Russian President Vladimir Putin declared war on Ukraine Wednesday night, launching airstrikes and plunging Europe into a nightmare not seen since the darkest days of World War II.
But Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was a massive escalation of a conflict that has been simmering since Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea.
At issue are two separatist states — Donetsk and Luhansk — that have been in open, if muted, conflict with Kyiv since 2014, as well as larger questions about Russia’s sphere of influence and Ukraine’s place in greater Europe.
Ukraine — the second-largest country by area in Europe after Russia — was briefly independent in the early 20th century, before becoming part of the USSR in 1922.
Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Ukrainians once again declared their independence in 1991.
As part of negotiations with the newly minted, post-Soviet Russian government, Ukraine returned Soviet-era nuclear weapons to Russia and allowed Russia to keep its Black Sea Fleet stationed in Crimea under a lease agreement.
Ukraine in the post-Soviet era then continued to develop its economic and diplomatic relationships with Western Europe. In 2008, NATO hinted at future membership for Ukraine and its fellow former Soviet republic Georgia. Russia invaded Georgia soon after.
But the conflict as we know it began in 2013, when then-Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych backed out of an expected economic deal with the European Union, opting instead to strike a deal with Russia.
The resulting protests forced Yanukovych from power in 2014.
In response, Russian President Vladimir Putin offered support to Russian-speaking separatists in Donetsk and Luhansk, which are part of the Donbas region in eastern Ukraine.
Putin simultaneously declared Crimea, which had been made a part of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic during the Soviet era, to be part of Russia — and invaded the peninsula in late February and March 2014.
Putin’s annexation of the Crimean peninsula, located along the northern coast of the Black Sea, was widely denounced by the international community, which still recognizes the territory as being part of Ukraine.
The fighting, which has continued sporadically despite a 2015 cease-fire agreement, has killed an estimated 14,000 people.
Fast-forward to 2022 and Putin formally recognized the two rebel-held enclaves, Donetsk and Luhansk, as independent states this week — and ordered Russian troops to enter the Donbas in a so-called “peacekeeping” capacity.
The order came after a televised speech in which Putin declared that Ukraine was not a standalone nation but rather “an integral part” of Russia, created by the USSR.
“Why did we have to be so generous, and then give these republics the right to leave?” the Russian leader asked at one point, making a clear reference to the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991.
“Madness,” the strongman added.
As of Thursday, the Russian invasion of Ukraine had expanded well beyond the contested rebel-held regions, with Russian missiles raining down on at least 16 Ukrainian cities and attack helicopters seen over the capital of Kyiv.
With Post wires