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Roots of the Russo-Ukrainian Cataclysm

A cataclysm, labeled the fastest-growing crisis since World War II, has engulfed Ukraine as Russian forces have entered the mainland in a rush to claim it as their own. Eastern Ukrainian regions of Donbass, as well as the new target on the strategic port of Mariupol, are under serious threats from Russian troops that are swarming through those lands. With more than 3.7 million civilians fleeing Ukrainian soil, “the Russians are getting closer with each bomb”, as Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said.

NATO’s Historical Promise

Amid the Cold War of 1947-91, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) was established in 1949 to militaristically counter the expansionist Soviet Union (USSR) with a system of collective security. This alliance predominantly involved the United States, Canada and several Western European states. In an attempt to ensure security, NATO provided military assurances to its member states against a resurgent Germany and particularly, potential incursions from the Soviet Union. In the eyes of the US, an economically strong and rearmed Europe was crucial to barricade the communist expansion. The Soviet Union refused to take part in NATO’s endeavors and disapproved of the integration of Eastern European states with the alliance. With either sides’ relentlessness in giving up their policies on ideology, the East and West grew further apart.

Notably, in the early 1990s, NATO’s agenda evolved from mere militarism to a dominant political role, as illustrated in the London Declaration of 1990, where a lot of the European states had gained independence. NATO stated in this declaration that it no longer saw members of the Warsaw Pact (a pro-Soviet Union collective security alliance of the USSR and its satellite states created to counter NATO) as enemies and intended to be “an agent of change”, with an aim to “enhance the political component” while “supporting security and stability with the strength of our shared faith in democracy” — in essence, promote democratization.

Protesters in Independence Square in Kyiv during the Orange Revolution, November 2004
Protesters in Independence Square in Kyiv during the Orange Revolution, November 2004

Considering such a declaration, Soviet officials thought of NATO more as a political institution rather than a military threat. As a result, when the United States discussed Germany joining NATO with Mikhail Gorbachev, the Soviet Union’s Head of State at the time, the Eastern superpower was under the impression that Germany was the extent of NATO’s eastward expansion. The US Secretary of State, James Baker, stated a guarantee that “if the US keeps its presence in Germany within the framework of NATO, not an inch of NATO’s present military jurisdiction will spread in an eastern direction”.

This agreement was pivotal for the dismantled Soviet Union, as each of its divided 15 sovereign nations were critical to the Union’s overall security. With this, Ukraine was caught in the middle due to its eastern border touching the Soviet Union and western border touching the rest of Europe, making it a geopolitical leverage for both sides. Therefore, with the guaranteed intention of NATO, a promise and assurance had been formed that the Western alliance did not intend to move eastward closer to the Soviet Union, and that disagreements would be handled diplomatically.

Fluctuating relations of EU and Ukraine

With a decade and a half of relative peace, political tension ran rampant in the capital cities of each side— Moscow and Kyiv — during the presidential election of 2004 in Ukraine. People questioned the validity of the election after pro-Russia candidate Viktor Yanukovych emerged victorious. Protesters made clear who their loyalties lied with through the Orange Revolution, which led to a re-election, finally resulting in Viktor Yushchenko being elected as the President of Ukraine. Yushchenko won with 52% of the votes, realigning Ukraine in the direction of western Europe. This win solidified Ukraine’s relations with the European Union, and trade pacts and treaties were negotiated.

Viktor Yanukovych with Vladimir Putin
Viktor Yanukovych with Vladimir Putin

One such pact was the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area pact. This trade pact would significantly reduce tariffs, further strengthening the economic links between Ukraine and the EU.

Similarly, Russia was promoting and persuading its neighboring countries to sign with the Euroasian Economic Union, rather than forming alliances with its counterpart of the EU. This new organization would allow Russia to control its bordering countries economically as well as nudge them politically, just as it had attempted with the Warsaw Pact.

For Ukraine, joining the European Union would provide economic benefits but politically align it with the West, posing a threat to Russia.

Accelerating to 2010, pro-Russia candidate Viktor Yanukovych acquired the Presidential position, resulting in political paradigm shifts and shockwaves of unrest throughout Kyiv. The Russian Kremlin pressed Yanukovych to revoke EU trade pacts and nudged them towards the Euroasian Economic Union. Mass protests and riots emerged, sparked by the Ukrainian government’s decision to abstain from signing the European Union-Ukraine Association Agreement, instead choosing closer ties to Russia and the Euroasian Economic Union.

An opportunity for Russia to divide Ukraine

The sudden shift of allegiance Yanukovych showed by favoring Russia and revoking the trade pacts was met with massive demonstrations by the Ukrainian public which led to the Maidan Uprising, or Euromaidan. Protestors seized government buildings, fought the police and set up camps and stages for speeches and rallies, advertising their cause. The uprisings, being violent in nature, caused intense pressure on the government, wherein Yanukovych and his accompanying government officials eventually fled the country. By the end of 2014, the Euromaidan protests —eventually labeled as the revolution of dignity —saw Viktor Yanukovych removed from his presidential seat.

In parallel, the unrest and exposed weakness in Ukraine’s government presented an opportunity for an aggravated Russia that gave value to its fellowRussians in Ukraine. With this, Russia took rapid action and seized Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula. Crimea, being 65.3% ethnic Russian, was not opposed to “returning to their historic homeland”. However, the annexation was concerning as it was clearly a dramatic step to threaten and ridicule Ukraine’s sovereignty. At the same time, Russia also decided to back two separatist areas in the Donbass region – Donetsk and Luhansk.

The pro-Russian narrative in Donetsk and Luhansk used the unrest caused by Euromaidan and Russia’s interest in making Ukraine weaker, to their advantage and essentially waged a war. Initially, protests were simply a commentary on the new EU centric government after Yanukovych, but after Russian arms, volunteers, propaganda and troops got involved, protests pressed for seperation. After attacks and counter-attacks, Ukraine, Russia and the newly independent Donetsk People’s Republic and Luhansk People’s Republic signed a ceasefire – The Minsk Protocol, 5 September 2014. However, Russian and separatist troops remained in these areas actively fighting the Ukrainian army up until the latest ceasefire which was established in 2020.

Ukraine grew weaker, pouring its finances into war with the separatists and lost revenue. At the same time, Washington’s newly formed puppet regime under Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko, oversaw gunfire, explosions, stampedes and bloodbaths in Donetsk.

A revived Ukraine, and gunfire by a threatened Russia

By 2019, when current Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy took office, Ukraine became desperate for help and looked to both NATO and the EU. Poland, Lithuania and Ukraine created a coalition in July 2020 to support Ukraine’s integration into the EU.

Ukraine’s plans to join NATO became evidently serious at the NATO summit in 2021. NATO’s new political role implied grave political tensions at Russia’s borders upon membership. Betrayed by the US in their guarantee of no further Eastern pursuit, Russia dispersed troops massing thousands of personnel at the Ukrainian border and Crimea by 2021.

The Russian ambassador to the UN had insisted that they would not cause a “new bloodbath” but sternly warned the West to “think twice” before making matters worse. Putin had previously stressed upon how serious this betrayal would be as Ukraine joining NATO gives its adversaries, namely the US, direct access to its borders leading to a serious security threat. So, in response to Ukraine’s dismissal of Russia’s demands, satellite imagery showed heavy weaponry and missiles, alluding to an invasion at Ukraine’s eastern border. However, President Putin maintained there were no plans of war and troops were simply ‘peacemakers’.

After impositions of sanctions on Russia by the US and the EU accompanied by warnings of impending doom, on February 24th 2022, President Putin announced war and began shelling the frontline’s and ordering troops into Ukraine. President Joe Biden issued a public statement denouncing Moscow’s “unprovoked and unjustified” attack on Ukraine. But, this war seems to play out in the US’s interest.

With no personal stake, as no troops will be deployed by them as of now, the US is boosting aid to Ukraine. After receiving a US$200 million military assistance package in December 2021, President Biden pledged another US$350 million in weapons, US$25 million in humanitarian aid along with Mi-17 helicopters redirected from Afghanistan. The defense industry, primarily in the US as well as other NATO allies, witnessed a massive jump in stock prices as the war stimulated the demand for arms. By backing Ukraine in these trying times, the US has seemed to intelligently solidify relations to a geopolitically strategic country in Eastern Europe where they lack major influence, all while condemning Russia, backed by popular political sentiment.

Today, the war is still far from over. President Zelensky declared on Sunday, 20th of March, that he is ready to negotiate with Russia but if they fail, Ukraine should brace for “a third World War.” Meanwhile, Ukraine’s conditions worsen. Enduring continuous rounds of shelling, around a thousand innocent Ukrainians have lost their lives. Even though Russia is the direct perpetrator of this war, it is clear that the war was not entirely unprovoked– it was caused due to Russia’s clashing interests with the US, NATO and the EU.

While there is some value in discussing the contributories to this conflict in order to fully understand it, the situation remains. Ukraine is crumbling under attack and we are merely the viewers.


Written by Nandini Sarin and Yashvarya Goyal

Edited by Adi Roy and Eshal Zahur



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