Russia-Ukraine conflict: A brief history
- Ukraine became independent after the fall of the Soviet Union
- At core of tensions, is rising NATO influence in east Europe
- Russian troops are making their way into Ukraine from east and north
With Russia packing troops into Ukraine’s rebel regions, the body politic of eastern Europe faces the threat of severe instability, an instability that will reverberate across the western world and perhaps beyond. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s recent decision to legitimise the separatist aspirations of Donetsk and Luhansk has shown his resolve to unilaterally alter the security infrastructure of Europe.
The Russian movement on Ukrainian land, that Ukraine and the West calls an invasion, has attracted severe sanctions on Moscow. German chancellor Olaf Scholz, who had only recently said the Nord Stream-2 pipeline was a private project with no political bearing, went on to stop the natural gas pipeline. The United States has imposed sanctions targeting Russian financial capabilities. The United Kingdom and Japan have also made the list.
The Russia-Ukraine crisis was not born in the 21st century. A centuries-old conflict, it has been inherited through generations. The root of the current troubles, however, can be found, at least partially, in 1991, the year of the fall of the mighty Soviet Union. Ukraine was one of the founding parts of the Soviet Union, the first tangible possibility of a socialist state.
1991: The Giant Collapses
The fall of the Soviet Union was perhaps one of the most defining moments of the 20th Century, a century which had seen two world wars, space trips, the sun setting on the British Empire and Woodstock. As the Soviet Union dissolved, Ukraine, the second-largest economy and population of the 15 Soviet republics, chose ‘self-determination’. A referendum ensued and 92% Ukrainians voted for independence. Leonid Kravchuk was elected president.
1994: Nukes return, NATO features
As part of the Soviet Union, Ukraine held with itself nearly a third of the socialist superpower’s nuclear arsenal. When Ukraine sought to walk out, it was required to return the nukes in the post-Soviet world talking non-proliferation. Ukraine, along with Russia and the United States, signed a statement reaffirming Ukraine’s commitment to transfer all strategic nuclear warheads to Russia. In exchange for dismantling its security infrastructure, Ukraine was given specific security assurances.
The very next month, Ukraine was welcomed into the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) Partnership for Peace programme. Russia too joined the partnership, which suffered immense strain before ties were finally suspended in 2014. Meanwhile, the end of the Cold War made Moscow jittery over rising NATO influence in eastern Europe. The same year, the Budapest memorandum was signed and Russia, UK and the United States committed to respecting Ukraine’s territorial sovereignty.
1997: Too close for comfort
A year after Ukraine ratified its new constitution which allowed free speech and ownership of private property, then-Ukraine President Leonid Kuchma met NATO leaders in Madrid and signed an agreement that created a distinctive partnership.
NATO, a military alliance of 30 nations, is meant to come to the mutual defence of any nation under attack. Russia, witnessing this growing influence of NATO in Ukraine, was worried that this could be the US-led security alliance’s way to circumvent Moscow’s security infrastructure.
2004: The Orange Revolution
Ukraine, a young nation by all accounts, was battling legitimacy concerns about its electoral system. That year, the Ukrainians had two names on the ballot as their presidential choice – Viktor Yanukovych, considered close to Russia, and Viktor Yushchenko, a pro-West candidate.
Two rounds of voting, regarded illegitimate by many, awarded the election to Yanukovych. But Yushchenko’s supporters took to the streets in protest wearing orange suits, Yushchenko’s campaign colour, and effected a re-election. Yushchenko won.
2008: ‘Not even a real nation-state’
Vladimir Putin, a former KGB operative-turned-President, vehemently opposed the offer of NATO’s Membership Action Plans (MAPs) to Ukraine. NATO gave in and denied offering an MAP to Ukraine. Meanwhile, in a meeting with then-US President George W Bush, Vladimir Putin told him that Ukraine is “not even a real nation state.”
The same year, Russia invaded Georgia leading to a five-day war. Echoes of the invasion of Georgia continue to reverberate in the current crisis. Just as Russia accepted legitimacy of two separatist Ukrainian regions in 2022, similarly Moscow granted legitimacy to Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Meanwhile, Ukraine initiated discussions with the European Union and a joint communique was issued titled “Ukraine’s future is in Europe.”
2014: From Whence We Came
The current crisis in Ukraine draws directly upon the worsening of ties with Russia in 2013-14. One year prior to this period, Ukraine had decided to end talks with the EU. This prompted protests across the country which eventually turned violent. Over a hundred people were killed and Yanukovych, the then-Ukrainian president, fled to Russia.
Russian forces, reacting to changing geopolitics, took over the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine following a disputed referendum in which Crimeans voted to secede and join Russia. Soon after, an armed conflict ensued in the Donbas region, the region currently in contest. Subsequently, initiation of peace processes led to the Minsk agreements to effect a ceasefire.
2022: Things Fall Apart
After western nations denied Russia’s demand to assure that Ukraine will never be part of NATO, tensions flared. Thousands of Russian troops first gathered on Ukraine borders. Then, Russia legitimised the separatist regions of Donetsk and Luhansk.
Russia has now declared a military operation in parts of eastern Europe. Meanwhile, media reports are doing the rounds that Russian troops are crossing in from the Belarusian border. Western nations have imposed severe sanctions on Russia, sanctions that have the capacity to paralyse supply chains in much of Europe.