Morning Brew – International
The digestible Ukraine explainer you’ve been waiting for
A geopolitical expert answers your burning questions around the Russia–Ukraine conflict.
By Neal Freyman – February 22, 2022
The Russia–Ukraine conflict has officially replaced NFTs as the topic people love to talk about but don’t fully understand. That’s not a knock on anyone—look, even those of us who follow the news for our jobs haven’t spent the last 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 get a better grasp on what exactly is going on and why we should care.
Can you give us a brief history of the relationship between Russia and Ukraine?
To start with, the “brief” history goes back a thousand years, because Russian civilization more or less began in what is today’s Ukraine: Medieval Kyiv was bumping while Moscow was still a backwater. This sounds irrelevant but Putin alludes to this all the time 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 Tsarist and Soviet ones, both of which worried about Ukrainian nationalism and wanted to Russify the population and culture. (The Ukrainian language is related to Russian but different, think of Italian and Spanish.)
- There have been some particularly dark moments in their history: Stalin starved millions of Ukrainians to death in the 1930s. There’s a reason that Ukraine’s 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’s been caught in a tug of war between Russia and the West. There are a lot of ethnic Russians in Ukraine, particularly in the east and south, and those are areas where you find more sympathy for Moscow. Central and western Ukraine have tended to show more pro-Western sentiment, but it’s very, very hard to generalize. There are also a lot of family ties between the two countries—just about everyone in Ukraine has relatives somewhere in Russia.
The Kremlin, for its part, sees Ukraine as a nonnegotiable part of its sphere of influence. The idea of Ukraine ever 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 openly doesn’t believe Ukraine is a legit independent country. For him it’s basically just a part of a greater Russian empire that it’s his destiny to resurrect. Most people in Ukraine obviously don’t love this view.
On Monday Putin recognized the independence of two Ukrainian separatist regions: Donetsk and Luhansk. What the heck are “separatist” regions and why was this viewed as such a provocative move?
In 2014, after a popular uprising ousted the pro-Russian president of Ukraine and led to a new, Western-backed government that featured some strident Ukrainian nationalists, Russia did two things:
- It annexed the Crimean peninsula, the only part of Ukraine where ethnic Russians were the majority.
- It also backed militants in two eastern provinces who set up breakaway statelets of their own. Russia said it was protecting Russian speakers—whose language rights were in fact under threat at the time—from genocide.
The result was a civil war between those separatists and Ukrainian forces which has so far killed about 14,000 people and displaced close to 1 million.
Since 2015 there’s been a peace deal on paper: the “Minsk agreements.” It was a pretty good deal for Russia, actually. The separatist regions would remain part of Ukraine, but with significant autonomy and an effective veto over Kyiv’s foreign policy. They’ve basically been cat’s paws for Moscow to keep Ukraine from ever moving Westward.
But that agreement was never implemented, in part because neither side could agree on who should move first. Now, by unilaterally recognizing the independence of the separatist entities, Russia is giving up on that peace agreement entirely, and (again, as with Crimea) forcibly changing the borders of a European country.
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UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson has said this would 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. Yugoslavia’s horrific 1990s civil war—the worst European conflict since WWII—took place in a disintegrating country of 23.5 million people. Ukraine has more than 40 million people and, mind you, one of the combatants is a nuclear power.
Second, a central idea of postwar Europe is that you don’t redraw European boundaries by force, because that always ends very badly. And yet here is Russia, a major world power, doing just that. So Russia’s challenge isn’t only to a specific country (Ukraine) but to a whole order.
Third, there’s obviously a huge economic dimension here. We’re talking about a war involving a country—Russia—that is Europe’s largest source of natural gas and is a major global oil exporter. No European war has involved anything close to this level of economic and financial risk to Europe since 1945.
On that note, if Western leaders think Russia’s actions are so harmful to European security, why isn’t the US sending troops?
The US public has little appetite for foreign military adventures—and after the past 20 years, frankly, who could blame them?
There’s also an understandable reluctance to get into a direct conflict with a nuclear power over a country that is not, in fact, a NATO member. So the West is using different tools to try to manage the situation: arming the Ukrainians better, bolstering 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 Ukrainian forces put up a fight?
The Ukrainians are certainly no pushovers. 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 think that the Russians could get to key cities quite fast.
The interesting question, though, is what happens next. Invading a country is one thing, but actually occupying it—if that’s Putin’s intention—is another. The Russians would not, in most cases, be “greeted as liberators,” as the saying goes. I’m not a military analyst but I’m told that things could get very nasty in the event of urban warfare or a popular insurgency. And the West would almost certainly support efforts to make life hell for the occupying Russians.
Serious question: Is Putin simply out of his gourd? Is there any world in which the benefits of an invasion outweigh the costs, or is he behaving like Tony Montana near the end of Scarface?
A lot of people have wondered if Putin is nuts with this Ukraine stuff. I think it’s probably the wrong question. The right question is: Is he consistent? Certainly from a Western point of view it seems crazy to risk Russia’s economic stability and global standing over whether a neighbor wants to join NATO or not.
But Putin is operating on 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 the security of his country in a way that Western sanctions just aren’t. Morning Brew’s write-up did a great job explaining why Putin is probably OK 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 final moments of inspiration, was similarly capable of.
Putin may end up being wrong, but I don’t think he’s crazy.
tarbabys isn’t so sure Putin isn’t crazy. The entire civilized world told him that invading Ukraine was a crazy idea, that the world would bring a heavy ass-woopin set of sanctions, if he went through with his 19th century ideas of Russian empire.
He of course didn’t believe or listen to anyone, not his flunkies, not his oligarch buddies, not his military advisors (especially not the conscripted soldiers who hadn’t a clue where they were going and what they were supposed to do) and certainly not the Russian people, who have family members at the receiving end of the missiles, rockets, tank shells, cluster bombs and thermobaric weapons.
Now the entire world has turned Russia into an isolated pariah with an economy that is cratering faster that the oligarchs yachts and jets have fled to the Maldives.
Will Putin admit that he made the biggest political and military blunder in Russian history or will he double down on destroying Ukraine and building a massive documented and real time recorded war crime record for all the world to see. His own survival is in the balance.