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The Roots of the Ukraine War: How the Crisis Developed

It felt like a scene from the Cold War, a perilous episode from a bygone era. An unpredictable Russian leader was amassing troops and tanks on a neighbor’s border. There was fear of a bloody East-West conflagration.


Then the Cold War turned hot: Vladimir V. Putin ordered Russian forces to invade Ukraine. The repercussions were immediate, and far-reaching.



Now, following the launch of Russia’s full-scale invasion on Feb. 24, the largest mobilization of forces Europe has seen since 1945 is underway. So far, Moscow has been denied the swift victory it anticipated, and has failed to capture major cities across the country, including Kyiv, the capital. It has been weighed down by an ill-prepared military and has faced tenacious resistance from Ukrainian soldiers and civilian resistance fighters. Still, Russia has superior military might, and Mr. Putin has indicated that his ultimate goal is to capture Kyiv, topple Ukraine’s democratically elected government, and subsume the country into Russia’s orbit.


The invasion threatens to destabilize the already volatile post-Soviet region, with serious consequences for the security structure that has governed Europe since the 1990s. Mr. Putin has long lamented the loss of Ukraine and other republics when the Soviet Union broke apart. Now, diminishing NATO, the military alliance that helped keep the Soviets in check, appears to be part of his mission. Before invading, Russia made a list of far-reaching demands to reshape that structure — positions NATO and the United States rejected.


With the war grinding on, U.S. intelligence agencies say Mr. Putin has been frustrated by the slow pace of the military advance and Russian commanders have been increasingly intensifying indiscriminate attacks on civilian targets and infrastructure and resorting to tactics used in previous wars in Chechnya and Syria. Mariupol. Kharkiv. Chernihiv. Sumy. Okhtyrka. Hostomel. Irpin. The list of Ukrainian cities turned to ruins keeps growing.


The war has unleashed a devastating humanitarian toll and claimed thousands of lives. It has also prompted more than three million people to flee Ukraine, spurring what the United Nations has called the fastest-growing refugee crisis since World War II.


In the besieged southern port city of Mariupol, which has become a potent emblem of the human toll of war, a Russian strike on March 16 destroyed a theater where hundreds of people had been sheltering, including children. The city has no electricity or water, and people have been digging trenches to accommodate the mounting numbers of bodies.


Several rounds of diplomatic talks between Russia and Ukraine have failed to stop the war. The United States and the European Union have mobilized to impose some of the toughest economic sanctions ever on Mr. Putin’s government. Hundreds of Western businesses — manufacturers, oil companies, retailers and fast-food chains like McDonald’s — have suspended operations in Russia, turning back the clock on the country’s opening to the west.


Here is a look at how the world got here.


What’s behind the Ukraine crisis?


After the Soviet Union collapsed in the early 1990s, NATO expanded eastward, eventually taking in most of the European nations that had been in the Communist sphere. The Baltic republics of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, once parts of the Soviet Union, joined NATO, as did Poland, Romania and others.


As a result, NATO moved hundreds of miles closer to Moscow, directly bordering Russia. And in 2008, it stated that it planned — some day — to enroll Ukraine, though that is still seen as a far-off prospect.


Mr. Putin has described the Soviet disintegration as one of the greatest catastrophes of the 20th century that robbed Russia of its rightful place among the world’s great powers. He has spent his 22 years in power rebuilding Russia’s military and reasserting its geopolitical clout.


The Russian president calls NATO’s expansion menacing, and the prospect of Ukraine joining it a major threat. As Russia has grown more assertive and stronger militarily, his complaints about NATO have grown more strident. He has repeatedly invoked the specter of American ballistic missiles and combat forces in Ukraine, though U.S., Ukrainian and NATO officials insist there are none.


Mr. Putin has also insisted that Ukraine is fundamentally parts of Russia, culturally and historically.


East-West relations worsened drastically in early 2014, when mass protests in Ukraine forced out a president closely allied with Mr. Putin. Russia swiftly invaded and annexed Crimea, part of Ukraine. Moscow also fomented a separatist rebellion that took control of part of the Donbas region of Ukraine, in a war that still grinds on, having killed more than 13,000 people.


What does Putin want?


Mr. Putin appears intent on winding back the clock more than 30 years, establishing a broad, Russian-dominated security zone resembling the power Moscow wielded in Soviet days. Now 69 years old and possibly edging toward the twilight of his political career, he clearly wants to draw Ukraine, a nation of 44 million people, back into Russia’s sphere of influence.


Russia presented NATO and the United States in December with a set of written demands that it said were needed to ensure its security. Foremost among them are a guarantee that Ukraine would never join NATO, that NATO draw down its forces in the Eastern European countries that have already joined, and that the 2015 cease-fire in Ukraine be implemented — though Moscow and Kyiv disagree sharply on what that would mean.


The West dismissed the main demands out of hand. Moscow’s aggressive posture has also inflamed Ukrainian nationalism, with citizen militias preparing for a drawn-out guerrilla campaign in the event of a Russian occupation.


The Russian leader may also want to energize nationalists at home by focusing on an external threat, as he has in the past. Nevertheless, since the invasion began, thousands of Russians, some at great personal risk, have taken to the streets to protest the war.


How is the United States responding?


In early December, President Biden made clear that his administration was not considering sending troops to fight for Ukraine since, among other reasons, Ukraine is not a member of the NATO alliance and does not come under its commitment to collective defense.


Instead, the United States has sent anti-tank and antiaircraft weapons to Ukraine, increased the American military presence in NATO countries bordering Russia, and ordered an additional 7,000 troops to Europe. The Pentagon also ordered the deployment of an armored brigade combat team to Germany to reassure skittish NATO allies in Eastern Europe. Administration officials also warned that the United States could throw its weight behind an Ukrainian insurgency.


But the real cudgel is financial.


Mr. Biden, vowing to turn Mr. Putin into a “pariah,” has announced tough sanctions aimed at cutting off Russia’s largest banks and some oligarchs, from much of the global financial system and preventing the country from importing American technology critical to its defense, aerospace and maritime industries. Mr. Biden has also prohibited energy imports from Russia to the United States and issued sanctions against the company behind an energy pipeline connecting Russia to Germany.


Mr. Biden said the United States was freezing trillions of dollars in Russian assets, including the funds controlled by Russian elites and their families.


Western governments have also vowed to freeze assets belonging to Mr. Putin, but very little is known about what he owns and where it might be. The Biden administration could also institute sanctions that could deprive Russians of their beloved next-generation phones, laptops and other gadgets.


U.S. and European financial penalties and restrictions are throttling banks and other businesses in Russia, limiting the Russian government’s ability to use its enormous foreign currency reserves, and impeding millions of Russians from using their credit cards, accessing their bank deposits or traveling abroad.


What’s at stake for Europe?


At stake for Europe is the security structure that has helped keep the peace on the continent since World War II. Europeans were initially divided over how to respond to various forms of Russian aggression, and the conflict laid bare the fractures within the European Union and NATO. But outrage over Mr. Putin’s aggression has helped foster a unified front, and the E.U. unveiled penalties that they described as unprecedented for the bloc in terms of scale and reach. The foreign assets of wealthy individuals and businesses allied with the Kremlin have been frozen.


Europe has important trade ties with Russia, and stands to lose far more than the United States from sanctions. It is also dependent on Russian gas supplies, a weakness that Mr. Putin has exploited in past disputes.


Europe lost an invaluable negotiator with Moscow after the departure of Chancellor Angela Merkel, who grew up in the east, speaks fluent Russia, and had developed a good working relationship with the Russian president. Her successor Olaf Scholz, has tried to take on a leadership role in the crisis, halting certification of the Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline that would link his country with Russia — one of the strongest moves yet by the West to punish the Kremlin.

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