Shortcuts / 10 February 2022

The crisis in Ukraine

It’s a part of Europe that many of us don’t know much about, but the crisis in Ukraine has been in the news a lot recently. Western nations are worried Russia will invade Ukraine, but there’s a whole lot of baggage that’s gotten us here. So in this Squiz Shortcut, we cover the history of Ukraine’s relationship with Russia, why things are at a flashpoint now, and how the US, the UK and Europe are reacting.

I have a feeling this will be a big one…
You’re not wrong, but let’s start with the basics.

Okay, let’s go.
Ukraine is the 2nd-largest European country after Russia. It borders Russia to the east, Belarus to the north, Poland, Slovakia and Hungary to the west, and Romania and Moldova to the south.

So it has some interesting neighbours…
It sure does, and some of them are home to some of Europe’s ‘strongmen’ leaders. And like Belarus, Ukraine used to be a republic of the Soviet Union. It was known then as the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic.

Ahh, so is that why some people say ‘the’ Ukraine?
Indeed. The ‘the’ stuck for many people, even after it became ‘Ukraine’ in the 1990s.

Right. So Ukraine used to be part of Russia?
Yep. Ukraine became part of the Russian Empire in the 1700s and many consider it to be the birthplace of the region’s Orthodox Christianity. And in more recent times, Ukrainian soldiers were pivotal in the Soviet defeat of the Nazis in WWII, and there was of course the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in 1986.

Hang on, wasn’t that in Russia?
Nope, the Chernobyl nuclear plant is located just south of what’s now Ukraine’s border with Belarus. Many consider it the worst nuclear disaster the world has seen. And it also pointed to the way Moscow governed – there was a lot of secrecy about it.

There sure was… So when did Ukraine gain independence?
Ukraine was one of the first Soviet republics to vote for independence. That happened in 1991, not long before the USSR broke apart entirely.

But those former ties with Russia still run deep…
They do. These days, many Ukrainians speak Russian. And Russian President Vladimir Putin has said he believes that Russians and Ukrainians are ‘one people’ and that Ukrainians have never thought of themselves as anything but Russian.

Although plenty of Ukrainians would disagree… So fast-forwarding to the 21st century – didn’t Russia recently invade Ukraine?
Yep, that was back in March 2014, when Russia ‘annexed’ the Crimea region. It was the biggest land-grab in Europe since WWII.

What was that about again?
A couple of months before, there was a popular uprising against Russian-backed President Victor Yanukovych. He was turfed out and new leaders made it clear they wanted Ukraine to become closer to the European Union.

And the Kremlin wasn’t happy about that?
Nope. So Russian soldiers moved on the Crimean peninsula – that’s in Ukraine’s east – and took control of Crimea in February.

What happened then?
A month after the invasion, there was a referendum where the local population was asked to vote on who would control Crimea, and 95.5% supported leaving Ukraine and joining Russia.

Was it a legitimate vote?
No – that referendum was condemned as illegal by the West, and it’s important to note that Crimeans loyal to Ukraine largely boycotted the vote. Nonetheless, Crimea then successfully applied to Putin to join Russia. It wasn’t the only event in that region making international headlines at the time though.

Are you talking about the downing of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17?
The one and same.

Take me through it…
That plane was shot down in July 2014 by a Russian-made missile launcher in that Crimean region. The flight was carrying 38 Australians heading home from Europe – including 3 kids – and all 283 passengers and 15 crew were killed.

How awful… So why did that happen?
There are no easy answers, but fights were breaking out in Ukraine at the time. Russia supported and armed anti-government fighters, and those militia groups have been fighting the Ukrainian army ever since, despite ceasefire agreements and deals that have been made. That conflict has killed more than 14,000 people.

What’s happening now?
Reports say there are about 100,000 Russian troops there now, as well as tanks and infrastructure you’d expect to see if an invasion was about to be launched.

And what does Russia say about that?
It says it has no plans to invade Ukraine, and it is just doing military exercises there.

Why is this all happening now?
The latest trigger is the question of whether Ukraine will join NATO. That’s the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation with is a security alliance of Western European nations, the UK, the US, and Canada.

Why is that such a big deal?
If it were to join NATO, Ukraine would increase its international military backing in a big way.

And that’s something Russia doesn’t want to see?
That’s right. It doesn’t want NATO setting up shop right on its border. It’s way too close for comfort.

So is Ukraine joining NATO?
No. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky says Ukraine aspires to join NATO – but it’s just an aspiration. And for NATO’s part, there are no plans for it to happen anytime soon.

Okay, so Russia is on the Ukraine border because of NATO, but Ukraine is not joining NATO. Please explain…
Analysts say Russia has built up the threat of Ukraine joining NATO to justify a military assault on Ukraine. So basically, it’s an excuse for an invasion to reclaim Ukraine – or parts of it – which Russia sees as rightfully theirs.

And what has been the international reaction to that?
The US and other NATO allies like the UK and Europe say there will be serious consequences if Russia does invade.

Like declaring a full-on war?
Nothing like that… The US and other NATO allies have made it clear they have no plans to send combat troops to Ukraine itself but have offered support.

Which means what?
Well, the US for one might not want to get involved in a war in Europe, but it has still got 8,500 combat-ready troops on alert and has deployed 3,000 extra soldiers to Germany, Romania and Poland. But the main weapons in the West’s armoury appear are sanctions and military aid in the form of advisers and weapons.

And all those high-level talks haven’t led to any breakthroughs?
No – not yet, anyway. US President Joe Biden and Putin haven’t been talking much over the last year… But Biden has threatened Putin with measures “like none he’s ever seen” if Ukraine is attacked.

Them’s fighting words… So what are the measures Biden’s talking about?
Well, the US and Western powers could obstruct Russia’s access to US dollars. They could also cut Russia out of something called the SWIFT financial system, which would effectively end Russia’s ability to send and receive money from abroad.

I guess money talks…
It sure does. Biden has also warned that he would consider personal sanctions on Vladimir Putin and his inner circle. They would also target the assets of the oligarchs, many of whom are thought to hold them on behalf of the President himself.

And what’s this I’m hearing about a gas pipeline?
One of the key threats from the West is to prevent the opening of Russia’s $11 billion Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline in Germany. So if that’s switched off, or if Europe doesn’t buy it, that’s going to be a huge hit to the Russian economy.

How has Russia responded to those threats?
Putin went to Beijing for the opening of the Winter Games and had a meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping. And they agreed to a big deal where China would buy a lot more Russian gas than it currently does. So that got Putin out of a sticky spot…

Okay so in light of that, will those threats be enough to stop Russia from launching an attack on Ukraine?
Well, America says it doesn’t think Putin has made up his mind about what he’s going to do. And analysts say that all the talks and negotiating is a sign that Putin wants a deal.

What kind of deal would Putin like?
It could include things like the US limiting short and medium-range missiles as part of NATO’s arsenal in Eastern Europe.

Right. So there’s a bit left to iron out…
There is. But things have been heating up as of late. Australians in Ukraine have been told to leave immediately after the family members of Aussie diplomats in Ukraine were pulled out of the country due to fears of an impending Russian attack.

And are there many Ukrainians living in Oz?
Yep – there is a significant Ukrainian community here, with more than 38,000 Australians being of Ukrainian descent.

So they would be keeping a close eye on what’s happening over there…
Yep, and it’s an issue we’ll keep you on top of as it evolves.

Squiz recommends:

Russia and the US face off over UkraineThe New York Times’ The Daily podcast

Chicken Kyiv nuggets recipe

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