As Russia's invasion of Ukraine enter its 100th day, widespread fears that it could trigger the next global warfare. | Photo Credit: Businessday

From Affiliation To Invasion: Dissecting The Russia-Ukraine War

With the influx of information on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, it may seem overwhelming for some to grasp how such a situation that abruptly dominated our news and social media feeds unfolded to become one of Europe’s largest wars in recent times. We highlight the tangled history and the complex relationship between the two nations and reveal its part in setting the stage for the ongoing crisis.

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On Feb 24, 2022, Russia launched a military invasion of Ukraine. Five months later, nearly 30 per cent of the country’s population is now displaced, and seismic repercussions in the global economy have precipitated. To understand its severity and how it came about, we start by revisiting the history between the two nations. 

Russia & Ukraine: A Long-Term Complicated Relationship 

Ukraine was a part of the 18th and 19th century Russian Empire and maintained ties with Russia throughout a complex history of relations. This included two pro-Western revolutions in Kyiv in 2004 (Orange Revolution) and the 2014 (Revolution of Dignity 2014) that the Kremlin (also known as the Russian government) strongly opposed. 

Orange Revolution, 2004. | Photo Credit: National News Agency of Ukraine

In 1917, the Russian Revolution took place, resulting in a civil war fought predominantly between the Red and White Army. The former was a Bolshevik (communist) group led by Vladimir Lenin while the latter was a loose coalition of anti-communist and patriotic forces. At the end of this period, several nations in Eastern Europe including Ukraine gained independence. However, for Ukraine, that only lasted till 1921 when it quickly got absorbed into the Soviet Union.

By the time the Second World War ended, the Soviet Union had a large influence over eastern Europe dividing them from the democratised and capitalist western Europe. This divergence between the American-led Western bloc and the Soviet-led Eastern bloc was what essentially escalated into the Cold War. As a result, European nations in the West together with the United States (US) and Canada formed the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) as a form of alliance in defending each other lest an invasion takes place. On the other hand, the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact formed in 1955, building up its military to counterbalance NATO. 

Members of NATO and Warsaw Pact Respectively in 1990. | Photo Credit: Bryn Bache | CNBC

Europe remained this way until decades later when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 dissolving into fifteen independent nations including Russia and Ukraine. While most of the post-soviet nations joined NATO, Belarus, Georgia, and Ukraine were left without membership by 2004. 

Fast-forward to 2013, a historic association agreement with the European Union (EU) was waiting to be signed by Ukraine when the country’s pro-Russian government rejected this. This resulted in an eruption of protests by anti-Russia Ukrainian civilians causing then-president Viktor Yanukovych to be thrown out of office (and Ukraine).

Expansion of NATO from 1949 to 2020 (The US and Canada, both NATO members, are not seen here. Both Sweden and Finland have applied to join NATO in May and July 2022 respectively). | Photo Credit: NATO via Statistica

The ousting of then-president Yanukovych possibly meant that current Russian President Vladimir Putin was losing political influence over Ukraine. This was a catalyst for Russia’s invasion and subsequent annexation of Crimea in 2014. Soon, the Ukrainian regions of Donetsk and Luhansk were overrun by Moscow-backed separatists and were announced as independent of Ukraine. 

“Total Lies and Hypocrisy”: The Build Up 

Since then, for eight years, Putin has held on to these regions. However, tensions seemed to arise in 2017 when the Ukrainian parliament voted on the goal of joining NATO. This goal then became cemented in September 2020 when Zelenskyy confirmed NATO membership as a strategic national goal.

Following that year in November, satellite evidence showed hundreds of thousands of military troops and equipment along the border of Ukraine. When confronted by the US about a possible invasion, Putin denied it. 

Russian Forces at the Ukraine Border. | Photo Credit: Wall Street Journal 

Weeks later in December, Putin made a list of demands to NATO, demanding them to halt the expansion of NATO and move its military influence away from Russia. Leaders in the West instead reinforced their military presence in the East while Russia continued to gather its military troops along Ukraine and conducted military drills in neighbouring Belarus. 

To Putin, their demands were “an attempt to agree with the US and its allies on the principles of ensuring security in Europe and on the non-expansion of NATO”, according to his address made later in February. However, considering their response, Putin believed the West were not open to negotiating this issue.  

In the address made by President Vladimir Putin on Feb 24, 2022, it was clear that his tolerance for Western dominance had been thinning for some time. Citing the crisis in Iraq, Libya and Syria, Putin claims the US’ interventions as illegitimate and uncalled for; a mere means to exert Western dominance.

“The illegitimate use of military force led to the complete destruction of the state, to the emergence of a major hotbed of international terrorism, to a humanitarian catastrophe and a civil war that has not ended to this day”, he claimed. 

Russian President Vladimir Putin Making an Address. | Photo Credit: NBC News

He then extrapolated these scenarios to Russia, suggesting that the West had been threatening Russia with containment while it focused on expansionism for itself. He believed “anti-Russia” sentiments were growing and gaining traction due to the West’s so-called manipulation of the international system. This took the form of NATO countries ramping up their military capabilities while Russia demanded they stop their expansion. 

“We constantly faced either cynical deception and lies, or attempts to pressure and blackmail, while NATO, despite all our protests and concerns, continued to steadily expand. The war machine is moving and, I repeat, it is coming close to our borders”, he highlighted. 

Posing the West’s actions, specifically the expansion of NATO to the east, as a calculated, revisionist move that “justifies” retaliation, Putin took things into his own hands. He ordered the invasion of Ukraine on Feb 24, 2022, on the premise of being a “special military operation”, which soon unfolded to become the start of the largest war in Europe since World War II. 

Ukraine’s Pleas Upon Invasion

Moments after Putin’s nationwide address, air raid sirens sounded throughout Ukraine’s capital Kyiv. Crowds rushed to safer spaces like bus stations, while tens and thousands started to flee by car, congesting the streets throughout Ukraine — ​​to save their lives.

Bombing attacks on the main international airport followed, blocking Ukraine off from the world. Russian missiles targeted many cities, and Russian troops started stepping foot into Ukraine’s territory of eastern Chernihiv, Kharkiv and Luhansk. At the Southern cities of Odesa and Mariupol were Russian troops at sea, which ensured triphibious supremacy over Ukraine.

Russian Military Advancement in Ukraine. | Photo Credit: BBC News 

On the same day of the full-scale invasion, dozens were reported dead after weapon strikes. Russian troops attacked Ukraine from Belarus, Russia and annexed Crimea, according to a Ukrainian border guard service. Russia also forcefully captured the control of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant after a fierce battle, followed by the seizure of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant nine days after.

But what were Russia’s sentiments towards the invasion? The Kremlin and state-compliant media depicted the invasion as completely justified, evoking the idea of Ukraine being a threat or becoming more aggressive towards Russia. Russian state media were quick to “debunk” Ukrainian footage of the violence and chaos, insisting that it was an intentional fabrication.

However, outside pro-government media, Russians are generally unsupportive of the invasion. 86 journalists, reporters and media figures signed a petition created by Yelena Chernenko, business reporter for the newspaper Kommersant, to condemn the invasion.

Moreover, more than a hundred municipal deputies from Moscow, St Petersburg, Samara, Ryazan and other cities signed an open letter to the citizens of Russia, urging them not to take part.

Amid the chaos, Europe’s most vulnerable President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelenskyy declared martial law throughout the country in a brief national address and announced the cutting of diplomatic ties with Russia, marking the first rupture in ties since their independence after the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy Making an Address. | Photo Credit: The Times of Israel

He called upon Ukrainians who were ready and willing to fight in the war to come forward, assuring them that Kyiv would supply weapons. “Ukraine is defending itself and will not give up its freedom”, he insisted.

Diplomatic relations with other countries came to play as Ukraine asked NATO member Turkey, which shares a maritime border with Ukraine and Russia in the Black Sea, to close the Bosphorus and Dardanelles straits to Russian ships since Ankara is authorised to limit warship passages during wartime or when threatened, according to the 1936 Montreux Convention. It can also reject transit for merchant ships from countries at war with Turkey and fortify the straits in case of conflict. Earlier in February, six Russian warships and a submarine were allowed to transit the Dardanelles and Bosphorus Straits to the Black Sea for a claimed naval drill near Ukraine waters. 

However, this task proved difficult for Turkey, which has built close relations with both Russia and Ukraine for defence purposes. Nonetheless, Ankara described Russian steps against Ukraine as unacceptable and opposed sanctions on Russia following Ukraine Ambassador Vasyl Bodnar’s insistence on sanctions to be imposed on Russia.  

Bodnar also urged global leaders from the United States, United Kingdom, Poland, Lithuania and more to provide defence assistance to Ukraine and help protect its airspace from Russian aggression.

A United Front Across International Waters 

In a united front against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Western allies imposed the following sanctions to increase Russian inflation and cripple its purchasing power to continue the war by limiting banks’ access to financial markets and technologies.

The Biden administration imposed sanctions on Putin’s allies and confidants, freezing their American assets. The EU, United Kingdom (UK), and Japan followed suit, blacklisting politicians and handing out visa bans to Kremlin companions. Unprecedentedly, Singapore and South Korea, too, announced sanctions and measures against Putin’s compatriots. They have been known to maintain diplomatic ties among world powers and take a nuanced stance in times of crisis due to their vulnerability.

However, one of Russia’s closest partners, China, did not react in this fashion. Refusing to label Russian aggression in Ukraine as an “invasion”, China expressed opposition to the “illegal unilateral sanctions”. Military-ruled Myanmar is another country that has been backing Russia. 

Moreover, the EU rejected plans to impose a SWIFT ban on Russia. SWIFT is used globally by banks to arrange transfers. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said that the option should be the last resort to prevent disproportionately hurting innocent people who intend to transfer money to their family members in Russia. 

Hence despite the imposed sanctions from the international community, Russia emerged unfazed, even threatening to opt out of the new START nuclear arms control treaty deal with the US that limits US and Russian nuclear arsenals, cut diplomatic ties with Western nations and freeze their assets in return. 

Nonetheless, as weeks and months progressed, more countries such as Canada, New Zealand and the G7 countries stepped in to support Ukraine in aid and advocacy, joining forces to impose and reinforce sanctions on Russia’s elites. The US then imposed a ban on imports of Russian oil and gas, and many major corporations like Sony and McDonald’s left Russia in support of Ukraine. 

Protests Against Russia’s War on Ukraine. | Photo Credit: Politico 

International support for Ukraine was empowering and overwhelming, with volunteer fighters overseas joining the hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians fighting on the front lines. 

However, while these were being done, the rest of the world soon found itself entangled in the war, for inflation and humanitarian crises spilt over. 

Ripple Effects: What Came Next for the Global System

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine created ripple effects across the globe – one of the largest refugee crises, unprecedented sanctions against a major economy, and disruptions to global food supply and trade. 

The disruption of the flow of goods from Russia meant that major and essential exports like crude oil, fertiliser and food (wheat and corn to name a few) became limited, causing gas and food prices in other parts of the world to surge. Both Russia and Ukraine hold a significant share of the world’s global supply of food commodities and the event of war meant that other countries had to stomach the hit. One example is Lebanon. 

Lebanon’s population of nearly seven million depend daily on agricultural exports from both countries. According to estimates, around 80 per cent of wheat imports in Lebanon are from Ukraine. Many other countries in the global south like the Republic of Congo also rely heavily on these two countries for wheat. 

Similarly, Russia is a major exporter of crude oil and natural gas, accounting for 14 per cent of global exports of coal and 13 per cent of petroleum. Daily modes of transportation depend on petroleum and the disruption to that source has caused gas prices to rise significantly around the globe.  

Progress Towards Peace  

With the ongoing war and countries experiencing the effects of inflation on their economy and population, certain actions have been implemented and planned for the upcoming future to end this crisis and curb these global issues. 

In the early weeks of the invasion, meetings between delegations from Russia and Ukraine ended without any agreement except to keep talking. On March 5, Russia said its forces would cease fire near Mariupol and Volnovakha to allow the safe passage of civilians through the humanitarian corridor, but ended up attacking civilians that were evacuating by planting explosives along the route, infuriating the international system. 

Upon international response, Russia agreed to impose a new plan for the humanitarian corridor a few days later, where Ukrainians fleeing can evacuate to a country of their choice compared to the previously rejected plan, which was to have them evacuated to Russia or Belarus. 

These instances led up to the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) approving a non-binding resolution condemning Russia for the invasion of Ukraine, demanding its immediate withdrawal. 

UNGA vote to condemn Russian invasion of Ukraine. | Photo Credit: Aljazeera 

Despite that, attacks are still happening in Ukraine, with thousands killed, hundreds of thousands displaced, and many still fighting for their country. The Secretary-General of NATO Jens Stoltenberg said countries must continue their efforts to suppress Russia, adding that though he acknowledges the costs of the war are high, the price of letting Moscow achieve its military goals would be far worse.

With countries lessening their dependence on Russian oil and gas and coming together to support each other in the global effects of the Russian-Ukraine war, countries, especially the West, must maintain efforts in supporting Ukraine, even though there’s a possibility of it lasting for years, according to NATO’s chief. “We are seeing a destruction of a state in the 21st century in central Europe … Putin made it clear that he doesn’t recognise a separate Ukrainian people. He doesn’t recognise that there is Ukraine … This is an attempt to destroy a people, literally a genocide”, said the Domestic Politics of Post-Soviet Unrecognised States.

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