Explainer: The war in Ukraine

(Tiếng Việt)

On February 23, 2022, Russia started an unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, based on a stated goal of disarming its military and removing secret Nazi officials from its government. Notably the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, is Jewish and is therefore unlikely to be a Nazi. Millions of Ukrainians, including many of Zelenskyy’s relatives, were killed by Nazi Germany during WWII.  This action was expected by the United States Government, as Biden Administration officials felt that an invasion was imminent based on intelligence gathering that showed a significant military buildup near the Ukrainian border as well as Crimea and Donbas, Ukrainian regions that were seized by Russian-backed separatists in 2014.

As a former member of the KGB, Russian President Vladimir Putin was a Soviet spy during the Cold War. Born in 1952, he saw the rise and fall of the USSR as a world superpower. Since taking power as President of Russia, he has stated many times that the fall of the Soviet Union has been the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century”, a view that is not shared by independent nations that were former members of the Soviet Union. Notably, both the Ukrainian government and US politicians like Republican Senator Mitt Romney feel that President Putin is attempting to remake the Soviet Union.

President Putin has also cited concerns that Ukraine would join NATO, a military alliance that was originally created to protect countries from attack by the Soviet Union and its allies and now exists as a mutual defense pact between US allies that now contains the former Soviet states Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. President Putin has stated that further NATO expansion to include countries like Ukraine would be a threat to Russian security, despite there being significant obstacles to Ukraine’s membership in the alliance. Foreign policy experts believe that discouraging further NATO expansion through a demonstration of Russian military strength is a key goal of Putin’s as he seeks to rebuild the strength of Russia along the lines of the former Soviet Union.

As a result of the February 23 invasion of Ukraine, President Biden worked with members of Congress in both parties as well as allies in Western Europe to enact economic sanctions that would severely impact the Russian economy, and these sanctions are now in place. The most significant sanctions involve closing off Russia’s access to financial markets as well as technology imports like smartphones and computer technology. These sanctions are expected to have a serious effect on the Russian economy over time. 

These sanctions do not include significant sanctions on oil and gas, which is believed to be related to the impact increased energy prices would have on people in Western Europe and the United States, but they are currently under discussion as they would put significant pressure on the Russian economy. Republican senators Mitt Romney and Lindsey Graham have expressed support for Ukraine and sanctions against Russia, though they have also stated that President Biden has not gone far enough, because the initial sanctions didn’t include SWIFT, a system that connects international banks, due to objections from European countries doing business with Russia. However, as of February 26, the sanctions package has now expanded to include a partial ban of Russian banks from SWIFT. President Biden has also ordered US troops to NATO countries in central Europe, a move supported by Republican Senator Mitch McConnell, a long-time critic of President Biden who now advocates for working together on the issue of Ukraine. 

Tucker Carlson and former president Donald Trump, both prominent figures in conservative media and politics, have taken positions that have split with historical Republican concerns around Russian aggression. Before the invasion, Tucker Carlson expressed support for Putin, stating that Putin was less harmful to America than fellow American citizens who disagree with socially conservative policies. President Trump also praised President Putin as “smart” with his annexation of disputed Ukrainian territories as “wonderful” on a conservative radio show, the “Clay Travis and Buck Sexton Show.” At the CPAC conference on February 26, 2022, Donald Trump defended his support of Putin while criticizing US leadership as ‘stupid’.

Republican politicians like Marco Rubio, Adam Kinzinger and John Cornyn have directly stated that they disagree with Carlson, whose remarks have been used in Russian propaganda to support the attack on Ukraine. After his remarks were aired on Russian state-controlled TV to support the invasion, he has publicly changed his stance to state that Putin was wrong to invade Ukraine, despite his 5 years of prior statements supporting Putin and Russia.

President Xi Jinping of China, long a supporter of Ukraine’s economy via Chinese infrastructure projects and trade, was supportive of Putin leading up to the invasion. However, it appears that Beijing was surprised by the actual invasion, with China abstaining from a vote on a UN Resolution denouncing the invasion of Ukraine when it was expected that China would be more vocal in its support of Russia, instead advocating for negotiations between Ukraine and Russia to end the armed conflict. While Chinese trade with Russia can reduce the effect of sanctions on Russia, China would bear significant risks to their own trade relationships with Western Europe and the United States if they were seen to be assisting Russia during this war. Chinese trade with Russia in 2021 was $146B, while its trade with the US and EU was over 10X as much, at $1.6T. 

As of February 27, 2022, fighting continues in Ukraine, with all males between 18-60 asked to stay and fight the invasion though any means necessary. The capital of Ukraine, Kyiv, remains under the control of the Ukrainian Government despite the rapidly approaching Russian military. President Biden has also authorized another $350 million in military aid, mostly in the form of anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons, to help the Ukrainians defend against attack. Other European countries have also provided weapons and ammunition to Ukraine, including France, Germany, The Netherlands, Slovakia, Belgium, and Czech Republic. 

While invasion was not avoided, US intelligence agencies accurately predicted the intentions of Russia and it is believed that accurate information helped to combat Russia’s misinformation campaigns.  This brought widespread support for Ukraine worldwide, including in Russia. As many Russian citizens have friends and family in Ukraine, public anti-war protests against President Putin have occurred in Moscow and other major cities in Russia, which is unusual in a country where free speech and protest are not protected by law and can pose significant risks for those who participate as thousands have already been arrested.

This is a difficult situation for millions of people all over the world especially in Ukraine, with a refugee crisis in countries bordering Ukraine, with the potential of becoming a much larger conflict.