top of page

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. Yanukovych backflips on a highly anticipated EU association agreement that would have seen Ukraine more integrated into European markets, forging deeper ties with the West to the general satisfaction of the Ukrainian people. The Ukrainian president cites pressure from the Kremlin as a key factor in his decision not to sign the agreement, deciding instead to pursue deeper ties with Russia, accepting a loan bailout.

Chaos ensues as the Ukrainian people protestt the decision. Protests across Ukraine, the largest since the Orange revolution, break out across the nation. Civil disobedience continues into the new year, turning deadly in February of 2014. Protesters occupy government buildings and an area known as Independence Square in Kyiv. Clashes between protestors and security forces ensue and in late Feburary, more than 100 Ukrainians arre murdered during violent demonstrations in Independence Square. Leaving over 100 Ukrainians dead, the events are considered to be part of the bloodiest week in Ukraine’s post-soviet history. With Ukraine on the brink of civil war, Yanukovych flees just before a scheduled vote to impeach him is to take place.

Ukrainians revolt following President Yaukovych’s rejection of the EU Association Agreement (2014)

Source: Jeff J Mitchell, Getty Images (Al Jazeera)

It is believed that on the evening of the 22nd of February 2014, Russian President Putin assembled his security chiefs and high-ranking members of his cabinet to discuss the situation in Ukraine and the extraction of President Yanukovvych. It is reported that Putin emphasised at the end of the meeting that they "must start working on returning Crimea to Russia".

The exiled President, aided by President Putin, travels to Crimea and eventually to Russia’s South, where he is still believed to be to this day. Within the same time frame, Yanukovyvh is charged with mass murder for directing the killing of protestors in Independence Square, the Ukrainian parliament votes to depose its tyrannical leader, installing an interim caretaker government.

These events come much to the dismay of Russia, with the Kremlin swiftly declaring the changes to Ukraines political establishment to be an illegal coup. Soon, armed insurgents begin to appear at facilities in and around Crimea. A few days later, masked Russian troops take charge of the Supreme Council of Crimea, the equivalent of a regional parliament. Installing a pro-Russian government in Crimea, Russian troops capture key strategic sites in the region, quickly installing a large presence of Russian troops in the region. One month later, the Pro-Russian government conducts a referendum on Crimea’s status, the referendum to succeed overwhelmingly passes with 97% of respondents choosing to join Russia, the results of this referendum are highly disputed, regardless, it leads to the declaration of Crimea’s independence. Russia annexes the region, incorporating Crimea as a Russian Republic and establishing Sevastopool, the region’s capital, as a Russian federal capital. Following its newfound Russian identity, Russia mobilises a military presence and establishes military deterrents to defend and protect the new Russian territory, utilising its nuclear arsenal as a tool to threaten dissenting nations.

Russia’s annexation of Ukraine (2014)

Sources: Tim Ripley, defence analyst; IHS Jane's; Nirav Nikunj Patel, WorldPop Project (New York Times)

Russia’s annexation of the Crimean Peninsula is never recognised by the West, with the West layering sanctions on Russia in response.

Violence in Ukraine does not yet stop. In April of 2014, following the annexation of Crimea, Russian backed separatists storm government buildings in the Easterm Ukrainian region of Donbas. With forces taking control of the regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, the militia groups declare independence from Ukraine as the Donetsk People's Republic and Luhansk People's Republic. It is another blow to Ukraine; the regions, however, are not internationally recognised. Russia denies involvement, disputing Ukrainian reports of Russian boots on the ground in these areas. Conflict within these regions indefinitely continues and Ukraine declares them to be part of the "temporarily occupied territories of Ukraine".

Separatists raise the flag of the Donetsk People’s Republic (2014)

Source: Alexander Khudoteply/AFP, Getty Images (Council on Foreign Relations)

In May of 2014, Ukraine elects Petro Poroshenko as its next President. Though he promises reform and less of a reliance on Russia, Poroshenko’s rule is largely uneventful. Whilst he is President, Russia ups its Cyber Warfare, targeting important Ukrainian facilities and services such as Banks and Government buildings, in an attempt to cripple the Nations infrastructure.

Petro Poroshenko on election night

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

2019 – 2021: Servant of the People

2019 sees the rise of Ukraine’s comedian turned wartime President, Vlodomyr Zelenskyy. Interestingly enough, Zelenskyy was the star of a Ukrainian TV Show, ‘Servant of the People,’ in which he played a beloved high school teacher who had a distaste for corruption and suddenly finds himself becoming the President of Ukraine. Life truly does imitate art as Zenskyy runs on a similar platform, vowing to fight corruption and to bring peace to Ukraine. Zelenskyy’s election comes as a rebuke to Ukraine’s political establishment and the status quo.

Life imitates art, Vlodmyrr Zelenskyy is elected President of Ukraine

Source: AFP (BBC)

Zelenskyy’s early attempts to negotiate peace with Russia are dramatically slowed by US Domestic Politics and the now infamous (first) impeachment of Donald Trump. US President, Donald Trump blocked US Military Aid to Ukraine, asking Zelenskyy for a political “favour”, an investigation into energy company Burisma and it’s relationship with Joe Biden and his son, Hunter Biden in exchange for military and financial aid.

Russian-Ukrainian relations remain at a stalemate until mid-2021.

November 2021 - January 2022: Escalation

In November of 2022, in a stark escalation, Russia sends thousands of Russian troops to the Ukrainian border. President Putin insists that the troop presence is simply for military exercises. The mobilisation alarms Western officials who fear an invasion may be imminent. US Secretary of Defence, Lloyd Austin says “we're not sure exactly what Mr. Putin is up to, but these movements certainly have our attention".

Russia builds up its military presence

Source: Rochan Consulting/New York Times (New York Times)

In December, US President Joe Biden speaks with Russian President Vladimir Putin, urging Russia not to invade Ukraine, warning of harsh consequences including economic sanctions should an invasion take place. Putin issues a set of demands, amongst these demands he asks NATO to permanently bar Ukraine from the alliance and to withdraw NATO forces in Nations that joined the alliance after 1997, which would include many former Soviet States.

In January of 2022, the United States and allies issue a written response to Putin’s demands, rejecting many of them as non-negotiable.

February 2022 – February 23, 2022: Genocide in Ukraine?

The west continues to attempt to diplomatically deal with Russia, whilst preparing for the worst. Embassies in Ukraine are evacuated and NATO troops are put on high alert. Russia’s presence on it’s border with Ukraine increases upwards of 150,000 troops, war is imminent.

As violence between Russian backed separatist in the Donbas regions of Luhansk and Donetsk intensifies, Vladimir Putin declares: “in our view, what is happening in Donbas today is, in fact, genocide.”

It is this false pretence of genocide that President Putin utilises as a pretext to his invasion of Ukraine. On February 21st, the Russian state recognises the independence of the Donetsk People's Republic and the Luhansk People's Republic, ordering troops into the regions under the guise of peacekeeping.

Disputed Luhansk and Donetsk People's Republics

Sources: New York Times (New York Times)

February 24, 2022: War

On February 24th, Russia launches a scathing military attack on Ukrainian cities and military targets. Vladimir Putin refers to the situation as a “special military operation.” It is the largest military operation in Europe since World War II, Russian troops enter Ukraine from Crimea, Belarus, and the Russian Border. Attacking on several fronts, the much smaller Ukrainian army begins to fight the Russian military on several fronts, war in Ukraine has begun.

Russia invades Ukraine

Source: New York Times (New York Times)


This is how we got here. A desire to rebuild the Soviet Union, a fear of NATO and Russian backed separatist in Ukraine; stretching over past decades, the War in Ukraine is a complicated one with a complex backstory. How the situation evolves and what comes next will be of utmost importance as Ukrainian citizens hope for peace but prepare for violent warfare.


Liep Gatwech is an enthusiastic writer and a fourth year Monash University student. Liep has a passion for human rights, international affairs and specifically, affairs concerning the developing world, Africa and the African diaspora.