Russia has said that it wants guarantees Ukraine will be barred from joining NATO — a non-starter for the Western alliance, which maintains an open-door policy. But for years, Russia has backed separatist fighters in the eastern part of the country, helping stir a simmering insurgency to undermine the Ukrainian government.
The current offensive could ignite wider conflict and upend decades of peace in Europe, as tens of thousands of Ukrainians flee to neighboring countries. But the invasion is already coming at a steep cost to Russia, which is now the target of sweeping international sanctions that could cripple its economy.
Here’s what we know about why Russia has attacked Ukraine — and what could come next.
WHAT TO KNOW
What is the historical relationship between Russia and Ukraine?
Ukraine occupies an important place in Russian history. Together with Belarus, it formed the medieval Kyivan Rus state that Moscow and Kyiv claim laid the foundation of their countries.
Kyiv was a significant city in the 9th and 10th centuries, before the economic power in the region shifted east. Later, parts of what is now Ukraine became part of the Russian Empire, but other parts, particularly in the west, had more ties to European powers.
Amid the 1917 revolutions in Russia, nationalist movements in the country grew rapidly. The Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic was founded shortly afterward and would become one of the founding members of the Soviet Union — though that organization was dominated by its far larger neighbor, the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic.
Ukrainian people suffered greatly during the Soviet Union, with famine in 1932 to 1933 killing millions in a disaster blamed on policies from Moscow. The famine was later recognized as a genocide by the independent Ukrainian government. It was also the site of some of the worst violence of World War II, when Nazi Germany occupied much of the land.
How did their relationship change after the collapse of the Soviet Union?
As the Soviet Union was collapsing, Ukrainians voted to become an independent state in a referendum in 1991. The country also became a democracy — albeit, an imperfect one.
Like its neighboring Russia, the independent and democratic Ukraine suffered through economic hardships and high levels of corruption. However, it had an additional complexity in its relationship with Moscow.
While many in Ukraine sought a closer relationship with the West — including for some, aspirationally, membership in NATO or the European Union — in the early 2000s Russia’s new president, Putin, viewed these developments with alarm. There are large Russian and Russian-speaking populations in Ukraine, particularly in the east of the country near the border.
Tensions burst into the open in 2014, when pro-Western protests in Kyiv ousted the Moscow-aligned Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych. Russia invaded and annexed the Crimean Peninsula from Kyiv shortly afterward, a move Europe and the United States have said was illegal.
Since 2014, there has also been a simmering conflict between Ukrainian forces and Russian-backed separatists in the self-declared “people’s republics” in Donetsk and Luhansk, two eastern regions that border Russia.
Why are tensions so high now?
Late last year, Western officials began warning of a huge buildup of Russian troops near the border with Ukraine. U.S. officials have said that roughly 190,000 Russian soldiers had amassed by mid-February, warning that Moscow may stage a fake attack to justify an invasion.
For Putin, Ukraine has become a focal point of broader ire with the West. In an article posted on the Kremlin’s website in July, Putin described Russians and Ukrainians as one people and wrote that the “true sovereignty of Ukraine is possible only in partnership with Russia.”
When announcing in February that Russia would formally recognize the separatists in Donetsk and Luhansk, Putin appeared to suggest that Ukraine was an aberration of history.
“Modern Ukraine was entirely and fully created by Russia, more specifically the Bolshevik, communist Russia,” Putin said in a speech to the Russian nation on Feb. 21.
This obsession with Ukraine has long existed in Moscow. Czarist leaders referred to Ukraine as “little Russia” and said that its language “never existed, does not exist, and shall not exist.” Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin had his own maxim — “If we lose Ukraine, we lose our head” — while Mikhail Gorbachev later said that there could be no Soviet Union without Ukraine, and no Ukraine without the union.
Ukraine’s growing relationship with NATO has been of intense interest to Putin, however. The Russian president has long wanted a “sphere of influence” over former Soviet states and has a significant interest in Ukraine, which is “potentially most likely to join NATO,” said Matthew Sussex, a Russia expert at the Griffith Asia Institute in Australia.
It is “clear that Russia’s fundamental concerns have been ignored,” Putin said in early February of U.S. and NATO proposals to de-escalate the crisis.
Could a war backfire for Russia?
A military assault on Ukraine could backfire on Russia by spurring NATO to increase its presence in Eastern Europe. The United States has already sent more troops to the region, and Russia’s moves have united Western leaders in the face of the threat.
Economic ramifications are also a major concern. The United States, Britain, Canada and the European Union all announced coordinated sanctions against Russian companies, banks and officials this week, including Putin and Kremlin-linked business executives. Germany also halted the authorization of a major pipeline built to transport natural gas from Russia to Europe.
Russian officials have dismissed the potential impact of the measures, arguing that Russia has weathered sanctions before. But there’s also the cost of occupying Ukraine in the post-invasion period.
If the invasion leads to significant Russian casualties, as well as civilian deaths, that could create problems for Putin at home, since many Russian citizens have personal ties to Ukraine.
More than half of Russians say that a global war is one of their biggest fears, according to a recent poll. Thousands in Russia took to the streets to decry the invasion in a rare display of public condemnation in a country where public protests can lead to jail or fines. Putin also faces other domestic challenges, including a surge in coronavirus cases and a general economic downturn.
John Hudson in Washington, and Bryan Pietsch and Amy Cheng in Seoul contributed to this report.