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Russia vs. Ukraine: What Led to the 2022 Invasion?

With the recent fighting between Russia and Ukraine, you might be asking how did they get there? Well, we have the details on what led to the current war.

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.

Servicemen ride on an armored vehicle with the letter ‘Z’ on it in Armyansk, Crimea, after Russian President Vladimir Putin authorized a military operation in eastern Ukraine, February 24, 2022. (Photo: Stringer/Reuters)

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

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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.

Map of Ukraine (Photo: Geology.com)

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.

European Union (Photo: Wikipedia)

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.

President Viktor Yanukovych

Euromaidan

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.

Euromaidan
Thousands showed up to protest. (Photo: Andrew Kravchenko)

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.

Euromaidan Clashes
Police and protestors clashed. (Photo: Mstyslav Chernov/Unframe)

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.

Protestors burn tires near Kiev Conservatory.(Photo: Amakuha)

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.

(Photo: Amakuha)

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.

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.

Crimea

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.

Crimea

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.

Simferopol State Council of Crimea
Simferopol, State Council of Crimea (Photo: Vahe Martirosyan)

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.

Sergey Aksyonov
Sergey Aksyonov

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.

(Photo: Getty Images)

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.

Donbas

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.

(Photo: Taras Dudnik)

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.

Minsk Protocol

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.

President Volodymyr Zelenskyy (Photo: Ukrainian Presidency)

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.

(Photo: Baz Ratner/Reuters)

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.”

(Photo: AP/Marienko Andrew)

And the rest…well, leads us to where we’re at now.

Conclusion

TL; DR: Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 is the result of about eight years of rising tension.

A photo provided by the Ukrainian President’s office appears to show an explosion in the capital city of Kyiv early Thursday, February 24. (Photo: ROPI via ZUMA Press)

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!

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22 Leave a Reply

  • Commenter Avatar
    David

    You missed the part about how the US and EU funded and fomented the uprising in Ukraine leading to the uprisings.

    March 8, 2022 8:11 pm
  • Commenter Avatar
    Jesse

    I’m impressed that you all stuck your necks out and posted this article. I understand that it upset some readers. It’s important to have an exchange of ideas. Sometimes we forget the human cost, the suffering of people in real time!
    Keep up the good work!

    March 7, 2022 2:37 pm
  • Commenter Avatar
    Stan

    Wrong!
    But Putin is correct.

    March 7, 2022 10:55 am
  • Commenter Avatar
    Tomo666

    A very fair, concise, and accurate account of events leading up to the invasion. This should make all Americans appreciate just how special our constitution is and how lucky we've been to preserve it. Post-Soviet Russia started with free elections but Putin gradually removed the free part.

    March 7, 2022 9:17 am
  • Commenter Avatar
    Jerry Johnson

    Can't help but agree. And no, I am not a Russian... I'm actually a proud US Marine. The U.S. helped train and fund the overthrow of the legitimate Ukrainian government in 2014. John McCain and Lindsey Graham were both present in country (2013) to help set it up. This can be researched. Do your homework.

    March 6, 2022 8:37 pm
  • Commenter Avatar
    Hardcore Zen

    What is now Ukraine/Belarus was Russia before the USSR. That's irrefutable. These SO-CALLED nations never existed until the late 20th century.

    The Ukraine Government is in NO WAY the good guys here; it is corrupt to the core and a hotbed breeding ground of Nationalist hatred/bigotry of exactly the kind practiced by the National Socialist Workers Party that terrorized the world during WWII.

    Russia is what the Rus made it BEFORE the criminal psychopaths who called themselves Bolsheviks murdered an entire family in cold blood and then held a huge portion of the world hostages of Communism.

    Ordinary folks need arm themselves to the teeth. Then exterminate all the "zombies" who threaten their freedom regardless of what flag they have sticking out of their ass or who's boots they lick.

    FREEDOM by definition requires no permission or approval! It must be TAKEN from all who threaten the innocent. Death is the only acceptable mercy for all Statists infringing on anyone's freedom.

    March 6, 2022 5:33 pm
    • Commenter Avatar
      Silky Johnson

      You think Russia is the good guy? It’s okay to lob missiles and artillery at innocent civilians and invade that country because it’s corrupt, right? News flash, corruption exists within every government! Russia’s invasion is immoral and so is anybody that supports Putin.

      March 7, 2022 5:01 pm
  • Commenter Avatar
    Len

    Great article, but geez wasn't expecting russian trolling here.

    March 6, 2022 3:48 pm
    • Commenter Avatar
      Marvin Sehn

      I don't see much trolling! There is always two sides to any story and we should at least listen to both. I follow this area also since my ancestors lived in southeast Ukraine for over 100 years. As luck would have it they immigrated to the US shortly before WWI. They were part of a large group know as Germans from Russia.

      March 9, 2022 6:05 am
  • Commenter Avatar
    Darby Heavey

    How is the KGB retirement plan really? Do you ever miss pulling out fingernails?

    March 6, 2022 2:11 pm
  • Commenter Avatar
    John Lakey

    Much better explanation that I saw from Establishment Media

    March 5, 2022 12:12 pm
    • Commenter Avatar
      Jacki Billings, Editor

      Thanks for reading!

      March 7, 2022 5:23 am
      • Commenter Avatar
        Jesse

        Mr. Billings,
        I didn’t realize you would post my full name with my comment. Please remove my last name from my post.
        Thank you

        March 7, 2022 9:23 pm
        • Commenter Avatar
          Jacki Billings, Editor

          Hey Jesse, fixed it for you!

          March 8, 2022 4:21 am
  • Commenter Avatar
    Ryan

    Well, you left out a whole bunch. You have to start way further back when assurances were given to Russia that NATO would not continue to expand ( U.S. Secretary of State James Baker's famous "not one inch eastward" assurance about NATO expansion in his meeting with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev on February 9, 1990) , but expand they did. There are leaked documents, and while nothing was ever written down officially, the assurances were there. Then you have the US backed revolution in 2014 and CIA training of the Azov battalion. Dual use missile launchers were placed in Poland and Romania that can be loaded with nuclear weapons. What would the US do if Russia became friends with Mexico and Canada and put those missile launchers? I would recommend giving a listen to Col. Douglas Macgregor had to say as well as Scott Horton.

    March 5, 2022 12:22 am
    • Commenter Avatar
      Craig

      On point!

      March 6, 2022 10:54 pm
    • Commenter Avatar
      Jacki Billings, Editor

      I believe our author mentioned in the article that this was a condensed piece and that the history goes much further back than what we started with. But for space and time's sake, we had to condense it down. Thanks for reading!

      March 7, 2022 5:24 am
  • Commenter Avatar
    Myon

    This is a pretty good article, but there's still a lot that y'all left out. For example, Yanukovych also stole a shitload of money from the Ukrainian people, and literally lived like a king, palace and everything, while his people suffered under a crumbling economy.

    There was also a massive surge in far-right politics in both Russia and Ukraine since the collapse of the USSR, as with eastern Europe in general. Mythologization of the Nazi war criminal Stefan Bandera got a lot of popularity in Ukraine in the 90s and 00s, and the increased militancy of fascist street movements like Svoboda, C14, and Right Sector in the 10s and the participation of neo-Nazi paramilitaries like the Azov Regiment in the 2014 phase of the conflict has given a ton of ammo to the Kremlin accusing Ukraine of being a "Nazi junta". Thankfully, there are groups that organized specifically to combat against the street fash, and Svoboda got hit with some pretty epic backlash in the polls last election, and got a lot of egg on their faces losing to Zelenskyy (a Jewish man, by the way, for extra trolling on the Nazis) in an absolute landslide.

    Of course, Russian state media claims of this phase of the war being about "de-Nazification" are blatant hypocrisy on full display. Putin has close ties to esoteric fashy nutbag Aleksandr Dugin, as well as neo-Nazi mercenary warlord Dmitry Utkin. Utkin also founded a Blackwater-esque company called Wagner Group, and mercs working for Wagner have committed some pretty horrible crimes in Ukraine and other places (Libya, Syria, the Central African Republic, etc.). Wagner is also the biggest backer of the Donbass separatists, whose leaders have gone on record claiming that the Maidan Revolution was a Jewish plot. Also, the separatists have a shitload of other varieties of fascists in their ranks, ranging from Orthodox Christian extremists to Serbian Chetniks to Nazbols to Chechnya's state police.

    March 4, 2022 7:15 pm
    • Commenter Avatar
      Jacki Billings, Editor

      I believe our author mentioned in the article that this was a condensed piece and that the history goes much further back than what we started with. But for space and time's sake, we had to condense it down. Thanks for reading!

      March 7, 2022 5:25 am
      • Commenter Avatar
        Myon

        No probs, every media outlet trying to sum up what the hell is going on here runs into the trouble of focusing too much on one aspect of this tremendously complicated conflict. For now, I'd say the best course of action is to platform the voices of the Ukrainian people and Russians opposed to the war. Make sure to know who to look to, though, as, while the far-right in Ukraine may have been subject to heavy backlash over the past few years, they're still prevalent. There are a lot of photos of rallies supporting the resistance that have visible flags of groups like Azov and Right Sector.

        Also, please please PLEASE donate as much money as you can spare to humanitarian efforts. Don't drive yourself into destitution, obviously, but please make sure that the people fleeing this conflict and others have the resources they need to find asylum.

        March 7, 2022 7:42 am
  • Commenter Avatar
    Now I shoot for fun

    Great article Matt. I would say that you condensed the complicated history of this area down to the essentials that make the current situation more easily understandable. As is always the case with this former empire/dictatorship, the Czar makes choices and the masses suffer for them.

    March 4, 2022 4:05 pm
    • Commenter Avatar
      Jacki Billings, Editor

      Thanks for reading!

      March 7, 2022 5:25 am
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