As I’m sure you’re well aware, Russia and Ukraine are at war.
On the morning of February 24, 2022, Russia launched a “special military operation” into Ukraine with dozens of cruise missile strikes across the Eastern European country and combined air, land, and sea operations from the north, east, and south.
While the future of this conflict is anyone’s guess, it’s important to understand how we got here.
For those who aren’t familiar with the region’s history and politics, cutting through the rhetoric can be a bit difficult — especially now that a war is in full swing.
This article obviously can’t provide every detail as to how and why this is happening, but we hope to give you more context.
Table of Contents
USSR to Independence
Although we can start this story much earlier, we chose to start with the most direct path to the war we see today.
You can probably take this back to the 9th century and the formation of Russian and Ukrainian identity from Eastern Slavic tribes if you really want to, but we won’t…
When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Russia and Ukraine became independent nations.
For Russia, independence was nothing new — the Russian Empire existed for centuries before the USSR and had a long heritage of regional power.
Ukraine, on the other hand, never existed before as a sovereign nation – historically dominated by neighboring empires including Poland-Lithuania, Austria-Hungary, the Ottoman Empire, and of course, the Russian Empire.
Initially, Russia and Ukraine maintained a decent relationship.
Ukraine depended on Russia for energy, while Russia imported heavy machinery, food, and raw materials from Ukraine.
Additionally, Ukraine returned all Soviet nuclear weapons to Russian control.
But all good things must end, and by 2003, serious fractures started to emerge in the relationship.
Russia wanted to further integrate Ukraine into its economy. But Ukraine, not wanting to enter a deal that would create more Russian control, began to look west to the European Union.
Ukrainian-Russian relations had their ups and downs, mostly regarding fuel prices and Ukraine flirting with the idea of joining the EU or NATO.
While some Ukrainian leaders pushed further away from Russia, others took a more neutral stance.
In 2010, Ukraine elected President Viktor Yanukovych. Yanukovych tried to play both sides by stalling the NATO membership process his predecessors began, rebuilding relations with Russia, and engaging more with the EU economy.
The path to the current war began with the Euromaidan movement in late 2013.
Just as Yanukovych was set to sign an economic deal with the EU, Russia announced a boycott of Ukrainian products. Seeing the damage this did to the economy, Yanukovych canceled the EU deal, expanding exports to Russia.
Many Ukrainians saw this as their government bowing to Russian demands.
By this time, Yanukovych was already unpopular in Ukraine for his increasingly authoritarian political moves. However, he remained popular in the East and South of Ukraine, where pro-Russian sentiment was stronger.
That November, tens of thousands of protesters took to the streets across Ukraine to voice their concerns. They were met with brutal police repression.
In Kyiv, protestors assembled in the city’s Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square). They demanded closer ties to Europe, an end to government corruption, and the release of political prisoners.
But that didn’t go over too well, and the violence escalated.
Ukrainian special police units attacked protesters in the square, which numbered over 500,000. Protesters barricaded streets and clashed with police and military units throughout December 2013.
Yanukovych doubled down on his decisions and drew up new deals to create closer ties with Russia.
He then passed new anti-protest laws on January 16, 2014.
These laws included amnesty for all police who committed crimes against protesters, jail time for online defamation of leadership, and criminalization of “extremist activity” — which was left undefined.
Naturally, these measures only fanned the flames.
Protesters occupied government buildings around the country, and police were authorized to use live ammunition. The death toll mounted as police snipers fired on protesters.
Members of Yanukovych’s party resigned from the parliament and disappeared from public life.
While opposition grew amongst politicians from other parties, rumors spread that the disappearing parliament members were fleeing the country.
On February 22, 2014, Yanukovych was nowhere to be found. Out of 450 parliament members, only 328 showed up to the day’s session.
That afternoon, the remaining leadership voted to impeach Yanukovych and remove him from office despite the less than 338 votes required by the Ukrainian constitution at the time.
Instead of charging Yanukovych with a crime, it was declared that he “withdrew from his duties in an unconstitutional manner” by abandoning his post. A new provisional government was formed under Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk.
No one can agree on the total number of deaths the protests caused, but estimates range from just over 120 to almost 800.
The new government immediately began to distance itself from Russia and drew closer to the EU.
In the typical post-repression display of national pride, the special laws that protected Russian as a “minority language” were repealed.
This act alone was the tipping point for many citizens who saw it as an attack on their cultural heritage.
The day after Yanukovych was removed from office, pro-Russian demonstrations sprang up in the Crimean city of Sevastopol.
Crimea, which had been part of the Russian portion of the USSR until 1954, was home to Yanukovych’s strongest supporters.
The government of Crimea was split.
Some recognized the new government in Kyiv, while others conceded to protesters who demanded Crimea be returned to Russia. Pro-Russian protesters blocked government buildings and called for a referendum of separation from the new Kyiv government.
On February 27, Russian special forces members in uniforms without insignia appeared at the Supreme Council of Crimea (the region’s parliament) in Simferopol, blockaded the building, and raised a Russian flag.
An emergency session was called, and the parliament voted to terminate the local government and replace its leadership with pro-Russia politician Sergey Aksyonov. Aksyonov had only received 4% of the vote in the last election.
The hostage government also voted to hold a public referendum on increasing Crimea’s autonomy — a vote which critics say was forced at gunpoint.
In the meantime, Aksynov asked for Russian military intervention to consolidate control of Crimea.
By March 2, Crimea was cut off from mainland Ukraine as more uniformed but unmarked troops appeared with armor and modern Russian equipment.
Putin claimed the “little green men” were not Russian soldiers but locals who organized themselves for their own defense.
Of course, it was later admitted that these troops were indeed Russian military.
As the March 16 referendum approached, Kyiv declared the process illegal and the Aksynov government illegitimate.
In response, Russian troops gathered along Ukraine’s eastern border.
Official results of the referendum claim that 95.5% of Crimean citizens voted to break away from Ukraine, while the Russian Human Rights Council says the number was actually in the 15 to 30% range.
Regardless of the true numbers, Russian troops controlled the peninsula, the referendum “passed,” and the Russian Duma approved Crimea as a new federal subject of Russia five days later.
Kyiv ordered Ukrainian troops to withdraw from Crimea, and all military installations came under Russian control.
Other than Crimea, the Donbas region of Eastern Ukraine remained vocally pro-Yanukovych and pro-Russia.
Donbas, an abbreviation of “Donets Coal Basin,” is a major industrial region that surrounds the cities of Donetsk and Luhansk.
Empowered by the events unfolding in Crimea, pro-Russian protesters occupied security buildings in Donetsk and demanded a referendum of their own.
When the Kyiv government refused, separatists declared the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) on April 7, 2014.
Almost immediately, militants spread across the entire Donetsk region under the command of a retired Russian operative. After taking control of multiple cities, the government in Kyiv offered amnesty to all separatists if they would lay down their arms.
The offer was refused, and the government launched an “anti-terrorist operation” on April 15.
Similar events played out in Luhansk, and the Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR) was announced on April 27. The Donbas was now a warzone.
The back and forth fighting between the Ukrainian government and the separatist forces is interesting but long. So, let’s breeze through some of the most significant events.
By August 2015, Ukrainian forces were approaching the cities of Donetsk and Luhansk. At the same time, more “little green men” appeared in the region. The Russian government again claimed no knowledge of these men.
But it became increasingly obvious that the tanks and rockets used against Ukrainian positions didn’t appear out of thin air. Not to mention that the unmarked soldiers in Russian uniforms were indeed Russian soldiers.
Ukrainian forces were again pushed back from the region’s major cities.
In September 2015, a ceasefire deal was reached between the Ukrainian government, the Russian government, and the leaders of the DPR and LHR.
Known as the Minsk Protocol, the agreement changed very little, and the fighting continued — but at a less intense rate. Both sides accused the other of constant violations, but several prisoner exchanges took place.
By January, the war was back to full escalation.
And by July 2020, a total of 29 ceasefire attempts were made. While some months saw complete peace, others were incredibly bloody.
The line of contact between Ukraine and the DPR and LPR stabilized, and both sides dug trenches.
Thousands of civilians had lost their lives, along with almost 10,000 military fatalities between Ukrainian, Russian, and separatist forces.
The most recent calm came between July and December 2020, when only three Ukrainian deaths were reported. It looked like things might be finally settling down for good.
Trouble Brews Again
In September 2020, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy approved a new National Security Strategy aimed for eventual NATO membership for Ukraine — a step taken by multiple other post-communist European nations.
Having a NATO state on their borders posed an unacceptable threat to Russia.
By April 2021, Russia moved an estimated 85,000 soldiers into Crimea and began to mass troops from as far away as Siberia along Ukraine’s eastern border.
Russian officials claimed that these soldiers posed no threat but were prepared to protect Russian citizens in Ukraine.
The definition of “Russian citizen” was pretty inclusive by this point, as over a half-million Russian passports had been given to citizens in the separatist regions.
In a bit of foreshadowing that’s all too clear today, Vladimir Putin published an essay titled On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians in July of 2021.
Despite the nice name, Putin’s essay basically claims that Russians, Ukrainians, and Belarusians are all a single people and part of a fractured Russian nation.
Putin outlined his view of Russian and Ukrainian history and rejected the modern borders of the two countries. To him, the vast majority of Ukraine (not just Crimea and the Donbas) rightfully belonged to Russia.
Despite most serious historians rejecting Putin’s historical narrative as a gross oversimplification of a complex history — comparing it to Hitler’s views on the Sudetenland — the article provides a clear window into Putin’s mind and how he justifies Russian control of Ukraine.
In November 2021, the Ukrainian government claimed that nearly 100,000 Russian soldiers were now along its borders — raising fears of an imminent invasion.
Putin described these fears as “alarmist” and “hysteria” and pointed out the threat posed by NATO exercises being conducted in the Black Sea.
Despite the reassurance that Ukraine had nothing to worry about, the Russian embassy in Kyiv began to withdraw staff in January 2022 while moving short-range ballistic missiles to the border.
By the end of January, an estimated 70% of Russia’s combat forces were along the Ukrainian border — including in Belarus for “scheduled exercises.”
And the rest…well, leads us to where we’re at now.
TL; DR: Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 is the result of about eight years of rising tension.
Putin doesn’t like that Ukraine is pursuing closer ties with NATO, and he believes that most of Ukraine’s territory rightfully belongs to Russia.
Where this will lead is anyone’s guess, but at least now you know what led to the Ukraine-Russia showdown.
What are your thoughts on the Russia and Ukraine fight? Let us know in the comments below. For more history articles, check out our History Category!