More than 100 days have passed since Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, 2022. With the modern flurry of information, it can be hard to keep track of what’s going on. To facilitate an understanding of the situation, I wrote a brief explainer (but with lots of links for deeper dives!) of the war.
Why Russia invaded Ukraine
Armed Russian aggression against Ukraine began in 2014 with the illegal 2014 annexation of Crimea and a proxy war in Donbas, following Ukrainian demonstrations that led to the ousting of a pro-Russian Ukrainian president, Viktor Yanukovych. Putin’s regime is repressive, and a democratic, prosperous Ukraine poses an indirect threat to the Kremlin’s ability to maintain its repression. Russia has a long history of imperialism and does not want to see Ukraine pursuing its own foreign policy. Although Russia is clearly the one responsible for this war, the West’s long history of appeasement toward Russia has likely contributed to Russia’s calculus about the expected consequences of a full-scale invasion.
War crimes committed by Russia
Russia was almost certainly hoping for an easy conquest of Ukraine. When Ukrainians fought back, Russia resorted to tactics it had previously used in Chechnya and Syria: targeting civilians and civilian infrastructure, including hospitals and schools. It is abundantly clear that Russia does not care for the residents of Eastern Ukraine, as it destroys vast majorities of areas it claims to “liberate.” Russia has systematically tortured and murdered unarmed civilians in occupied areas; killed civilians, including children, as they tried to evacuate; committed mass rape; abused and murdered prisoners of war; set up so-called “filtration” camps; and forcibly deported Ukrainian civilians to Russia, including orphans and children separated from their parents. Russia’s persistent targeting of Ukrainian identity amounts to genocide. Each of these actions constitute war crimes under the Geneva Convention, which Russia is a party to.
· Photographs of civilians murdered by Russian troops in Bucha, Irpin, and Gosromel, Ukraine (warning: very graphic content).
Why the West should help Ukraine win this war
Besides the moral imperative to stop the mass-scale war crimes as quickly as possible, we must remember that Russia’s war in Ukraine is by far the largest-scale European armed conflict since World War II. The outcome of this war will have enormous effects on the future of Europe, Asia, and the world; on international security agreements; on other potential conflicts; and on nuclear weapon proliferation and use. Ukrainians will continue to fight Russia with or without Western support, but Western support increases the likelihood and speed of a Ukrainian victory. A quicker end to the war will also enable Ukraine to more quickly resume its place as a leading provider of grain and sunflower oil, reducing the food market crisis Russia has created.
What the West should do to help Ukraine win this war
The key ways the West can help Ukraine win is (1) a timely provision of heavy weapons necessary to defeat Russia militarily and (2) strong sanctions levied on Russia to cripple its ability to finance the war. Although Western military support has been substantial, Western sanctions have avoided targeting one of Russia’s main sources of foreign funds: natural gas. Banning Russian gas is even more important than banning Russian oil because the former is much harder to redirect to other buyers. A ban on Russian energy would severely dent the Kremlin’s ability to wage this war while the negative consequences for the European economy would be manageable. Cutting off Russian gas now would also be a wise strategic move to prevent Putin from exploiting this lever himself.
Why Ukraine will not and should not cede territory to Russia
The vast majority of Ukrainians do not view territorial concessions as acceptable. The Ukrainian government’s position is exactly the same. Although the terms on which the war ends are ultimately up to Ukraine and its people, an outcome in which Russia gains Ukrainian territory would set a terrible precedent for future conflicts. Russia has violated its own agreement to protect Ukrainian territorial integrity. Obtaining Ukrainian territory through an invasion would further erode the credibility of international agreements and send a signal that waging war — no matter how brutal — to pursue self-interested goals is acceptable in the 21st century.
Why Russia cannot be trusted
Russian leadership has lied repeatedly before and during this conflict. In 2014, Russia initially denied that Russian troops were sent to Crimea. Russia denied involvement in the shooting down of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17; extensive investigations concluded that Russia provided the surface-to-air missile that shot it down. In 2021–2022, Russia denied that an invasion was being planned, then lied about the reasons for the invasion. After the invasion, Russia has repeatedly agreed to and then immediately violated humanitarian ceasefires meant to evacuate civilians. Russia has also lied to its own citizens about the invasion; shut down all independent media inside Russia; and targeted those expressing dissent with violence, prison sentences, and other punishments. Russia has now violated many international laws, proving itself to be an extremely untrustworthy country. Thus, any agreements between Ukraine and Russia cannot simply rely on Russia’s word to keep them.