civil unrest sparked by the Ukrainian government’s sudden decision to not sign a trade agreement with the European Union.

HOLODOMOR, meaning terror famine, was a famine in Soviet Ukraine from 1932 to 1933 that killed millions of Ukrainians. The name is attributed to the allegations that the Soviet government intentionally starved the people of Ukraine because they did not adhere to Stalin’s collectivist policies, in addition to the fact that the government rejected outside aid and confiscated household food and goods from peasants. Today, 17 UN countries recognize the Holodomor as a genocide. 

CRIMEAN TARTARS are a Muslim ethnic group that lived in Crimea until 1944 when Stalin forcefully deported or killed them.

RUSSIFICATION were official and unofficial policies of the Russian Empire and USSR that sought cultural and linguistic assimilation of non-Russians. 


The North Atlantic Treaty Organization and Collective Security Treaty Organization respectively. All three are defensive alliances, meaning military cooperation among member states. NATO was created in the aftermath of World War II as a deterrent to Soviet Communism. Before the dissolution of the USSR in 1991, President George H.W. Bush verbally promised Gorbachev to not expand NATO eastward into former Soviet territories, but there was and is no written agreement prohibiting the expansion of NATO eastwards. Since then, 14 former Soviet Republics have joined NATO. Article five of NATO states that aggression against anyone member country is perceived as aggression against all. The Collective Security Treaty Organization was established on May 15, 1992, and consists of some post-Soviet states like Kazakhstan, Belarus and Armenia. Similar to Article 5 of NATO, Article 4 of the CSTO states that aggression towards member states is perceived as aggression against all. 

EURASIAN UNION and EUROPEAN UNION are both economic and political unions. The European Union consists of 27 member states with an estimated population of 447 million. The goal of both organizations are to “federalize” Europe and Eurasia, respectively, to standardize laws, maintain policies in trade and agriculture, and help with regional development within the Unions. The Eurasian Union was created in 2015 by Belarus, Kazakhstan and Russia.