Crisis in Ukraine: Contextualizing Russia’s invasion


Explosions ripped through Ukraine’s capital of Kyiv Thursday morning when Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered a full-scale invasion of Ukraine. This invasion comes after years of tension between the two countries over Russia’s seizure of Ukrainian territory in Crimea and Russia’s support for separatist rebels in eastern Ukraine. 

Recent events: 

  • Russian forces have launched attacks across Ukraine’s north, south, and east borders.
  • Over the last five days, Ukrainian forces have steadily been pushed back by Russian attacks despite offering a dogged defense. 
  • Major battles are taking place at Kyiv in north-central Ukraine and Kharkiv in eastern Ukraine as Russian forces attempt to surround and capture the country’s major cities. 

Amber Nickell, an associate professor of history at Fort Hays State University, received her Ph D. in Central and Eastern European history and spent close to two years in Ukraine studying. She says the history between Russia and Ukraine is a complicated question that trails back as far as 300 years when Russia started perceiving itself as an empire under attack by democracy and independence, which current day Ukraine has been seeking. 

This conflict can also be traced to the more recent 2014 Russo-Ukrainian War.

“Ukraine had a very massive demonstration for democracy, removed a pro-Russian leader from power and elected a new Ukrainian leader because they wanted to move towards the EU,” Nickell said. “Putin used that as an excuse to illegally occupy Crimea and illegally annexed Crimea as well as to send Russian backed ‘“separatists.’” 

Nickell says that Putin is now using the idea that Ukraine might join NATO – an alliance made up of the United States and many European countries – to justify inciting another war. 

“For Putin to say that this is surprising to him, here we are in 2022, is a fallacy. He knew what was happening,” Nickell said as Ukraine has been moving closer to NATO since the 1990s with the Budapest Memorandum. “An agreement between major leaders of the United States, the UK, and Russia, in which they all agreed to respect Ukrainian, territorial, sovereignty, and integrity in exchange for Ukraine, giving them the third, largest nuclear arsenal in the world.” 

Nickell warned that the Russian Federation and its predecessors are highly skilled in “disinformation, manipulation of the past, and uses and abuses of language.” 

According to Nickell, Putin has done this by trying to justify his declaration of war by saying he was protecting Russia from Ukraine’s military. Putin cited many Ukrainian aggressions to justify war. Some examples were accusations of Ukraine shelling Russia border crossing and sabotaging the Russian Federation. 

Multiple videos were released of alleged attacks like the one released by Russian TV showing shellings of journalists by the Ukrainian military forces.

According to a White House Fact Sheet, the United States has many sanctions against Russia to punish them for their actions and end the war sooner if possible, including severing the connection to the U.S. financial system for Russia’s largest financial institution and Russia-wide restrictions to choke off Russia’s import of technological goods critical to a diversified economy and Putin’s ability to project power.

Nickell acknowledges that the United States should honor its agreement to protect the integrity of Ukraine’s territory. 

“We do have an obligation to maintain territorial integrity, and if sanctions don’t do that, then we may be faced with a decision in which we will have to place boots on the ground,” she said.  

Nickell was present in Ukraine from 2017 to 2018, with a few trips since, but mentioned that her connection with Ukraine would not change how she negatively views Russian aggression. 

“This is a country I love; this is a place that I have really close connections to. I’m profoundly worried about human rights violations as human rights violations have been rampant in the Russian Federation, as well as the so-called separatist regions…. It’s heartbreaking to see. These are real people, real living, breathing people with lives just like ours.” Nickell said. 

The war is still ongoing today, and according to Ukrinform, Ukraine’s news agency, around 200 civilians have been killed. 

Larry Gould, FHSU’s political science department chair, had a political viewpoint of the crisis. 

“They’re not going to stop Russia. Really we’re focused on more of a long-term strategic defeat for Putin. I mean, immediately, it’s not going to have that much impact, but down the road here, over time, those sanctions should have,” Gould said. “There’s not a whole heck of a lot you could do with a pipsqueak nation that has nuclear weapons.” 

Gould comments that Russian President Vladimir Putin did not know what he would do with Ukraine and still fully does not know what he is doing right now. 

However, some pieces of different motivation could be responsible for Russia’s invasion and war of Ukraine. 

“Putin basically is now trying to, I think, really beef up his legacy. He’s always had this interest in restoring the Soviet empire and is acting more like a czar than he is a dictator.” Gould said. 

Gould said that if Ukraine did not give up its nukes back in 1995, today’s situation would have a different look, but he is not sure if it would be enough to stop Putin. He added that the fewer nuclear weapons, the better, from the perspective of world safety and the United State’s interest. 

“From the perspective of Ukraine and their aims and their interests in the global system, it probably was not the smartest thing in the world to do. But there was always a fear that the Soviet Union empire could be put back together again, and so the reduction of those weapons was in the U.S interest,” Gould said. 

Russia’s long-term goals are unclear according to Gould. 

“The long-term goals may be to take Poland back. It may be to take Belarus. It may be to take a whole variety of east European nations that were part of that Soviet empire a little more than 75 years ago,” he said.

Whatever the goals, Gould mentions the risk of having five million refugees walking around that don’t have a country and the implications this war could have on the future of politics, such as the outcome encouraging China to take back Taiwan, depending on the amount of pain Russia receives from taking a territory. 

“We’re not going to push them out the door tomorrow morning. It just won’t happen. But a year or two years down the road, we hope to see things. I think not necessarily back to what they were, but at least the Ukrainian question settled,” Gould said. 

Nickell shared a rapid response panel on Facebook Live this morning, where some of her colleagues answered pressing questions about the conflict.  

Nickell will also be covering the Russian aggression in Ukraine and the historical background behind the conflict in a talk at Hays Public Library this Thursday at 10:00 am. 

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