The digestible explanation of Ukraine you’ve been waiting for


The Russian-Ukrainian conflict has officially replaced NFTs as a topic people like to talk about but don’t fully understand. It’s not a blow to anyone – listen, even those of us who follow the news for our jobs haven’t spent the past decade immersed in Eastern European politics.

But we know someone who has: Alex Kliment, a geopolitical analyst who helps write and edit the excellent Signal, a global affairs newsletter published by GZERO Media (you can find it here). We asked Alex some high-level questions about the situation to better understand what exactly is going on and why we should care.

Can you give us a brief history of relations between Russia and Ukraine?

For starters, the “short” story goes back a thousand years, as Russian civilization more or less began in what is today’s Ukraine: medieval Kiev bumps into each other while Moscow is still a backwater. It seems out of place, but Putin constantly alludes to it as part of his reasons for wanting to bring Ukraine under Russian control.

After the Middle Ages, the lands of today’s Ukraine were part of various European empires, including, of course, the Tsarists and the Soviets, both of whom worried about Ukrainian nationalism and wanted to Russify the population and the culture. (The Ukrainian language is related to Russian but different, think Italian and Spanish.)

  • There were particularly dark times in their history: Stalin starved millions of Ukrainians in the 1930s. There’s a reason the Ukrainian national anthem begins with “Ukraine is not dead yet” .

Since 1991 and the collapse of the Soviet Union, Ukraine has been an independent state, but it is caught in a standoff between Russia and the West. There are many ethnic Russians in Ukraine, especially in the east and south, and these are areas where one finds more sympathy for Moscow. Central and Western Ukraine tend to show a more pro-Western sentiment, but it’s very, very difficult to generalize. There are also many family ties between the two countries – just about everyone in Ukraine has family somewhere in Russia.

The Kremlin, for its part, sees Ukraine as a non-negotiable part of its sphere of influence. The idea of ​​Ukraine joining NATO (which has been floated in various ways) is an existential red line for Russia. But there’s also this other thing going on where Putin doesn’t openly believe that Ukraine is a legitimate independent country. For him, it’s essentially a part of a larger Russian empire that his destiny is to resurrect. Most people in Ukraine obviously don’t like this view.

Putin on Monday recognized the independence of two Ukrainian separatist regions: Donetsk and Lugansk. What the hell are “separatist” regions and why was this considered such a provocation?

In 2014, after a popular uprising ousted Ukraine’s pro-Russian president and led to a new Western-backed government that included outspoken Ukrainian nationalists, Russia did two things:

  1. He annexed the Crimean peninsula, the only part of Ukraine where ethnic Russians were in the majority.
  2. He also backed activists in two eastern provinces who created their own small breakaway states. Russia said it was protecting Russian speakers – whose language rights were in fact under threat at the time – from genocide.

The result has been a civil war between these separatists and Ukrainian forces that has so far killed around 14,000 people and displaced almost a million.

But that deal was never implemented, in part because neither side could agree on who should act first. Now, by unilaterally recognizing the independence of the separatist entities, Russia is abandoning this peace accord entirely and (again, as with Crimea) forcibly changing the borders of a European country.

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British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has said it will be the biggest war in Europe since World War II. But there have been other European conflicts since, so what makes this one so much more significant?

Well, for one thing, it’s the sheer size of the players. The horrific civil war of the 1990s in Yugoslavia – Europe’s worst conflict since World War II – took place in a disintegrating country of 23.5 million people. Ukraine has over 40 million people and, beware, one of the fighters is a nuclear power.

Secondly, a central idea of ​​post-war Europe is that one does not redraw European borders by force, because that always ends very badly. And yet here is Russia, a great world power, doing just that. Thus, Russia’s challenge is not only about a specific country (Ukraine) but about a whole order.

Third, there is obviously a huge economic dimension here. We are talking about a war involving a country which is Europe’s largest source of natural gas and a major world oil exporter. No European war has involved anything close to this level of economic and financial risk for Europe since 1945.

On that note, if Western leaders think Russia’s actions are so detrimental to European security, why isn’t the US sending troops?

The American public has little appetite for foreign military adventures – and after the past 20 years, frankly, who could blame them?

There is also an understandable reluctance to enter into direct conflict with a nuclear power over a country that is not, in fact, a member of NATO. The West is therefore using different tools to try to manage the situation: better arming the Ukrainians, strengthening the defenses in the NATO countries that border Ukraine and hitting Russia with sanctions.

What is the most likely outcome of the war? Is Russia guaranteed to capture as much territory as it wants? Will the Ukrainian forces fight?

Ukrainians are certainly not child’s play. They’ve been well-armed and trained by the West since 2014. That said, the Russian forces are just much, much larger, and in the event of a full-scale invasion, most military analysts believe the Russians could reach the key. . cities fairly quickly.

The interesting question, however, is what happens next. Invading a country is one thing, but occupying it, if that is Putin’s intention, is another. The Russians would not, in most cases, be “welcomed as liberators”, as the saying goes. I am not a military analyst but I am told that things could get very nasty in the event of urban warfare or a popular uprising. And the West would almost certainly support efforts to make life hell for occupying Russians.

Serious question: Is Putin simply out of his gourd? Is there a world in which the benefits of an invasion outweigh the costs, or does it behave like Tony Montana towards the end of scarface?

A lot of people wondered if Putin was crazy with this Ukrainian thing. I think that’s probably the wrong question. The right question is: is it consistent? Certainly, from a Western perspective, it seems foolish to risk Russia’s economic stability and global standing on whether or not a neighbor wants to join NATO.

But Putin operates by a different standard. He and those around him truly believe – and have long believed – that Ukraine moving into the West’s orbit would be an existential threat to his regime and his country’s security in a way that Western sanctions just aren’t. Morning Brew’s editorial staff did a great job of explaining why Putin is probably okay with risking sanctions to get what he wants here.

So in a way he’s doing a kind of cost-benefit analysis that I’m not sure Tony Montana, in his last inspirational moments, was also capable of.

Putin may end up being wrong, but I don’t think he’s crazy.


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