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Russia Invades: History & Perspectives

A look at how we got here.

February 25, 2022

Ukraine has deep historical, cultural, and ethnic ties with Russia as part of the Russian Empire and later the Soviet Union. Yet towards the end of the Cold War — as the USSR’s influence faded — a wave of anti-communist protests and revolutions swept through Europe, eventually reaching Ukraine in the late 1980s and early ‘90s. On August 24, 1991, the Ukrainian parliament declared independence from the Soviet Union. By the end of that year, Ukrainians affirmed the declaration in a landslide vote, with over 90% favoring the move. The Soviet Union dissolved later that month on December 26.

Early into its independence, Ukraine sought to establish formal ties with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), a collective security alliance formed to prevent war against its member states and preserve peace, but did not yet ask to join. Initially, NATO’s leaders created the pact to combat Russian aggression in post-World War II Europe, creating Russian animosity towards the alliance still seen today. 

The Soviet Union’s collapse left Ukraine with the world’s third-largest nuclear stockpile. In the Budapest Memorandum in December 1994, Ukraine agreed to surrender these weapons and some nuclear infrastructure in exchange for guarantees that the U.S., U.K., and Russia would “respect the independence and sovereignty and the existing borders of Ukraine.” In 2004, Viktor Yanukovych, supported by Russian President Vladimir Putin, faced pro-democracy candidate Viktor Yuschenko in an election. Yanukovych won amid accusations of election rigging, sparking massive protests, known as the Orange Revolution. Ukraine’s Supreme Court ordered a new election in which Yushchenko prevailed. As President, Yushchenko and his Prime Minister formally began the process to join NATO in 2008, angering Russia. While the United States supported membership for Ukraine, France and Germany opposed it, citing Russia’s concerns. In a compromise in April of that year, NATO promised eventual membership to Ukraine but did not outline a specific path forward. 

In 2010, Yanukovych became President, saying the country should be a “neutral state” and cooperate with Russia and the West. Then, in 2013, days before the planned sign date, Yanukovych announced he would not sign an agreement with the European Union to deepen cooperation due to Russian opposition. His announcement sparked the Revolution of Dignity, the largest in the country since the Orange Revolution. Then, in February 2014, Ukraine saw its bloodiest week in its post-Soviet history, as clashes between police and protestors left more than 100 dead. Yanukovych fled to Russia and the Ukrainian parliament installed a new government

Russia viewed the Revolution as an illegal coup and moved forces into the Crimean Peninsula in southern Ukraine. In March 2014, the Crimean parliament voted to secede from Ukraine and join Russia. A referendum followed, where over 95% of voters favored succession, though many observers question the vote’s legitimacy. Russia finalized its annexation of Crimea on March 18, prompting the West to institute a flurry of sanctions and boot Russia from the G-8 (now the G-7). 

In April 2014, Russian-supported separatist forces in the east Ukrainian regions of Donetsk and Luhansk declared the provinces independent. However, the self-declared republics received no international recognition. The actions prompted fighting between government forces and rebels in both regions, often referred to as the Donbas. In May 2014, pro-West candidate Petro Poroshenko became Ukraine’s president. Representatives from his administration, France, Germany, and Russia, met in Belarus and negotiated two ceasefire agreements known as the Minsk Accords, but they failed to end the conflict.

In April 2019, Volodymyr Zelensky became President, campaigning on ending the conflict through negotiations with Putin. Instead, Russian aggression towards Ukraine increased: throughout 2021, Russia increased its troop presence along several fronts of Ukraine. Putin demanded NATO guarantee it would not admit Ukraine as a member and remove forces from any countries that joined NATO after 1997, which the organization flatly rejected. Then, last Monday, Putin officially recognized the two Donbas breakaway regions as independent republics and ordered “peacekeeping” forces into the territory, prompting international outcry and sanctions. On Thursday, Putin declared a “special military operation” into Ukraine, launching a full-scale invasion.

Russia’s invasion sent the nation’s stocks and currency, the ruble, into freefall. The ruble hit a record low against the dollar, though it rebounded slightly. The economic impacts weren’t limited to just Russia, though. European and Asian stock markets tumbled on Thursday, while U.S. stocks actually rallied back to an increase after initially plummeting on Wednesday. Oil prices surged to over $100 a barrel for the first time since 2014. In addition to raising energy prices, the invasion could create inflationary pressures more broadly. Furthermore, the invasion could weaken consumer confidence, slowing the economic recovery. The unrest could also disrupt already strained supply chains, causing shortages and raising prices. 

As Putin announced the military assault, Ukraine was hit with a wave of crippling cyberattacks. Victims of the malware include Ukrainian government institutions, security services, and banks. Putin’s declaration of a full-scale invasion also brought airstrikes and troops from three different sides of Ukraine. Russian forces captured several notable regions, including the Chernobyl nuclear plant, though observers say it is unlikely they successfully achieved all their objectives, as Ukrainian troops have put up fierce resistance. 

The Russian military has pushed heavily towards Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital, with many speculating it seeks to decapitate the country’s leadership and institute a puppet government. Zelensky declared martial law and announced a full military mobilization for 90 days. The Ukrainian border guard has banned males 18-60 from leaving the country. Thousands of Ukrainians fled to subways as makeshift bomb shelters for the night, fearing air raids, which bombarded Kyiv throughout the night.

Our Q&A section will cover what might happen as the war moves forward. First, let’s take a look at how the Left and Right view this issue.

Click here to view our comprehensive slides on the history, response, and potential outcomes of the Ukraine conflict.

Left Narrative

40 million innocent Ukrainians must now either run or fight because of Vladimir Putin’s crimes against humanity. Former President Trump weakened U.S. support for Ukraine with his isolationist policies. He has praised Putin as “a guy who’s very savvy” after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. On the other hand, President Biden is a leader who has shown dedication to American allies. The U.S. and its allies have and will continue to impose sanctions, ensuring Russia faces consequences for its flagrant violation of international law without getting the U.S. caught in another costly war.

Left-Lean Narrative

Right-Lean Narrative

Right Narrative

It is undeniable that under President Trump, Russia was a more passive player on the global stage. The United States had the luxury of strong foreign policy, allowing us to focus on internal problems, like border security, rather than engaging in more endless wars. Instead, Biden’s ineptitude in Afghanistan has fundamentally damaged the U.S’ reputation as an authority figure in foreign affairs. After failing to properly acknowledge the severity of Russia’s invasion posture earlier this year, Ukraine is the first domino to fall, and Taiwan may be close behind. The events unfolding this week are proof that Biden was wrong to upend bipartisan foreign efforts by voting down the January sanctions and is ill-equipped to handle the crisis moving forward.

Questions & Answers

Reading Comprehension

Have your students take a reading comprehension quiz to see how well they understood the article and different opinions.

Launch Activity

Discussion Questions

  1. Do you think attacking Russia economically will prevent further encroachments into Ukraine?
  2. How might Russia look to keep control of Ukraine once it is taken?
  3. What threats might Russia’s incursion have on the United States?
  4. Why are NATO nations worried about the Russian Ukrainian conflict?
  5. What economic toll does Russia’s invasion have?
  6. Should Russia take over Ukraine, would Ukrainians vote to join Russia?
  7. If article 5 of NATO was invoked, would the United States invade Russia?
  8. In what way do you think the United States should respond, if at all?
  9. What lessons can the United States take away from Russia’s invasion?

Want to learn more about this topic?

Check out these current event pages for history, narratives, activities, and more:
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Authors

Accompanying Content

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VICE
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NBC News (Online)
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