The Russia-Ukraine conflict has been consuming our newsfeed for the past few weeks, and in the chaos of it all, it’s easy to forget what exactly kindled this conflict. The invasion of Ukraine by Russia has thrown the two countries into a large-scale, deadly conflict, with a humanitarian catastrophe looming.
But, aside from the broader geopolitical forces at play, what was the straw that broke the camel’s back? What sparked the first war in Europe this millennium?
On the 24th of February 2022, Ukraine’s population awoke to an all-out conflict after months of military build-up on Russia’s side of the border. Fighting has erupted in numerous places across Ukraine, including the capital Kyiv, and approximately 500,000 people have fled to neighbouring countries.
Since last year, Russia has been tightening its military grip around Ukraine, stockpiling tens of thousands of soldiers and equipment on the country’s borders. Early this year, frantic diplomatic efforts failed to avert the worst-case scenario.
After Russian President Vladimir Putin declared the commencement of a “special military operation” and threatened bloodshed unless Ukrainian forces lay down their arms, several areas around Ukraine were attacked. After months of speculation about Moscow’s intentions with the troops it had massed on the Ukrainian border, the decision was made. At least 150,000 Russian forces encircled the country on three sides.
In late 2021 and early 2022, satellite photographs revealed new Russian deployment of troops, tanks, and other equipment in several locations, including near eastern Ukraine, leading to a rise in fear among the Ukrainians and its Western allies.
Ukraine was a key component of the Soviet Union until a democratic referendum in 1991 resulted in an overwhelming vote for independence. Following the fall of the Soviet Union, NATO expanded eastward, absorbing most of the Eastern European countries that had previously been under Communist influence.
It eventually stated that it would like to grant Ukraine membership in the future, crossing a red line for Russia. Putin viewed NATO’s growth as dangerous for Russia, and Ukraine’s potential membership in the Western military alliance as a hostile move. In a televised speech, he expressed this viewpoint, saying that Ukraine’s desire to join the military alliance posed a grave threat to Russia.
Putin referred to Russians and Ukrainians as “one people” in a lengthy essay published in July 2021, and claimed that the West had corrupted Ukraine and dragged it out of Russia’s orbit through a forced change of identity. On the other hand, throughout the previous three decades, Ukrainians have fought against the idea that they are nothing more than the West’s puppet as they have sought closer ties with Western institutions such as the European Union and NATO.
In reality, Putin’s efforts to reintegrate Ukraine with Russia have sparked opposition, with recent surveys suggesting that a majority of Ukrainians now want membership in the US-led transatlantic military alliance.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy had previously downplayed the potential of a full-fledged conflict with Russia, claiming that the threat had been present for years and that Ukraine was ready for military action. Residents around the country, on the other hand, had been preparing for the worst and had even packed emergency evacuation packs.
Ukraine’s administration argues that Moscow has no right to stifle Kyiv’s efforts to strengthen ties with NATO or interfere in its domestic or foreign affairs. Since then, Zelenskyy has requested that Ukraine be immediately accepted into the European Union and has practically pleaded with Western leaders to assist in the reinforcement of the Ukrainian military.
Zelenskyy’s popularity has grown both inside and outside Ukraine in the days since the invasion. He has refused to leave the country, instead posting videos from the streets of Kyiv, where he is pushing his people to oppose Russian invaders.
Written by: Katrina Cassar
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