Slacker’s Syllabus: The Russia-Ukraine conflict

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ByNeil Hauer

In early 2022, Russia conducted the largest build-up of its military forces since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

The target? Ukraine, its neighbor to the southwest.

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For centuries, Ukraine was a part of the Russian Empire and then Soviet Union.

It’s where the Rus people, the predecessors of today’s Russians and Ukrainians, converted to Christianity a millennium ago. But while closely related, Russians and Ukrainians are distinct peoples.

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The year the Soviet Union collapsed. Ukraine, as one of the 15 constituent republics of the Union, gained independence.

U.S. Department of State


The next 20 years saw plenty of political turmoil, as Ukraine lurched between pro-Russian and pro-European sentiments.

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But everything changed in 2014.

That February, Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych violently cracked down on protests with live ammunition in central Kiev, Ukraine’s capital. The protests emerged after he backed out of a European Union trade deal in favor of a Russia-aligned one. After the Ukrainian parliament voted to impeach Yanukovych — which he labeled a coup — he fled to Russia.

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Just weeks later, Russia moved.

In March 2014, “little green men” (Russian special forces without insignia) took control of the strategic southern peninsula of Crimea, home to Russia’s Black Sea Fleet. The region was annexed to Russia following a referendum at gunpoint.

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Things escalated further in April 2014.

Russian-backed separatists seized cities in eastern Ukraine, a Russian-speaking region with pro-Moscow sympathies. While initially successful, by July, they were being pushed back by Ukraine’s army.

In August 2014, Russia intervened.

Over the next six months, Russian military forces engaged in heavy battles with Ukraine’s military.

When a ceasefire was signed in February 2015, pro-Russian forces controlled the cities of Donetsk and Luhansk, which had declared independence.

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For the next six years, the situation remained largely calm. A tense ceasefire held across the frontline, with the Russian-backed Donetsk People’s Republic and Luhansk People’s Republic functioning as unrecognized, de facto independent states.

That began to change in late 2020.

In recent years, Russia has frequently held mass military exercises near Ukraine, but in the fall of 2020, Moscow began an unprecedented buildup of forces. Thousands of pieces of military hardware began to appear near Ukraine’s borders.

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Russia, meanwhile, began to make wide-ranging security demands from the U.S. and European Union.

Russian President Vladimir Putin decried the post-Cold War expansion of the NATO military alliance into the former communist bloc, a move that saw former Soviet client states transformed into U.S. allies in the 1990s and 2000s, calling it an “existential threat” for Russia.

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As Putin demanded that NATO withdraw its forces from bases in the Baltic states (Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania) and Poland, a demand Western leaders have refused, his own forces built up to the point of being able to launch a massive invasion of Ukraine from the north, east, and south, should they desire.

Trapped in the middle of all this: Ukraine.

The ongoing crisis has seen Ukrainians’ support for joining NATO surge, from 34% in March 2014 to 54% in November 2021. A wide variety of Western countries, including the U.S., U.K., Canada, and Czech Republic, have supplied Ukraine with weapons.

Despite a shared language and heritage, more than half of Ukrainian people firmly reject any idea of Moscow’s rule.



The percentage of Ukrainians who say they will actively resist a Russian invasion, as of December 2021.

Kyiv International Institute of Sociology

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I would fight them until the end.

Igor Gusak, a port worker in the southeast Ukrainian city of Mariupol, which saw heavy fighting in 2015

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As of now, no one knows what will happen.

Russia could launch a massive offensive, the largest in Europe since World War II, on just a few hours’ notice, as President Biden has warned — or it could not.

Biden has strategically shifted thousands of U.S. troops around Europe in response to the increased tensions; but ultimately, the world — and especially Ukrainians — must watch and wait.

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More reading

If you’d like to learn more about the current crisis, the best sources are these two articles by Michael Kofman and Rob Lee.

For on-the-ground reporting, the dispatches by Buzzfeed’s Christopher Miller can’t be beat.

And for Ukraine’s history, try The Gates of Europe by Serhii Plokhii.

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