A Simplified History: The Events That Led up to Russia Invading Ukraine

By Emma Zeller

Within the past two months, it has been impossible not to hear about the current humanitarian crisis in Ukraine. Whether you pay attention to television or Twitter, everyone is talking. As a high school student, it is tough to figure out what is going on, and why it is happening.

This is why I’m going to try, with the help of our local Jenks History teachers, to explain the major points in history that led up to Russia invading Ukraine. With this context, we will be able to more accurately form opinions and understand the developments we witness as the conflict ensues.

________  Context  ________

Ukraine is the largest country in Europe by landmass, excluding Russia. Throughout history, Russia has viewed Ukraine as an extension of itself. Much of the population of Ukraine is Russian-speaking, and many citizens of each country have relatives in the other. 

It’s important to note that Russia is huge, like a mega country. Also, they have the second-largest nuclear capability in the world, behind the United States.

“Back in the time of czar’s (until the early 1900s), Russia’s empire was considered to be worldwide,” said Jenks’ teacher, Cris Jackson, “You could go all the way from the Orient to Europe across the continent.”

“You can look at history as looking at colonization,” said Jackson, “The strong beat up the weak, take their land, and increase the size of their empires.”

This is true of Russia in relation to Ukraine. Which has resulted in Russia oppressing Ukraine, and denying them independence.

________  World War II  ________

In case any of you took a nap during history class, here’s a brief recap of what you missed. In 1939, Nazi forces invaded Poland, prompting an intervention from other countries. This conflict snowballed, and WWII raged until 1945. 

WWII was fought between the Axis Powers (Germany, Italy, Japan), and the Allies (France, Britain, and eventually the Soviet Union and the United States).

The Soviet Union was a communist state. It included many republics, such as Ukraine, and was dominated by Russia.

Since Russia was both opposing Nazi Germany, and oppressing Ukraine, Ukraine decided to side with Germany. This was in hopes that in the future, it would enable Ukraine to gain sovereignty, or freedom, from Russia. 

“Essentially, Ukraine was asking, ‘What side do we align with to get what we want in the next 50 years?’” said Jackson. 

Jackson explained that if you asked a Ukrainian citizen why their country supported Germany, they would likely say, “Because we were trying to escape the oppression of the Soviets- and thought our chances were better for sovereignty after the war if Germany won.”

Still, it is estimated that 900,000 Jewish people were killed in Ukraine at the time of the Holocaust. In recent times, Vladimir Putin has used this to allege that ‘Ukraine is led by Nazis.

Putin is now using the idea that Ukrainians want “genocide against Russian-speaking people,” said Jackson “‘So, it’s our responsibility, like Russia, to take our Russian-speaking population and protect them.’” 

Since the Allied Powers won the war, Russia, once again, considered Ukraine its territory. In August of 1991, Ukraine declared its independence. In December of the same year, the Soviet Union fell. 

After Ukraine declared independence, it gained representation in the UN. The UN is an international organization with 193 countries currently joined. It works to ensure international peace and security, create friendly relations between countries, and protect human rights. This step increased the number of countries that accepted Ukraine as an independent country. Russia recognized their independence, yet still interfered with Ukrainian politics.

________  Protests in Kiev  ________

Despite Ukraine being independent of Russia, Vladimir Putin still had influence over the Ukrainian government. In 2013, the President of Ukraine was Viktor Yanukovych.

“(Yanukovych) was a proponent of Putin. Russia wanted to keep a pro-Russian Ukraine, but a lot of Ukrainian people wanted Ukraine to join what is seen as the EU,” explained Corey Hubble, a history teacher at Jenks, “So you have this struggle of Putin and Russia wanting someone in power in Ukraine that is more looking East. Whereas, the majority of the Ukrainian people kind of want Ukraine to join the European community.”

In November of 2013, the EU offered a “fair trade” agreement to Yanukovych. A “fair trade” agreement enables involved countries to exchange goods and services, often furthering economies. In this case, the agreement would be Ukraine’s first step toward joining the EU. 

Putin saw this as a threat of the West encroaching on the rest of the world, which would hurt Russia’s economy and agenda.

Due to this, Yanukovych denied the proposal, largely due to pressure from Russia, and wanting to comply with Putin. This decision led to major protests in Kiev, raging from late November to February 2014, when the protests turned violent. This popular uprising was dubbed the Revolution of Dignity.

“This is when the Ukraine nationality really comes out as showing that they wanted to be a part of Europe,” said Hubble, “So there’s a huge protest, a breakout, (the government) tries to crack down (on protestors), which creates even more backlash. Eventually, the president is forced to flee the country.” 

So, Yanukovych fled to Crimea and then escaped the country with help from the Russian Government.

In March of 2014, the Ukrainian Prime Minister signed an Association Agreement with leaders of the EU. The Association Agreement was basically a treaty between the EU and Ukraine that established a close relationship of cooperation between the union and a country. 

________  War in Donbas  ________

“Putin knows he needs to find a way to get the situation under control,” said Hubble, “Which is why, in March of 2014, Russia occupied the Crimean Peninsula, which had a Russian naval base on it at Sevastopol, which had been there since the fall of the Soviet Union.” 

On this map, you can see how the Crimean Peninsula relates geographically to Russia and Ukraine. Note that the orange territory to the right of the peninsula is also Russian territory. Sevastopol is located at the very bottom of Crimea, facing South-West and opening to the Black Sea.

The Black Sea is a key player in this conflict.

“When we came to America, we believed that we would never, ever, ever settle the amount of land available. But, we wanted access to trade with foreign countries,” said Jackson. “We settled East and West.”

If a country has access to a sea, they are able to trade with other countries without restriction. 

“Russia works the same,” said Jackson, “Well, they have access to the Black Sea.” 

For Russia, access to the Black Sea means access to the Mediterranean. This opens up trade opportunities which could be a drastic step to regaining the power that the empire of Russia used to hold. The Crimean Peninsula gives access to the Black Sea.

“The Russians actually rented out that city (Sevastopol) from Ukraine. So there’s a huge Russian military base already in Ukraine. It didn’t take much for the Russians just to take over the Crimean Peninsula,” said Hubble.

The Donbas region, if you want to refer to the map again, is essentially comprised of Donetsk and Luhansk. This area has many ethnically Russian citizens. So, Putin’s goal was to begin pro-Russian demonstrations in the two Ukrainian cities and eventually integrate them into Russia.

“Putin was thinking, ‘if I could send in agents, start a rebellion against the Ukrainian government, he could start chipping away at the government of Ukraine,” explained Hubble “This is why you have the Donbas region, which he declares as a ‘sovereign, independent republic’, when everyone knows it’s just a puppet regime propped up by the Russians.”

After much pressure from Putin, through sending in agents and special forces, pro-Russian demonstrations did emerge in the Donbas region.

“He’s trying to make this argument that it’s not just Donbas and Crimea, but all of Ukraine isn’t a real place. All of Ukraine was made up by the Soviet Union, and therefore can just be ‘taken back’ afterward,” said Hubble, “It’s like if you got a divorce with someone, and thirty years later, they ask for the house back. After you’ve already signed the divorce papers, so instead they just invade your home and start stealing your furniture- that’s essentially what Putin is doing.”

While Putin’s perspective on this conflict seems insane to us, his approach in the Donbas region worked. As the protests went on, Donetsk and Luhansk tried to declare themselves ‘People’s Republics’. This means that they would be separate from Ukraine. The pro-Russian demonstrators seized government buildings and fought Ukrainian forces. 

From here, the conflict escalated. Russia employed a hybrid approach to their warfare, this means they combined unusual methods such as spreading disinformation to Ukraine about attacks, political tactics, and cyber attacks. 

Ukraine responded to this by creating a counter offense called the ‘Anti-Terrorism Operation’, or ‘ATO’, which allowed the Ukrainian military to monitor conflict zones instead of the Ukrainian secret service. 

This shrunk Russian control, leading to a full Russian invasion of the Donbas in August of 2014. This invasion allowed Donetsk and Luhansk to regain territory they lost, but the fighting continued for a month. 

________  Ceasefires and Outcome  ________

In September of 2014, Russia and Ukraine signed a ceasefire. 

“Ceasefires are notoriously hard to maintain in active war zones,” said Hubble, “But there’s a legitimate reason for trying to allow people to evacuate areas and trying to stop the bloodshed as well.”

By January of 2015, within four months, the ceasefire collapsed. 

“Ceasefires buy time to make moves,” explained Jackson, “If lying gets you what you want, humans will continue to lie until someone holds them accountable. Russian government, Russian oligarchs, Russian separatist groups, Russian military- who, in their region, could or would hold them accountable?” 

Needless to say, none of the ceasefires held. None of the twenty-nine ceasefires, within five years, lasted between Russia and Ukraine. Eventually, the conflict reached a stalemate, which is a situation in which neither Russia nor Ukraine are able to progress toward their goals. Despite this, the fighting continued. 

The final ceasefire was agreed upon in July of 2020. Since then, Russian forces built upon the border of Donbas.

On February 21st of this year, 2022, Russia recognized Donetsk and Luhansk as legitimate People’s Republics. And on February 24th, they invaded Ukraine.

________  What now?  ________

So, what does this mean? 

In current conversations about the crisis, there are many mentions of NATO. NATO stands for ‘North Atlantic Treaty Organization’. It is an alliance that was formed between the Western Allies after WWII. There are thirty member states, all of which are in Europe and North America. 

“Ukraine is sitting between NATO countries and Russia. And Russia is saying ‘Don’t you dare join NATO’,” said Jackson, “Ukraine is saying ‘We’d really like to join NATO and the EU, be autonomous and do our own thing’, but Russia is such a huge threat to them.”

Over the past thirty years, Ukraine has held relations with NATO despite being unable to accept an Alliance agreement. Currently, countries in the organization are independently sending firearms, ammunition, medical supplies, and financial aid to support Ukraine.

NATO also sent 40,000 troops to the borders of the eastern countries in the Alliance. Still, many spectators want NATO to do more to stop the crisis. 

The problem here is that if the Allies (NATO) get involved in the conflict, it would prompt further action from Russia. 

This is where we are right now. Unless Russia makes a move toward NATO countries, NATO cannot react without beginning a larger war. This would cause exponentially more destruction, likely with nuclear repercussions.

________  In Conclusion  ________

As for the future, we should try to keep ourselves updated and educated on current events that are affecting our world. Not just through social media, but through trusted news sources. Now that we have an understanding of why this is happening, we will be able to understand what is reported next, instead of repeating the opinions on Instagram stories.

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