The Historical and Modern Antecedents to the Russo-Ukrainian Conflict

Pictured Above: The People’s Friendship Arch, built in 1982, symbolized the political and cultural unity between Russia and Ukraine. Following significant deterioration over the following decades, Ukrainian activists painted a crack on the arch to resemble this rupture.

Photo Credit: Timon91

By Manuel Aguilera-Prieto
Contributing Writer

The political circumstances surrounding Ukraine have been marked by a series of tumultuous events that have considerably impacted the international stage. Considering its potential outcomes, the most recent of said events has proven itself to be the most precarious one. Russian proxy forces have occupied the eastern Donbas region after the annexation and incorporation of the Crimean Peninsula in 2014. With the Russian invasion of Ukraine in late February, an already dangerous situation has escalated into total war. As of March 4, Moscow’s forces have made substantial headway on the Black Sea front. However, the Northern front has seen the Russian military unable to penetrate its heavy fortification. The port city of Kherson became the first major city to succumb to Russian forces, while Kyiv and Kharkiv have been able to hold their ground and repel the ongoing siege. To understand why this conflict has transpired, it is worth analyzing the relevant historical aspects of the crisis.

Along with several other states, Ukraine acquired independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. It initially maintained positive relations with the Russian Federation when it signed the “Treaty on Friendship, Cooperation, and Partnership” which recognized the sovereignty of both nations. However, the relationship deteriorated after the Orange Revolution of 2004-05, when Kyiv’s foreign policy shifted from a stance favoring Russia to a more Western oriented vision of European integration. Less than ten years later, during the Yanukovych presidency, a similar crisis occurred when the prospect of a pro-Europe Ukraine was undermined. 

The Yanukovych regime rejected the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement, which sought to increase trade and cooperation between the two. This decision sparked the Euromaidan movement of 2013—a wave of demonstrations in favor of economic and political incorporation into Western Europe—which highlighted the dichotomy between the western and eastern regions of the country. Popular indignation led to widespread violence, and ultimately Yanukovych was forced to flee the country. While western Ukraine experienced domestic unrest, Russian-backed insurrectionists in the Donbas took up arms against the local government to oppose EU integration. Meanwhile, the Crimean Peninsula was annexed by Russian forces in an effort to protect the rights of Russians and Russian-speaking citizens.

Russia’s justification for this incursion stems from recent events in the eastern hemisphere that have both directly and indirectly affected the country. Russian President Vladimir Putin frequently cites NATO as a western imperialist tool that seeks to undermine Russian interests. This is not an unreasonable perspective, seeing how in 1999, three former Warsaw Pact countries—Hungary, Poland, and Czech Republic—joined the military alliance. From Putin’s perspective, this was encroaching on his country’s sphere of influence and thus inflicted a huge diplomatic cost. Moreover, NATO’s incursions into non-member states have also been included on the list of Russian grievances. For instance, NATO’s bombing of Yugoslavia in 1999, which resulted in hundreds of civilian deaths, was an egregious example of unprecedented aggression in Russia’s eyes. Due to their Slavic heritage, Serbians and Russians share a bond that transcends borders, and thus this attack was perceived as offensive to both groups. Just over ten years later in 2011, NATO intervened in Libya to overthrow Qaddafi, which according to Putin was an act of betrayal. He underscored that this conflict was outside NATO’s jurisdiction, and that it shattered any chance of cooperation between Russia and the North African country. Russia used these justifications to legitimize the incursion into their western neighbor in an effort to counteract NATO’s eastward expansion, which the Kremlin perceives to be threatening.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine is the most significant military conflict on the European continent since the second world war. This tragic event interrupts a remarkable 77-year period of relative peace in the region, and the consequences will be far-reaching and not entirely predictable. However, due to historical and neoteric geopolitical grievances, this conflict does not come as a total shock. The aforementioned recent devlopments involving powerful organizations such as the EU and NATO have transformed Ukraine into a powerful and relevant actor in the region. Russia’s incursion into Ukraine has come about as a result of this developing relationship, and it will surely have a profound influence over the international theater for years to come.

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