Real Talk: The Russo-Ukrainian Saga

Disclaimer

The following article discusses topics of a sensitive nature which may be disturbing and/or controversial to some readers. Hence, reader discretion is advised. The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in the article belong solely to the author and do not reflect or represent  Sunway University and Sunway College’ values.

The information stated in this article is correct as of 5 April 2022. 

Throughout the often tumultuous history of humankind, the entire world was home to a bedrock of constant conflicts between innumerable nations. War was commonly the only plausible solution in the eyes of the world’s leaders back then to achieve any sort of tangible objectives.

This bloody trend continued until the cessation of the Second World War in 1945, where deaths and casualties in per capita terms have been considerably lower than at any time before in human history as compared to hostilities occurring in places such as Afghanistan and Syria. This trend can be partially attributed to the increased importance of diplomacy in the wake of the unspeakable carnage following the Second World War, where particular emphasis was placed on the goal of preventing the repeat of history. 

Then again, while the statistics paint a picture of relative peace, is this sentiment commonly felt among the masses? This may not necessarily be the case. In recent times, physical aggression spearheaded by weapons of mass destruction do not automatically define war. As with everything else, warfare nowadays has evolved to include trade wars and cyberwarfare. 

However, on 24 February 2022, in an act of aggression on a scale unseen since the days of the Cold War, the Russian Federation launched an unprecedented invasion into Ukrainian soil, triggering a major international crisis and plunging a democratic nation of 44 million people into uncertain tenebrosity. A new and minacious era in international affairs is truly underway. 

A brief look at the history between Ukraine and Russia 

To gain a better grasp of what’s going on, it is imperative to go back in time and understand the history that existed between both countries. Back in 1917, the Russian Revolution was raging throughout the former Russian Empire. The February Revolution — the first of two uprisings in 1917 — was launched as a result of Russia’s performance in the First World War. Consequently, this led to the abdication of Tsar Nicholas II, ending centuries of Romanov rule. The monarchy then ceased to exist, and a new Provisional Government was formed. 

The Provisional Government often struggled for legitimacy, as it had to share its legislative powers with another faction known as the Petrograd Soviet. This, combined with the Provisional Government’s decision to keep Russia in the First World War, proved deeply unpopular among the Russian public. This eventually led to the October Revolution later that very year in which the Bolsheviks, led by Vladimir Lenin, overthrew the aforementioned administration. The Bolsheviks then established the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic (Russian SFSR), which was the world’s first constitutionally guaranteed socialist state.

With Bolshevik rule not accepted by the whole of Russia, tensions soon escalated, descending Russia into a brutal civil war between the Bolshevik Red Army and the White Army — a loose alliance of forces that championed a diverse range of ideologies including monarchists and capitalists. The Russian Civil War lasted for approximately six years and claimed an estimated 7 to 12 million casualties, ultimately resulting in the Bolshevik Red Army emerging victorious. Consequently, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) was formed, featuring much of the former Russian Empire — Ukraine included. The USSR eventually grew to encompass 15 republics at its peak, and was widely regarded as a global superpower for four decades following the Second World War. 

Relations between Ukraine and Russia since the collapse of the Soviet Union 

However, after experiencing prolonged periods of internal stagnation and dissension, the Soviet Union was officially dissolved on 26 December 1991. In turn, this effectively created 15 independent republics — two of which include modern day Russia and Ukraine. 

Since then, relations between Ukraine and Russia have been tempestuous to say the least. From Ukraine expressing their interest publicly in joining the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) — much to the chagrin of Russia, to accusations of Russian interference in Ukrainian elections, it’s easy to see why both parties would be wary of each other. 

Despite this, tensions soon sharply escalated in February 2014 setting the stage for today’s conflict following the Revolution of Dignity in Ukraine. This revolution resulted in the overthrow of the then-Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych and his government who was deemed too pro-Russian by the general Ukrainian public. Subsequently, pro-Russian unrest erupted in parts of Ukraine, seizing the Crimean Parliament. Russia then took matters into its own hands and organised a widely-derided referendum concerning the status of Crimea, which resulted in the annexation of Crimea into Russian territory. At the same time, pro-Russian, anti-governmental separatist groups seized the Donetsk and Luhansk regions within Ukraine, declaring the aforementioned regions as breakaway independent states, leading to direct armed conflicts with the Ukrainian government forces. These factors contributed to the commencement of the Russo-Ukrainian War that officially began on 20 February 2014, which is still ongoing to this day. 

Timeline: How did the Russian invasion of Ukraine start? 

So, what’s the recent backstory behind Russia’s rationale to launch a full-scale invasion into Ukrainian soil? 

Tensions that were already present took a turn for the worse back in the spring of 2021, where Russian President Vladimir Putin began a massive military buildup near Russia’s border with Ukraine and Crimea for “large-scale exercises”. This was Russia’s largest mobilisation of its armed forces since the annexation of Crimea back in 2014, sparking an international crisis due to potential concerns over an imminent invasion. The troops were then subsequently withdrawn, although the weaponry infrastructure remained largely in place. 

A second military buildup was then set in motion in October 2021; by December that year, approximately 100,000 Russian troops surrounded the Ukraine-Russia border on three sides. At this juncture, the United States and its allies accused the Russian government of preempting an invasion into Ukrainian soil, which was repeatedly denied by Russian officials. 

On 17 December 2021, Russia propounded security demands that included a legally binding guarantee ensuring NATO would cease any military activity in Eastern Europe and Ukraine, which Russia deemed to be an incursion into their sphere of influence. In addition, Putin demanded that Ukraine be stopped from joining NATO. China soon chimed in, directing Washington’s concerns towards what it sees as “legitimate Russian security concerns”. Such demands were instantly dismissed by the Biden administration who described the demands as “non-starters”. Putin also espoused Russian irredentism, and accused Ukraine of being dominated by neo-Nazis who actively persecute the Russian minority.  

Over the coming weeks and months, all parties were involved in trying to find a solution to evade a possible humanitarian crisis. United States President Joe Biden reassured Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy that the United States will respond “decisively” in the event of a Russian invasion, whilst warning Russia of crippling economic sanctions should the invasion take place. US and Russian officials also held diplomatic talks in Geneva, Switzerland in an effort to defuse the rapidly-escalating crisis, but to no avail. 

The crisis surrounding Eastern Europe took a sharp turn for the worse on 21 February 2022, when Russian President Vladimir Putin recognised two breakaway regions in Ukraine — Luhansk and Donetsk — as independent states, simultaneously ordering Russian troops to enter the aforestated regions to conduct “peacekeeping missions”. This announcement effectively rendered the Minsk agreement null and void; a sentiment echoed by US Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield in her address to the United Nations

With the looming threat of Russian invasion quite literally at their doorstep, on 23 February 2022, Ukraine’s parliament overwhelmingly voted in favour of declaring a national state of emergency, sending Ukraine into martial law. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy then ordered the conscription of army reservists while Russia then evacuated its embassy in Kyiv as both sides prepared for all hell to break loose.

Russia launches invasion into Ukrainian territory

It wasn’t long until the fears of 44 million Ukrainians became reality on 24 February 2022, Russia launched a full-scale military invasion into Ukraine when Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a “special military operation” to “demilitarise and denazify Ukraine”. In Putin’s eyes, Ukraine does not exist as a sovereign state in its own right, and attributes Ukraine’s current existence as a byproduct of the fall of the USSR — in other words, Russia created Ukraine. 

On what was supposed to be a tranquil Thursday morning, Ukrainians across the country instead woke up to the sound of artillery bombardment. The mere sight of missiles zinging through the skies flashing back to the days of the Second World War, when Nazi Germany launched countless blitzkrieg campaigns in the world’s largest land invasion into the Soviet Union. Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv, alongside major cities such as Odessa and Kharkiv reported the occurrence of multiple explosions. At 6:48 am local time on the same day, Russian military vehicles crossed the Ukrainian border through Senkivka, where Ukraine’s border meets Belarus and Russia. 

In a span of just two days after the invasion began, an estimated figure of 100,000 Ukrainians immediately fled the country, heading into neighbouring countries such as Hungary or Poland to seek refuge. Despite the overwhelming might of the Russian military — widely considered as the world’s second-most powerful armed force — the Ukrainian military has largely managed to counter their advance in the first few days. On 27 February 2022, the Ukrainian defence ministry estimated Russian losses at 4,500 men killed, whilst destroying a considerable chunk of Russia’s military equipment such as tanks and helicopters. However, Ukraine itself has suffered considerable casualties, with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) recording 406 civilian casualties in Ukraine as at that date. 

Over the course of the still-continuing war, Ukrainian soil has been the centre of much desolation resulting from weapons of tremendous destructive power. Civilian infrastructure from airports to hospitals have been razed into ruins. At one point during the invasion, more than 48 explosions were heard around Kyiv in a span of just 30 minutes. Borodyanka, a small Ukrainian town, has been completely destroyed as a result of intense firefighting, with entire village blocks being reduced to nothing but rubble. In an animal shelter at the same town, more than 300 dogs were found dead as a direct consequence of not having sufficient food and water for weeks due to the ongoing war. 

With the war raging on for more or less six weeks at this stage, Russian and Ukrainian officials have attempted to negotiate in an effort to put a stop to the invasion, and the continuous killings of innocent civilians. Peace talks have largely stalled as both parties refuse to give in on topics considered contentious to one another, with Russia also being accused of “pretending to negotiate” by the French Foreign Minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian. As of today, whilst slow progress has been made over at least countless rounds of peace talks, the ultimate presence of mutual scepticism within both nations and their relevant allies has threatened to prolong the misery.

The effects and consequences of Russia’s invasion 

The war, like many others, has dealt some serious consequences to all parties involved, with regular civilians taking the brunt of conflict. As of 5 April 2022, the war has claimed at least 24,000 lives on both sides whilst displacing at least 10 million Ukrainians. The death and destruction brought about by Russia’s relentless war machine have also been the subject of much condemnation, as their horrors slowly come to light in the form of potential war crimes. An example of this can be witnessed in the small town of Bucha, where the lifeless bodies of 20 men line a single street.  

Beyond the unprecedented tribulation and humanitarian crisis as a direct consequence of Russia’s invasion, the entire global economy also plunged into uncertainty. Russia soon found itself in “default territory” from the moment in which the invasion began with billions of debt mounting up, according to the World Bank. Seven Russian banks were removed from the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunications (SWIFT) financial payment system, effectively denying them access to international markets. 

Various sanctions have been imposed upon a multitude of Russian industries that could have crippling consequences. For instance, the United States, Canada and the European Union have effectively banned all Russian flights from entering their airspace. The sanctions have ignited countless flight cancellations and detours, denting the industry’s pandemic recovery. Certain Russian individuals have not been spared either, with over 1,000 Russian oligarchs being subjected to such sanctions. One such individual is Roman Abramovich, who happens to be the owner of Premier League football club Chelsea FC. 

Corporations around the world have also reacted decisively in protest towards the invasion, with more than 600 companies having announced their withdrawal from Russia. Credit card providers Visa, Mastercard and American Express have suspended all of their Russian operations, further isolating regular Russian citizens and hindering their abilities to withdraw funds. In the technological realm, Apple and Samsung — two of the world’s top smartphone makers — also joined the mass corporate exodus and suspended all shipments to Russia, provoking panic buying among the Russian public as they attempt to stockpile foreign electronics. 

Russia’s European neighbours have also retaliated across multiple fronts. The German and French governments have announced a declaration to effectively expel dozens of Russian diplomats by deeming them as “undesirables”. Germany also froze the Nord Stream 2 Baltic Sea gas pipeline project worth $11 billion, designed to double the flow of Russian gas direct to Germany. On a security front, countries such as Norway, Germany and Sweden have beefed up their defence budget considerably due to the increasingly uncertain security outlook  — with Germany in particular pouring in an astronomical sum of €100 billion into defence spending.

Russia has also been forced to face the music on a sporting front, as numerous international sports leagues and organisations have suspended Russia from international competitions. FIFA and UEFA, football’s largest and most influential governing bodies, launched a sweeping ban encompassing all Russian club and national teams from international competition, which includes the upcoming qualifying games for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. Additionally, UEFA stripped the Russian city of Saint Petersburg of its right to stage the Champions League final, and terminated its sponsorship agreement with Russian state-owned gas giant Gazprom across all of its continental competitions — a lucrative agreement amounting to about $50 million a year.

A portrait of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Final thoughts 

For months in the buildup to the invasion, everyone was debating on whether there would really be a war between Ukraine and Russia. Will this war be justified? Will the scenes of Ukrainians being killed by Russians, and Russians by Ukrainians, ever be seen as virtuous?

That remains unknown. Pandora’s box has been opened, and all sorts of grotesque fiends are slowly materialising in front of our eyes. Only time will tell. 

Peace is not absence of conflict, it is the ability to handle conflict by peaceful means.

Ronald Reagan

By: Chris Phang

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