Demonstrators gathered in Paris, France on March 5 to protest the Russian invasion of Ukraine. (Koshu Kunii/Unsplash)
Between 1922 and 1990, Ukraine was known as the Soviet Republic of Ukraine, subject to Soviet control. This changed in August 1991, when Ukraine declared independence. However, nearly three decades later, Russia still hasn’t accepted this independence. Beginning in 2014, Russian troops began advancing into Ukraine, taking control of the Crimean region by the end of the year. In the next seven years, conflict plateaued, until February 24, 2022, when Russian President Vladimir Putin announced that Russia was to begin an invasion of Ukraine.
Lead Up to the Conflict
Tensions first began building two days before the invasion when Putin declared the Donetsk and Luhansk regions in Ukraine independent entities. Populated by mostly Russian separatists, these two regions have been the sites of violent protests and equally violent police crackdowns. Putin followed this declaration by sending Russians troops to “maintain peace,” threatening “bloodshed” if Ukraine resisted. On February 23, one day before the invasion, the Russian Parliament authorized Putin to use force outside of the country, prompting the United Nations (UN) Security Council to convene an emergency session.
In his opening remarks, UN Secretary General António Guterres pleaded with Putin to “give peace a chance. Too many people have died.” Even China called for a diplomatic solution. Russian Ambassador Vasily Nebenzya, however, staunchly defended Putin’s actions as a response to the multiple human rights and ceasefire violations committed by the Ukrainian government. In his statement, he claimed “the aim of this operation is to protect the people who for eight years have been suffering genocide from the Kyiv regime.” In an 11–1 vote, a resolution was adopted that “deplored in the strongest terms the Russian Federation’s aggression against Ukraine” and convened an emergency session of the UN General Assembly. The next day, in a televised address, President Putin announced that he had approved a “special military operation,” and Russian units advanced into Ukraine.
The First Days
By February 25, only one day after the start of the invasion, Russian forces had reached the edge of Kiev. Over 50,000 civilians had fled the country, and 137 Ukranians, both military and civilian, had been killed in the conflict. On March 2, Russia announced that it had captured the important port city of Kherson, the first major city captured since fighting began. Civilian deaths grew to surpass 2,000 and refugees numbered over two million. Russia also claimed Europe’s largest nuclear plant in Zaporizhzhya on March 4, although no radiation was reported to have been leaked.
Even before Russia announced its invasion, international leaders from the U.S., Japan, Australia, and other countries expressed opposition to Russia’s actions. However, after Russia declared Donetsk and Luhansk independent, the U.S. Treasury Department announced it was imposing sanctions on two major Russian financial institutions, including the Russian military bank. Germany also announced that it was halting the certification of the Nord Stream 2, a critical gas line for Russia. On February 26, two days after the invasion began, the European Union announced that the European Central Bank would be imposing stringent sanctions on Russia as well. Even Switzerland abandoned its previously firmly held position of neutrality to impose their own sanctions.
While these sanctions have not been enough to stop Putin, they have dealt significant blows to the Russian economy. Because most of the money in the Russian Reserve is in the form of Western debt, these sanctions denying the payment of this debt have cut the Russian Reserve off from the main source of its physical money. Already, the value of the ruble (Russian currency) has decreased by nearly 30 percent since the beginning of the year, falling 2.5 percent on March 2 alone.
Currently, Russia has over $132 billion worth of gold in their reserve, and the only country rich enough that would be willing to exchange that gold for paper currency is China. Whether this will happen is yet to be seen; China has denounced the violence on both sides and called for diplomatic solutions, but it has also continued exporting wheat and other commodities to Russia, weakening the impact of Western trade sanctions.
So far, the West has been hesitant to send troops to actively fight in Ukraine despite the Ukrainian president’s pleas. In an address on February 24, President Joe Biden said unequivocally, “Our forces are not and will not be engaged in the conflict with Russia in Ukraine.” The main reason for this is Russia’s nuclear arsenal. In a February 24 speech, Putin said that “anyone who would consider interfering from the outside” will “face consequences greater than any you have faced in history,” a clear threat implying the full force of Russia’s more than 6,000 nuclear weapons. Any Western military action could very well lead to nuclear war and hundreds of millions of deaths.
At the moment, it’s impossible to tell what might happen in the coming months, but the situation remains grim for Ukraine. Ukrainian troops are hopelessly outnumbered; according to the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), Russian troops number close to 90,000 as opposed to Ukraine’s military, which is barely over 20,000. Still, Russia has faced much more Ukrainian opposition than expected, including from civilians. Following President Zelensky’s plea to “fight for your rights,” citizens armed with state-issued rifles and home-made molotov cocktails joined the Territorial Defense Force and began engaging with Russian troops around the country. Spurred on by billions of dollars worth of Western weaponry, Ukraine has successfully slowed the Russian advancement to a halt in many parts of the country. Still, many fear it’s not enough to prevent a complete conquest. Despite the large loss of life on both sides and the heavy Russian economic downturn, Putin seems to be determined to completely take control of Ukraine, no matter the cost. Whether this will come to fruition or Ukrainian resistance and Western sanctions will prevail, however, is yet to be seen.
Sources & Further Reading