February 1 – The conflict on the Russia-Ukraine border continues as Russia launches new military exercises, stationing an estimated 100,000 troops.
Diplomats from Russia, the United States and other members of the United Nations are working to prevent an invasion, and while Russia says it isn’t planning one, it remains a possibility.
The conflict is one that goes back decades, and experts say it’s more complicated than just a land border.
Here’s what you need to know:
What does Russia want?
Russian President Vladimir Putin has said he does not want Ukraine to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, or NATO — a defensive military alliance formed after World War II. During the Cold War, this meant protecting the democratic member states from the Soviet Union. Putin is also pushing for NATO expansion, especially so close to the border.
Ukraine, which borders both the European Union and Russia, has been going back and forth with its politics since the breakup of the Soviet Union, said Thomas Preston, a political science professor at Washington State University. The eastern part of the country tends to be more pro-Russian while the western part is more pro-western.
Putin has tried to increase his sphere of influence by putting pressure on Ukraine not to join NATO. In contrast, some Western countries have pushed for Ukraine to join NATO. Others have said that Ukraine should remain neutral or have the power to choose its own associations as it sees fit.
How did we get here?
What’s happening now is “just a continuation” of what began in 2014 with the invasion of Crimea, and even before that in Russia’s mind, Preston said.
In 2014, a destabilized, pro-Russian government and pro-Western protests led former President Viktor Yanukovych to flee the country. That gave Putin the chance to send troops to Ukraine and eventually take control of Crimea.
The survival and expansion of NATO, despite the collapse of the Soviet Union, is seen as a threat by Russia, said Scott Radnitz, director of the Ellison Center for Russian, Eastern European and Central Asian Studies at the University of Washington. .
“It is important to understand the situation from Russia’s perspective,” he said. “Russia has done nothing to provoke the West and yet this military alliance exists that continues to absorb countries.”
And Putin does not want Ukraine, a country that shares a border and culture with Russia, to join.
Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union until it collapsed in 1991. Russia and Ukraine have cultural ties and Putin wants it to stay that way.
According to the Russians, Ukraine has a deep history linked to Russia, Preston said. Many used to call it “Little Russia.” Crimea, for example, was part of Russia until 1954, when it was transferred from Russia to Ukraine. At the time, it was symbolic because no one thought the Soviet Union would collapse, Preston said.
Will Russia invade?
Radnitz said it is difficult to predict what Russia will do.
“It’s completely in the mind of one person: Vladimir Putin,” Preston said.
For now, the position of the troops gives Russia diplomatic leverage, he said. If there were no military threat, Western countries would be less likely to agree to anything.
If the situation in Ukraine does not change now, the country will likely end up in NATO at some point, Preston said.
“If the Russians do invade, it will be because Putin calculates that if they want to prevent this from happening, now is the right time,” he said.
What happens if Russia invades?
If Putin is serious about invading, Radnitz said it could happen at any moment, but it could lead to major European conflict. But even that depends on what a Russian invasion might look like.
One possibility is a “relatively minor” conflict that would end with pushing current front lines — near Crimea, which Russia annexed in 2014 — a little further west, Radnitz said.
Another option could be to build a land bridge between Crimea and the rest of Ukraine, connecting that part of Ukraine that is generally pro-Russian.
“Or they could do something more drastic,” such as sending troops to Kiev, Radnitz said.
Nobody thinks the Ukrainian army can beat the Russian army, Preston said. But a war could put Russia in a situation where they are in a proxy war with other Western countries that could send resources to Ukraine. They could also face an uprising, he said.
“Holding and occupying the land is another pursuit,” Preston said.
Economically, however, a large-scale invasion could mean even more sanctions against Russia, including its largest banks and financial institutions.
It would hurt Russia, Preston said, but when it comes to choosing economic sanctions or letting Ukraine join NATO, “I’m not sure it would hurt enough.”
Every scenario carries risks for Putin, Radnitz said, and he’s currently making those calculations.
Why is the US involved?
The US’s role is “a bit ambiguous,” Radnitz said.
US policy since the end of the Cold War has been to assist European countries in their security against potential hostile actors, including a more aggressive Russia, Radnitz said. While there is no formal alliance with Ukraine, the US and many other countries value its democracy, especially because they are so close to Russia.
The US has spent money on military aid to Ukraine in recent months, but does not plan to send troops to fight Russian soldiers, as it does in other European countries. Since Ukraine is not currently a member of NATO – although it applied for membership status in 2008 – member states are not obliged to send troops there.
U.S. policy will likely be to help indirectly without endangering Americans, Radnitz said.
While no one plans to send troops, Preston said the solution won’t be easy.
“It’s hard at the moment to see a really easy outing diplomatically,” he said. “Everyone puts themselves in a corner.”
Why should you care?
Putin will not invade Western Europe or any country other than Ukraine, Preston said, but it is still important to pay attention to what is happening.
When two nuclear powers come into conflict, there is always a risk, Radnitz said. If they start a proxy war, things could get out of hand.
“If the US and Russia ever go to war against each other, it won’t take much imagination as to why this is a huge risk to the whole world,” he said.
The situation in Ukraine has been stable for a few years, Radnitz said, and “we take stability for granted.”
“Once those elements start to fall apart,” he said, “unpredictable things can happen that can affect the lives of real people.”
Laurel Demkovich’s reporting for The Spokesman-Review is funded in part by Report for America and by members of the Spokane community. This story can be republished for free by other organizations under a Creative Commons license. For more information, please contact the editor-in-chief of our newspaper.