Editor’s note, February 24, 2022, 10:15 am: In a February 23 speech, Russian President Vladimir Putin said that a “special military operation” would begin in Ukraine, following the 2014 annexation of Crimea. Explosions and outbreaks of fighting have since been reported across the country. Find the latest here.
What is the Ukraine crisis?
Ukraine is a Texas-size country wedged between Russia and Europe. It was part of the Soviet Union until 1991, and since then has been a less-than-perfect democracy with a very weak economy and foreign policy that wavers between pro-Russian and pro-European.
This all began as an internal Ukrainian crisis in November 2013, when President Viktor Yanukovych rejected a deal for greater integration with the European Union (here's why this was such a big deal), sparking mass protests, which Yanukovych attempted to put down violently. Russia backed Yanukovych in the crisis, while the US and Europe supported the protesters.
Since then, several big things have happened. In February, anti-government protests toppled the government and ran Yanukovych out of the country. Russia, trying to salvage its lost influence in Ukraine, invaded and annexed Crimea the next month. In April, pro-Russia separatist rebels began seizing territory in eastern Ukraine. The rebels shot down Malaysian Airlines flight 17 on July 17, killing 298 people, probably accidentally. Fighting between the rebels and the Ukrainian military intensified, the rebels started losing, and, in August, the Russian army overtly invaded eastern Ukraine to support the rebels. This has all brought the relationship between Russia and the West to its lowest point since the Cold War. Sanctions are pushing the Russian economy to the brink of recession, and more than 2,500 Ukrainians have been killed.
A lot of this comes down to Ukraine's centuries-long history of Russian domination. The country has been divided more or less evenly between Ukrainians who see Ukraine as part of Europe and those who see it as intrinsically linked to Russia. An internal political crisis over that disagreement may have been inevitable. Meanwhile, in Russia, Putin is pushing an imperial-revival, nationalist worldview that sees Ukraine as part of greater Russia — and as the victim of ever-encroaching Western hostility.
It appears unlikely that Ukraine will get Crimea back. It remains unclear whether Russian forces will try to annex parts of eastern Ukraine as well, how the fighting there will end, and what this means for the future of Ukraine — and for Putin's increasingly hostile but isolated Russia.
Is it “Ukraine” or “the Ukraine”?
It used to be "the Ukraine," but after breaking away from the Soviet Union in 1991 the name changed to just "Ukraine." That distinction actually turns out to be pretty important for understanding the current crisis.
Ukraine has a very long history of being subjugated by outside powers, and a very short history of national independence. That may actually be why the country became known as "the Ukraine," which many historians think meant "the borderland" in the language of ancient Slavs (it may also mean "the homeland," a theory that Ukrainian nationalists understandably prefer). In other words, it may have been called "the" because it was considered more of a geographic region than an independent country, and one defined by its in-between-ness.
You've got to reach pretty far back in history to find the last time Ukraine was independent, before 1991. There were a few years right after World War I, and before that a short time in the 1600s.
The country has been under partial or total Russian rule for most of those intervening centuries, which is a big part of why one in six Ukrainians is actually an ethnic Russian, one in three speaks Russian as their native language (the other two-thirds speak Ukrainian natively), and much of the country's media is in Russian. It's also why the subject of Russia is such a divisive one in Ukraine: a lot of the country sees Moscow as the source of Ukraine's historical subjugation and something to be resisted, while others tend to look on Russia more fondly, with a sense of shared heritage and history.
What is Crimea?
Crimea is considered by most of the world to be a region of Ukraine that's under hostile Russian occupation. Russia considers it a rightful and historical region of Russia that it helped to liberate in March. Geographically, it is a peninsula in the Black Sea with a location so strategically important that it has been fought over for centuries.
From Ukraine's 1991 independence up through February 2014, it was a Ukrainian region that had special autonomy and large Russian military bases (kind of like how the US has bases in Japan and Germany). Crucially, Crimea spent a very long time before 1991 as part of the Soviet Union and the Russian Empire, and most of its citizens are Russians themselves.
In late February, a few days after Ukraine's pro-Moscow president was ousted from power, strange bands of armed gunmen began seizing government buildings in Crimea. Some Crimeans held rallies to show support for the ousted president and, in some cases, to call to secede from Ukraine and re-join Russia. The bands of gunmen grew until it became obvious they were Russian military forces, who forcefully but bloodlessly brought the entire peninsula under military occupation. On March 16, Crimeans voted overwhelmingly for their region to become a part of Russia.
Most of the world sees Crimea's secession vote as illegitimate for a few reasons: it was held under hostile Russian military occupation with no international monitoring and many reports of intimidation, it was pushed through with only a couple of weeks' warning, and it was illegal under Ukrainian law. Still, legitimate or not, Crimea has effectively become part of Russia. The US and European Union have imposed economic sanctions on Russia to punish Moscow for this, but there is no sign that Crimea will return to Ukraine.
What is eastern Ukraine conflict? What does Russia have to do with it?
The conflict in eastern Ukraine began in April 2014 with low-level fighting between the Ukrainian military and Russian-backed separatist rebels who seized some towns in predominantly Russian-speaking eastern Ukraine. It has since escalated to outright-if-undeclared war between Russia and Ukraine.
Separatist rebels began popping up in eastern Ukraine shortly after Russia had invaded and annexed Crimea, where supposed Crimean separatists actually turned out to be unmarked Russian special forces. They seized towns like Sloviansk and Donetsk, in the eastern region known as Donbas, ostensibly in outrage against the protests that had toppled Ukraine's pro-Russia President Viktor Yanukovych, himself from that same eastern region.
That feeling of disenfranchisement among eastern Ukrainians is real, and the rebels likely do have some organic, local support. Still, the rebels were armed and supported by Russia's government. One of the most important rebel leaders, Igor "Strelkov" Girkin, is a Russian citizen and military veteran who retired from Russia's internal security services just weeks before he began leading the rebels, who are widely thought to include unmarked Russian special forces.
Thousands of Russian troops massed on the border just across from the rebellion. For months, Ukraine did not move very aggressively against the rebels: Putin had not-so-subtly hinted that, if they did, he would blame the Ukrainian government for any deaths and invade to protect the Russian-speaking citizens of eastern Ukraine, whom he implicitly considers to be more Russian than Ukrainian. Everyone wanted to negotiate a peace deal.
Things got bad in early July, when the Ukrainian government launched an offensive to push out the rebels once and for all. Russia started arming the rebels with high-tech surface-to-air missiles; on July 17 a civilian airliner with 298 people on board was shot down over eastern Ukraine, most likely accidentally by the rebels , and the world had finally had enough. Ukraine redoubled its offensive, the rebels looked on the verge of getting overrun, and in mid-August Russia escalated from covertly supporting the rebels to overtly invading with Russian military troops.
Russia denies it is invading, but the evidence is overwhelming: on August 15, Ukraine said its military engaged Russian tanks crossing the border; on August 16, the leader of the Russian-backed rebels announced he had received 1,200 troops from Russia; on August 21, satellite imagery spotted Russian artillery crossing the border to fire at Ukrainian forces; on August 26, someone in Ukraine took a video of Russian tanks crashing through town, and so on.
The Russian military is one of the largest in the world and is pushing back the Ukrainian forces fairly quickly. It is not clear whether they plan to occupy and annex eastern Ukraine as they did in Crimea, or simply to defend the rebels against getting overrun — if Putin even has a strategy at all. The US and Europe, while clearly outraged and punishing Russia with economic sanctions, have no plan to intervene, as putting Western troops into direct combat with Russian troops could make the risk of World War Three too great. So there is nothing stopping the Russian tanks.
Why is Russia invading eastern Ukraine?
Though President Vladimir Putin insists that Russia is not invading eastern Ukraine, Russian soldiers, tanks, and self-propelled artillery have been crossing the border since mid-August in what can only be described as a hostile invasion. There are two ways to think about why Putin is doing this: as a rational, strategic effort to take something from Ukraine, or as a less-rational action driven by domestic Russian politics.
Theory 1: Putin is trying to overturn to the rebels' losses because he wants something from Ukraine
On the surface, the Russian invasion looks like it is meant to bolster the pro-Russia rebels in eastern Ukraine, who began losing ground in early August when the Ukrainian military began a renewed offensive against them. In this thinking, Russian troops are there to keep the rebels from being entirely overrun.
Putin has been backing the rebels for months and fomenting violence in eastern Ukraine. He's doing this either because he wants to maintain a perpetual separatist crisis (he did this in Georgia and Moldova as well) so that he has leverage over the Ukrainian government to keep it from crossing him, or because he wanted to give himself an excuse to invade on the premise of saving eastern Ukrainians, then annex that territory as he did in Crimea. Another possibility is that he wants to force some concession from the Ukrainian government and/or from the West. In any case, the thinking here is that Putin is after some immediate strategic goal, and will stop once he feels he's achieved it.
Theory 2: Putin was sucked into an irrational invasion he didn't want by his own rhetoric and propaganda
Since taking power in 2000, Putin governed through an implicit deal with the Russian people: he delivered high economic growth, and Russians accepted curbs to political and individual rights. But after the economy slowed and some Russians protested his sham reelection in 2012, Putin shifted strategies, focusing on stirring up old-school anti-Western paranoia and imperial-style Russian nationalism.
So when the Ukraine crisis started, Putin's state media spun up a narrative that the Ukrainian protests were an American conspiracy to isolate Russia and that the new Ukrainian government is run by secret Nazis bent on expansion. Sponsoring the rebels and saving Ukraine — which in the Russian nationalist view is really part of Russia — became a matter of national pride, of asserting Russia's defiance of the West.
Sure enough, when Putin invaded and annexed Crimea in March, his slouching approval rating skyrocketed. Putin, addicted, has played up the nationalist cause in eastern Ukraine, the heroism of the rebels, his own heroism in backing them, and the threat of Ukraine's "fascist" government. Were he to sit idly by while the rebels were defeated, it would show that his rhetoric was a lie and leave him without the nationalist cause on which he now bases his political legitimacy. So, with no other way out, he invaded.
Putin is not crazy, but he may have created a crisis with an internal momentum so great that it has broken beyond his control. That is a truly scary possibility.
So should Crimea be part of Russia or Ukraine?
This is actually a legitimately difficult question. Yes, the way that Russia seized Crimea by force from Ukraine this March was hostile and extremely illegal — there is no doubt about this. But the more abstract question of whether Crimea is deep down Russian or Ukrainian is much less clear. There are three ways to think about this question, and they all contradict.
Legally, is Crimea part of Russia or Ukraine? Probably Ukraine
Crimea has technically been part of Ukraine since 1954, when Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev transferred it from the Russian Soviet Socialist Republic to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. The reasons for this are esoteric and it didn't actually do much since both "republics" were part of the Soviet Union. In 1991, when the Soviet Union broke up, everyone expected Moscow to demand Crimea back. But it didn't. A slight majority of Crimeans voted for independence from Russia, and when Crimea formally joined the newly independent Ukraine (but with special autonomy privileges), Russia promised to honor and respect this.
Historically, is Crimea part of Russia or Ukraine? Probably Russia
Most Crimeans are ethnically Russian, not Ukrainian. While Crimea has been changing hands between regional powers for centuries, for most of the last 200-plus years it has been part of Russia. The fact that everyone expected Russia to take it back when the Soviet Union broke up in 1991 tells you a lot: the world often sees it as historically Russian as well. It was not shocking when, in February, some Crimeans held pro-Russia rallies.
Do Crimeans want to be part of Russia or Ukraine? It's not clear
Since the crisis began, some Crimeans have been holding pro-Moscow rallies calling to rejoin Russia. In mid-February, a poll found that 41 percent of Crimeans wanted the region to become part of Russia. That's an awful lot — but it's still not a majority. Crimea's March referendum on leaving Ukraine for Russia ostensibly garnered 97 percent support, but it occurred in a rush, without international monitors, and under Russian military occupation. A draft UN investigative report found that critics of secession within Crimea were detained and tortured in the days before the vote; it also found "many reports of vote-rigging." Had the referendum been held in a transparent and legal manner, it's not clear which way the vote would have gone.
This all started with the Euromaidan protests, right? What’s that?
"Euromaidan" is the name of the anti-government protests, beginning on November 21, 2013, in the Ukrainian capital of Kiev that kicked off the entire crisis. They're called the "Euromaidan" protests because they were about Europe and they happened in Kiev's Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square).
The first, surface reason for the protests was that President Yanukovych had rejected a deal for greater integration with the European Union, taking a $15 billion bailout from Russia instead. Lots of Ukrainians had wanted the EU deal, partly because they thought it would help Ukraine's deeply troubled economy, and partly because they saw closer ties with Europe as culturally and politically desirable.
The second, deeper reason for the protests was that many Ukrainians saw Yanukovych as corrupt and autocratic and as a stooge of Russia. So his decision to reject the EU deal felt, to many Ukrainians, like he had sold out their country to Moscow. This is why the protesters so quickly expanded their demands from "sign the EU deal" to "Yanukovych must step down."
Over the months that followed, Yanukovych tried to break up the protests, first by sending in the dreaded "berkut" internal security forces to crack down, and next by passing a series of laws that severely restricted Ukrainians' basic rights of speech and assembly. Both of these just made protests worse. By late January, they'd expanded to lots of other Ukrainian cities. In February, the parliament turned against Yanukovych, first voting to remove lots of his powers and end the crackdown, and then voting to remove him outright.
Not all Ukrainians supported the protests or their agenda; many had wanted the Russia bailout and wanted Yanukovych to stay. Euromaidan also included a number of far-right ultra-nationalist groups, some of whom have been violent. This is why the Russian government and some Ukrainians, particularly in the more Russian-speaking east, see the protests as effectively disenfranchising Russian-speaking Ukrainians.
Who is Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych?
Viktor Yanukovych was elected Ukraine's president in 2010. But he was ousted by popular protests and his own parliament in February 2014. He fled to Russia, where he is living in exile.
The key facts about Yanukovych are this: he is pro-Russian (and, like lots of Ukrainians, actually a native speaker of Russian rather than Ukrainian), he has a well-earned reputation for corruption and heavy-handedness, and he had a base of support in Ukraine's predominantly Russian-speaking east but was never very popular in its predominantly Ukrainian-speaking west.
You may have heard the phrase "Orange Revolution": this refers to the mass protests in 2004, after Yanukovych won a presidential election under widespread suspicion of fraud. The protests succeeded in blocking him from taking office, but he ran again in 2010 and appeared to win legitimately.
Yanukovych alienated many Ukrainians, including his supporters, with his mishandling of the economy and especially his crackdowns on the Euromaidan protests. While lots of Ukrainians were happy to see him go, others saw his ouster as illegitimate and undemocratic. This is particularly true in Ukraine's Russian-speaking east and in the heavily Russian region of Crimea.
I hear that Ukraine is divided between east and west. Can you explain that?
Since declaring independence in 1991, Ukraine has been divided, and this crisis is an extension of that. When people talk about this divide, they typically refer to language. About two-thirds of Ukrainians speak Ukrainian as their native language, mostly in the country's west; about a third are native Russian-speakers, mostly in the east. But the language divide is fuzzier than that. And language is really just a shorthand for describing a much more complicated political and ideological division.
This all becomes clearer if we look at how Ukrainians have voted in national elections. Here's a series of maps: language in the top left and ethno-linguistic groups in the top right; the bottom two show how Ukrainians voted in the 2004 and 2010 elections. You will notice that, in all four, there is a very clear line dividing the country's west from its east:
People in the west of Ukraine tend to regard Russia with suspicion, see themselves as European, and want to break away from Russia's orbit to join Europe. The protests were much, much stronger here. In every election, this half of the country has voted overwhelmingly for pro-European political candidates.
The eastern half of Ukraine, on the other hand, has voted overwhelmingly in favor of political candidates who are more sympathetic to Russia, including Yanukovych, who is from the east. They tend to look more fondly on Russia and see their two countries as more historically linked. There are still lots of statues of Soviet founder Vladimir Lenin in the east.
What does Ukraine’s east-west divide have to do with the current crisis?
Ukrainians never really resolved the national identity crisis between its Russia-facing east and pro-European west that was sparked by its 1991 independence from the Soviet Union. The current crisis is, in many ways, an extension and perhaps culmination of that internal — and external — dispute about their country's identity. It is also the culmination of some Russians' belief that eastern Ukraine — or even all of Ukraine — is not actually a separate country, but rightfully part of Russia.
The east and west of Ukraine disagree so fundamentally about what sort of country they want to have, about what it means to be Ukrainian, that a big, internal political battle may have been quite likely. For example, the EU trade deal that sparked all this only had about 43 percent popular support, mostly in the west; another 31 percent of Ukrainians said they wanted a trade deal with the Russia-led Customs Union instead. When Yanukovych rejected the EU deal, many western Ukrainians saw it as a betrayal, but eastern Ukrainians may have regarded a different decision the same way.
Ukraine, according to political scientist Leonid Peisakhin, "has never been and is not yet a coherent national unit with a common narrative or a set of more or less commonly shared political aspirations."
Some Russian-speaking Ukrainians in the country's east and south, particularly in Crimea, have not quite reconciled themselves to being citizens of Ukraine over Russia. Ideas that their region should be absorbed into Russia are very much alive.
Even though Yanukovych was removed from power by protesters, mostly in the west, this has not resolved the nation's deeper identity crisis. All it did was shift power from a pro-Russian, eastern-based political party to a pro-European, western-based political party. That's upset pro-Russian Ukrainians in the country's east and south, including in Crimea, where pro-Russian demonstrators marched against the new government. The Kremlin quietly backed those protests, including by sending in unmarked Russian troops, which took over government buildings in Crimea and in eastern Ukraine. In Crimea, that ended with a Russian military occupation and annexation. In eastern Ukraine, it's led to ongoing fighting between pro-Russian separatists and Ukrainian security forces, and in August with the Russian military overtly invading.
How did Ukraine get so divided?
You have to remember that Ukraine's present-day borders are very new and that its historical ties to Russia are very old. So the distinction between Ukraine and Russia is a bit blurrier than the distinction between, say, France and Germany.
That line started blurring in the 1700s, when Russian leader Catherine the Great began a process of "Russifying" Ukraine — making it Russian — that continued right up through the 1950s. This meant shipping in ethnic Russians, imposing laws that required schools to teach the Russian rather than Ukrainian language, and stationing lots of Russian troops in the area. At some points in the 1800s, the Ukrainian language was banned outright.
In the 1930s, Soviet leader Josef Stalin caused a famine in Ukraine that killed several million Ukrainians, mostly in the east. He then repopulated the area with ethnic Russians. In the 1940s, Stalin forcibly relocated the ethnic Tatars who dominated Crimea's population, replacing them with Russians as well. (Some of those Tatars, who are Muslim and ethnically Turkic, have since moved back; they are a minority in Crimea and have expressed fear about returning to Russian rule.)
For most of this process, Russia focused overwhelmingly on the east, which has vast coal, iron, and some of the most fertile farmland on earth. Ukraine's linguistic dividing line matches up almost perfectly with the line between its farmland in the east and forestland in the west.
The effect of all this history is that lots of Ukrainians, very understandably, despise Russia and want nothing to do with it. But there's also a significant proportion of Ukrainians whose families have substantial connections to Russia, who may remember the Soviet era fondly, and do not want to break away quite so fully as does the west. This national identity crisis has been centuries in the making, and it is a big issue today.
Why is Russia so obsessed with Ukraine?
On the surface, it's because Ukraine has a lot of native Russian-speakers and ethnic Russians, many of whom voted for Yanukovych in 2010 and did not support the Euromaidan protests that led to his removal. So when Russian leaders talk about intervening to protect the rights of Russian-speaking Ukrainians, they might be myopically ignoring the very valid reasons that Yanukovych was ousted, but they do mean it.
But there is much, much more going on here. Russians have long felt a special historical connection to Ukraine, which plays a central role in Russian national mythology. Tsarist leaders cultivated the idea that Russia's cultural roots go back to ancient Greeks who settled on the Crimean peninsula, in modern-day Ukraine. While this is mostly made-up, it is true that Russia's first iteration as a great empire had its capital in present-day Ukraine.
The idea of a special, ancient connection to Ukraine is especially important for Russian nationalists, who see it as a vital and eternal component of the greater Russian empire. Russian nationalism has seen a dramatic rise in the last few years, cultivated by Russian nationalist numero uno President Vladimir Putin, who has used this to distract Russians from their sinking economy and his tightening authoritarianism.
A special bond with Ukraine, and perhaps even the reacquisition of Ukraine, is in the Russian nationalist view not just about historic links but about reacquiring Russia's rightful place as a great power. It is also about righting the injustices of the Soviet Union's collapse, which they see as having left Russian territory and many Russians under the control of an unworthy Ukrainian government.
There is a more pragmatic aim here as well. From the beginning of the Ukraine crisis, Russia's meddling has been about preventing Ukraine from breaking away from Russian influence and falling under what Moscow sees as an ever-encroaching Western conspiracy to encircle Russia with hostile governments. Russia may well have seen this crisis as a make-or-break moment for its special connection to Ukraine and wanted to intervene lest it lose Ukraine permanently. Since then, though, Putin's overheated nationalist rhetoric, and his state media's insistence that the Ukrainian government is a US-backed Nazi regime that threatens the world, has forced Putin to escalate far beyond what he probably wanted.
What is Putin trying to accomplish?
There are three different ways to think about President Vladimir Putin's decision to annex the Ukrainian region of Crimea, to support separatist rebels in eastern Ukraine, and ultimate to invade. There's probably some truth to all three.
1) He wants to stir up nationalism at home for political purposes
Putin's popularity had been sinking since the economy cratered in 2009, and, in 2012, Russians protested against his fraud-ridden reelection, sending him into a paranoid obsession with what he sees as hostile efforts to topple him from power. He responded by stirring up Russian nationalism and anti-Western fear. In March 2014, he used these ideas as justification for annexing Crimea — which sent his popularity skyrocketing. Since the crisis began, Putin has also been cracking down severely on dissent within Russia, something it's easier to get away with while the world is distracted by Ukraine. But this nationalism may have grown beyond his control: Russia's far-right is more powerful than ever, and, with the economy on the verge of sanctions-imposed recession, Putin is so reliant on maintaining the nationalist fervor that he invaded eastern Ukraine even though this will clearly make things worse for him.
2) He saw an opportunity to grab territory and influence for strategic purposes
Russia does have a big naval base on Crimea, which it sees as strategically essential to projecting Russian power into the Black and Mediterranean Seas, and lots of economic and industrial interests in eastern Ukraine. Putin likely saw a chance to quietly seize Crimea on the pretense of protecting it from Ukraine's chaos and serving the wishes of Crimeans to rejoin Russia. This same opportunism could apply for the ongoing crisis in eastern Ukraine: maybe he wants to invade to annex the territory and maybe he's just trying to force Ukraine to adopt a federal system, but either outcome could be about maintaining Russian influence.
3) He earnestly believes he is saving fellow Russian-speakers from a Western conspiracy
It's entirely possible that Putin believes his own rhetoric, which says that Crimeans and eastern Ukrainians were calling to be saved by Russian military intervention, that the Ukrainian government has been seized by actual Nazis backed by the West, and that Moscow's political authority extends beyond Russia's borders to all Russian-speakers everywhere, including in Crimea and in eastern Ukraine.
After speaking with Putin in early March, Chancellor Angela Merkel described him as out of touch with reality and "in another world."
What are the US and Europe doing to try to stop Putin?
The US and Europe are doing a lot to punish Putin for annexing Crimea and invading eastern Ukraine. But they are not doing anything that will physically force Putin to turn back his tanks, or return Crimea to Ukraine, which means that if he wants to keep invading Ukraine, despite those punishments, he can and will.
The US and Europe are primarily punishing Russia by imposing several rounds of very tough economic sanctions, which are meant as punishment and to deter Russia from invading further. While the sanctions initially targeted Putin and his inner political circle, they have since broadened to include the larger Russian economy, which was already at the edge of a recession. The sanctions are working in that they're hurting the Kremlin and the larger Russian economy, and it's possible that they have kept Putin from escalating even further than they would have otherwise, but they have definitely so far not gotten him to back down or withdraw from Crimea.
The burden of imposing these sanctions falls on the European Union, which is heavily reliant on Russian natural gas exports and will hurt its own economy by sanctioning Russia. Still, even normally cautious German Chancellor Angela Merkel has been supporting broad economic sanctions since Russian-backed rebels shot down Malaysian Airlines flight 17 in July and Russian troops overtly invaded in August.
The US and Europe are also isolating Russia diplomatically, for example by booting Russia from the Group of Eight (G8), an annual conference of the world's leading industrialized, democratic nations. And NATO has suspended all practical cooperation with the Russian military.
Still, this has not been enough to turn back Russian troops, and it probably won't succeed in getting Crimea back for Ukraine. The US and Europe have made clear that they do not see any sort of military response as an option; directly fighting against Russian troops would present a very serious risk of escalation, given that Russia has one of the world's largest armies and thousands of nuclear warheads. The US and Europe have no mutual defense treaty with Ukraine, so the Ukrainian military is largely on its own.
What the US and Europe can do is make a big show of committing to the defense of other eastern European countries along Russia's borders, so as to deter Putin from invading those countries as well. The Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania are understandably concerned that they could be next; they are members of NATO, and so Western European countries are publicly committed by treaty to defending them. President Obama spoke in the capital of Estonia on September 3 and reaffirmed that the US would defend against Russia, saying, "You've lost your independence once before, with Nato you'll never lose it again."
Is the Ukraine crisis a new Cold War?
Not really. The Cold War was a global struggle for hegemony between two, roughly co-equal powers. It divided Europe between west and east and then divided much of the world. It included bloody proxy wars on just about every continent, and raised a very serious risk of global thermonuclear war.
None of that is true today. The US is many times more powerful and influential than Russia; neither America nor the Western world nor democracy itself are at any real risk. More to the point, almost the entire world opposes Russia's annexation of Crimea. President Obama has described Russia's actions as the behavior of a weak country. He is broadly correct, although Russia is clearly still strong enough to annex neighboring territory.
Russian President Vladimir Putin is certainly acting as if his country is in geopolitical competition with the West. He's become much more aggressive about asserting Russia's influence: he fought a brief war with the former Soviet republic of Georgia in 2008, set up a Eurasian trade union he wants to become a competitor to the European Union, and is arming and protecting the Syrian government as if that country's war were a Cold War-style proxy conflict. Putin clearly wants to reclaim some of Russia's past greatness, which in practice has meant asserting Russian power and positioning himself as a legitimate competitor to the Western world.
Still, this competition is limited to former Soviet republics and Syria. It is nowhere near the global conflict of the Cold War.
What is the US-Russia 'reset'?
The US-Russia reset is — was — an American effort first championed by then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in 2009 to "reset" relations with Russia, which had deteriorated during the Bush administration.
The idea of the reset was that the US and Russia might not like one another very much, but the two countries have enough shared interests that they're both better off if they cooperate. It worked for a while: Russia supported US-led efforts to sanction Iran over its nuclear program, the two countries signed a big treaty on nuclear disarmament, and they cooperated on the Afghanistan War.
The reset began collapsing in 2012 with disagreements over the Syria conflict, as the two countries are backing very different sides. Both American and Russian domestic politics are becoming less predisposed to good relations, partly because of rising nationalism in Russia and partly because of growing American concern about Russian human rights abuses, particularly against LGBT people. And the simple truth is that the US and Russia just don't have as many shared interests anymore.
The reset became unofficially dead in March 2014, when the US imposed some pretty tough economic sanctions against Russia over its annexation of Crimea.
Is there a series of irreverent political cartoons summing up the crisis?
What you want is Polandball. It's a user-generated, meme-based series of political cartoons that focus on international relations. They began in 2009 on a German Web forum and have became popular across Europe, but have no defined authors or home; anyone can make one. They're unified by their deliberately hokey MS Paint design and a common structure: countries are represented by flag-colored blobs, which interact in broken English.
Polandball's jokey simplicity, its nerdy love of history, and its focus on current affairs have made the form well suited for the Ukraine crisis. Here are a few, culled from the Polandball forum at Reddit:
"Ukraine's choice": On the Ukrainian president's decision to reject a European Union deal (the EU flag is in blue with stars) for a bail-out from Russia:
"Ukraine's great sacrifice." When it looked like Ukraine might split between east and west, with the industry-poor western half likely to want to join the European Union:
"Ukraine is of hurting self." Romania is a bystander to Ukraine's long, troubled identity crisis between pro-Russia and pro-Europe factions (that's the Soviet Ukrainian flag):
"Russia and Ukraine, a love story." Comparing Soviet-era abuses with Russia's 2014 seizure of Crimea:
"Perspectives." The Western and Kremlin views of the crisis:
Did Putin annex Crimea because he thought Obama was weak?
The issue has become a political debate in the US, with Democrats saying "no" and Republicans saying "yes." There is some validity to both arguments.
It is true that President Obama has been rolling back American commitments abroad and has emphasized foreign policy restraint over assertiveness (for example, in Syria) and compromise over confrontation (for example, with Iran). What is disputed is whether Putin looked at this and calculated that he could get away with annexing Crimea. (It is also true that Putin has consistently communicated disrespect to Obama, but Putin has shown disrespect to basically every other head of state on earth, so it's tough to pin that on Obama.)
The strongest data point in favor of this case is Obama's threat to launch air strikes against Syria in September 2013, which was ultimately held back by domestic political opposition and a Russia-brokered deal to disarm Syria's chemical weapons instead. The strongest data point against this case is that the US is objectively much stronger than Russia and Putin would not be so paranoid about ever-encroaching American influence if he thought the US were weak.
Former US Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul, an Obama supporter, has suggested some truth to both of these arguments. "They most certainly saw that as a constraint on the president's powers," McFaul has said of the Syria episode. "[Obama's] weakness was about democratic constraints on what he could do — that Putin does not face."
But McFaul also thinks that Putin "believes that President Obama — the United States —is seeking to foment revolution around the world against regimes that are unfriendly to the United States. He thinks that he was defeated by President Obama in Ukraine. That's not an assessment that Obama is weak. That's an assessment that we are actually a threat to his interests."
Why does Putin keep talking about Yugoslavia?
Putin has repeatedly justified Russia's annexation of Crimea by comparing it to Kosovo's Western-backed 2008 independence from Serbia. (Kosovo and Serbia are in southeast Europe, part of the former Yugoslavia.) His point is two-fold: 1) That Crimea's annexation was a humanitarian mission justified by international norms, so everyone stop complaining, and 2) that Western opposition to the annexation exposes the West's hypocrisy and dishonesty.
In 1999, the now-gone southeastern European nation of Yugoslavia fought a civil war. It was between the Serbian government and ethnic-minority rebels in the autonomous region of Kosovo. The Serbian forces committed major abuses, including violence against civilians, and the Western countries of NATO launched air strikes against the Serbs to make them withdraw. Kosovo and Serbia tried for nine years to reconcile, but in 2008 Kosovo declared independence, which the West supported and Russia opposed as illegitimate.
Putin's comparison is not really valid for several reasons that you can read here. But the point is that he sees Russia as in conflict with a hostile and untrustworthy West, that he believes Western countries hold Russia to an unfair double standard, and that there is a conspiracy to remove any government that is friendly to Moscow rather than the West. This helps explain why he has been acting with such hostility. It may also help explain why he refused to allow a more legitimate referendum in Crimea: he may have believed the West would never honor the results.
Why does Russia want Ukraine to adopt a federal system?
After pro-Russia separatists seized government buildings in eastern Ukraine with Kremlin support, Moscow centered on a big demand to end the crisis that it is also partly responsible for creating: Ukraine should adopt a federal system.
The reason Moscow wants this is that, in the current system, Ukraine's pro-Western government might not be very inclined to cooperate with Moscow. In a federal Ukrainian system, regional governments will have much more autonomy and power, meaning that Moscow can get what it wants by simply calling up pro-Russian regional governors in Ukraine's typically pro-Russian east.
These eastern regions have lots of important natural resources, such as coal. They also have factories that produce essential military equipment for Russia. So if Russia can count on keeping them solidly pro-Russian by forcing Ukraine to adopt a federal system, that may well be enough to appease Moscow. This could ultimately worsen Ukraine's already-severe political divide between west and east, by allowing the country's pro-Russia and pro-Europe socio-political factions to move even further apart rather than finally coming together.
What does the MH17 plane crash have to do with the crisis?
On Thursday, July 17, Malaysia Airlines flight 17 was shot down while flying over an area of eastern Ukraine where Russian-backed separatist rebels are active, killing all 298 people on board.
Russia had recently supplied the rebels with a sophisticated, long-range surface-to-air missile system known as Buk or SA-11. The rebels had shot down two other high-flying airplanes — both Ukrainian military planes — in the previous week. It appears most likely that the rebels misidentified flight 17 as a military craft and shot it down.
The rebels further infuriated the world by blocking inspector access to the crash site (often, the militants appeared to be drunk), initially preventing the bodies from being removed, allowing looters to steal from the luggage and bodies that had fallen out of the sky, and hanging on to the black box for several days days before finally surrendering it in a bizarre and self-aggrandizing ceremony.
The conflict had already been worsening, as Ukraine had recently retaken several rebel-held towns and Russia had been supplying weapons to Ukrainian rebels. The shoot-down led the US and Europe to impose even tougher sanctions on Russia and led the Ukrainian military to accelerate its campaign to finally defeat the rebels. When it looked like the rebels would be overrun, Russia responded in mid-August by overtly invading in support of the rebels.
You didn't answer my question!
This is very much a work in progress. It will continue to be updated as events unfold, new research gets published, and fresh questions emerge.
So if you have additional questions or comments or quibbles or complaints, send a note to Max Fisher: firstname.lastname@example.org.
What else should I read about the Ukraine crisis?
For understanding Ukraine's history and how it explains the crisis today, one of the best sources has been Adam Taylor, who blogs on foreign affairs for the Washington Post. He's had great introductory explainers on Crimea's past and present, as well as on why it matters that we call the country "Ukraine" instead of "the Ukraine."
The other journalist whose work you should read in its entirety is the New Republic's Julia Ioffe, for example this piece on how the world willfully misinterpreted Kiev's protests and this on how Putin is playing Russia's long-running identity crisis to his advantage.
The New York Times ran, in late March, "3 Presidents and a Riddle Named Putin," an enjoyable and insightful history of American presidents and their (ultimately failed) struggles to understand and work with Putin.
"Putin Goes to War," by the New Yorker's David Remnick, is an eloquent look at Russia's decision to invade Crimea and its likely consequences.
How have these cards changed?
This is a running list of substantive updates, corrections, and additions to this card stack. These cards were last updated on April 24, 2014. Here is a summary of edits:
- September 1: The card on the eastern Ukraine conflict was updated. A card on Russia's invasion of Ukraine was added. A card on the risks of an organic Ukrainian civil war was removed because that threat is gone due to Russia's invasion. A card on Russian media coverage was removed to reduce length. Every other card was updated to reflect events.
- July 17: A card was added on the downing of Malaysian Airlines flight 17. Related cards were updated.
- April 24: A card was added aggregating political cartoons.
- April 23: A card was added to address fears of a civil war. Cards 19 and 21 were updated to reflect this.
- April 22: Card 12 was added to cover Russian state media treatment of the crisis.
- April 17: Cards 1, 9, 11, 12, and 19. were updated to reflect rising violence between pro-Russian separatists and Ukrainian forces as well as related developments.
- April 17: A card was added on Russia's demands that Ukraine adopt a federal system.
- April 10: Card 4 was updated to reflect a UN draft report on election abuses in Crimea's referendum vote.
- April 6: Cards 1 and 19 were updated to reflect pro-Russian protests in eastern Ukraine and the increased risk of Russian invasion.