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Photo courtesy of NATO North Atlantic Treaty Organization / Flickr

Russia-Ukraine Crisis: Understanding the Conflict

The escalation of territorial disputes and verbal spats between Russia and the pro-Western government in Ukraine, along with its supporters in the European Union (EU) and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), exploded into all-out war on 24 February, 2022. Though Russian advances from breakaway republics in the east of Ukraine, as well as from the southern Crimean Peninsula and from Ukraine's northern neighbor of Belarus, has been met with fierce resistance, many wonder how long this will be able to last.

As the crisis builds, global leaders and citizens around the world worry that the situation could escalate further if diplomatic solutions are not taken seriously. As the precedent of over 75 years of peace in Europe has been shattered, it is more important than ever to understand the current developments in Ukraine. 

Why is Russia involved in Ukraine? 

Primarily, Russia’s core demand is a guarantee that Ukraine will not join NATO’s defensive alliance, which consists of 30 member countries and is led by the United States. Historically, Russia has resisted Ukraine’s movement toward European institutions. 

As a former Soviet state, Ukraine shares a border with Russia and has deep-rooted social and cultural ties with Moscow. Thus, Russia feels that it has a historic claim to Ukraine. In February of 2014, a series of pro-European protests and riots culminated in the overthrow of Ukraine’s government, replacing the Russian-backed regime with a democratic government that sought to strengthen its ties with the West, specifically the EU and NATO. 

After the Ukranians overthrew their pro-Russian president, Russia responded by annexing the southern Crimean peninsula. 

What was the buildup that lead to the conflict? 

Since October 2021, Russia has deployed approximately 130,000 air, land, and sea forces in the vicinity of the Ukrainian border; this includes deployments within Russia, separatist-held territories, and the former Soviet Republic of Belarus. 

Simultaneously, the Kremlin announced the deployment of 140 warships around the country, including in the Black Sea and Mediterranean. The governments of Ukraine, Norway, and Canada also faced cyberattacks that originated within Russia following their criticism of its increased mobilization. 

Publicly, Russia maintained for weeks before their invasion that it had no plans to attack or invade Ukraine, denouncing differing reports as lies. Even still, the Kremlin refuses to acknowledge this as an invasion, preferring to refer to the conflict as a "special military operation" staffed not by military personnel but mercenary contractors aided by Russian officers.

In the previous weeks, Russia has deployed thousands of troops to Belarus, which borders Ukraine to the north, for what they claimed were military exercises. The Pentagon continued to warn that these forces, from across Russia, were building up to a number sufficient to support an invasion, along with the logistical equipment to sustain a large-scale war.

What does Russia want? 

During a series of meetings between NATO, US, and Russian officials in weeks prior, Russia outlined a series of “red lines” it demanded of the West. Primarily, NATO and the EU would have to deny Ukraine and Georgia entry to their organizations.

Additionally, Russia demands that Ukrainian and Georgian borders return to their pre-1997 state, which would force the alliance to abandon a number of former Soviet Republic nations that have since joined. 

Also, NATO would be forced to request consent from Russia to deploy soldiers in any Eastern European nation for war games or other exercises. 

Ultimately, Russia wants to ensure that Ukraine “never, ever becomes a member of NATO,” per Deputy Foregin Minister Sergei Ryabkov. President Putin is worried that, should Ukraine join NATO, the alliance may attempt to retake Crimea. 

Further, the Kremlin demands an end to NATO military activity in Eastern Europe with no more eastward expansion. 

  • For more: 

During an address to the Russian public, Putin referred to NATO as a "war machine" that was approaching the borders of Russia with the intent of dismantling the Russian state. Evidence of this was NATO peacekeeping operations in the former Yugoslavia during its bloody civil war in the 1990's and the presence of NATO forces in the Middle East in what has come to be known as the "War on Terror." Additionally, Putin accused the West's "empire of lies" of attempting to move into Ukraine, and that Russian forces would need to conduct special operations in the country to "pursue the demilitarization and denazification of Ukraine."

  • For a translation of excerpts of Putin's speech:

How have NATO and the EU responded? 

NATO maintains its status as a defensive alliance that poses no threat to Russia; the alliance strives to achieve peace, stability, and security in the greater Euro-Atlantic area and in Europe as a whole. At the center of NATO dogma is the principle that disagreements be resolved through diplomacy and dialogue, not the use of aggression, threats, or force. 

NATO allies have deployed air units to its bases near Ukraine in order to provide air support in the event of an invasion. Similarly, ground forces from across the bloc are on standby to respond if needed. This readiness was brought to a higher level with the invocation of NATO's Article 4, allowing the bloc to deploy troops to member nations' borders.

As Russia has placed its nuclear forces on a higher alert, France's Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told the media that "Vladimir Putin must also understand that [NATO] is a nuclear alliance." This heightened level of alertness and increased nuclear sabre-rattling came as a response to Western sanctions on Russia's economy.

The EU promised to give Ukraine fighter jets on February 27 as many of the bloc's members have in storage older model jets that Ukrainian pilots are trained to fly. As Russia has failed to gain air superiority over the country, Ukrainian planes and drones have been wreaking havoc on Russian military convoys and armor positions. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has made an effort to remain in the nations capital of Kyiv with his people. On the night of February 28, President Zelensky signed a formal application to join the EU in the hopes of expediting the process.

  • For a video of President Zelensky's appeal to the EU, as well as info on the application:

How did the US prepare before conflict began?

In response to the “red lines” outlined by Putin, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki stated, “we will not compromise the key principles on which European security is built, including that all countries have the right to decide their own future and foreign policy free from outside interference.”

The US had put roughly 8,000 troops on alert and has deployed another 3,000 soldiers to Germany, Romania, and Poland. Additionally, the US has offered military aid to affected Eastern European nations. After the invasion began, Biden promised an additional 20,000 troops to Eastern Europe and began the shipment of arms to Ukraine directly, as opposed to just shifting resources being held in Europe.

The US Navy also released the location of one of its nuclear-powered submarines, the USS Georgia, off the coast of Cyprus, likely as a deterrent to the use of Russian naval power in the Mediterranean to aid Russian forces in the Black Sea. This naval power is supplemented by the USS Harry S Truman carrier strike group in the Mediterranean, along with further NATO naval forces.

What economic repercussions has Russia faced, and what is SWIFT?

In response to Russia's invasion, the West has levied the strongest sanctions yet seen placed upon Russia, with even historically neutral and Russian-aligned nations joining in. These restrictions include the freezing of assets held in the West, as well as the inability of Russia to raise new debt overseas, denial of Russian airlines to use Western airspace, and sanctions leveled against oligarchs in Russia whose backing is crucial to Putin's hold over the country.

The Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which completed construction in September of last year but had yet to open, has also been a topic of conversation. Built to supply Western countries with Russian natural gas, the pipeline has been shut down and many Western oil and gas companies are beginning to pull out of it as a way to levy further economic pressure on Russia.

  • For more on the Nord Stream 2 pipeline's significance:

Additionally, select Russian banks have been shut off from the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication, otherwise known as SWIFT. A self-described "neutral utility," the Belgian-based organization is essential for banks looking to transfer funds across international borders and facilitating currency exchanges. The exclusion of certain Russian banks from SWIFT, as well as other economic sanctions, have resulted in the Russian markets collapsing and the Russian Ruble being worth, as of February 28, less than $0.01.

  • For more on SWIFT:


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Long Island born and raised. Probably somewhere waiting on line for coffee or working on an essay I put off for far too long.

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Political Comm major, iced coffee addict, lover of Taylor Swift, the Buffalo Bills, and dogs 🙂