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