Many of us have heard the saying “war is hell.” A famous saying, by a famous general, in a famous war that ended long before any of our grandparents were even born. In his scorched-earth campaign against his enemy, he claimed: “war is cruelty…. the crueller it is, the sooner it will be over.“
Since invading Ukraine over 20 days ago, Russia’s war has killed thousands of innocent Ukrainian civilians, including at least 85 children according to official sources (as of March 14), as well as at least 1,300 to 4,000 Ukrainian soldiers. The numbers don’t begin to account for the estimated 2.5 millions refugees Russia’s invasion has created in just 3 weeks.
Not to mention the thousands of civilians who are being starved to death by the Russians in besieged Mariupol as we speak, or attacked as they flee via supposedly safe cease-fire corridors, or Russia’s suicidally reckless attack on Europe’s largest nuclear power plant, which risked a cataclysmic radiation leak.
It’s been 8 years since Russia first invaded and later annexed Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula in 2014. Following which, Russia armed and largely enabled its pro-Russian, separatist allies in Ukraine’s eastern regions of Luhansk and Donetsk (aka “Donbas”) throughout 8 years of essentially a Russian-sponsored civil war in eastern Ukraine, culminating in Russia unilaterally recognising the Donbas’ independence on 21 February 2022.
It was nothing more than a pretext for Russia to immediately invade Ukraine on 24 February 2022 in an attempt to launch a lightning strike on the country, topple its government, and install an illegitimate, pro-Russian regime before anyone could stop it. Or at least, that was the Russian plan.
Apparently it wasn’t much of a plan, as intercepted Russian communications seem to indicate Vladimir Putin wasn’t even sure if he could or would invade Ukraine until the very last minute, surprising even his own generals (two of whom were killed in combat), which along with outright kleptocracy, goes a long way towards explaining the supposedly mighty Russian army’s lack of fuel, lack of food, lack of training, and ultimately, lack of say in the matter, given how many scared, young conscripts Russia has thrust into battle.
So how did we get here?
Back to beginning: Kievan Rus
Ukraine and Russia’s mutual history dates back to the 9th century, with the rise of the Kievan Rus, a medieval confederation of Slavic and Eurasian tribes stretching from the Baltics to the Black Sea.
Taking its name from its viking founders (the “Rus”), by the 11th century it was the cradle of modern Ukraine and Russia’s cultures, with Kiev playing a central part as the capital and cultural heart of the confederation (by comparison, Moscow was little more than a rural town).
Unfortunately, its location at the crossroads of Europe and Asia put it in the path of invading Mongols, who sacked Kiev in 1240, triggering Kievan Rus’ decline, ending ultimately in 1547 with the establishment of the Russian Empire to the north.
1571: The Russian Empire, USSR, and Ukraine
Over the next 200 years, different parts of what’s now modern Ukraine were conquered by the Crimean Khanate (a branch of the Mongol Empire), the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, and various Cossack tribes, before eventually being divided between the (Austrian) Habsburg and Russian empires from the late 18th century until WWI (1914-1918), when the Austrian and Russian parts of Ukraine found themselves on opposing sides.
It ended with the dissolution of both the Austrian Empire who were on the losing side, and the Russian Empire which descended into the chaotic Russian Revolution (1917-1923). At this point, Ukraine declared its own short-lived independence as the Ukrainian People’s Republic (1918), before eventually falling to the Soviets and being subsumed into the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) in December 1922.
As the successor to the Russian Empire, the USSR (or Soviet Union) – comprising a confederation of Russia, Belorussia, Ukraine and the Transcaucasian Federation (divided in 1936 into the Georgian, Azerbaijan, and Armenian republics) – was the first communist state in the world to be based on Marxist socialism. For the next 69 years, the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic existed alongside the USSR’s 14 other Soviet socialist republics.
1939 to 1945: WWII
During WWII, Ukraine was invaded by Germany, resulting in upwards of 10 million deaths, before the USSR’s reinvasion of Ukraine resulted in nearly another million deaths. After WWII, Ukraine underwent years of heavy-handed re-russification by the Soviets.
Ukraine was home to an estimated 10 million Jews (roughly a quarter of all Jews at the time) until WWII, when an estimated 1.5 million were murdered during the Holocaust. Ukraine’s current president, Volodymyr Zelensky is himself a descendent of Ukrainian Holocaust survivors, which makes one of Putin’s claims for invading – to rid Ukraine of nazis – absurd.
Prior to 2011, Ukraine was unfortunately best-known as the site of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in 1986 which remains the largest civilian nuclear discharge of all time, directly resulting in thousands of deaths, and likely tens of thousands more premature deaths yet to come; it released roughly 10 times the radiation of Fukushima despite ejecting only 5% of the reactor’s radioactive core material. The meltdown was caused by an explosion in one of Chernobyl’s badly designed reactors, manned by poorly trained staff.
The disaster at Chernobyl was largely mitigated thanks to a multi-decade, multi-billion dollar containment effort by more than 40 countries. One of the best documentaries about the disaster is the Academy Award-winning Chernobyl Heart, while the award-winning Baboushkas of Chernobyl tells the true story of a trio of iron-willed aunties who returned to their home despite the risk of radiation.
Early 1990s: The Collapse of Soviet Union
Chernobyl was the most visible indicator of the long-perceived rot that had hollowed out the once formidable Soviet Empire, from its failing technology, to its seemingly inept handling of existential threats.
The final blow came when the USSR made its disastrous exit from Afghanistan following its decade-long war: the Soviet-Afghan War (1979-1989), aka “Soviet’s Vietnam”. The Soviets never recovered from it, both financially and politically.
The Soviet Union began to officially unravel in March 1990, when Lithuania declared its independence, followed by neighbouring Latvia, Estonia, and others, including Ukraine on 24 August 1991 following a referendum where 92.3% of Ukrainians voted to break away from the USSR. This led to the USSR’s complete collapse on 26 December 1991.
The collapse of the USSR left all 15 of the former Soviet republics in various states of chaos. Some nations were better prepared, like Estonia; but some, like Tajikistan, dissolved into a 5-year (1992-1997) civil war.
The 1990s: The Disastrous Decade
After the collapse, states across the former USSR scrambled to change alliances: some looked to Western-style democracy and found success (like Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania, etc), while others – like Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan – followed the old Soviet’s model of authoritarianism. Given their years of shared Soviet history (1921-1991), this gave Russia – the biggest of the states – the chance to continue to exert some level of influence.
This meant that any of its former states that turned into a successful, Western-style democracy was antithetical to Russian aspirations, and an existential threat to the stability of its new leadership.
One of many examples of which was, following the USSR’s collapse, thousands of nuclear weapons were left spread across four new, post-Soviet states: Belarus, Kazakhstan, Russia, and Ukraine (the most Western-leaning nation).
Russia, unsurprisingly, kept its nuclear weapons, and negotiated for Ukraine to give up its nukes in exchange for guarantees (by Russia) – signed into law under the 1994 Budapest Memorandum treaty – that Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity would not be violated (which included Crimea and Donbas). Ukraine had the third-largest stockpile in the world at the time, and Russia’s move was to strip Ukraine of its nuclear threat.
2000: Putin’s Russia
Upon taking office in 2000, Vladimir Putin noted with optimism “for the first time in Russian history, the executive power of the country is being transferred democratically, legally, and peacefully.” He was initially embraced by the West, but behind the scenes, Putin had begun to change Russian laws (and institutions) to ensure he would remain in power.
Shocking many in February 2007 during his speech at the annual Munich Security Conference, he rejected what he saw as the US-led, liberal “free world” order, accusing the West of taking hostile actions against Russia, saying “at the end of the day this is pernicious.” It set a new baseline for his – and Russia’s – stance on NATO expansion.
Between the collapse of USSR in 1991 and Putin’s Munich 2007 speech, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia all joined the NATO alliance for a range of reasons – but overarchingly, to help defend themselves from Russian aggression.
As Russia began to stabilise (relatively speaking), Putin reportedly told then-US President George W. Bush at a 2008 NATO summit that Ukraine “wasn’t even a country.”
2014: Russia invades Crimea for Novorossiya
In 2013, what started as peaceful student demonstrations in Ukraine became a violent revolution to oust then-President and Putin puppet Viktor Yanukovych; following the popular revolution, he was replaced by Petro Poroshenko in June 2014. The Netflix documentary “Winter on Fire” tells the story of Ukraine’s frontliners of the 2014 uprising.
Then on 23 February 2014, after discussions with Yanukovych, Russia began its invasion of Crimea right after the Sochi Winter Olympics ended – it was a clear violation of international law and Russian-signed agreements safeguarding the territorial integrity of Ukraine. The so-called Treaty on Accession of the Republic of Crimea to Russia was signed on March 18.
The pretext for the invasion, according to Putin, was to “protect pro-Russian/ethnic Russian Ukrainians” – a questionable assertion at best, with Ukraine expert Chrystia Freeland explaining, “One of the smartest and most effective things Putin’s propaganda machine did was to frame the conflict in Ukraine as a civil war between Russian-speaking Ukrainians and Ukrainian-speaking Ukrainians… that was never true.”
While ethnic Ukrainians make up three quarters of the population, Ukraine is a multicultural country comprising minority communities of Belarusians, Bulgarians, Crimean Tartars, Hungarians, Moldovans, Poles, Roma, Romanians, and the largest minority group, ethnic Russians, who account for less than one fifth of the population.
Polls in April 2014 (here) showed only 15.4% of Ukrainians were in favour of some sort of reunification with Russia, even in the Donbas where 52% of residents were opposed to any sort of reunification with Russia.
For Putin, his invasion of Crimea, Donbas, and ultimately all of Ukraine, was conceptually done under the guise of Novorossiya (“New Russia”), a historic Russian term Putin revived to encompass areas where he claimed he needed to “protect” and reunite ethnic Russians in Ukraine with Russia.
February 2022: War is hell
The US government warning on February 18 that the invasion would happen within the week turned out to be accurate. In the early hours of February 24, Russian troops moved south into Ukraine from Belarus and across Russia’s borders into Kharkiv, the Donbas region, and Crimea, which Russia annexed in 2014.
So if the world knew it was happening, how did it still happen?
There are always two sides to every conflict. In this case, there’s a right side (Ukraine), and a wrong side (Russia). While Russia is on the wrong side of this war, it’s important to not let that erode our humanity. It doesn’t make the estimated 6,000 to over 11,000 Russian soldiers killed thus far irrelevant.
Not to mention the estimated 13,000 Russian anti-war protesters who while not being direct victims in any way close to what the Ukrainians are facing, will now themselves face up to 15 years in prison, for daring to even call Russia’s invasion what it is: a war.