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Russia-Ukraine war explainer

Leigh Turner
Leigh Turner

Several people have asked why the Russia-Ukraine war is happening. Here is some background context and history. This is an updated version of a piece published on 24 February.

You can also listen to an updated version of this post as a podcast.

Russia-Ukraine war: what is happening now? 

The Russian invasion of Ukraine that began on 24 February is the worst-case scenario.  President Putin launched a major, unprovoked war against a peaceful neighbour to re-draw the borders of Europe in the 21stcentury – a clear breach of international law. 

Russia Ukraine war Motherland statue
Figures from the “Motherland” statue in Kyiv, 2012, showing peasants resisting the invasion by Nazi Germany

It is hard to assess the significance of statements by the Russian leadership because misleading people about what you are doing, or “maskirovka”, is part of Russian military tactics. But to look at a few:

– President Putin says Ukraine is a hostile country. Ukraine was never hostile to Russia before Russia invaded Ukraine in 2014. Russian-speakers in the east of the country lived in peace and stability before Russia invaded. Since then, they have faced eight years of conflict. At no point before or since 2014 has Ukraine posed a military threat to Russia.

– Russia is responding to a fascist or “Nazi” threat from Ukraine. A nonsense claim repeating the propaganda playbook from 2014 – when Russia claimed a fascist threat from Ukraine to justify its invasion – and 1961, when builders of the Berlin Wall, designed to stop East Germans leaving for the West, called it an “anti-fascist protection wall”.  

This piece by top international lawyer Elizabeth Wilmshurst – who resigned from the British Foreign Office over the invasion of Iraq in 2003 – explains the illegality of Russia’s invasion.

Russia is in a perilous cycle of self-harm, with potential long-term damage to itself from invasion of Ukraine – just as in 2014. From 2013-2020 Russian GDP per capita fell 37%.[1] The annexation of Crimea in 2014 boosted approval figures for President Putin; since 2015 they have fallen[2].

What next? Maximum sanctions will now be triggered. The next hours and days will show the military situation. Like the Russian invasion of 2014, long-term this new invasion is a lose-lose for Russia and its people as well as a catastrophe for the people of Ukraine and a grave threat to European and even world security over the months and years ahead. 

Russia-Ukraine war: origins of the crisis

The origins of the crisis lie not in Ukraine but in Moscow. This war is all about keeping Vladimir Putin in power. He fears an invasion of democracy – coming over the border from Ukraine – which could threaten his position. The recent trial of Alexei Navalny, in a prison in Siberia, shows how frightened President Putin is of democracy and accusations of corruption against him. The only threat to Russia is that which a democratic, successful Ukraine would pose to the grip of the Russian leadership on power (see “Why did Russia change its mind?” below).

President Putin may have a secondary, related aim – to secure himself a place in history as the leader who restored Russian “greatness” and to increase what he perceives as Russian security. He may have convinced himself this is what he is doing. In fact, all Russian’s interventions in Ukraine since 2013 have been counter-productive, slowing Russian economic growth and encouraging suspicion of Russian territorial intentions in Ukraine and elsewhere in eastern Europe. 

Back in 2014, many Russia experts could not believe that an actual Russia-Ukraine war could break out, on the grounds that Russia would never attack a friendly neighbour and could achieve nothing except to impoverish itself. But Russia did invade. It has now done so again.

The propaganda war

Allegations of “genocide” and “fascism” in Ukraine and supposed threats to Russia are aimed at Russian audiences. The aim is to paint a picture of a supposed military threat, and humanitarian crisis, to justify the Russian invasion.

The Russian people do not generally feel enmity towards Ukraine – on the contrary, most see them as fraternal neighbours. They are sceptical about the case for war and will not want to see major Russian casualties. This is why President Zelenskyy of Ukraine spoke in Russian in his statement on 24 February appealing to them to oppose the war. But the state-controlled Russian media have been beating the war drums for years. If the war is over quickly without major Russian losses, Russians will be unlikely to mount large-scale protests. (Comment: since I wrote this on 24 February I have been surprised by the bravery of many Russians mounting anti-war protests in Russian cities despite the risk of immediate arrest.)

Atrocities of modern wars, such as the missile strike on an apartment block in Kyiv on the morning of 26 February, become instantly visible to people across the world via social media. This may help generate opposition to the war in Ukraine. But the confusion caused by the proliferation of fake images also complicates the picture.

Who really threatens the people of eastern Ukraine?

President Putin’s talk of protecting “Russians” in eastern Ukraine is disingenuous. Before Russian forces entered the region in 2014, there was no separatist movement there. The only reason Russian-speaking Ukrainians in the east are not enjoying a normal life is the occupation of these regions by Russian military forces eight years ago and the subsequent conflict. 

Before, that they were living in peace and security. It is President Putin who has brought chaos and insecurity into their lives.

History

Nationalists of all kinds tend to say “X territory is the ancient home of our people”. For Ukraine and Russia, the key date is 1991. 

On 1 December 1991, Ukraine held a referendum on independence from the Soviet Union. 84% of the electorate took part, of whom 92.3% voted for independence. Both Luhansk and Donetsk, the two regions partly occupied by Russia since 2014, voted 83.9% in favour of Ukrainian independence. In Crimea the figure was 54.2%.

One week later, on 8 December 1991, the leaders of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus signed the Belovezh Accords, declaring that the Soviet Union had ceased to exist. On 21 December, 11 of the 12 remaining Soviet republics – all except Georgia, and the Baltic states, whose independence the Soviet Union had recognised on 6 September 1991 – signed the Alma-Ata Protocol, reiterating the end of the Soviet Union and the creation of a “Confederation of Independent States”. On 25 December Soviet President Gorbachev resigned. The flag of the Soviet Union was lowered at the Kremlin and the flag of Russia hoisted.

Nuclear missiles, the Black Sea Fleet – and economics

The 1991 Belovezh Accords left plenty of loose ends. They included the presence on Ukrainian territory of the world’s third-largest nuclear weapons stockpile – leftover Soviet weapons – and the presence in Sevastopol, Crimea, of the Soviet Black Sea Fleet. The former Soviet republics also shared a currency.

In July 1993, Russia withdrew the Soviet rouble and introduced a new, Russian rouble. This forced the other republics of the former Soviet Union to introduce their own currencies and become economically sovereign. The move echoed the introduction of the Deutschmark in the US, British and French occupation zones of Germany in June 1948: in response, the Soviet Union introduced the Ostmark, creating East Germany as an independent economic entity. It was Russia itself that destroyed the Soviet Union.

To sort out the nuclear weapons, in December 1994, Russia, the US and the UK signed the Budapest Memorandum. In exchange for Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan giving up nuclear weapons on their territory, the signatories promised they would respect those countries’ independence and sovereignty within existing borders; refrain from the threat or the use of force against them; and refrain from using economic pressure on them to influence their policies. Russia, the US and UK did not, however, commit themselves to offering military support to defend against any threat to the sovereignty of Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan.

Russia Ukraine war Museum of Strategic Rocket Forces Ukraine
The Museum of Strategic Rocket Forces, Ukraine, 2010

To sort out the Black Sea Fleet, on 28 May 1997, Ukraine and Russia signed “The Partition Treaty on the Status and Conditions of the Black Sea Fleet”, dividing the fleet and its armaments between them. Ukraine also agreed to lease naval facilities in Sevastopol, Crimea, to Russia for 20 years until 2017 (extended by President Yanukovych in 2010 to 2042) and allowed Russia to maintain up to 25,000 troops and related weaponry in Crimea.

On 31 May 1997, Ukraine and Russia signed “The Treaty on Friendship, Co-operation and Partnership”, also known as “The Big Treaty”. The treaty promised the inviolability of existing borders; respect for territorial integrity. It committed each side not to invade the other’s country. Ukraine allowed the Treaty to expire in 2019 after Russian forces had annexed Crimea and intervened in the Donbass. Russia had already abrogated both treaties on 31 March 2014, after annexing Crimea. 

Ukraine and NATO

Ukraine began to talk about joining NATO in 2005, and applied to join in 2008. Some NATO member states, including the US and the UK and some Eastern European countries, favoured Ukrainian membership. Russia opposed it. Other NATO members, notably France and Germany, feared that offering Ukraine NATO membership, or a path towards it, might provoke Russia. At the Bucharest Summit in April 2008, NATO put Ukraine’s application on ice, where it has stayed. 

In 2014, following Russia’s annexation of Crimea and support of insurgents in eastern Ukraine, Ukraine renounced its non-aligned status and expressed renewed interest in joining NATO. 

Has there been a shift in Ukraine’s closeness to NATO since the Bucharest Summit of 2008, or since Russia invaded Ukraine in 2014? No. The only change is one brought about by Moscow: Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2014 made people across Eastern Europe, especially Ukrainians, more concerned about Russian aggression. As a Ukrainian commentator wrote in 2014: “Russia, you may have won Crimea. But you have lost Ukraine”.

NATO, for its part, says that decisions to apply for NATO membership are a matter for individual sovereign states and that third countries cannot have a veto on that. 

Ukraine and the European Union

Ukraine signed a “Partnership and Co-operation Agreement” with the EU in 1994, designed to boost economic integration. Over the following decade, some EU member states such as Poland and the UK supported granting Ukraine a “European Perspective” – ie acknowledging that Ukraine would one day join the EU. Others, notably Germany and France, did not. But the EU and Ukraine agreed many practical steps that deepened integration without offering a membership perspective. 

Later discussion focused on a potential Association Agreement between the EU and Ukraine, including a “Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement” (DCFTA). This would have integrated Ukraine closely into the EU, giving access to the EU’s “Four Freedoms” – goods, services, capital and people, including visa-free travel. Progress remained stalled over questions about the rule of law in Ukraine; but by November 2013 the EU was ready to sign the DCFTA. So, initially, was Ukraine’s pro-Russian President Yanukovych. But following a U-turn in Russian policy, Moscow pressured Yanukovych not to sign and he backed away from the DCFTA.

Russia Ukraine war: Welcoming an EU delegation to eastern Ukraine 2010
Welcoming an EU delegation to eastern Ukraine with bread and salt, 2010

Why did Russia change its mind?

The Russian leadership has argued that Ukraine’s EU DCFTA was in some way a surprise, and that it was not properly consulted. In fact, the EU held regular summits with Russia from 1991 onwards, including detailed briefings on Ukraine’s EU integration efforts. 

I myself visited Moscow, as British Ambassador to Kyiv, in 2009. Why, I wondered, was Russia so relaxed about Ukraine’s relationship with the EU, which ran contrary to Russia’s efforts to build its own Moscow-dominated “Customs Union” with other former Soviet states? I called on the head of Russia’s Ukraine department in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and asked him if Russia minded Ukraine getting closer to the EU. ‘Not at all,’ he said. ‘Of course we would rather they joined our Customs Union, but it’s up to them.’

What changed everything were events in Russia itself. In 2011-2013, large scale pro-democracy demonstrations took place in Moscow and other cities: the so-called “Bolotnaya protests”. It was these protests that convinced President Putin he faced a real threat from democracy washing over from a successful, democratic Ukraine. Russia has since 2000 become an increasingly autocratic state, with increasing pressure on opposition parties – effectively, none now exist – and control of the media. If democracy were to develop in Russia and genuinely free and fair elections were to take place, Putin would face an uncertain future.

The Bolotnaya protests led to a U-turn in Russia’s policy on Ukraine’s approach to the EU, with Moscow forbidding Ukraine’s President Yanukovych to sign the DCFTA in 2013. That in turn precipitated the “Maidan” protests in Kyiv and the ejection of President Yanukovych from power. In practice, Russia’s policy of 2013 backfired, creating a more, rather than less, pro-European Ukraine. 

As the Maidan protests created chaos in Kyiv, the Russian leadership saw an opportunity to take back Crimea, and seized it. It also attempted to foment uprisings in various Russian-speaking areas of Ukraine including Odessa. These failed completely in some cities. Even with support from regular Russian troops, by the end of 2014 Russia controlled only half of the two most easterly regions of Ukraine and Crimea – about 7% of the country.

Women's march in Ukraine, 2008
Women’s march in Kyiv, 2008

Russia-Ukraine war: Russian security concerns

Russia, like any country, has genuine security concerns. The country was invaded by Napoleon in 1812 and, as the Soviet Union, by Nazi Germany in 1941. Since the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989, numerous countries in the east of Europe have joined NATO – including Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic in 1999, and the Baltic states in 2004. Russia opposed all these expansions. Given that NATO was originally established as a defensive alliance against the Soviet Union, it is understandable that Russia is neuralgic about its expansion; and about the disappearance of the security belt of Warsaw Pact countries that used to shield it to the west. While NATO may argue that it is defensive, its engagement in the Balkans and the Middle East is hard to describe as such. But the notion that NATO countries would actually attack Russia militarily is far-fetched.

None of Russia’s NATO-related concerns have changed since Russia invaded Ukraine in 2014. The only countries that have joined NATO since then are Montenegro (2017) and North Macedonia (2020)[3]

Did NATO promise not to expand eastwards?

The “Two Plus Four” negotiations of 1990, which included the Soviet Union, led to the “Treaty on the Final Settlement with Respect to Germany”, signed in Moscow on 12 September 1990. This led to Germany becoming fully sovereign on 15 March 1991. 

As part of these negotiations, including to obtain Soviet agreement to a united Germany remaining in NATO, it was agreed that foreign troops and nuclear weapons would not be stationed in the former East Germany. The agreement does not mention NATO expansion. 

It is a matter of dispute whether Hans-Dietrich Genscher or James Baker informally said NATO would not enlarge east of East Germany during these negotiations. In a 2007 speech, Russian President Putin cited a 1990 quote from NATO Secretary General Manfred Wörner to imply that guarantees about enlargement were made. Putin said “I would like to quote the speech of NATO General Secretary Mr Woerner in Brussels on 17 May 1990. He said at the time that: “the fact that we are ready not to place a NATO army outside of German territory gives the Soviet Union a firm security guarantee.” Where are those guarantees?”

In fact, Wörner was referring to non-deployment of NATO forces to the territory of the former East Germany after unification. Wörner said: “This will also be true of a united Germany in NATO. The very fact that we are ready not to deploy NATO troops beyond the territory of the Federal Republic gives the Soviet Union firm security guarantees. Moreover we could conceive of a transitional period during which a reduced number of Soviet forces could remain stationed in the present-day GDR. This will meet Soviet concerns about not changing the overall East-West strategic balance.”

No-one on the western side made any written or formal guarantees about NATO expansion in 1991. But the debate about whether the Soviet Union could reasonably have inferred from what was said a promise not to expand is a red herring. The Russian leadership of 2022 has built its own version of history, including a perceived threat from NATO, to justify its actions. 

24.2.22 (updated 26.2.22)

PS: My book The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Diplomacy will be coming out in spring 2023. Click here to see my existing books, which include my Berlin thriller Blood Summit.

Blood Summit cover

This web-site is focused on my fiction writing and journalism, rather than current affairs. I would far rather be writing about my books, or PG Wodehouse. But I have put up this post because the Russian invasion of Ukraine is a world-changing event and lots of people are asking me, as a former British ambassador to Ukraine, what is going on. I hope it is useful.

P.P.S. Click here to listen to this post as a podcast.


[1] World Bank figures, $15,975 in 2013 to $10,127 in 2020 in current US$. On the same figures, 2020 was also the first year in which nominal Chinese GDP per capita exceeded that in Russia, at $10,435, making its economy roughly ten times as big as Russia’s. See https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/NY.GDP.PCAP.CD?end=2020&locations=RU-GB-DE-JP-FR-CN&start=1982

[2] According to Statista, Putin’s popularity reached an all-time high of 89% in June 2015 and stood at 65% in December 2020. It rose to 69% in January 2020. https://www.statista.com/statistics/896181/putin-approval-rating-russia/, Moscow Times https://www.themoscowtimes.com/2022/02/04/putins-approval-grows-amid-ukraine-tensions-poll-a76256

[3] Russian actions in 2022 have also prompted a renewed debate in Sweden and Finland about membership.

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20 Responses

  1. Leigh, your clear and informative comments are very welcome. You have provided the diplomatic background that sets out the background in a most helpful way. You must be more than disappointed by the current situation.

    Thank you most sincerely!

  2. Fascinating insights Leigh – such a comprehensive piece. Thanks so much for taking the time. Greatly appreciated

  3. Hi Robert,
    Thank you so much for writing this. How illuminating.

    Your piece has helped me make sense of all the chronological historical events and their impact. Also to see beyond Putin’s continuous drip fed propaganda.

    Do you think however that the ‘removal’ of President Yanukovych in 2014 was legal and whether that legality has any real bearing on Russia’s actions and stance since.

  4. Dear Leigh, I have just read your insightful and informative post about Ukraine – thank you – so very helpful. I have now signed up to your blog. Would you mind if I passed on to friends & family / posted a link to your piece on FB? It’s such a complex situation and most of us have no real understanding. I was lucky enough to visit Ukraine in the ’90s and it is heartbreaking to watch these events unfolding.
    Many thanks, Alison

  5. Thank you so much for that. It is useful to know the facts. It has now escalated considerably with Putin now putting nuclear weapons at readiness. It seems to be worse than at any time during the cold War.

  6. Thank you so much for that extremely informative piece of history which has helped me towards a greater understanding of all that is going on and the reasoning behind these horrendous events. The mention of nuclear weapons is frightening.

  7. Leigh,
    Many thanks for this clear account. I’m struggling to understand how these events relate to the ‘annexation’ of Crimea in 2014, and am perplexed that I remember very little awareness of that at the time. Questions bubbling in my head include:
    – why was that an ‘annexation’ whereas this is an ‘invasion’?
    – wasn’t that just as illegal as the current events?
    – what did the West do in response and why has it seemingly been accepted (e.g. by being referred to an an ‘annexation’ rather than an ‘illegal occupation’)?
    Sorry to ask when you have already said you’d rather be writing about something else! I’m just wondering if there are simple answers. Thanks.

    1. Simon – no simple answers. The occupation (I would say invasion) of Crimea was bloodless, which reduced the outrage at the time. The invasion of Donetsk and Luhansk at the same time was also swathed in secrecy and depicted as “rebel uprisings”, muddying the water. The sanctions imposed in response to both were weaker than they should have been, primarily because few people were killed at the beginning, and some countries still wanted, inexplicably to me, to give the Kremlin the benefit of the doubt. We can see now, with hindsight, that appeasing Russia has not worked.

  8. Leigh, thank you for this!!! I know what is happening is wrong and I understand the big picture – but, as a former resident, people expect a much more detailed and informed narrative rather than Putin is a megalomaniac monster!!!! I assume you are happy for me to share? ATB Richard

    P.S. when the world has settled again I hope to see you for more martinis!

  9. A little belatedly have just read your excellent and clearly laid out article about the history leading up to the current situation.

  10. Thanks for sharing your insights. You didn’t mention the conditions of the IMF loan favoured by the pro-EU government that replaced Yanukovych after the 2014 coup. I wonder what your thoughts are on how those events and the loan conditions might have influenced stability?

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