“I just found myself actually preparing for the war that may or may not happen in the foreseen future. It's hard to describe. I'm from Ukraine, Dnipro, about 200 km from the warzone that's already there for eight years, and we all here (are) kind of used to the Russian baked sh*t that (is) happening in the east. However, now everything seems different. I'm genuinely sure that they'll try to cut the whole country in half.” - ‘de7uned’, Ukrainian
Since November 2021, over 100 thousand Russian soldiers have mobilised with hundreds of tanks and heavy artillery towards former Soviet country, now democratic Ukraine. Ukraine is facing the highest military tensions with its eastern neighbour since 2014, and Russia seems to threaten invasion from three borders. That is, from Ukraine’s north through Russian ally Belarus, the Ukrainian separatist-occupied region of Luhansk and Donetsk (the Donbass region) to the east, and the Russian-annexed region of Crimea at the south.
In response, the United States and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) have warned Russia with heavy sanctions if it continues any further military action. However in December 2021, Russian President Putin made extraordinary demands towards NATO. Among them, that Ukraine must never join NATO, nor may NATO cooperate with anymore countries in the region, and that it must cease all cooperation with Ukraine.
The West sees these demands as an ultimatum they cannot accept or compromise. Hence, Ukraine has been facing even more heightened tensions than it has in the past 8 years, being ‘trapped’ between former Cold War rivals.
Ukraine and Russia share history as member states of the Soviet Union (USSR). When it collapsed in 1991, Ukraine became independent shortly after. Russia has since aimed to maintain influence over former soviet states to make a ‘buffer zone’ from the West. After the second World War the US, Canada, and 11 other North Atlantic countries formed NATO, an intergovernmental military organization prepared to protect each other collectively. It was formed especially to counterbalance against the USSR and now Russia.
Since the USSR’s fall, more eastern European nations have joined NATO like Poland, Bulgaria, Estonia, and Latvia. Russia sees this as a security threat, as if NATO is ‘in its backyard’. Ukraine also aspires to join NATO but has been left waiting for years. Being so close to Moscow, Russia cannot tolerate Ukraine allying with the West militarily. Sharing one of Russia’s largest land borders, the potential security costs would be a significant economic blow.
Hence, Russia has attempted multiple times to intervene in Ukrainian politics. In 2013, former Ukrainian President Poroshenko prepared to sign a Russian trade deal instead of with the EU. Civilian protests made him step down and current President Zelenskyy signed with the EU. Russia then annexed the Ukrainian region of Crimea and supported Ukrainian separatists in the eastern Donbass region in 2014. Since then, Ukraine has been in armed conflict for 8 years which has caused its population to become hardened against the threat of Russian invasion.
From January 2022 NATO began placing and reinforcing its military within Eastern Europe. The US has moved 8500 soldiers in Poland. Furthermore, western countries have demanded citizens in Ukraine and embassy staff to evacuate. There have also been more talks among state actors, beginning with a meeting between Biden and Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, ensuring the US will defend Ukraine.
Biden has also talked with Putin via telephone and directly at meetings in Geneva, despite Russia’s demands not being accepted by Washington. Both parties even went to the United Nations Security Council where the US accused Russia of disrupting global security whilst Russia denied any invasion plans and claimed NATO expansion eastward is a Russian security threat. With increasing diplomatic stalemate and tensions, President Zelenkskyy has voiced his concern about the West inciting panic that will damage Ukraine’s economy.
Meanwhile, Ukraine civilians seem mostly unpanicked and have been preparing for Russian aggression since 2014. After the Donbass civil conflict, a third of civilians have claimed to be prepared to become insurgents against Russia if necessary and have started combat training.
“This situation hits something deep inside, I lost all my friends, all I have is my wonderful sister and grumpy mother. I've never been in an actual fight, I'm just a random copywriter who just lives his life, smokes weed, plays bass, doing dojo and trying to find his second half.” - ‘de7uned’, Ukrainian
Russia’s mobilisation towards Ukraine can also be seen as an attempt from President Putin to assert authoritarian control. If threats of force can influence neighbouring countries, displays of working democracies in neighbouring countries can also affect Russia. A lot of citizens in Ukraine, especially in eastern regions are ethnically Russian and predominantly speak Russian. This cultural and ethnic similarity poses an existential threat to Putin’s regime because Ukraine can become a visible example to Russians that democracy can work in Russia. Should democracy become exceedingly popular among countries in ‘Russia’s backyard’, it could shake Putin’s political stability.
NATO are in talks among themselves to present a united front against Russia. Biden recently met German Chancellor Scholz who has been vague on whether he will support NATO allies but has since voiced that Germany will ‘work in lockstep’ with the US. French President Macron has even talked with Putin to deescalate tensions. Macron told President Zelenskyy he is optimistic and predicted Russia will drawback troops, though Russia denies making any deals. Mid-February, Russia declared it will not escalate conflict and withdraw soldiers, however when and how many soldiers is not confirmed and NATO is sceptical.
At the brink of war, it is important to highlight that the biggest stakeholder with the most to lose is non-other than Ukraine itself, and its people have shown tremendous resolve and resilience.
“Next week I'm going to join the army and soon I'll be dead or become a murderer in order to protect my wonderful sister and my grumpy mother for no reason. Or maybe not.” - ‘de7uned’, Ukrainian