(CNN Spanish) — After months of tension and escalation between Russia and Ukraine, with more than 150,000 soldiers equipped with armored vehicles deployed on the border and reports of exchanges of fire between Ukrainians and pro-Russian rebels in the Donbas region, Moscow has finally invaded, it announced on February 24. the start of special military operations in Ukraine.
Days before, Vladimir Putin, the president of Russia, had recognized the separatist territories in Ukraine – Donetsk and Luhansk, controlled by pro-Russian rebels since 2014 – and had announced the sending of soldiers to Donbas, further stoking tensions.
A lot has happened since then: this Thursday, November 24, marks exactly nine months since the first fighting, and after a period of apparent stagnation, the war is escalating again, with counter-offensives and massive bombings.
In February Russia attacked Ukraine from Belarus in the north; from Russian territory, in the northeast and east; and from Crimea, annexed in 2014, in the south. But their offensives in the north, against Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital, and in the northeast, against Kharkiv, failed to meet their objectives in the face of stiff Ukrainian resistance — assisted by weapons sent from the West — and Russian forces began to withdraw in March. . And at sea, the missile cruiser Moskva, flagship of the Russian Black Sea fleet, was sunk in April by a Ukrainian missile.
Russia invaded Ukraine: what has happened since then?
Moscow, affected by international sanctions -but at the same time surviving despite them-, then turned its attention to Donbas, in the east, and in the south, limiting its military operations. There he had initial successes, such as the capture of Kherson, Mariupol and other cities in the southeast of the country.
But, after a period of apparent stagnation, during which there was little movement on the fronts, Ukraine launched two counter-offensives in the northeast and the south at the end of August and beginning of September, which achieved important successes, including recapturing Kherson.
And, in apparent response to these offensives, Russia has been relentlessly bombing Ukraine’s energy infrastructure, causing massive blackouts across the country as temperatures continue to drop as winter approaches and new troops mobilized by Moscow in September get ready. , waiting to resume their advance to the west.
Amid all this, mass graves were found in Bucha, northern Ukraine, as the Russians withdrew, and reports of killings of civilians have been on the rise as have bombings. According to the UN, 6,595 civilians have been killed and 10,189 injured so far, although the real number could be higher, and some 7.8 million have fled their homes and become refugees.
But why did Russia decide to invade Ukraine?
The situation has political, historical and strategic edges. This is a look at each of them.
The tense history between Ukraine and Russia
The history of Ukraine and Russia is intertwined and goes back at least to the Middle Ages, in the context of Kievan Rus, an East Slavic state. But both evolved separately, each having a language and culture, which stemmed from a common root.
Beginning in the 17th century, large portions of Ukrainian territory became part of the growing Russian Empire. While in the 20th century, with the exception of a brief period of independence in 1917, Ukraine was incorporated into the Soviet Union.
Lasting independence finally came in 1991, after the dissolution of the USSR, and from then on, Ukraine turned its sights on Europe and its interest in belonging to NATO — the US-led military alliance that had clashed during the Cold War. to the Warsaw Pact – precisely to ensure that independence. Especially after Ukraine returned to Russia, after independence, the nuclear weapons that were deployed on its territory in the days of the USSR.
Meanwhile, many in Moscow see Ukraine’s history as still intertwined with Russia.
In July 2021, Putin himself said in a lengthy essay that Russians and Ukrainians were “one people.” He also pointed out that the West had corrupted Ukraine and forced it out of Russia’s orbit through a “forced change of identity.”
Crimea and Donbas, centers of crisis and invasion
In 2013, a historic political and trade agreement between Ukraine and the European Union strained relations with Russia. Ukraine’s then-president Viktor Yanukovych suspended negotiations — apparently under pressure from Moscow — and violent protests known as Euromaidan erupted in Kyiv for weeks. In 2014, the Ukrainian parliament eventually removed the president, which has been described as a Revolution in Ukraine and a “coup” by Yanukovych.
The escalation culminated in the most direct antecedent of the current crisis: the annexation of Crimea, a peninsula that is part of the independent Ukraine in 1991, by Russia in 2014 and while the country was dealing with the political crisis. To justify this, Russia claimed that it was defending its interests and those of Russian-speaking citizens in Crimea, a region with strong loyalties to Russia.
Months later, pro-Russian rebels rose up in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine, sparking a civil war in the region that continues to this day, pitting the Ukrainian government against the Russian-backed self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk people’s republics. —which is considered its protector—, and in February it recognized its independence, eight years later.
Crimea, which is of great geopolitical importance on the Black Sea and was in the past a focal point for the Russian navy, and Donbas are at the center of the matter, and in April Russia admitted for the first time since the start of the crisis that one of its objectives was to control southern Ukraine in order to connect these two territories controlled by Moscow since 2014. The fall of Mariupol, the main city between the two regions, has been a step in this direction.
“Since the start of the second phase of the special operation (…) one of the tasks of the Russian army is to establish full control over Donbas and southern Ukraine. This will provide a land corridor to Crimea,” he said at the time. Major General Rustam Minnekaev, acting commander of Russia’s Central Military District, according to TASS, a Russian state news agency.
At the end of September Russia further cemented this objective: after holding controversial plebiscites unknown to the international community, it annexed the occupied territories of Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhia and Kherson.
Earlier, Moscow had said the “special military operation” sought to protect the People’s Republics in Donetsk and Luhansk, denazify Ukraine — without providing evidence for the accusations — and demilitarize the country.
The expansion of NATO after the fall of the USSR
Moscow insists it is not seeking war—it still calls its invasion a “special military operation”—and that NATO is responsible for the crisis, even though the United States and its allies have said Russia is responsible for the crisis. .
“They have blatantly deceived us. Five waves of NATO expansion. And there it is: now they are in Romania and Poland, with weapons systems,” Putin said in December, assuring at the time that Russia “does not want military action.” “We directly ask that there be no further NATO moves to the east. The ball is in their court.”
Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Bulgaria, Romania and Albania, former members of the Warsaw Pact, entered in NATO between the end of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st. While East Germany also became part of the alliance after reunification, in 1990.
On the other hand, the Baltic countries Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia, which became independent from the USSR in 1991, joined NATO in 2004.
Jens Stoltenberg, NATO secretary general, said in late January that countries have “the right to choose their own security arrangements,” referring to NATO membership in recent years, and that “Russia must refrain from adopt positions based on coercive force, aggressive rhetoric”.
The war, so far, appears to be having mixed results for Russia in this field. Ukraine’s entry into NATO seems impossible in the current context, but Finland, which shares a border with Russia, and Sweden have already submitted their applications to join the Alliance, after the Russian invasion accelerated these processes.
What are Russia and NATO accused of?
Putin accuses NATO of violating the Foundational Act on Mutual Relations, Cooperation and Security between NATO and Russia, signed in 1997 as a reference framework between both parties after the fall of the USSR, by deploying “offensive weapon systems on the borders of Russia”, specifically in Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia and Poland.
NATO points out, instead, that it has complied with the Founding Act, committing not to deploy permanent military forces in the new members nor nuclear weapons, two of the pillars of the agreement, and instead accuses Moscow of non-compliance.
The 4,500 troops deployed in Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia and Poland are “rotating and defensive forces,” according to NATO, and arrived in reaction to Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea.
“By signing the NATO-Russia Founding Act, Moscow pledged not to threaten or use force against NATO Allies or any other State. It has broken this commitment, with the illegal and illegitimate annexation of Crimea, territory of a State sovereign. Russia also continues to support the militants in eastern Ukraine,” the Alliance said in an official statement.
Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky has repeatedly called on NATO to declare a no-fly zone over the country.
Political changes in Ukraine
After gaining independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, Ukraine has had tense relations with Russia, which began to deteriorate in the early 2000s.
In 2004 Russian-backed candidate and former prime minister Viktor Yanukovych prevailed over pro-Western opposition Viktor Yushchenko and won the presidential election amid accusations of fraud.
A wave of demonstrations advanced across the country. The so-called “Orange Revolution”, because of the color used by the protesters and that of Yushchenko’s campaign, shook the country, and the Supreme Court ordered a rerun of the elections, in which this time Yushchenko won.
Yanukovych was finally elected president in 2010 – Yushchenko obtained only 5% of the vote – and in 2013 he abandoned plans to bring Ukraine to the European Union under pressure from Russia, after which a new wave of protests began.
In February 2014, the Ukrainian parliament voted to remove Yanukovych from the presidency, with interim president Oleksandr Turchynov taking over. Soon after, Russia annexed Crimea and the conflict in Donbas began.
Petro Poroshenko was elected president in 2014 and ruled until 2019, when current president Volodymyr Zelensky took office. Both are considered pro-West and anti-Moscow.
In this context, a regime change in Ukraine is seen as one of the possible objectives of the Kremlin.
With information from Luke McGee, Anna Chernova, Zachary B. Wolf, and Eliza Mackintosh.