In recent months, the news has been dominated by the massing of 100,000 Russian troops on Ukraine’s border and broad discussions about the potential for war, not just between Ukraine and Russia, but between global powers. The United States, along with several NATO allies, have offered direct support to Ukraine in the form of both funds and military equipment, while simultaneously placing diplomatic pressure on Moscow in an attempt to dissuade Russian President Vladimir Putin from following through with an invasion.
Today’s simmering tensions on the Ukraine border have roots that reach back decades, and in some ways, today’s potential for conflict could be seen as a reverberating effect of the fall of the Soviet Union at the close of the Cold War.
Why would Russia invade Ukraine?
Russian President Vladimir Putin does not see Ukraine as an independent nation, but rather as Soviet territory. It gained its independence from the Soviet Union 30 years ago and in the intervening years, the nation has grown increasingly closer to the West, which came to a head in 2014.
After years of complaints about corruption, protesters ousted Ukraine’s pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych in February of that year in what is now referred to within the nation as the “Revolution of Dignity.” But amid the chaos that followed, the Russian military forcibly annexed Crimea, a Ukrainian peninsula with strategic importance. It also initiated fighting in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine that continues to this day, thus far killing over 14,000 people.
Russia sees Ukraine as a necessary buffer zone between the Russian border and NATO forces, and as such, Ukraine’s stated aim of joining the NATO alliance is seen by Putin and others within the Russian government as a direct threat to Russia’s sovereignty.
Why would the U.S. get involved in a conflict between Russia and Ukraine?
The short version of why the U.S. would get involved can be found in the Budapest Memorandum signed by the United States, Russia, and four other nations in 1994. After the fall of the Soviet Union, Ukraine was left in possession of a large stockpile of former-Soviet nuclear weapons. Ukraine agreed to relinquish this stockpile in exchange for security assurances: namely that the nation’s newfound sovereignty would be respected and assured by all signing parties.
Russia violated this agreement in 2014 and is threatening to once again today, while the United States and U.K. are attempting to fulfill their ends of the agreement by helping to assure Ukraine’s continued sovereignty, effectively keeping the promise Russia has repeatedly broken.
But there are further-reaching reasons why the U.S. and other NATO nations are backing Ukraine, particularly as a result of Russia’s demands to withdraw, which are in no way relegated to Ukraine specifically. Russia wants NATO forces to pull out of much of Western Europe and never allow Ukraine to join their alliance, but for NATO nations, giving Russia veto authority over other nations’ relationships with their alliance is a non-starter.
If NATO were to pull out of Eastern Europe and give Russia its blessing to invade Ukraine, it would delegitimize the alliance in the eyes of many Europeans and open the door for continued Russian aggression in the region, capturing all of its former Soviet states until it has regained all of the territories it lost.
What are the chances of of a major war in Ukraine?
The chances of a large-scale conflict between global powers are never zero, and tensions surrounding Ukraine are at a near-peek, but many experts still contend that large-scale war is an unlikely outcome. A September 2021 study of Ukrainian citizens found a resounding 81% of the nation sees Russian leadership in a negative light—a far cry from the split population Russia has claimed wants a return to Russian rule—and alongside support from external powers, Ukraine has been working overtime to ensure any invasion would be met with long and bloody resistance. In other words, an overt invasion would be incredibly costly for Russia, and that nation—already suffering under international sanctions—may struggle to fund such a conflict for as long as victory might take.
The repercussions from the international community would also be dire, with Russia becoming further isolated economically and culturally from the rest of the world… but that doesn’t mean Russia doesn’t have a plan.
It’s likely that Putin will seek renewed conflict between Russian-backed separatists within Ukraine and their fellow countrymen, which he can use as justification for military intervention or as pressure to force concessions from Western powers without resorting to a full-scale invasion.
So while it’s almost entirely unlikely that World War III would kick off in Ukraine, the situation is extremely delicate, with the fate of its people and the perception of the Western World’s ability to keep Putin’s Russia at bay both on the line in the immediate future.