• Karolina Hogan and Dora Betts

Rising Tensions of a 30-Year Dispute: Historical Context for the Russia-Ukraine Crisis

Putin’s televised address on February 21 included his proclamation to recognize the two Moscow-backed separatist regions of Donetsk and Luhansk in eastern Ukraine as independent. Such recognition is viewed by some as a dangerous move as it could trigger military intervention in Ukraine. Russia has militarily aided separatists in the region since Russia fomented conflict in these areas in 2014. With recognized independence, the leaders of the Donetsk People’s Republic and Luhansk People’s Republic could then request military help from Russia in Ukrainian territory, allowing Russian troops to enter Ukraine and exacerbating a diplomatic crisis.


In his address, Putin denounced Ukraine's push towards Western institutions, rejecting the country’s nationhood: "Ukraine has never had traditions of its own statehood... the Ukrainian state is built on denying everything that invites us, the historical memory of millions of people,” as reported by Moscow correspondent Max Seddon. Declaring that “modern Ukraine was completely created by Russia,” Putin’s argument underlines a historical relationship that is at the root of the contemporary crisis between the two countries.


Although tensions in the region have been escalating since the installment of hundreds of thousands of troops near Ukraine’s border, the conflict has dominated Ukraine-Russia relations since Ukraine left the Soviet Union in 1991. A valuable asset to the union, Ukraine provided it with agricultural production, defense industries, and military to the region. Its attempts to establish itself as an independent, sovereign state has included identifying with Western institutions like the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). As a former Soviet republic, Ukraine is immensely connected to Russia socially, culturally and historically.


On July 12, 2021, Putin published an article conceptualizing his ideology by demonstrating the historical unity between Russians and Ukrainians: both developed under the umbrella of an ancient country populated by Slavic tribes called Kievan Rus’. However, territorial disputes surged through centuries, resulting in a blurred sense of nationality and identity. It is Putin’s view that Russians and Ukrainians “are one people [and that] Kiev is the mother of Russian cities.” Despite the Russian claim over Ukraine, the Ukrainian language has evolved differently phonetically and grammatically, causing Ukrainians to feel their own sense of identity expressed through land possession. Although Russia illegally annexed the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine in 2014, Ukrainian nationalism causes fear among Russian political leaders that Ukraine may try to reassert itself into Crimea with the help of NATO.


NATO was created as a defense system against the strength of the Soviet Union. Yet even after its collapse, and the forfeit of Soviet territories, NATO still acts as a facet for the United States and western European countries to counter Russian strength. Consequently, post-Soviet regimes in Eastern Europe look to NATO for defense against their brooding brother and have been joining the alliance in greater numbers since 1999.



Courtesy of Council on Foreign Relations



To Putin, the eastern expansion of NATO represents a growing national security threat. In 2008, he warned William J. Burns, U.S. Undersecretary for Political Affairs, that “No Russian leader could stand idly by in the face of steps toward NATO membership for Ukraine. That would be a hostile act toward Russia.” Putin’s ideology is reflected in his unwavering demands on NATO. The military buildup surrounding Ukraine is an ultimatum, NATO must end its engagement with the ex-Soviet states or else. Russia’s list of demands includes the denial of future membership to these states and calls for a halt of any military activity within them as well. Furthermore, addressed to the United States specifically, Russia wants to limit military activity outside of their home territory with guaranteed reciprocity. Some Western officials claim that these demands have been put forward in bad faith; that the Kremlin knows that NATO members will refuse to give Russia control over their organization.


The sense of unity is not shared by U.S. officials who fear that a Russian invasion of Ukraine places democracy in a fragile state. Putin’s invasion of Ukraine could compromise international diplomatic norms and dramatically shift the current European balance of powers. The United States and its democratic coalition will be undermined, and consequently, embolden other actors to follow Russia’s lead. Furthermore, conflict with Russia could strain the American domestic economy through rising energy prices, which would limit economic growth and result in higher levels of inflation.


On February 16, 2022, President Biden addressed his constituents and his counterparts, emphasizing the importance of global and nationwide collaboration while conceptualizing the current American strategy. He stressed to Russian citizens that Ukraine, as well as NATO and the Western bloc, pose no danger to their safety. He pointed to suggestions of new arms control, transparency, and strategic measures. However, despite prioritizing diplomacy, Biden’s message to President Putin is clear. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine will not go by unchecked. the US military will safeguard the entirety of NATO territory and will personally clamp down on economic pressure on key Russian industries, such as working with German leaders to halt the Nord Stream 2 gasoline pipeline streaming from Russia to Germany. “Accountability matters,” stated Biden.


World leaders like President Biden and President Macron had hope that there was room for compromise, perhaps through creative solutions, such as relocating missile training exercises or through the “Finlandization” of Ukraine. If the latter were to happen, Ukraine would possess formal independence, but Russia could push informal influence to ensure Ukraine never joins NATO. Winning concessions like these and preventing war would solidify Putin’s victory in the two-level game. Therefore, many believed that Putin was practicing brinkmanship; however, Macron corroborated Putin’s readiness to engage, while adding, "there is no security for the Europeans if there is no security for Russia.”