A detailed explanation of the tensions in Russia and Ukraine
The first thing that you have to understand is that the tension between Russia and Ukraine is built upon two main reasons. One: Ukraine is a matter of strategic importance to Russia. Ukraine is quite a big country that finds itself right in between the European Union and Russia, making it highly valued territory.
Two: there have been years of territorial conflict between Ukraine and Russia. And to fully understand that conflict, we have to rewind time a bit.
Ukraine was once part of the Soviet Union, and after it’s fall, Ukraine became a separate country, officially declaring itself independent on 24th August 1991.
Geographically, Ukraine borders Russia, so naturally, the east side of Ukraine (the side bordering Russia) is heavily mixed with Russian and Ukrainian culture and political ideals.
Ukraine as a whole can essentially be broken into two political parties: those who support westernization/joining European forces, and who are typically more liberal, and those who are pro-Russia and are typically more conservative. The Ukrainian president from 2010-2014, Viktor Yankovitch, was the latter, and was particularly popular in the east.
However, after a few corruption charges and political “blunders”, by 2013 Yankovitch’s popularity was rapidly declining. So, in an effort to counter that, Yankovitch agreed to sign an accord that would officially declare Ukraine as part of the European union. Keep in mind this was an extremely critical agreement that had major support from the Ukrainian public, and was practically guaranteed to increase his approval ratings.
However, on November 21, 2013, the government went back on its promise at the last minute, and suspended the signing of the European Union Ukraine association agreement, causing major civil unrest in the country.
The unrest started as protests, then turned into riots and civil disobedience, and finally turned into a movement called the Euromaidan movement. During this period, Ukrainian society fell into chaos, and Yankovich ended up fleeing the country.
Amid the chaos, Russia strategically took control of Crimea, a Ukrainian Peninsula, officially declaring it independant on March 16, 2014. This caused uproar in the Ukrainian government, calling it a “violation of international law.”
Russia responded by saying a majority of the soldiers that took control of Crimea were volunteers and rebels from Ukraine itself. In addition, Vladamir Putin, the prime minister of Russia, made a statement saying that Russia will support the rights of Russian speakers in Crimea and South Ukraine.
This feeling of connectedness with Russian-speaking Ukranians and Russia caused a major ethnic division in Ukraine, creating regions on the east side of Ukraine called donetsk and luhansk (collectively known as the Donbas region) where fighting between Ukraine and Russia/rebel forces began.
Many reports say Russia supplied the Donbas region with heavy military equipment that was allegedly used to shoot down a passenger airplane over Ukrainian airspace, which crashed in the Donbas region.
That crash became a matter of international dispute between Russia and the United States/European Union, and Ukraine became the battleground. NATO even got involved, and in April 2016, NATO announced that they would support Ukraine, despite their lack of membership. And in October 2018 Ukraine joined the United States and seven other North Atlantic Treaty Organization countries in a series of large-scale air exercises in western Ukraine.
For five years this war raged on, even after multiple attempts at a cease fire agreement. Then, in 2019, the current Ukrainian President, Volodymyr Zelensky, was elected. He agreed to implement the Steinmeier formula, an alternative to prior agreements, that said once Russia removed all their troops from the Donbas region, and there was a complete ceasefire, then Ukraine would grant the Donbas region self-governing status, and local elections would be held. Essentially, Ukraine wanted the Donbas region free of Russian military influence, before any elections were held.
Russia responded by saying “the elections and autonomy, then everything else.” So in essence, even though they would be given the land they have been fighting over, Russia refused to remove their military power from the region.
If Ukraine had signed the agreement, despite Russia’s lack of cooperation, it would be a major risk. For starters, Ukraine would be rebuilding and supporting an autonomous zone, whose vast political power was Pro-Russia, helping Russia be in charge of domestic affairs. Additionally, the public will see it as a concession to Russia, causing even more protests and riots.
As a result, Ukraine is trapped, and with its current military power, Ukraine cannot compete with Russia for the Dombas territory, so they would require help from NATO.
Surprisingly, although NATO has offered its support, there is little support within NATO to grant membership to Ukraine. This is because NATO knows that Russia is already inside Ukraine, so the moment they grant membership, this will wage a full scale war against Russia, possibly causing what some have described as WWIII.
As the high-stakes diplomacy continues, Russia has kept up its military pressure, while NATO allies have been deploying troops and working on new plans for a longer-term presence in Eastern Europe; to deter Russia, not defend Ukraine.
Another hint of averting war came from Ukraine’s president, who said Monday that his country might have to abandon the possibility of joining NATO — one of Russia’s biggest demands. And while Russia has repeatedly said it has no plans to launch an invasion, they have continued to add to their arsenal. Last week, when asked about the possibility of invasion, Vladimir Putin refused to rule out the possibility.