A Short Background on Putin’s Invasion of Ukraine

Nick Reed, Scarlet Staff

97 years ago, my great-grandmother Anya Backshin fled Ukraine for the last time; leaving her home and everything she ever knew behind as the Russian Civil War tore her home to shreds, leaving no regard for the civilians living in the wake of the destruction they left. At only 10, she traversed the Soviet Union, the European Continent and the Atlantic Ocean to escape the turbulence back home. As Warsan Shire said: “No one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark… you only leave home when home won’t let you stay.”

Moments like these keep coming back as the news keeps growing dimmer. If you had told me a year ago what is happening now is happening, I’m not sure I would believe you. Yet before our very eyes, Vladimir Putin ordered the invasion and annexation of a sovereign nation in 2022.

This didn’t come out of nowhere, obviously. The signs have been there for years. Putin has always been imperialistically minded since his earliest days in office when he ordered the annexation of Chechnya. Putin had been raised and ideologically molded during the heyday of the Soviet Union, spending 16 years as an intelligence officer for the KGB. 

Yet, Putin is well known to be a Russian nationalist, as can be seen in his enthusiastic implementation of conservative policy, such as his notorious anti-LGBTQ+ “gay propaganda law” in 2013. However, it is a nationalism that is distinctly informed by a specific Soviet Russian past. In fact, Putin is quoted in his 2005 State of the Union address as saying that the collapse of the Soviet Union “was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century”. 

Putin’s imperialist dreams are also practical; just as they were when Stalin first captured the various Soviet territories. Moscow, Russia’s capital, is notoriously exposed, sitting on a flat plain straight from the heart of Europe that made invasion and warfare difficult over Russia’s history. The countries surrounding Russia such as Ukraine, Belarus, and the Baltic states served as buffers for invading armies, just as they could serve again in a potential future conflict.

This is the first major action in Putin’s dream of rebuilding the Soviet Union. Although military actions such as in Crimea in 2014 or Georgia in 2008 represented the first acts of aggression, the annexation of Ukraine presents much larger, and more far-reaching consequences.

Although Ukraine has existed as a sovereign nation only briefly throughout history, such as during the brief years during the Russian Civil War when a nominally independent Ukraine managed to fend off Soviet advances until 1921, the history of the Ukrainian people as a distinct national, ethnic and cultural identity is significantly more extensive. Yet they have existed under the thumb of foreign imperialism and devastating occupation for most of their history. 

The suffering of the Ukrainian people is well documented. During the 1930s, devastating famines killed millions, and during the 1940s WWII tore through the region with both armies enacting unseen brutality on local Ukrainians. Trauma thusly has become a large part of Ukrainian social memory, especially trauma associated with their Russian neighbors. 

The collapse of the Soviet Union and the ensuing independence of Ukraine may have been cheered across the world, but it also presented major problems. The most seemingly significant of these was regarding the future of Russia and how former Soviet states could be expected to deter future Russian aggression. Moreover, an that would ferment over the next several decades was also firmly in place at this time, as several large ethnically Russian communities existed across the former Soviet Union, providing an easy excuse for an incursion. This has already been used as a Casus Beli for Putin in 2014 when he pledged his support for Russian separatists in Ukraine and brought Crimea under direct Russian control.

Many nations solved this problem by joining NATO, yet Ukraine would not. In fact, following independence, President Viktor Yanukovych ensured Ukraine’s government remained firmly ensconced in the Russian sphere. That was until 2014 when Yanukovych refused the sign the European Union-Ukraine Association Agreement, instead strengthening ties with Russia. The ensuing Euromaidan protests, which saw Yanukovych’s government ousted, and a more western oriented government with close ties to the European Union, can be seen as the origins of the current situation.

While Euromaidan successfully ousted Yanukovych, it had the equally significant consequence of triggering a Russian invasion of Crimea as well inspiring a violent separatist conflict in Eastern Ukraine. It is important to note that these areas are and have for generations been Russian enclaves and enthusiastic support for Russian occupation can be found across the Crimea, Donbas, and Luhansk regions.

Putin’s invasion was met with condemnations and sanctions, yet his control of Crimea went unchallenged. The stage was set for Putin’s biggest move yet: the one taking place now.

Currently, Russian forces are engaging in a violent struggle with Ukrainian defenders for control of major cities like Kiyv (Kiev is the Russian spelling of the same city) and Kharkiv. Resistance is stiffer than expected, and casualties are high. The United States to date has offered military aid as well as strict economic sanctions directed at Russia as well as Putin personally. President Zelensky, when urged by US officials to flee Kyiv is quoted to have said “I need ammunition, not a ride.” Talks between Ukraine and Russia are planned for the near future.

So now we’re up to date, so what’s next? First of all, Putin’s end goal remains unclear. Whether he plans to continue his territorial incursions after he’s finished in Ukraine, or even what his plans are for Ukraine is unknown. Likely, this is just the beginning of something much larger. 

Article 5 of the NATO treaty is also important to consider. The article stipulates that an attack against one member country should be treated as an attack against all, therefore pulling all 30 member nations into the conflict. Although Ukraine is not a NATO country, many former Soviet nations and neighbors are. If an invasion of, say, Latvia were to occur, or even if violence were to spill over the Polish border, the US and all NATO allies would be drawn in to defend them. The implications of this are bleak, as recent news of Russian nuclear drills fills the headlines. 

The important thing we must remember right now is that there are actual human beings involved in all of this. At the time of this piece, over 368,000 refugees have fled Ukraine to surrounding European nations with many more internally displaced due to this conflict. Additionally, the invasion sparked massive protests across Russia, resulting in crackdowns and arrests. Remember, what is happening now is due to the actions of Vladimir Putin and his government, not the Russian people. 

The last thing I’d like to leave you with is an important note on our current role in all of this. Twitter user drdevonprice states “You are not obligated to issue grand proclamations about incredibly complex issues you know relatively little about. You also are not obligated to flood your nervous system with upsetting imagery and information for hours– that is not the same thing as informing yourself”. 

The current culture of social media dictates that we stay informed and actively participate in discussions about world events. Yet, this is neither healthy nor productive. Demanding everyone give a complex and nuanced take on complex events means either boiling down a complicated issue to a simple explanation like in an infographic or allowing people to make far-reaching statements on subjects they don’t fully grasp. 

That is not to say you should be expected to endure content that negatively affects your mental health in the name of “staying informed”. The events happening right now are terrifying, sad and for many re-traumatizing. You are not obligated to put staying informed before your own mental health. It is ok to take care of yourself during stressful times, and it is not something you need to feel guilty about or even something you are obligated to explain.