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The Origins of Ukraine's Conflict: How the Crisis Arose

Here's a primer on the causes of a war that has recently escalated into a significant military conflict, as well as what's at risk for Russia, the United States, and NATO.

In recent weeks, it felt like a Cold War scene, a frightening episode from a bygone period. An unstable Russian leader was amassing troops and tanks on the border with a neighbor. There was apprehension of a deadly East-West conflict.

Then the Cold War heated up: Vladimir Putin deployed his men across the border into Ukraine, with rapid and far-reaching consequences.

Even as Russian forces reached an estimated strength of 190,000 and formed a pincer around Ukrainian territory, and even as the US cautioned in increasingly dismal tones that a military strike was probable, there was hope in the days leading up to the invasion. Ukraine's president, Volodymyr Zelensky, maintained his upbeat message. Mr. Putin claimed to be open to dialogue, and European leaders were feverishly trying to persuade the Kremlin to back down.

The Russian president then declared the commencement of a "special military operation" in Ukraine in an address to his country shortly before 6 a.m. Thursday. He stated that the purpose was to "demilitarize" but not occupy the country.

Large explosions were visible near Kharkiv, Ukraine's second-largest city, and blasts were recorded in Kyiv, the capital, and other regions of the country just minutes later. Soon after, Ukraine's Interior Ministry announced that Russian troops had arrived in Odessa and were on their way across the border.

The invasion threatens to destabilize the already fragile post-Soviet region, with major ramifications for Europe's security apparatus, which has ruled Europe since the 1990s. Mr. Putin has long bemoaned the loss of Ukraine and other republics when the Soviet Union disintegrated, but weakening NATO, the military alliance that helped keep the Soviets in check, may be his true goal.

Before invading, Russia made a series of far-reaching requests to restructure that organization, all of which NATO and the US rejected.

What is the cause of the Ukraine crisis?

Following the demise of the Soviet Union, NATO moved eastward, eventually encompassing the majority of the European nations that had been under Communist control. NATO members include the Baltic republics of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia, who were once part of the Soviet Union, as well as Poland, Romania, and others.

As a result, NATO moved hundreds of miles closer to Moscow, bordering Russia directly. And, in 2008, it announced that it intended to enlist Ukraine someday, though this is still considered as a long-term possibility.

Mr. Putin has depicted the fall of the Soviet Union as a disaster that stripped Russia of its rightful place among the world's great powers and left it at the mercy of a predatory West. During his 22 years in leadership, he has spent the majority of his time strengthening Russia's military and reasserting its geopolitical clout.

The Russian president sees NATO's growth as dangerous, and the likelihood of Ukraine joining the alliance as a huge threat to his country. Russia's objections about NATO have become increasingly harsh as it has gotten more aggressive and militarily stronger. He has repeatedly raised the idea of American ballistic missiles and combat forces in Ukraine, despite the fact that authorities from the United States, Ukraine, and NATO all claim there are none.

Mr. Putin has also claimed that Ukraine and Belarus are culturally and historically integral components of Russia. He wields tremendous power in Belarus, and talks about reunification with Russia have been ongoing for years.

However, East-West ties deteriorated dramatically in early 2014, when major protests in Ukraine ousted a president sympathetic to Mr. Putin. Russia quickly invaded and occupied Crimea, which was part of Ukraine. Moscow also instigated a separatist revolt that gained control of a portion of Ukraine's Donbas area, sparking a war that has killed over 13,000 people.

What is Putin's goal?

Mr. Putin appears determined to turn back the clock more than 30 years, building a vast, Russian-dominated security zone reminiscent of the clout Moscow possessed during the Soviet era. Now 69 years old and possibly nearing the end of his political career, he plainly wants to reintegrate Ukraine, a country of 44 million people, into Russia's orbit.

Russia submitted NATO and the US with a set of written requests in December, claiming that they were required to maintain its security. The most important of them are guarantees that Ukraine will never join NATO, that NATO will reduce its forces in the Eastern European nations that have already joined, and that the 2015 cease-fire in Ukraine will be implemented — though Moscow and Kyiv disagree fiercely on what that would entail.

The West disregarded the principal requests outright, while making concessions and threatening sanctions on other issues. Moscow's tough stance has also fueled Ukrainian nationalism, with citizen militias planning a long-term guerrilla campaign in the case of Russian occupation.

Mr. Putin's timing may also be tied to the transition from President Donald J. Trump, who was especially sympathetic to him while denigrating NATO, to President Joe Biden, who is devoted to the alliance but distrusting the Kremlin.

He may also wish to rouse domestic nationalists by concentrating on a foreign threat, as he has done in the past. Mr. Putin has crushed domestic challenges to his authority, but with the economy in shambles and the epidemic running, opposition organizations staged some of the largest anti-Putin demonstrations in years last year.

How will the United States respond?

President Biden stated in early December that his administration was not considering sending soldiers to fight for Ukraine because, among other things, Ukraine is not a member of the NATO alliance and thus does not fall under its commitment to collective defense.

Instead, the US has deployed anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons to Ukraine, expanded its military presence in NATO countries bordering Russia, and placed 8,500 troops on high alert for deployment to Eastern Europe. Officials from the Obama administration also warned that if Russia invaded Ukraine, the US would support a Ukrainian rebellion.

The true stumbling block, however, is money.

Mr. Biden threatened Mr. Putin with "economic ramifications like none he's ever seen" before the invasion. Afterward, he began to put them in place.

Following Mr. Putin's formal recognition of two Russian-backed separatist entities in eastern Ukraine earlier this week, the White House and European partners issued an initial round of economic sanctions.

Mr. Biden announced sanctions on two Russian banks and many members of the Russian elite on Tuesday, and barred Russia from trading debt in American or European markets. The following day, the government imposed sanctions on the business in charge of an energy pipeline connecting Russia and Germany.

Mr. Biden stated on Thursday that the US will cut Russia's top banks and firms off from western financial markets, as well as restrict technological exports to Russia. This, he claimed, would severely limit the country's potential to thrive in the next weeks, months, and years.

Mr. Biden also stated that the US was blocking trillions of dollars in Russian assets, including funds controlled by Russian officials and their families, to make them pay for what the American president described as a "premeditated attack" on a free nation in Europe.

In the same statement, the president stated that he has authorized the deployment of extra troops to NATO member countries in Eastern Europe. He stated that the troops would contribute in the defense of NATO countries if Russia moved further west.

According to officials, the administration is also likely to try to freeze personal assets held by Mr. Putin and his allies abroad, and it may impose sanctions that would deprive Russians of their beloved next-generation phones, laptops, and other gadgets, as well as the military of advanced equipment.

What’s at stake for Europe?

The security apparatus that has helped keep Europe at peace since World War II is at danger for Europe. With Europeans divided on how to respond to various types of Russian aggression, the crisis has exposed schisms inside the European Union and NATO.

Europe has significant trade ties with Russia and threatens to lose significantly more than the US as a result of the sanctions. It is also reliant on Russian gas supply, a vulnerability that Mr. Putin has exploited in previous confrontations.

After the resignation of Chancellor Angela Merkel, who grew up in the east, speaks fluent Russian, and had formed an excellent working rapport with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Europe lost a vital mediator with Moscow. Olaf Scholz, her successor, has attempted to take the lead in the crisis that erupted soon after his election, stopping certification of the Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline that would connect his country with Russia – one of the most forceful steps yet by the West to punish the Kremlin.

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