Tensions continue to rise between Russia and Ukraine

Russia stations troops along Ukrainian border, causing concern over potential invasion. Photo courtesy of vox.com. 


The world is watching as Russian military presence increases to surround the majority of Ukraine. The 130,000 Russian troops, tanks and heavy artillery positioned around Ukraine point to the possible invasion, although Russia has repeatedly denied the potential action.  

There has been tension between Russia and Ukraine since the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. Still a rather new independent country, Ukraine has become more western in their ideals and structures since 2014 when then-president Victor Yanukovych was forced out of office during the Ukrainian Revolution

Ukranians overthrew Yanukovych because they believed he was trying to establish closer ties with Russia and was against forming warmer relations with the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, NATO. In addition, Yanukovych refused to sign the European Union-Ukraine Association Agreement, which would have established a political and economic association between Ukraine and the EU. Wanting independence, the people protested what they saw as corruption and abuse of power under Yanukovych.

The peoples’ success came at a price, however, with the illegal Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014. Seeing the people of Crimea as inherently Russian, Putin tried to validate the action. In Crimea, Russia violated international law by acquiring territory by force. 

That brings us to today. Why Ukraine, and why now? 

Caught between bordering Russia and wanting Western structures and philosophies, Ukraine has been under constant pressure from Russia to remain “Russian” and not adopt progressively democratic institutions. 

First-year international studies major Annamarie Kushnir, who is Ukranian on both sides of her family and has about 70% of her family living in Ukraine, said she’s seen first-hand Ukraine trying to become more democratic.

“I visit Ukraine, and [my family does] see there have been lots of progressive changes in the government, and that the country as a whole is becoming more developed,” Kushnir said. “The fact that [Ukraine is] developing so quickly, it’s industrializing so quickly, the government system is becoming more democratic, I think that seems like a threat to Russia because they do want Ukraine to be under their influence, but now that Ukraine is becoming more independent…Russia feels they can’t hold on to [Ukraine].”

Ukraine has wanted to join NATO for years, but has been unsuccessful in their attempts due to corruption and lack of transparency according to David Mason, retired professor of political science. While Mason sees a full-on invasion as being unlikely, he said that the way Russia is currently intimidating Ukraine is an example of Russia trying to assert dominance. Mason said it’s essential for Putin that the world sees Russia as a global superpower.  

Putin is trying to basically intimidate the West and get them to back down, get them to say ‘Ok we won’t ever put Ukraine into NATO,’” Mason said. “This whole conflict is basically about which direction Ukraine is going to go … It’s possible [Putin] will invade, but highly doubtful he’ll do anything in terms of any major invasion of Ukraine because it would be extremely bloody.” 

Three member countries of NATO, Germany, France and the United States are all in seasons of change. Germany introduced a new chancellor last year, France has an upcoming election in April and the United States, while not facing new leadership, has taken a different stance in global leadership. This can be seen in the many changes since the Biden administration took office, especially in the withdrawal of the United States from Afghanistan last year. With these global changes in leadership and power in mind, Mason believes Putin is trying to capitalize and exploit the weaknesses in the West while he can. 

Mason said he thinks Putin, who was a strong proponent of the Trump administration, is trying to weaken Western alliances, and ultimately weaken Biden’s administration. 

“This is part of this longterm kind of psychological warfare campaign that Putin has been conducting against the United States and against American Democratic politics,” Mason said. “It’s a more subtle, less visible thing going on, but I think it’s an important factor … The idea that [Putin] was trying to intimidate or bluff [the United States] into backing away from Ukraine, I think he’s somewhat succeeded already.” 

International studies professor William Dory offered up another possible explanation for why Russia is threatening Ukraine now. According to Dory, there has been a long-held belief that Ukraine is actually part of Russia and that Ukrainians are basically Russians. Putin has repeatedly said he believes Russia and Ukraine to be “one people — one single whole.”  This motivation played a role in the annexation of Crimea as well.

Although the two countries do not speak the same language and have cultural differences, it can be difficult to separate the two countries. 

Kushnir, said although it’s changed, she once saw Russia and Ukraine as being one-and-the-same. 

“Especially before the 2014 revolution, I didn’t really think anything about being Ukrainian,” Kushnir said. “Before [2014], people were like ‘Oh so you’re basically Russian’ I was like yeah, I guess you could say that, but after the revolution, they’d say ‘Oh yeah so you’re Russian,’ and I was like ‘No, no, I am Ukrainian.’ They’re very different people … We have our own cultures, we have our own traditions.” 

Dory said that the possible motivation of wanting to unite the two countries by seeing Ukraine as rightfully Russian more-so comes from Russia, and he believes that most of Ukraine still wants their independence from Russia. 

What role does NATO play in all of this? 

Although Ukraine is not part of the 30-nation membership of NATO, they are a NATO partner, and an ally of the organization. Russia is heavily against Ukraine one day becoming part of NATO, and bringing the global allyship right to their doorstep. 

At the end of the Cold War, NATO wasn’t supposed to expand past Germany, but according to Dory they have. Countries like Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia that are part of NATO, and border Russia, could be perceived as a threat to Russia.  

With Ukraine shifting towards more European ideals and political structures, Dory said that part of Putin’s goal in all of this is to have Ukraine serve as a buffer between Russia and NATO.

“Even if the alliance is not meant to be aggressive, it’s a defensive alliance that still presents a big threat,” Dory said. “From the Russian perspective, there is a strong alliance of countries that do not share the same viewpoint on how the world works, and they keep getting closer and closer … Having NATO right on the border of Russia presents a large security concern to the Russian government as a whole.” 

There is debate over whether the threat of a full-on invasion is imminent against Ukraine. Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky seems unconcerned with how Russian forces are surrounding his country, and has even criticized the United States for what he sees as exaggerating the threat. Like in Afghanistan, the United States has been moving diplomatic personnel out of the capital of Ukraine, Kyiv, an action that typically foreshadows a conflict. 

Although Ukraine is not part of NATO, the United States is still taking action to aid Ukraine as the threat of a Russian invasion persists. In addition to Biden saying his administration is providing $200 million in military aid to the country, 8,500 American troops have been put on standby to deploy in the event of an invasion. 

Even with the uncertainty of what Russia is planning to do, Kushnir said her family has no plans to leave Ukraine anytime soon.

“My family said that they’re not going anywhere,” Kushnir said. “They don’t see themselves living in another country. Their home is where they were born.” 



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