Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine: An Explainer

Responses to common questions on day one of Putin’s war of choice.

David Klion
February 24, 2022

Traffic jams are seen as people leave the city of Kyiv, Ukraine ahead of Russia's invasion, February 24th, 2022.

Emilio Morenatti / AP

Over the past 24 hours, after months of feverish speculation, Russia launched a full-scale assault on Ukraine. Three days after announcing in a televised speech that Russia would recognize the self-declared republics of Donetsk and Luhansk in eastern Ukraine—where Moscow-backed separatists have been mired in a geographically contained on-and-off shooting war with the Ukrainian government since 2014—Russian President Vladimir Putin yesterday declared a “special military operation,” ostensibly to secure the independence of the two breakaway regions. The tens of thousands of Russian soldiers that entered Ukraine Thursday morning, however, attacked cities in every part of the country. Scenes of horror have ensued: Ukrainian civilians are hiding in basements, sheltering from air raids in metro stations, and attempting to flee to the west on jam-packed roads. Russia’s action constitutes the largest-scale invasion Europe has seen since World War II—or that the world has seen since the United States invaded Iraq in 2003.

Events are unfolding with stunning speed. Ukraine has declared martial law and mandatory enlistment, while the Biden administration and governments around the world have condemned Russia and prepared a range of policy responses. Meanwhile, confusion about the war’s origins and implications reigns across the ideological spectrum. For this week’s newsletter (subscribe here), I’ve put together an explainer and attempted to answer some common questions, based on suggestions from my colleagues at Jewish Currents.

Why is Russia invading Ukraine?

Many longtime observers of Russia have expressed shock at the country’s actions: Even though Putin has telegraphed for months his intention to invade on this scale, plenty of experts have found it hard to believe that he would actually do so, given not only the expected human toll in Ukraine but also the massive diplomatic and economic costs that Russia is likely to endure. Ukraine—unlike Russia—is not especially rich in natural resources, and posed no imminent threat to Russian security. This war is perhaps better understood as a nationalistic adventure aimed at shoring up Putin’s flagging domestic support: Though it’s not clear that there’s much active demand for war among the Russian public or from most Russian elites, Putin seems to be betting that in the short term, many Russians will rally round the flag. He has successfully used military campaigns to his political advantage before—in eastern Ukraine since 2014, as well as in Chechnya in 1999, Georgia in 2008, and Syria since 2015.

Putin detailed his own motivations at great length on Monday, in a speech that offered Russia’s one-sided view of the past century of regional history. He emphasized that the modern Ukrainian state was actually created by the Bolsheviks in the wake of the Russian Revolution: It was Lenin who recognized Ukraine as a theoretically autonomous republic within the borders of the newly constituted Soviet Union in 1922, and subsequent Soviet leaders who expanded Ukraine’s borders to their present dimensions. What this account ignores is that Ukrainian national identity developed in the 19th century alongside other such identities in Eastern Europe, and that the desire for a Ukrainian nation-state was an authentic one that the Bolsheviks felt a legitimate need to address. Putin’s narrative suggests that the Communist Party is to blame for recognizing Ukraine as distinct from Russia in the first place, and for allowing the Soviet Union to disintegrate into its constituent republics in 1991, granting Ukraine independence. While Western commentators have often accused Putin of wanting to recreate the Soviet Union, this interpretation of history actually blames the Soviet Union for Ukrainian independence and stresses a much deeper Russian connection to Ukraine dating back to the tsars. Either way, Putin effectively called the legitimacy of Ukraine as a sovereign nation into question, and in particular asserted the rights of Russian-speaking regions within Ukraine—including not only Donetsk and Luhansk but also Crimea, which Russia unilaterally annexed in 2014—not to be governed from Kyiv. This, of course, ignores that all three regions voted by large margins to join an independent Ukraine in 1991.

In his speech, Putin extensively criticized NATO, the US-led transatlantic alliance formed in 1949 to contain the Soviet Union, which has expanded eastward in the past 30 years to include member states on or near Russia’s borders—most dramatically in 1999 under Bill Clinton (the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland) and in 2004 under George W. Bush (Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia). (It’s worth acknowledging that the states in question actively sought NATO membership out of an understandable fear that Russia might eventually attempt to reconquer them.) In 2008, Bush also insisted on opening a long-term path to NATO membership for the former Soviet republics of Ukraine and Georgia—a decision now widely viewed as having helped trigger a war between Russia and Georgia later that year. Bush’s decision also laid the groundwork for the current crisis between Russia and Ukraine. In 2013, Ukraine’s Kremlin-aligned (but duly elected) president Viktor Yanukovych rejected an association agreement with the European Union in favor of closer integration with Russia, leading to his ouster the following year in what Ukrainians now call “the Revolution of Dignity.” (Russia maintains that the overthrow was a Western-backed coup.) Putin—who fears encirclement by hostile, US-aligned governments—responded to Ukraine’s effort to forge closer ties with the West by annexing Crimea and backing insurgencies in the eastern Donbas region, beginning the war that he dramatically escalated yesterday.

Putin continues to view Ukraine’s aspiration to join NATO as an unacceptable threat to Russia’s security and regional ambitions; he maintains that Russia should be regarded as a great power with a rightful sphere of influence over neighboring countries. But despite Putin’s attempts to frame the invasion in terms of Western intervention, Russia’s decision to invade is not easily explained by anything the US, other Western governments, or Ukraine itself have done in the past year. Although the US has declined to take the prospect of NATO expansion off the table, it also hasn’t pushed the issue in years. Given this, many analysts believe that something fundamental has changed in Putin’s own mind to cause him to take such reckless steps. As the political scientist Gleb Pavlovsky, a former Putin confidante, told The New York Times today, “He’s become an isolated man, more isolated than Stalin was.”

How serious a problem is the far right in Ukraine?

In his announcement of the invasion yesterday, Putin said Russia’s goal is the “demilitarization” and “denazification” of Ukraine. Russia has asserted since the overthrow of Yanukovych in 2014 that Ukraine’s government is controlled by far-right, neo-Nazi elements. The same claim has been used as a justification for Russia’s actions by elements of both the left and the right in Western countries.

As with most propaganda, there is an element of truth to this claim, but it has been greatly exaggerated. Far-right parties do exist in Ukraine, as they do in many European countries, but their electoral results have been unimpressive in Ukraine’s multiparty democratic system. Ukraine’s president since 2019, Volodymyr Zelensky, is Jewish, as was its prime minister from 2016 to 2019, Volodymyr Groysman. Ukraine is home to well over 100,000 Jews, and while antisemitism is a live problem in Ukraine—as it is in Russia and many other countries—Ukrainian Jews are integrated into the body politic and do not welcome a Russian invasion of their country. This week, Pavel Kozlenko, the director of the Museum of the Holocaust in the heavily Jewish port of Odessa, told a reporter from The New York Times a joke that conveyed his view as a primarily Russian-speaking Ukrainian. It began with two Jews standing on the street speaking in Yiddish. “A third comes up and says, ‘Guys, why are you speaking in Yiddish?’” he said, “to which one of the Yiddish-speaking men replied, ‘You know, I’m scared to speak in Russian because if I do Putin will show up and try to liberate us.’”

Much of the focus on Ukraine’s far right has centered on the Azov Battalion, an extemist militia in eastern Ukraine that openly embraces Nazi symbols and that has been involved in the fight against Russian-backed separatists. Left-wing publications like Jacobin have sounded the alarm about Western financial and military support going to Azov and similar groups. This is a valid concern, but it is unfair to the vast majority of Ukrainians to cast the Azov Battalion as representative of their country’s political leanings, or to use the existence of a far-right group to excuse Russia’s attack on Ukrainian sovereignty.

Why have some parts of both the left and the right in the US been slow to condemn Russia?

While the mainstream US political establishment—including the Biden administration, leading members of both parties, and the Washington foreign policy community—has long been critical of Putin’s Russia, including of its military buildup against Ukraine, some voices on both the left and the right have made statements holding the US primarily responsible for the crisis.

Much of the left is understandably averse to war and accurately understands the US as the leading purveyor of violence internationally since World War II. This perspective is exemplified by a statement released late last month by the Democratic Socialists of America’s International Committee, which accused the US of “ongoing militarization in the region” and condemned “a sensationalist Western media blitz drumming up conflict in the Donbas”—descriptions that read awkwardly then, when Russia was massing troops on Ukraine’s border, and seem even less apt today. What this kind of left-wing analysis of the Ukraine crisis misses is that there are other aggressive, imperialist actors in the world besides the US. In reality, Washington has done little if anything to trigger the immediate crisis, and there is no evidence that the Biden administration desired war. At every stage in the leadup, Biden pursued diplomacy, offered off-ramps, demonstrated negligible enthusiasm for further NATO expansion, and made clear that US troops would not be deployed to Ukraine (a promise he reiterated in a speech responding to the invasion earlier today). Ultimately, it is Russia that decided to mobilize for war and Russia that decided to launch an invasion of a sovereign country, and a robust anti-imperialist left could recognize that as a form of imperialism in its own right. As Social Movement, a left-wing party in Ukraine, put it in a statement last October, “the decline of American imperialism has been accompanied not by the emergence of a more democratic world order, but by the rise of other imperialist predators, fundamentalist and nationalist movements. Under these circumstances, the international left, accustomed to fighting only against Western imperialism, should reconsider its strategy.”

On the right, leading voices like Tucker Carlson, Steve Bannon, and Donald Trump himself have been more likely to offer actual defenses of Putin and Russia. In their view, Putin is a strong leader asserting Russia’s legitimate sphere of influence against a weak, corrupt, and feckless Biden administration. To a certain extent, this stance is tied up in the scandals of the Trump years—including Trump’s exhaustively documented admiration for Putin, as well as his attempt to condition US support to Ukraine on Kyiv’s agreement to investigate the Biden family’s dealings there (a move that ultimately triggered Trump’s impeachment). But there’s also a deeper ideological affinity between the Western far right and Putin’s Russia, one that emphasizes Russia’s Christianness and whiteness, its hostility to LGBTQ minorities, and its potential role as a bulwark against China, which many on the right view as 21st century America’s true geopolitical rival.

Is this war contained within Ukraine, or is it the beginning of World War III?

As of this writing, the actual violence is limited to Ukraine itself, but is far more extensive in geographic scope then many observers predicted or hoped, with Russian incursions reported in practically every part of the vast country, including western cities close to countries like Poland and Romania. Russian troops are also invading Ukraine from bases in Belarus, a former Soviet republic and close Russian ally.

Though Western countries including the US have promised a swift and devastating response to Russia’s invasion, there is little appetite even among longtime Russia hawks for any direct military engagement. Still, the possibility of such engagement is real; while Ukraine is not part of NATO, multiple countries in the immediate vicinity are, meaning that the US is obligated by treaty to defend them against foreign threats. US troops are already present in many of these countries—and more will likely be deployed soon. Since the invasion, multiple Eastern European NATO allies have invoked Article IV of the NATO charter, indicating an immediate concern that Russia’s war could spill into NATO member countries—which, if it happened, could theoretically trigger a much larger war drawing in Western Europe and the US. It’s no doubt in anticipation of this that Putin, in his speech last night, threatened that any countries that intervened in Ukraine would trigger “consequences greater than any you have faced in history”—a reminder that Russia possesses a large nuclear arsenal.

The economic fallout for the West could also be severe given Russia’s vast energy resources, which supply a large share of the power in Western Europe. A rise in global gas prices would pose a major political problem for Biden ahead of November’s midterms—which explains why he tried to assure the public in his remarks today that such a surge could be avoided. The impact could be even more severe in countries like Germany that have closer economic ties to Russia. There’s also a wider geopolitical risk that Russia could end up embracing closer financial and military ties with its historical rival China as it becomes more isolated from the West—a prospect that many in Washington find concerning. The tough multilateral sanctions Biden announced today will also impact Russia’s political system—and its citizens, both ordinary and elite—in ways forecasters can’t yet predict.

How are progressive lawmakers responding to the invasion?

Progressive lawmakers like Bernie Sanders and members of “the Squad” have already begun to weigh in on the US response. So far, these legislators have struck a balance in their public statements between calling for accountability for Russia and urging against further military escalation (for instance, in the form of directly arming Ukrainians). The cornerstone of the Western response is likely to consist of sanctions; the Biden administration has pledged to target the so-called “oligarchs” in Putin’s inner circle and the assets they have stored in Western financial institutions and real estate, policies that lawmakers like Sanders have recommended for several years now. Some foreign policy wonks are additionally suggesting broad-based sanctions that could block the ability of ordinary Russians to engage in basic financial transactions, but such policies have a history of causing mass misery in countries like Iran and Venezuela without succeeding in toppling the governments in question. In a statement released today, Rep. llhan Omar expressed support for sanctions “that are targeted at Putin, his oligarchs, and the Russian military, including and especially targeted at their offshore assets.” But, she added, she will “continue to oppose broad-based sanctions that would amount to collective punishment of a Russian population that did not choose this.”

Even absent such sanctions, Russians are already likely to experience economic pain: the ruble and the country’s stock market plummeted overnight, and protests against the war have already begun in multiple Russian cities, where police have moved quickly to arrest demonstrators. Ultimately, it is ordinary Russians and Ukrainians who will take the lead to end this catastrophe, but progressives around the world can play a role in supporting them. Democratic Rep. Ro Khanna is among the many members of Congress calling for mobilization to support the refugees this war is already producing, who will likely number in the millions (organizations like HIAS are partnering with Jewish community organizations and with neighboring countries like Poland and Moldova to assist Ukrainians displaced by the war). It’s worth noting that previously, the Biden administration’s own approach toward refugees has been slammed by progressives like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez for continuing the xenophobic policies of the Trump administration, and that as she and other lawmakers call for aid to Ukrainian refugees now, there is also an opportunity for grassroots efforts to push Biden to reconsider immigration caps imposed on other countries.

David Klion is a writer and a contributing editor at Jewish Currents.