Russia Invades Ukraine In Sudden Escalation; War Ensues
War in Ukraine began on Thursday, Feb. 24, when Russian President Vladimir Putin authorized attacks by land, air, and sea. At least 240 casualties have been reported as of Feb. 27.
Militarily, Ukrainian resources fall grossly behind Russian capacity. Ukrainian troops are outnumbered three to one. The country’s air and naval forces are eight and six percent the size of Russia’s, respectively. But many Ukranians did not flinch. They are determined to defend “every inch of our land,” according to Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba.
“I think Ukraine’s response could not be better,” said Carnegie Mellon junior Vladyslav Oleksenko. “There is not a single drop of doubt or uncertainty. Everyone in Ukraine is standing together, fighting together.”
The heroism demonstrated on Snake Island captured the spirit of Ukrainian resistance for Oleksenko. In response to Russian troops’ demands of surrender, the 13 Ukrainian soldiers on the island shot back: “Russian warship, go fuck yourself.” President Volodymyr Zelensky barred men aged 18-60 from leaving the country, preparing them for forced conscription.
Emanuela Grama, an associate professor of history at Carnegie Mellon, organized a virtual teach-in the night of the invasion. Grama, who is also the director of the university’s Global Studies program, provided her students with a much-needed explainer about Russia’s sudden, full-scale attack on Ukraine. “In this moment,” she told the 35 participants, Russia is not “a government that is led through consensus. It is a highly authoritarian regime; Putin is really leading the conversation.”
Thousands of Russian citizens took to the streets to protest the invasion. Putin responded with mass arrests; 1,745 protesters were detained as of Feb. 25. “I want to ask Ukrainians for forgiveness,” Moscow resident Tatyana Usmanova wrote in a Facebook post. “We didn't vote for those who unleashed the war.”
Russian protesters who publicly condemned the war, Grama felt, “are extremely brave.” But in an interview with The Tartan, she also explained that “there is no such thing as free press or real, genuine political opposition in Russia.” When Alexi Navalny challenged Putin for the presidency, his bid — and the popularity garnered with it — was quashed by a near-fatal, state-sanctioned poisoning. He survived and was promptly arrested upon re-entry into Russia. “Putin stopped playing nice years ago,” Grama stated. “He’s now showing his true colors. He’s saying: ‘I gave you the illusion of freedom, but now the game is over.’”
The U.N. estimates 100,000 Ukrainians have fled. Preparations for Ukrainian refugees are being made in nearby North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) nations including Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, Bulgaria, Romania, and the Czech Republic. Pandemic-related travel restrictions will be waived in many cases to expedite the migration process. Poland and Romania have granted Ukrainians entry even if they did not present a passport.
Putin downplayed the violence for which he is responsible. On Feb. 24, he described the attack as “a special military operation ... to protect people who have been subjected to abuse and genocide by the Kyiv regime for eight years.” According to BBC News, this is a lie.
“There is no evidence of genocide in eastern Ukraine,” BBC’s Reality Check team affirmed. Putin’s claims refer to parts of Donetsk and Luhansk, Russian-backed separatist territories along Ukraine’s southeastern border. Putin has manipulated Eastern European media to falsely justify territorial advances.
Russian-backed separatist movements in Donetsk and Luhansk unfolded alongside the 2014 Crimea crisis. Ukraine granted the territories autonomous authority later in 2014, though officially the regions remained part of the country. “Russia granted citizenship to ethnic Russians in the regions,” Grama explained, which was a calculated political strategy. “Dual citizenship allows Putin to claim that these are Russian citizens that have to be protected from the Ukrainian government.” This planted the seeds for the current invasion.
Russian forces began lining the Ukrainian border in Oct. 2021. By the end of the year, 100,000 troops had been assembled. With Western nations attentive to and critical of Russian mobilization, Putin demanded that NATO cease inclusionary expansion into eastern Europe and remove troops from the region. The demands, made in mid-December, were not met.
Current tensions can be traced back to the Euromaidan demonstrations in 2013. Then-Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych backed down from free trade discussions with the European Union, citing Russian disapproval. In February 2014, Yanukovych was ousted by pro-democracy protesters. “More than a hundred people died on the streets during the Revolution of Dignity,” Grama said. But the movement was effective. Ukraine’s new government strengthened its ties with the E.U. and shifted away from its heavy reliance on Russia. Two months later, Russia annexed Crimea in retaliation. The conflict was never officially resolved, costing over 14,200 Ukrainian lives as of Feb. 21.
In an unprecedented presidential race in 2019, 73 percent of Ukrainians elected Volodymyr Zelensky over incumbent Petro Poroshenko. An actor and comedian by trade, Zelensky’s only whisper of political experience was a role as a fictional Ukranian president on a satirical TV show. Yet Zelensky’s unique set of experiences made him an appealing candidate at a time when traditional diplomacy had failed to protect Ukraine from Russia and separatist movements.
Oleksenko, who is an international student from Ukraine, feels that the president is uniquely in touch with his country. “Zelensky is probably the best person to be leading the country right now,” he said. In his opinion, Ukranians don’t need a veteran politician; they need someone who will stand with the people. Zelensky is that man.
When Biden administration offered an evacuation plan for Zelensky on Saturday, the Ukrainian President responded with a hard no. “I need ammunition,” he told the U.S. embassy, “not a ride.”
“It takes so much courage for ordinary people to decide to pursue such a political change,” Grama said. “That’s why Putin is so angry with the Ukrainians.” The country has consistently rebuked Putin’s attempts at control, maintaining a legacy of resistance. From 2004 to 2005, Ukrainians called for government accountability in The Orange Revolution, protesting Russia’s fraudulent influence in national elections. Euromaidan between 2013 and 2014, the 2019 election of Volodymyr Zelensky, Zelensky’s continued push to join NATO… None of these developments are compatible with Putin’s power drive.
The U.S. and many European countries imposed swift sanctions against Russia this week. “But Putin doesn’t care much about the sanctions,” Grama said. “They will be tough, but not tough on him. They will be tough on the Russian population. They will suffer more economically because of sanctions; they will think more of getting bread on the table than trying to resist politically.”
“You also have to think about the impossible promises made by other actors, including the U.S.,” Grama told The Tartan. In 2008, NATO promised Ukraine and Georgia a future invitation to join the alliance. “Why would you give that promise when you know there will be such a problematic outcome?” she asked rhetorically. Putin waged war against Georgia four months after NATO's announcement.
Kyiv has been a focal point of Slavic culture — comprising Ukrainian, Russian, and Belarusian identities — for centuries. Yet Putin is “using history to justify an obviously imperialist agenda,” Grama said in her presentation.
Russia and Ukraine share history, language, and culture. In 1922, the two nations were established as pillars of the Soviet Union. Both suffered millions of deaths during the Holodomor, a famine in the early 1930s driven by Stalin. From 1941-44, both were occupied by Nazi forces. Both gained independence in 1991, with the disillusionment of the Soviet Union. Today, Grama noted, many Ukrainian citizens are fluent in both Ukrainian and Russian. Putin is using this fraternal bond for ambition rather than peace.
Many media outlets — including Western ones — are complicit in a “strategic form of silencing and forgetting,” Grama explained. Claims that this is the largest violent conflict in Europe since World War II erase the history of many struggles from the recent past. This is especially true of the Balkan Wars in the 90s and early 2000s. The struggle for Croatian and Bosnian independence cost over 15,000 and 100,000 lives, respectively.
To counter this, Grama explained, “It’s important for students … to find a carefully curated list of trustworthy sources. ... Heterogeneity of sources is important to get a more nuanced image of what’s happening.” She recommends they follow reporting by journalists on the ground in Ukraine. A list of some of these reporters can be found here.