What Led Up to Russia Invading Ukraine?

Russia suddenly invaded Ukraine on February 24th, 2022. What exactly led up to this invasion?


Gleb Albovsky / Unsplash

Here is the Motherland Monument. The statue represents Ukraine’s independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.

Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24th, 2022. While this came as a shock to the international community, those who have been following the deteriorating relationship between the two countries knew that something would eventually occur.  

Ukraine and Russia share a history which started from the Kievan Rus. The Kievan Rus was the first Slavic state, comprising an ethnic group primarily located in eastern and southeastern Europe, and Kiev, Ukraine’s capital, was at the center. Ukraine and Russia share many similarities with each other: the Orthodox Church is incredibly prominent in both countries due to the first ruler of Kievan Rus, Prince Vladimir I, adopting the religion in A.D. 988. Russian is also a major language in Ukraine, specifically Eastern Ukraine, because of its proximity to Russia.

Due to this shared history, many Russians believe that Ukraine is part of Russia. These traditionalists believe that the Ukrainian national identity was fabricated by the West in an effort to destabilize Russia. This attitude is not a new phenomenon; Ukrainian culture and nationalists were suppressed and were viewed as a nuisance by the Russian elites. Some Russians who believe that Ukraine belongs to Russia, refer to Ukraine as Malorossia, which means “Little Russia.”

In 1793, the right bank (the western half of Ukraine) was annexed by Imperial Russia to unite the two sides, which had been separated from each other due to conflicts between Russia and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Russia imposed harsh control on the right bank, forcing a policy of Russification onto the people. The Ukrainian language was deprioritized and banned, and people were forced to convert to the Russian Orthodoxy faith. There is a clear pattern of Russia ignoring the pleas of the Ukrainian people, and imposing Russification onto them.

Here is a map of Kievan Rus’. Modern day Ukraine and Russia both came from this one country. (Vitaliyf261, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons)

During the Soviet era, the Ukrainian language was banished from schools and its culture was permitted to exist only as a cartoonish caricature of dancing Cossacks in puffy pants. The Ukrainian identity was shunned in favor of a united Russian identity. This occurred in other states that were absorbed by the USSR as well, such as Belarus, Kazakhstan, Armenia, Latvia, Estonia and others. Minorities were killed and sent to labor camps for refusing to erase their ethnicities.

Ukraine was also subject to a heinous famine known as Holodomor. Holodomor, which literally means “death by starvation,” was a man-made famine, designed to kill Ukrainians. The Ukrainians refused to send their grain through Stalin’s collectivization plan to Moscow, where it would be “distributed” (in the words of the state). The number of Ukrainians killed is still disputed by historians, but one fact remains clear: millions of Ukrainians died as a result of this devastating famine.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has shown himself to be a staunch traditionalist; in a speech made to Russia, he said: “Modern Ukraine was entirely and fully created by Russia, more specifically the Bolshevik, communist Russia, this process began practically immediately after the 1917 revolution, and moreover Lenin and his associates did it in the sloppiest way in relation to Russia — by dividing, tearing from her pieces of her own historical territory.” Putin has never believed that Ukraine was a sovereign nation, and his actions in 2014 prove it.

In 2014, Victor Yanukovych, the president of Ukraine at the time, was overthrown by his people. An interim government was set up that diverted from Yanukovych’s policies, focused on cultivating a relationship with the European Union. In response, Russia illegally annexed the Crimean Peninsula and backed separatist groups in Eastern Ukraine. These separatist groups seceded from Ukraine, becoming their own states, such as the Donetsk People’s Republic and Luhansk People’s Republic. These clearly illustrate a continued Russian disregard for Ukrainian sovereignty.

After Volodymyr Zelensky, someone unfavorable to Russian interests, was elected, Putin demanded “security guarantees.” Putin feared that Ukraine would join NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Alliance) and thus form a threatening partnership with the West. These security guarantees would stop Ukraine from joining NATO and by extension, the West, in order to stop Ukraine from leaving Russia’s ever-consuming grasp.

A narrative that Putin likes to push is that he is “denazifying” Ukraine. He argues that the fight for Ukrainian independence was born during World War II, and that all Ukrainian nationalists are Nazis. This view avoids all nuance; while it is true that some Ukrainian nationalists contributed to the atrocities of the Holocaust, Ukraine has made great strides in the time since then. Ukraine has become more tolerant of the Jewish faith, and Zelensky, a Jewish man, is currently the Ukrainian president. Zelensky was open about his family’s experiences during the Holocaust, yet the Ukrainian public still overwhelmingly voted for him. Putin is using Nazism as a smokescreen and as a disturbing reason to invade a sovereign country. Putin does not care if Ukraine truly has a Nazi problem; instead, he uses it a political tool to convince his people that Ukraine needs to come under the wing of Russia.

The narrative by Putin also ignores the fact that Ukrainians actively reject Russian supremacy for independence. In 1918, Ukraine declared itself a sovereign state and was recognized by several other countries at the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk.  Ukraine was later made part of the Soviet Union in 1921. In 1991, 92% of Ukranians voted to declare independence from the Soviet Union. Putin wants his supporters to believe that Ukrainians do not want independence, that independence is a ruse created by enemies of Russia, and that the Ukrainians would rather be puppets of the Russian state, but history refutes that notion. History proves that the Ukrainian state does exist, and that it is not simply a conspiracy created by the United States, Western Europe, or the West as a whole.

Putin’s illegal annexation of four regions of Ukraine shows a careless disregard for the Ukrainian people. The regions of Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson, and Zaporizhzhia were stolen from Ukraine in sham elections. Purportedly, 99% of the voters voted to leave Ukraine and join Russia. However, there are conflicting reports that the voters were coerced into casting their ballots. Armed Russian forces supposedly beat, electrically shocked, and detained individuals to force them to vote. These forces entered homes and held individuals at gunpoint in order to coerce them to vote. This is not what true elections look like: in a true election, people vote for whoever and whatever they want, without a threat hanging over their heads. The United Nations has directly dismissed the annexation of these four regions and the elections that occurred. Nevertheless, Putin is purposely ignoring the wishes of Ukrainians who wish to keep their Ukrainian identity. There is no freedom of choice for these people; they either vote to join Russia, or are tortured. This is reminiscent of the Russification process in Ukraine in the 18th century. The right bank was annexed and forced to give up its identity in favor of a Russian one – exactly what is currently happening in Ukraine.

Ukraine is getting international support while Russia is garnering the scorn of most nations. People can see through the ruse, clearly seeing that Ukraine is a sovereign state, despite Putin’s words. Ukraine has recently been taking back the land that Russia has illegally annexed, and the crimes of Russia are beinexposed.  

Ukraine is getting international support while Russia is garnering the scorn of most nations. People can see through the ruse, clearly seeing that Ukraine is a sovereign state, despite Putin’s words. Ukraine has recently been taking back the land that Russia has illegally annexed, and the crimes of Russia are beinexposed.