Russia's invasion of Ukraine: how did we get here?

Liep Gatwech

Ukraine flag waving in air.
Source: Media from Wix

On Monday February 21st , in the ungodly hours of the Russian morning, Russian President Vladimir Putin unleashed an emotionally charged speech laden with falsehoods and historical fact, used later as the pretext to his “special mission” in Ukraine. As President Putin launched his tirade, Western leaders scrambled and the Ukrainian people slept, woefully unaware that they would not wake up in the same Ukraine.

Vladimir Putin in an early morning address to the Russian people

Source: (ThePrint)

President Vladimir Putin began his bizarre early morning address with a statement that fact checkers, historians and the like have considered to be a ‘cock and bull’ story. The Russian President aimed to minimise the Ukrainian state, framing it as a Russian borne obscure entity over that of an independent sovereign state, with its own cultural and historical significance. Putin’s blatant claim that“modern Ukraine was entirely created by Russia or, to be more precise, by Bolshevik, Communist Russia” shocked viewers. Amongst the chaos, the speech cast a fresh light on the President’s intricate relationship with Russia’s past and his suspected pipe dream of a reunited Soviet Union.

Prior to his invasion of Ukraine, the Russian President’s aggression towards former Soviet states and his mobilisation of Russian troops around former Soviet territories has been perceived by political pundits as clear evidence of an aspirational goal to piece together the broken pieces of the imperial crown that was the Soviet Union, with Ukraine being the missing crown jewel. This interpretation of Putin’s behaviour is shared not only by US President Joe Biden and many members of his Democratic Party, but also by Republican Senators Mitt Romney and Ted Cruz. In fact, this view is an international one, with the United Kingdom Foreign Secretary Liz Truss accusing Russia of attempting to build a new coalition with the remnants of the Soviet Union. Truss claims that Putin has a goal of rebuilding “a kind of greater Russia, carving up territory based on ethnicity and language.”

Interestingly enough, in 2005 during his second term as Russian President, in a speech to the Kremlin, Putin said that “the demise of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.”

Putin later went further, insisting it was disastrous that “tens of millions of our fellow citizens and countrymen found themselves beyond the fringes of Russian territory.”

To fully understand how the 2022 Russia Invasion of Ukraine came to be, we must go back 18 years:

2004: The Orange Revolution –

The Ukrainian Presidential Race of 2004 sees Viktor Yanukovych, the hand-picked successor of the previous president, supported by the Russian state, pitted against popular pro-democratic opposition leader, Viktor Yushchenko. In the final run of the campaign, pro-democracy activist Yushchenko suddenly falls ill and it is confirmed by medical professionals that he has been poisoned.

In a surprising turn of events, it is declared that Yanukovych has won the election. This is followed by widespread protests and civil disobedience that have come to be known as the Orange Revolution. Amongst accusations that the vote is rigged, the nation goes to the polls for the third time, Yushchenko triumphs and takes office in 2005.

Ukrainians taking part in the Orange Revolution (2004)

Source: Ivan Sekretarev/AP (NPR)

2005 – 2009: Ukraine shifts westward –

Over the course of Yushchenko’s administration, Ukraine forges deeper ties with the west. The Ukrainian President, to the dismay of Vladmir Putin and the Russian establishment formally requests in January 2008, that Ukraine be granted an action plan for NATO Membership, a step toward full NATO Membership. This motion is supported by the US President (at the time), George W. Bush, but is opposed by France and Germany following stark Russian opposition to the move.

US President George Bush and Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko at a press conference in Kyiv (2008)

Source: Gleb Garanich (Reuters)

In order to appease both Russia and the West, NATO reaches a middle ground. Ukraine is promised to one day become a member of the coalition, however, no specific plan of action for this path is detailed.

It is important to note that Ukraine is a buffer state, one of the many landmasses separating Russian from NATO troops. Ukraine is the largest country in Europe in terms of land mass, excluding Russia. Ukraine being admitted to NATO would put NATO troops on Russia’s doorstep.

2010: Backslide -

In a shock twist of events, Viktor Yanukovych, Yushchenko’s rival in the 2004 Presidential election prevails in the 2010 Ukrainian Election against Yuschenko’s Prime Minister, Yulia Tymoshenko. Yanukovych immediately changes the course of Ukrainian foreign policy, insisting that Ukraine must be a “neutral state”, not swaying toward the West or NATO.

Viktor Yanukovych during a rally in Kyiv (2010)

Source: Sergei Supinsky/AFP, Getty Images (Council on Foreign Relations)

2010 – 2018: Animosity, Attacks, Annexation

Yanukovych’s rule in Ukraine goes relatively without complication. However, November 2013 sees the beginning of his demise.