Causes of the Russia-Ukraine Conflict: An Explainer

Causes of the Russia-Ukraine Conflict: An Explainer

The Russia-Ukraine conflict is an ongoing geopolitical and international relations issue and military standoff between Russia and Ukraine that began in February 2014 as part of an offshoot of the Revolution of Dignity or the 2014 Ukrainian Revolution and the removal of Russian-leaning Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych on 22 February 2014.

However, the issue started specifically on the status of Crimea, a strategically important peninsula along the northern coast of the Black Sea in Eastern Europe, and Donbas, a region in south-eastern Ukraine. Both territories are internationally recognized as part of Ukraine. Russian fleets were allowed to maintain their presence in Crimea but it annexed the peninsula in 2014.

The conflict eventually escalated into a full-blown war following a large-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine on 24 February 2022. The invasion was internationally condemned as a war of aggression. Nevertheless, while the causes of the Russia-Ukraine conflict are complex, the entire phenomenon is still grounded on the historical relationship between the two countries.

An Explanation of the Causes of the Russia-Ukraine Conflict

Background on Russia-Ukraine Relationship

The left-bank portion of Ukraine became part of the Russian Empire in 1667 after the Russo-Polish War that spanned from 1654 to 1667. The right-bank portion of Ukraine was later annexed by the Empire in 1793 after the Second Partition of Poland.

A brewing nationalistic spirit swept across Europe and it inspired Ukrainian writers and intellectuals to discuss anti-imperialism sentiments. However, Russia restricted attempts to advance the Ukrainian language and culture out of fear of separatism.

Ukrainians tried to break free from Russia following the 1917 revolution in St. Petersburg. The Ukrainian War of Independence emerged during the same year and lasted until 1921. The offshoot was the creation of the Ukrainian People’s Republic.

The Russian Empire collapsed in 1917 and further in 1918 with the execution of the Romanov family. The Russian Provisional Government overtook control of the country in 1917 to oversee the organization of elections and the creation of a new republic.

However, the October Revolution of 1917 saw the Marxist-leaning Bolsheviks headed by Vladimir Lenin overthrowing the provisional government. In 1922, the Union of Soviet Social Republics or the Soviet Union was established.

Note that the Soviet Union also absorbed the Ukrainian People’s Republic following the Soviet-Ukrainian War that spanned from 1917 to 1921. Ukraine officially became known as the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic

The dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 marked another era of the Russia-Ukraine relationship. The Supreme Soviet of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic declared independence on 25 August 1991. This was formalized in a referendum on 1 December 1991.

Western Leanings and the Foreign Policy of Ukraine

Ukraine has been generally upfront to move on from the Russian legacy and its former socialist identity. This was evident when it forged close ties with the West. However, its foreign policy has wavered between pro-Russian and pro-West leanings.

The Ukrainian foreign policy revolves around European Integration, which aims to create conditions for accession to the European Union, and Euro-Atlantic Integration, which intends to promote security by aligning with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

It also has an established relationship with the United States. The American government officially recognized its independence on 25 December 1991. Furthermore, it upgraded its consulate to embassy status in the capital city of Kyiv on 21 January 1992.

Ukraine has also been a primary recipient of assistance from the American government through the Freedom for Russia and Emerging Eurasian Democracies and Open Markets Support Act, which was enacted in October 1992.

Note that the Ukrainian government has received more than USD 3 billion in assistance from the American government. The purpose of this financial aid is to promote political and economic reform, as well as to address urgent humanitarian needs.

President Viktor Yanukovych and Euromaidan Movement

In February 2010, former prime minister and opposition leader Viktor Yanukovych became the 4th President of Ukraine after winning the 2010 Ukrainian Presidential Election and defeating then prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko.

His initial years marked the continuation of a foreign policy leaning toward European Integration and Euro-Atlantic Integration. He was vocal about his aspiration to ascend Ukraine to the European Union and maintain its status as a member of the NATO Outreach Program.

But he was also vocal about strengthening Russia-Ukraine relations. He noted during his second visit to Moscow that he would strive to end years of tarnished relationship with the Russian government. He was also open to compromise with Russia on the Black Sea Fleet issue.

Dmitry Medvedev, who was then the president of Russia, and Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin both stated that there were substantial improvements in Russia-Ukraine relations since Viktor Yanukovych assumed office.

The compromise between the Ukrainian and Russian governments resulted in the signing of the 2010 Ukrainian–Russian Naval Base for Natural Gas treaty. The base was located in Crimea. Yanukovych still maintained that his country remained a non-aligned European state.

However, in 2013, the Ukrainian president abruptly rejected the Association Agreement with the European Union. The deal centered on the greater integration with E.U. Yanukovych chose closer ties with Russian and the Eurasian Economic Union.

The abruptness sparked massive criticisms and eventual protest. A wave of demonstrations and civil unrest spread across Ukraine beginning on 21 November 2013 in Maidan Nezalezhnosti in Kyiv. The series of demonstrations and unrest was called Euromaidan.

Revolution of Dignity and the 2014 Pro-Russian Unrest

Behind the Euromaidan movement were government opposition leaders and other Ukrainians who believe that the Ukrainian government must uphold and advance further the longstanding attempt to integrate further with the European Union.

The same aforesaid individuals and groups also have negative impressions toward the Russian government. While they believe that promoting Russia-Ukraine relations is important, they also believe that a policy strongly leaning toward Russia can have a negative impact.

Note that the Euromaidan movement eventually paved the way for the Revolution of Dignity in February 2014. A series of violent events involving protesters, riot police, and unknown shooters ended with the ouster of President Yanukovych on 22 February 2014.

An interim Ukrain government was established. But Yanukovych stated that his ouster was illegal, and he sought assistance from Russia. The Russian government noted that the ouster was an illegal coup, and it did not recognize the interim government.

Both E.U. and U.S. supported the government. But there were also Ukrainians who harbor a pro-Russian stance. The removal of Yanukovych was followed by the demonstrations of pro-Russian individuals and groups across the eastern and southern regions of Ukraine.

A full-blown unrest emerged thereafter. The pro-Russian groups were eventually classified as separatist rebels. They began seizing territories in April 2014. They also shot down Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 on 17 July 2014 and killed 298 people in the process.

Intervention of Russia and Annexation of Crimea

Russia invaded and annexed Crimea in February and March 2014, about a month after the removal of Yanukovych. International relations experts believe that this move was an attempt by the Russian government to reclaim its lost influence in Ukraine.

Note that there were also allegations from the Ukrainian government and the West that Russia was supporting the armed movement of the pro-Russian Ukrainians through the provision of military equipment and other strategic assistance.

Fighting between the rebels and the Ukrainian military continued throughout the second quarter and third quarter of 2014. However, the latter started losing. The Russia Armed Forces launched a surprise invasion of eastern Europe in August of the same year to support the rebels.

The Ukrainian government, as well as various Western governments, have criticized the Russian government for its intervention. Russia eventually claimed that the Russians who joined the pro-Russian Ukrainian rebels were volunteers.

France and Germany brokered a peace agreement in 2015. Large-scale battles had ceased. Donbas and other parts of eastern Ukraine suffered a devastating blow due to the armed conflict and overall sociopolitical unrest. Thousands of people died.

But the Russia-Ukraine conflict was far from over. Even after the 2015 agreement, a series of violations in the east emerged in early 2021. Russia also positioned its troops near Ukraine, thereby fueling fears. The Russian government pulled back its troops in April 2021.

Intelligence reports from the U.S. government revealed that Russia was planning to deploy hundreds of thousands of troops. The Ukrainian government also said that Russian military units remained near its border. A possible invasion was still looming.

A Summary of the Causes of the Russia-Ukraine Conflict

The general cause of the Russia-Ukraine conflict is underpinned by the historical relationship between the two countries. Ukraine had a long history of being under the influence of Russia that spanned for centuries. The influence has polarized Ukrainian society.

A sizeable portion of the Ukrainian population adheres to the ideology that the country should be part of the greater European Union. However, a considerable portion also leans toward a pro-Russian stance, believing that they are better off strengthening their ties with Russia.

In a nutshell, one of the reason behind the Russia-Ukraine conflict stems from an internal sociopolitical crisis. This is evident from the backlashes and unrest that emerged when then Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych rejected an E.U. agreement to build stronger alignment with Russia.

Russia seems to take advantage of the situation. Some analysts have alleged that the Russian government under the leadership of Vladimir Putin is pushing an ideology that considers Ukraine as part of greater Russia or the one-Russia worldview.

The Russian government has also accused the European Union and the United States of pushing their political agenda toward Ukraine. Thus, it sees the country as a mere victim of the domineering and ever-encroaching hostility of the West.

Nevertheless, in February 2022, Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine. It was condemned by the international community as a war of aggression. The Russian-Ukraine conflict evolved into a full-blown war with almost half a million soldiers from both parties either killed or wounded.