Ukraine: Conflict at the Crossroads of Europe and Russia
Backgrounder

Ukraine: Conflict at the Crossroads of Europe and Russia

Ukraine’s Westward drift since independence has been countered by the sometimes violent tug of Russia, felt most recently with Putin’s 2022 invasion.
A protester sits on a monument in Kyiv during clashes with riot police in February 2014.
A protester sits on a monument in Kyiv during clashes with riot police in February 2014. Louisa Gouliamaki/AFP/Getty
Summary
  • Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine in 2022 has set alight one of the bloodiest conflicts in Europe since World War II.
  • A former Soviet republic, Ukraine had deep cultural, economic, and political bonds with Russia, but the war could irreparably harm their relations.
  • Some experts view the Russia-Ukraine war as a manifestation of renewed geopolitical rivalry between major world powers.

Introduction

Ukraine has long played an important, yet sometimes overlooked, role in the global security order. Today, the country is on the front lines of a renewed great-power rivalry that many analysts say will dominate international relations in the decades ahead.

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Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 marked a dramatic escalation of the countries’ eight-year-old conflict and a historic turning point for European security. After six months, many defense and foreign policy analysts cast the war as a major strategic blunder by Russian President Vladimir Putin, and one that has put his long-time rule in jeopardy.  

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Many observers see little prospect for a diplomatic resolution in the months ahead and instead acknowledge the potential for a dangerous escalation, which could include Russia’s use of a nuclear weapon. The war has hastened Ukraine’s push to join Western political blocs, including the European Union (EU) and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).

Why is Ukraine a geopolitical flash point?

Ukraine was a cornerstone of the Soviet Union, the archrival of the United States during the Cold War. Behind only Russia, it was the second-most-populous and -powerful of the fifteen Soviet republics, home to much of the union’s agricultural production, defense industries, and military, including the Black Sea Fleet and some of the nuclear arsenal. Ukraine was so vital to the union that its decision to sever ties in 1991 proved to be a coup de grâce for the ailing superpower.

In its three decades of independence, Ukraine has sought to forge its own path as a sovereign state while looking to align more closely with Western institutions, including the EU and NATO. However, Kyiv struggled to balance its foreign relations and to bridge deep internal divisions. A more nationalist, Ukrainian-speaking population in western parts of the country generally supported greater integration with Europe, while a mostly Russian-speaking community in the east favored closer ties with Russia.

Ukraine became a battleground in 2014 when Russia annexed Crimea and began arming and abetting separatists in the Donbas region in the country’s southeast. Russia’s seizure of Crimea was the first time since World War II that a European state annexed the territory of another. More than fourteen thousand people died in the fighting in the Donbas between 2014 and 2021, the bloodiest conflict in Europe since the Balkan Wars of the 1990s. The hostilities marked a clear shift in the global security environment from a unipolar period of U.S. dominance to one defined by renewed competition between great powers [PDF].

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In February 2022, Russia embarked on a full-scale invasion of Ukraine with the aim of toppling the Western-aligned government of Volodymyr Zelenskyy.

What are Russia’s broad interests in Ukraine?

Russia has deep cultural, economic, and political bonds with Ukraine, and in many ways Ukraine is central to Russia’s identity and vision for itself in the world.

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Family ties. Russia and Ukraine have strong familial bonds that go back centuries. Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital, is sometimes referred to as “the mother of Russian cities,” on par in terms of cultural influence with Moscow and St. Petersburg. It was in Kyiv in the eighth and ninth centuries that Christianity was brought from Byzantium to the Slavic peoples. And it was Christianity that served as the anchor for Kievan Rus, the early Slavic state from which modern Russians, Ukrainians, and Belarussians draw their lineage.

Russian diaspora. Approximately eight million ethnic Russians were living in Ukraine as of 2001, according to a census taken that year, mostly in the south and east. Moscow claimed a duty to protect these people as a pretext for its actions in Crimea and the Donbas in 2014.

Superpower image. After the Soviet collapse, many Russian politicians viewed the divorce with Ukraine as a mistake of history and a threat to Russia’s standing as a great power. Losing a permanent hold on Ukraine, and letting it fall into the Western orbit, would be seen by many as a major blow to Russia’s international prestige. In 2022, Putin cast the escalating war with Ukraine as a part of a broader struggle against Western powers he says are intent on destroying Russia.

Crimea. Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev transferred Crimea from Russia to Ukraine in 1954 to strengthen the “brotherly ties between the Ukrainian and Russian peoples.” However, since the fall of the union, many Russian nationalists in both Russia and Crimea longed for a return of the peninsula. The city of Sevastopol is home port for Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, the dominant maritime force in the region.

Trade. Russia was for a long time Ukraine’s largest trading partner, although this link withered dramatically in recent years. China eventually surpassed Russia in trade with Ukraine. Prior to its invasion of Crimea, Russia had hoped to pull Ukraine into its single market, the Eurasian Economic Union, which today includes Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan.

Energy. Russia relied on Ukrainian pipelines to pump its gas to customers in Central and Eastern Europe for decades, and it paid Kyiv billions of dollars per year in transit fees. The flow of Russian gas through Ukraine continued in late 2022 despite the hostilities between the two countries, but volumes were reduced and the pipeline remained in serious jeopardy.

Political sway. Russia was keen to preserve its political influence in Ukraine and throughout the former Soviet Union, particularly after its preferred candidate for Ukrainian president in 2004, Viktor Yanukovych, lost to a reformist competitor as part of the Orange Revolution popular movement. This shock to Russia’s interests in Ukraine came after a similar electoral defeat for the Kremlin in Georgia in 2003, known as the Rose Revolution, and was followed by another—the Tulip Revolution—in Kyrgyzstan in 2005. Yanukovych later became president of Ukraine, in 2010, amid voter discontent with the Orange government.

What triggered Russia’s moves in Crimea and the Donbas in 2014?

It was Ukraine’s ties with the EU that brought tensions to a head with Russia in 2013–14. In late 2013, President Yanukovych, acting under pressure from his supporters in Moscow, scrapped plans to formalize a closer economic relationship with the EU. Russia had at the same time been pressing Ukraine to join the not-yet-formed EAEU. Many Ukrainians perceived Yanukovych’s decision as a betrayal by a deeply corrupt and incompetent government, and it ignited countrywide protests known as Euromaidan.

Putin framed the ensuing tumult of Euromaidan, which forced Yanukovych from power, as a Western-backed “fascist coup” that endangered the ethnic Russian majority in Crimea. (Western leaders dismissed this as baseless propaganda reminiscent of the Soviet era.) In response, Putin ordered a covert invasion of Crimea that he later justified as a rescue operation. “There is a limit to everything. And with Ukraine, our western partners have crossed the line,” Putin said in a March 2014 address formalizing the annexation.

Putin employed a similar narrative to justify his support for separatists in southeastern Ukraine, another region home to large numbers of ethnic Russians and Russian speakers. He famously referred to the area as Novorossiya (New Russia), a term dating back to eighteenth-century imperial Russia. Armed Russian provocateurs, including some agents of Russian security services, are believed to have played a central role in stirring the anti-Euromaidan secessionist movements in the region into a rebellion. However, unlike Crimea, Russia continued to officially deny its involvement in the Donbas conflict until it launched its wider invasion of Ukraine in 2022.

Why did Russia launch a full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022?

Some Western analysts see Russia’s 2022 invasion as the culmination of the Kremlin’s growing resentment toward NATO’s post–Cold War expansion into the former Soviet sphere of influence. Russian leaders, including Putin, have alleged that the United States and NATO repeatedly violated pledges they made in the early 1990s to not expand the alliance into the former Soviet bloc. They view NATO’s enlargement during this tumultuous period for Russia as a humiliating imposition about which they could do little but watch.

In the weeks leading up to NATO’s 2008 summit, President Vladimir Putin warned U.S. diplomats that steps to bring Ukraine into the alliance “would be a hostile act toward Russia.” Months later, Russia went to war with Georgia, seemingly showcasing Putin’s willingness to use force to secure his country’s interests. (Some independent observers faulted Georgia for initiating the so-called August War but blamed Russia for escalating hostilities.)

Despite remaining a nonmember, Ukraine grew its ties with NATO in the years leading up to the 2022 invasion. Ukraine held annual military exercises with the alliance and, in 2020, became one of just six enhanced opportunity partners, a special status for the bloc’s closest nonmember allies. Moreover, Kyiv affirmed its goal to eventually gain full NATO membership.

In the weeks leading up to its invasion, Russia made several major security demands of the United States and NATO, including that they cease expanding the alliance, seek Russian consent for certain NATO deployments, and remove U.S. nuclear weapons from Europe. Alliance leaders responded that they were open to new diplomacy but were unwilling to discuss shutting NATO’s doors to new members.

“While in the United States we talk about a Ukraine crisis, from the Russian standpoint this is a crisis in European security architecture,” CFR’s Thomas Graham told Arms Control Today in February 2022. “And the fundamental issue they want to negotiate is the revision of European security architecture as it now stands to something that is more favorable to Russian interests.”

Other experts have said that perhaps the most important motivating factor for Putin was his fear that Ukraine would continue to develop into a modern, Western-style democracy that would inevitably undermine his autocratic regime in Russia and dash his hopes of rebuilding a Russia-led sphere of influence in Eastern Europe. “[Putin] wants to destabilize Ukraine, frighten Ukraine,” writes historian Anne Applebaum in the Atlantic. “He wants Ukrainian democracy to fail. He wants the Ukrainian economy to collapse. He wants foreign investors to flee. He wants his neighbors—in Belarus, Kazakhstan, even Poland and Hungary—to doubt whether democracy will ever be viable, in the longer term, in their countries too.”

What are Russia’s objectives in Ukraine?

Putin’s Russia has been described as a revanchist power, keen to regain its former power and prestige. “It was always Putin’s goal to restore Russia to the status of a great power in northern Eurasia,” writes Gerard Toal, an international affairs professor at Virginia Tech, in his book Near Abroad. “The end goal was not to re-create the Soviet Union but to make Russia great again.”

By seizing Crimea in 2014, Russia solidified its control of a strategic foothold on the Black Sea. With a larger and more sophisticated military presence there, Russia can project power deeper into the Mediterranean, Middle East, and North Africa, where it has traditionally had limited influence. Some analysts argue that Western powers failed to impose meaningful costs on Russia in response to its annexation of Crimea, which they say only increased Putin’s willingness to use military force in pursuit of his foreign policy objectives. Until its invasion in 2022, Russia’s strategic gains in the Donbas were more fragile. Supporting the separatists had, at least temporarily, increased its bargaining power vis-à-vis Ukraine.  

In July 2021, Putin authored what many Western foreign policy experts viewed as an ominous article explaining his controversial views of the shared history between Russia and Ukraine. Among other remarks, Putin described Russians and Ukrainians as “one people” who effectively occupy “the same historical and spiritual space.”

Throughout that year, Russia amassed tens of thousands of troops along the border with Ukraine and later into allied Belarus under the auspices of military exercises. In February 2022, Putin ordered a full-scale invasion, crossing a force of some two hundred thousand troops into Ukrainian territory from the south (Crimea), east (Russia), and north (Belarus), in an attempt to seize major cities, including the capital Kyiv, and depose the government. Putin said the broad goals were to “de-Nazify” and “de-militarize” Ukraine.

However, in the early weeks of the invasion, Ukrainian forces marshaled a stalwart resistance that succeeded in bogging down the Russian military in many areas, including in Kyiv. Many defense analysts say that Russian forces have suffered from low morale, poor logistics, and an ill-conceived military strategy that assumed Ukraine would fall quickly and easily.

In late August, Ukraine launched a major counteroffensive against Russian forces, recapturing thousands of square miles of territory in the Kharkiv and Kherson regions. The campaigns marked a stunning setback for Russia. Amid the Russian retreat, Putin ordered the mobilization of some three hundred thousand more troops, illegally annexed four more Ukrainian regions, and threatened to use nuclear weapons to defend Russia’s “territorial integrity.” Most security analysts see little chance for diplomacy in the months ahead, as both sides have strong motives to continue the fight.   

What have been U.S. priorities in Ukraine?

Immediately following the Soviet collapse, Washington’s priority was pushing Ukraine—along with Belarus and Kazakhstan—to forfeit its nuclear arsenal so that only Russia would retain the former union’s weapons. At the same time, the United States rushed to bolster the shaky democracy in Russia. Some prominent observers at the time felt that the United States was premature in this courtship with Russia, and that it should have worked more on fostering geopolitical pluralism in the rest of the former Soviet Union.

Former U.S. National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski, in Foreign Affairs in early 1994, described a healthy and stable Ukraine as a critical counterweight to Russia and the lynchpin of what he advocated should be the new U.S. grand strategy after the Cold War. “It cannot be stressed strongly enough that without Ukraine, Russia ceases to be an empire, but with Ukraine suborned and then subordinated, Russia automatically becomes an empire,” he wrote. In the months after Brzezinski’s article was published, the United States, the United Kingdom, and Russia pledged via the Budapest Referendum to respect Ukraine’s independence and sovereignty in return for it becoming a nonnuclear state.

Twenty years later, as Russian forces seized Crimea, restoring and strengthening Ukraine’s sovereignty reemerged as a top U.S. and EU foreign policy priority. Following the 2022 invasion, U.S. and NATO allies dramatically increased defense, economic, and humanitarian assistance to Ukraine, as well as ramped up their sanctions on Russia. However, Western leaders have been careful to avoid actions they believe will draw their countries into the war or otherwise escalate it, which could, in the extreme, pose a nuclear threat.  

What are U.S. and EU policy in Ukraine?

The United States remains committed to the restoration of Ukraine’s territorial integrity and sovereignty. It does not recognize Russia’s claims to Crimea or the other regions unlawfully annexed by Russia. Prior to the 2022 invasion, the United States supported a settlement of the Donbas conflict via the Minsk agreements [PDF].

Western powers and their partners have taken many steps to increase aid to Ukraine and punish Russia for its 2022 offensive. As of October, the United States has provided Ukraine $17 billion in security assistance [PDF], including advanced rocket and missile systems, helicopters, and lethal drones. Several NATO allies are providing similar security aid.

Meanwhile, the international sanctions on Russia have vastly expanded, covering much of its financial, energy, defense, and tech sectors and targeting the assets of wealthy oligarchs and other individuals. The U.S. and some European governments also banned some Russian banks from the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication, a financial messaging system known as SWIFT; placed restrictions on Russia’s ability to access its vast foreign reserves; and blacklisted Russia’s central bank. Moreover, many influential Western companies have shuttered or suspended operations in Russia. The Group of Eight, now known as the Group of Seven, suspended Russia from its ranks indefinitely in 2014.  

The invasion also cost Russia its long-awaited Nord Stream 2 pipeline after Germany suspended its regulatory approval in February. Many critics, including U.S. and Ukrainian officials, opposed the natural gas pipeline during its development, claiming it would give Russia greater political leverage over Ukraine and the European gas market. In August, Russia indefinitely suspended operations of Nord Stream 1, which provided the European market with as much as a third of its natural gas.

What do Ukrainians want?

Russia’s aggression in recent years has galvanized public support for Ukraine’s Westward leanings. In the wake of Euromaidan, the country elected as president the billionaire businessman Petro Poroshenko, a staunch proponent of EU and NATO integration. In 2019, Zelensky defeated Poroshenko in a sign of the public’s deep dissatisfaction with the political establishment and its halting battle against corruption and an oligarchic economy.

Before the 2022 offensive, polls indicated that Ukrainians held mixed views on NATO and EU membership. More than half of those surveyed (not including residents of Crimea and the contested regions in the east) supported EU membership, while 40 to 50 percent were in favor of joining NATO.

Just days after the invasion, President Zelenskyy requested that the EU put Ukraine on a fast track to membership. The country became an official candidate in June, but experts caution that the membership process could take years. In September, Zelenskyy submitted a formal application for Ukraine to join NATO, pushing for an accelerated admission process for that bloc as well. Many Western analysts say that, similar to Ukraine’s EU bid, NATO membership does not seem likely in the near term.

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