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14 March 2022

Russia-Ukraine war: an invasion 30 years in the making

For Vladimir Putin, the fall of the Soviet Union was “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century”.

By Alix Kroeger and Phil Clarke Hill

When the Soviet Union fell in the 1990s, 14 republics — including Ukraine — became independent. Russia was on its own, its influence and economy reduced.

But with the new millennium came a new president: Vladimir Putin. He restored some order after the chaotic 1990s. He also wanted to restore Russia to the status of a superpower.

2004: The Orange Revolution

By the time Putin became President, Ukraine was struggling, its government mired in corruption scandals. In 2004 Ukrainians rose up and stopped a pro-Russian candidate, Viktor Yanukovych, from stealing the presidential election. It became known as the Orange Revolution.

Putin was spooked. He didn’t want Ukraine turning to the West.

In a turning point speech in 2007, Putin accused the US of creating a unipolar world. He called it “pernicious”. Over the next few years, the US sought a reset of relations with Moscow.

It failed.

2014: Little green men

In 2014, revolution was once again brewing in Ukraine. Yanukovych, who had finally managed to become president 2010, had signed a treaty on closer ties with the EU and then abandoned it. Weeks of street protests ended in violence. Dozens were shot dead by uniformed snipers. These became known as the “Heavenly Hundred”.

After Yanukovych fled to Russia, Ukrainians flocked to his private estate near Kyiv. There they found luxury; a far cry from the poverty in which many lived.

Then came the “little green men”. They appeared overnight in Crimea — armed men who seized Ukrainian government sites without saying who they were. It soon became clear: they were Russian forces.

Crimea has been part of Ukraine since 1954 but before that it belonged to Russia. It’s a warm-water port, a key military asset and home to the Russian Black Sea Fleet. There was international condemnation, but Russia used a disputed referendum as a pretext to annex the peninsula.

A few months later war broke out in eastern Ukraine. Russian-speaking separatists, backed by Moscow, sought to break away. They claimed the districts of Donetsk and Luhansk, and Ukrainian government forces fought back. Thousands died, many of them civilians.

A shaky ceasefire was agreed but never fully implemented. Talks continued on and off for several years, as did low-level fighting.

2022: War in Ukraine

Nato is Putin’s bugbear. He wants it to rule out membership for Ukraine and he wants Nato troops to leave all former Warsaw Pact states, such as Poland and Romania. Western leaders have refused Putin’s demands.

Since November 2021 Russian forces had been massing on the border of Ukraine. On 22 February Putin said that he had taken “the long-overdue decision to immediately recognise the independence and sovereignty of the Donetsk People’s Republic and the Luhansk People’s Republic”.

Russian troops then entered Ukraine. International condemnation has followed, along with sanctions on Russia.

Last July Putin published a 7,000-word essay in which he claimed Russians and Ukrainians were “one people”. He even questioned the legitimacy of the Ukrainian state. Now that he’s put those words into action, both Ukrainians and Russians will pay the price.

If the conflict widens, the very real risk is that more of Europe will be drawn in, with consequences impossible to foresee.

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