Here’s what to know about the Russia-Ukraine conflict

Feb. 1—The conflict at the Russia-Ukraine border continues as Russia launches new military exercises and stations an estimated 100,000 troops there.

Diplomats from Russia, the United States and other members of the United Nations are working to avoid an invasion, and although Russia says it is not planning one, it remains a possibility.

The conflict is one that has gone back decades, and experts say it’s more complicated than just a land border.

Here’s what to know:

What does Russia want?

Russian President Vladimir Putin has said he does not want the Ukraine to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, or NATO — a defensive military alliance formed after World War II. During the Cold War, that meant protecting its democratic member countries from the Soviet Union. Putin also pushes against expansion of NATO, especially so close to its border.

Ukraine, which shares borders with both the European Union and Russia, has gone back and forth on its politics since the Soviet Union broke up, said Thomas Preston, political science professor at Washington State University. The eastern part of the country tends to be more pro-Russian while the western side tends to be more pro-Western.

Putin has been trying to increase his sphere of influence by putting pressure on Ukraine not to join NATO. Some Western countries, on the other hand, have pushed for Ukraine to join NATO. Others have said Ukraine should remain neutral or have the power to choose their own associations as they see fit.

How did we get here?

What’s happening now is “merely a continuation” of what started in 2014 with the invasion of Crimea, and even before that in Russia’s mind, Preston said.

In 2014, a destabilized, pro-Russian government and pro-Western protests led to former president Viktor Yanukovych fleeing the country. That gave Putin an opportunity to send troops into Ukraine, eventually taking control of Crimea.

The continued existence and expansion of NATO, despite the collapse of the Soviet Union, has come to be seen as a threat by Russia, said Scott Radnitz, director at the Ellison Center for Russian, Eastern European and Central Asian Studies at the University of Washington.

“It’s important to understand the situation from Russia’s perspective,” he said. “Russia has done nothing to provoke the West and yet this military alliance exists that continues to absorb countries.”

And Putin does not want Ukraine, a country that shares a border and a culture with Russia, to join.

Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union until it collapsed in 1991. Russia and Ukraine have cultural ties, and Putin wants it to stay that way.

In Russians’ minds, Ukraine has a deep history tied to Russia, Preston said. Many used to refer to it as “Little Russia.” Crimea, for example, was a part of Russia until 1954 when it was transferred from Russia to Ukraine. At the time, it was symbolic because nobody thought the Soviet Union would collapse, Preston said.

Will Russia invade?

Radnitz said it’s hard to predict what Russia will do.

“It lies entirely in one person’s mind: Vladimir Putin,” Preston said.

For now, the position of troops gives Russia diplomatic leverage, he said. If there wasn’t a military threat, Western countries would be less likely to agree to anything.

If the situation in Ukraine doesn’t change now, the country will likely end up in NATO at some point, Preston said.

“If the Russians do invade, it will be because Putin makes the calculation that if they are going to prevent it from happening, now is the time,” he said.

What happens if Russia invades?

If Putin is serious about invading, Radnitz said it could happen at any time, but it could lead to a major European conflict. But even that depends on what a Russian invasion could look like.

One possibility is a “relatively minor” conflict that would end with pushing the current front lines — near Crimea, which Russia annexed in 2014 — slightly further west, Radnitz said.

Another possibility could be building a land bridge between Crimea and the rest of Ukraine, linking the part of Ukraine that tends to be pro-Russian.

“Or they could do something more drastic,” such as sending troops to Kyiv, Radnitz said.

Nobody thinks the Ukrainian military could defeat the Russian military, Preston said. But a war could put Russia in a situation where they are in a proxy war with other Western countries who could send resources to Ukraine. They could also face an insurgency, he said.

“Holding the country and occupying it, that’s a different endeavor,” Preston said.

Economically, however, a full-scale invasion could mean even more sanctions against Russia, including on its largest banks and financial institutions.

It would cause pain to Russia, Preston said, but if it comes between choosing the economic sanctions or letting Ukraine become part of NATO, “I’m not sure it would cause enough pain.”

Each scenario has risks for Putin, Radnitz said, and he’s currently making those calculations.

Why is the U.S. involved?

The U.S. role is “a bit ambiguous,” Radnitz said.

American policy since the end of the Cold War has been to assist European countries in their security against potential hostile actors, including a more aggressive Russia, Radnitz said. Although there is no formal alliance with Ukraine, the U.S. and many other countries value its democracy, especially being so close to Russia.

The U.S. has spent money in military aid on Ukraine in recent months, but it has no intention to send troops to fight Russian soldiers, similar to other European countries. As Ukraine is not currently a member of NATO — although it applied for membership status in 2008 — member nations have no obligation to send troops there.

The U.S. policy will likely be to assist indirectly without putting Americans in harm’s way, Radnitz said.

Although no one plans to send troops, Preston said the solution won’t be simple.

“It’s hard to see a really easy offramp diplomatically right now,” he said. “Everyone’s put themselves in a corner.”

Why should you care?

Putin won’t invade western Europe or any country other than Ukraine, Preston said, but it’s still important to pay attention to what’s happening.

Whenever two nuclear powers come into conflict, there’s always a risk, Radnitz said. If they start engaging in a proxy war, it could spiral out of control.

“If ever the U.S. and Russia started fighting a war against each other, it doesn’t take much imagination as to why this is a huge risk to the whole world,” he said.

The situation in Ukraine has been stable for a few years, Radnitz said, and “we take stability for granted.”

“Once those elements start to come apart,” he said, “then unpredictable things might happen and could affect real people’s lives.”

Laurel Demkovich’s reporting for The Spokesman-Review is funded in part by Report for America and by members of the Spokane community. This story can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.


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