The Ukraine-Russia Crisis


(Russian armored vehicles in Crimea)

Paul Siebert


Since the fall of the Soviet Union and Ukraine becoming independent in 1991, a lot has happened in Eastern European politics. Ukraine has been forging increasingly close ties with the West, and Russia has become more and more frustrated about that. In 2014, Russia invaded a part of Ukraine called Crimea. A war could be prevented back then but we might not be that lucky again. Since March 2021, Russia has been amassing troops at Ukraine’s border. Now, more than 120,000 Russian soldiers are stationed at the border and the world is starting to panic. How could it come to this in the first place, how are the US and the North Atlantic Treaty Alliance (NATO) involved, and is this going to end in all-out war?

Ukraine’s distancing from Russia

In 2014, Viktor Yanukovych, Ukraine’s president at the time, rejected an association agreement with the European Union (EU) in favor of closer ties with Russia. The people of Ukraine were not happy, and they started going to the streets, protesting against the government; after several months of these protests, Yanukovych was removed from office. Shortly after, Russia invaded and annexed Crimea, a peninsula in the south of Ukraine. On top of that, Russia supplied pro-Russian separatists in the east of Ukraine with weapons and supplies, contributing to the annexation of parts of the Donetsk and Luhansk territories, the killing of 14,000 people, and the displacement of millions. Russia and Ukraine signed the Minsk agreement, which was supposed to bind both sides to cease fire and remove heavy weapons from the border. It collapsed within days, but the second Minsk agreement (signed in February 2015) worked out. We don’t know what would have happened without it; the crisis could have evolved into a war back then but the world was lucky and peace was kept. Fast forward a few years, and Volodymyr Zelensky, an actor and comedian, won the Ukrainian presidential election because of his anti-corruption platform. Under his leadership, Ukraine restated its intention to join NATO. In September 2020, he approved a security strategy which laid the foundation to a partnership with NATO. 

But while Ukraine has been trying to slowly distance itself from Russia, Russia’s president Vladimir Putin has tried everything to keep the two countries as close as possible. Apparently, he always felt like Ukraine was basically a part of Russia. The seeds of modern Russia lie in Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital, so to Putin, it only made sense that Ukraine should be especially close to or a part of Russia. He even wrote a 7,000 word article about the “Historical Unity of Russian and Ukrainians.” In the article, he said that Russians and Ukrainians are “one people,” described how closely related they are, and emphasized that the two countries must preserve their relations. He compared Ukraine and Russia’s relationship to Austria and Germany’s, as well as the US and Canada’s. But he also stated that, because Ukraine’s land is historically Russian, Russia was robbed and that he is convinced Kyiv does not need Donbas (the region of Ukraine that is currently under control of pro-Russia separatists). He concluded the article by saying that he is confident that “true sovereignty of Ukraine is possible only in partnership with Russia.” To some, that might sound like a threat and possibly even a hint at further annexations. Overall, his argumentation in the article somehow resembles that of an abusive boyfriend who is trying to convince his ex that they are basically one, should come back together because they reach so far back, and share such extensive history together. 

Ukraine and NATO

First of all, what is NATO? NATO is the world’s most powerful military alliance, having spent $1.036 trillion USD in 2019 alone. For a comparison, Russia spent $61.7 billion USD and was still in the top five nations worldwide. Today, the alliance comprises 30 member states (including the US, Canada, and many European countries) but originally, only 12 countries founded it. Their main focus was to prevent Soviet expansion, which might be one of the reasons why Putin hates it so much. He always opposed NATO bases anywhere near Russian borders, so in his opinion, Ukraine being friendly with NATO comes very close to crossing a red line; in his view, is a pretty good reason to be mad. While NATO would most likely support Ukraine in the event of a Russian invasion, NATO wouldn’t immediately welcome Ukraine as a member now due to the escalating tensions. According to a NATO spokesperson, Ukraine would have to root out scourges such as corruption before joining. Although, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg has said that when the time comes to consider the issue, Russia will not be able to veto Ukraine’s accession. However, we can’t be sure if this is 100% true. Analysts say that NATO allies, including the US chief, are reluctant to expand their military footprint eastwards and further jeopardize their relationship with Russia. We’ll have to see how Russia will react when Ukraine formally asks NATO if it can join the alliance and whether NATO will accept Ukraine as a member–if it ever does…

What is Nord Stream 2?

Nord Stream 2 is a gas pipeline across the Baltic Sea from Western Siberia to Greifswald, Germany. The US has been unhappy with Germany because they have been working with Russia on this project for a while. The US hold the opinion that Russia could use the pipeline as a tool to undermine energy and national security in Europe. However, Europe needs the gas to prevent a gas supply shortage. At the moment, Europe’s gas storage is only 56% full– compared to 73% last year. A gas supply shortage would hit low income workers the most, and Germany’s biggest party at the moment, Social Democrats (SPD), wants to support them. Traditionally, gas is delivered through intermediaries like Ukraine and other Eastern European countries which causes gas prices to increase due to gas transit fees that must be paid to these intermediaries. As a result, getting gas straight from Russia (through the pipeline) would cut out the intermediaries, remove gas transit fees, and as a result lower prices. Because of this most Germans continue to support the project because prices would be lower. While Western Europe would save money, Ukraine would all the revenue being generated from transit fees, and as a result, Nord Stream 2 could  negatively impact Ukraine. Anna Mikulska from the Rice University Baker Institute for Public Policy argues, “If we are talking about making sure Ukraine is not dependent on Russia then keeping dependency on transit fees is quite the opposite. If Ukraine needs those fees, they become a source of dependency, including geopolitically. Not that much different than depending on supplies of gas, right?”

For Russia, the pipeline is also quite important because it would remove the risk associated with sending gas through transit countries, allowing Gazprom (Russia’s biggest state-owned energy corporation) to ship gas directly to its most important European customer, Germany. So, the pipeline has its pros and cons for Germany, and Russia really wants to see the pipeline in action. Even though the construction of the pipeline was finished in September 2021, it is still waiting for certification from Germany and the EU. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz has stated that Germany could still halt the pipeline if Russia were to invade Ukraine. So while this pipeline has been an issue between Western countries for a while now, it seems like Germany understands the significance of the project and is ready to give it up if necessary. 

Russia begins amassing troops at Ukraine’s border

After Ukraine laid foundations for a partnership with NATO, Russia started amassing troops at Ukraine’s border in March 2021. By December, over 100,000 Russian soldiers were surrounding Ukraine from the North and West. As a result, a summit of political leaders held in Geneva, which was originally convened to discuss several other issues, turned into discussions with Putin about the movement of his troops. Putin responded by presenting a list of demands to NATO. He demanded that NATO should permanently block Ukraine from being a member, stop all military drills close to Russia’s border, and completely withdraw from Eastern Europe. Of course, these demands are impossible for NATO to meet, but Putin said they were nonnegotiable. Experts have suspected that he only presented such demands that he knows the West is unwilling to fulfill, so that he could argue NATO and the West were completely uncompromising. In January 2022, Russia, NATO, and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) came together to formally hold diplomatic talks regarding Russia’s troop movements. France has also been trying to talk to Putin individually. France’s President, Emmanuel Macron, is about to visit Putin in Moscow to try to ease tensions and possibly find peaceful solutions to the crisis. Since the peace talks with the OSCE seem to be in a stalemate–because Putin continues to stick to his demands–it would be great if Macron would be able to achieve something during his visit to Moscow. We will have to wait for this meeting and the discussions with the OSCE to be over to find out more about the current situation.

All-out war?

Samir Puri, a senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies describes Russia’s intentions like this: “I think what Russia and Vladimir Putin will be really after would be to defeat the Ukrainian armed forces in the field, inflict a crushing military defeat that humiliates the Ukrainians and by extension create concern that the backing Ukraine has from its allies in the West, the US and UK, is insufficient.” But, does Putin really want war? Well, not every citizen of Russia is willing to. For example, Ekaterina, a 25 year old master’s student at Moscow’s Higher School of Economics, said that nobody in Russia wants war and that “everyone is quite worried that there will be a third world war, and everyone hopes the conflict will be resolved peacefully.” While some Russians don’t want war, they still mostly blame NATO for the current situation. According to a recent survey by the Levada-Center, an independent Russian pollster, 50% of Russians believe the US and other NATO countries are responsible for aggravating the situation. In addition, 16% believe that it is Ukraine’s fault and 4% blame Russia.

So does Putin really want war? It is still possible that he really just wants NATO to meet his demands and fears strikes against Russia if NATO gets too close to its borders. Yevgeny Popov, a member of the Russian State Duma (Part of the Russian parliament: Federal Assembly), told Al-Jazeera that Russia’s demands were “necessary conditions for guaranteeing the safety and security of our citizens.” He also commentated, “It is obvious that if Ukraine begins an offensive against the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics, Russia will intervene. We are obliged to protect their lives and safety.” He stressed again, however, that there are no plans to attack Ukraine: “We still consider Donbas to be Ukrainian territory.” In my opinion, these statements kind of contradict each other; Popov says that Russia still considers Donbas to be Ukrainian territory, but he also mentions that Russia would have to intervene if Ukraine started an offensive against the pro-Russian separatists there.

All this also doesn’t really help in answering the question about whether Putin actually just wants his demands met or is just using them as an excuse for an attack. However, all the signs seem to point to war. For example, while Popov was making these confusing statements, Russian and Belarussian soldiers were conducting military drills at the Ukrainian border, and Russia deployed weapons within striking distance of Ukraine. These weapons included short-range ballistic missile systems, rocket launch systems, battle tanks, and towed artillery. Ukraine, with the help of NATO, seems to prepare itself for a war as well. The US has put 8,500 troops on alert and deployed an additional 3,000 to Germany, Poland and Romania. Putin’s spokesperson reacted to that by saying that the US is “escalating tensions” and that Russia is “watching these US actions with great concern.” Well, he won’t like the fact that the UK has already sent military aid to Ukraine as well. Germany, on the other hand, plans to send field medical facility and has already sent about 5,000 helmets. Ukraine doesn’t seem to be too happy with that, but Germany has stuck with their policy of not sending weapons into a crisis area because it believes that sending weapons to Ukraine now would only escalate tensions. Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania sent anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles, and the US also sent weapons as part of a $200 million defensive package approved by President Biden in December. So while all of the parties involved seem to be preparing for war, we don’t know whether all of the resources will be needed because nobody can read Putin’s mind. We can only hope that decision makers on all sides–particularly Putin– will take all possible consequences of these decisions into consideration when making them.

How could Russia invade Ukraine?

In the case that Russia does invade Ukraine, how and from where would they do it? They have several possibilities, but the most likely one includes Russia could invade Ukraine from the North and advance towards Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv, from there. To invade from the north, Russia would have to maneuver its troops through Belarus. Belarus would most likely allow Russia to use its roads since it is one of Russia’s closest allies, and Russia has already stationed soldiers in Belarus. Russia could also invade from the Donetsk republic in the east of Ukraine since it is already controlled by pro-Russia separatists. This would allow Russia to simply expand its boundaries westwards. Last but not least, Russia could invade from the South to secure fresh water supplies for Crimea and block Ukraine’s access to the sea. If Russia would invade from the south, it could also seize the port of Mariupol and create a land bridge to Crimea (right now, Crimea can only be entered from Russia’s side over a bridge.) Of course, these scenarios are all worst-case scenarios, and we should hope that none of them ever become reality. But it is still important to know about the possibilities Russia has when it comes to invading Ukraine. 

Possible punishments for Russia

If Russia were to invade Ukraine, the NATO members would certainly impose sanctions. If they wouldn’t want to go to war, these would be their options: they could cut Russia from the SWIFT system, which moves money from bank to bank around the globe. This would cut Russia off from most international financial transactions, including international profits from oil and gas production, which account for more than 40% of the country’s revenue. The US could also block Russia from their access to the US dollar, which still dominates financial transactions around the world. Finally, the US is considering imposing export controls, potentially cutting Russia off from the high tech that, among other things, helps warplanes and passenger jets fly and powers smartphones. These sanctions would really hurt the people of Russia, however, they wouldn’t directly affect Putin, so the US and NATO can’t be sure of how much Putin would actually care about these sanctions. 


Ultimately, a lot depends on the decisions Vladimir Putin makes, and nobody really seems to know what he is planning. What we do know is that an invasion of Ukraine would be catastrophic, and it could possibly lead to a third world war. But for now, we should not panic but put trust in our governments and their ability to resolve this conflict in peaceful, diplomatic talks.