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A Beginner’s Guide to The Crisis in Ukraine: Providing Clear and Simple Context With Help From CU Boulder Political Experts

This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at CU Boulder chapter.

It’s been impossible to avoid news updates, emotional videos, and confusing information on the ongoing conflict in Ukraine in these past few weeks. From jokes on TikTok, to people begging for donations online, to watching translated videos of Ukrainian soldiers discussions, it’s not surprising that so many people, especially the average young adult born after the end of the Cold War, have no idea where to even start with learning about the long history of conflict and compromise between Ukraine and Russia.

As a political science major, I honestly felt the same way. And you shouldn’t feel guilty if you weren’t completely aware of the conflict before this year or are still confused on what is going on over there. It’s hard to know what to do or where to start learning when it’s been drilled into your head since the United State’s 2016 election to rarely trust what you read online. So, like 400 other CU Boulder students, I attended a virtual roundtable hosted by incredibly knowledgeable and competent CU Boulder professors that gave a quick (but extensive) background on the conflict. Thus, I became more readily available to discuss the following information on some key pieces of knowledge and commonly-heard questions on the current situation, as well as building a toolbox of context and understanding for people to use when reading the news. 

Please note that I am nowhere near an expert on Ukrainian-Russian relations, and am approaching this article as a student hoping to help other students understand the conflict in the way I’ve learned to. Additionally, any information is directly from the CU Boulder virtual roundtable unless otherwise noted.

What’s The History Between Ukraine and Russia?

I know history isn’t many people’s thing, but I promise it will be worth it if you stay with me during my crash course in Russo-Ukrainian relations. Don’t skip over this section! 

Obviously, the history of two countries whose cultures have existed for hundreds of years cannot be covered in a single “Ukraine for Dummies” article. However, thanks to CU History professor Erin Hutchinson, I’ve wrapped my head around a few key takeaways. Beginning in the ninth century, the land that now is split by Ukraine and Russia hosted a community of Eastern Slavic Orthodox Christians, in a federation named Kievan Rus, with now-Ukrainian city Kyiv as its capital. 

In the thirteenth century, Kievan Rus was destroyed by a Mongol invasion, and the eastern and western sides of the federation were split. While the eastern side evolved into Russian territory, according to Hutchinson, the previous relationship between Russia and the city Kyiv was largely forgotten and/or ignored. This was until the 17th and 18th centuries, as Russia began to want to expand and focused on Kyiv and neighboring territories as targets for expansion. This was labeled by Russians as “reunification”, which is important to understand when looking at Vladimir Putin’s current reasoning behind the Ukrainian invasion. 

Fast-forward past the incorporation of modern-day Ukraine into Russian territory, and we see the emergence of Ukrainian national intellectuals around the 1840s. They argued against the banning of the Ukrainian language in Russia and pushed for autonomy. This autonomy eventually was declared in the Ukrainian War for Independence from 1917 to 1922, but Bolshevik pressures on the smaller country of Ukraine led to Ukrainian incorporation into the U.S.S.R in 1922. However, Ukrainians did have the ability to promote their own language and culture.

The ability to speak their own language seems much less impactful when considering the following tragedies that surrounded the Ukrainian people. Under Joseph Stalin’s rule, 4 million Ukrainians died of hunger in a massive famine known as Holodomor. Additionally, the country underwent “Russification” during the mid-20th century as well, and once again experienced backlash against Ukrainian language and culture. 

Flashing forward again to the 1980s, multiple societal and political events pushed the Ukrainian national movement to a newfound strength, both in numbers and in thought. In 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev, leader of the U.S.S.R, began reforming the empire from its days of Stalin’s regime, which Ukrainian nationals used to demand more rights and autonomy. Furthermore, in 1986, the Chernobyl disaster destroyed the lives of thousands of Ukrainians, and the blame was placed on the U.S.S.R. 

Thus, for many, it seemed inevitable when Ukraine declared independence from the U.S.S.R in August of 1991, which ended up being the last straw for the crumbling Soviet Union, which fell a few months later in the same year. The economic crisis that ensued after the fall of the U.S.S.R hit Ukraine hard, and the country has just recently, in historical terms, gotten on its feet in terms of being a fair and semi-modern democracy. 

It has not been easy for Ukraine since it gained its independence. It still is loomed over by the shadow of a larger, older Russia, which is seen in former President Yamakovitch’s withdrawal from EU agreements in 2013 due to Russian pressure and Russian territorial victory over the Crimean peninsula in 2014. 

Please note this video is now seven years old and only covers the annexation of Crimea.

Since then, the situation between Russia and Ukraine has been a “long stalemate” along the front line of their borders. However, on December 1, 2020, Ukraine officials outlined their want to commence the NATO Membership Action Plan, which would create allyships that Russia, with a neo-imperialist president, would prefer to avoid. Although the requirements to join NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization–click here for its history) are extensive, many experts think Ukraine was well on its way. That being said, there were concerns from current NATO members about Ukraine joining, due to its complicated history with Russia.

In October of 2021, Russia commenced moving troops and equipment to their shared border. Vladimir Putin demanded legal guarantees that Ukraine would neither join NATO nor host its missile systems.

If you’re still here after reading this long-winded yet simplified history of Russian-Ukrainian relations, you’re probably wondering why it really matters that you now know what Ukraine and Russia were doing in the middle ages. The answer lies in Vladimir Putin’s ideology: like the expansionist leaders before him in the 17th and 18th centuries, he believes that there is no such thing as an autonomous Ukraine: he aims to revive imperialist ideologies that Russia has always had “dibs” over the medieval Kievan Rus territory.

If this quick history lesson was a bit too complex, that’s understandable. In layman’s terms, or if you want to make it really really simple, imagine this: Russia and Ukraine have had a long, toxic relationship in which Russia was/is the one holding power over Ukraine. After a recent (1991) breakup, Ukraine is ready to move on to a more supportive relationship with NATO. However, NATO is scared that Ukraine’s crazy ex-partner Russia will retaliate against them if they begin the relationship. And, Russia got word that Ukraine was moving on, and wants to get back together with Ukraine.

So, What’s Happened In The Past Few Weeks? 

For more extensive and updated information on the ongoing conflict, check out the Global Conflict Tracker website.

On February 24, 2022, Russia launched an invasion of Ukraine. Heavy attacks from Russia have been met with “remarkable resistance” from Ukrainian forces and undisputable bravery from Ukrainian President Zelenskyy, but Russian troops continue to advance on Kyiv. There’s been artillery fire over residential areas and Europe is facing an Ukranian refugee crisis as we speak.

To write about an ongoing military conflict is to write yourself into antiquity, so that’s all I’m going to say about recent updates in this article, knowing that there are official updates constantly, internationally. Some reliable sources include the Global Conflict Tracker (linked above), the New York Times, and BBC. I would also really encourage you to look for international sources, as our well-known American sources are going to write about the crisis with both a westernized and American-centered perspective by nature. Some Instagram accounts, albeit not official news sources, also provide a different look into the conflict: @salwangeorges, @oksana_par, and @lovedaymorris are all in Ukraine and are documenting their current lives on Instagram and Twitter. 

What Do The People of Ukraine and Russia Think?

During the virtual roundtable, Soviet Union expert and Geography professor John O’Loughlin and post-communist country specialist and History professor Sarah Sokhey went in-depth to analyze what both Ukrainian and Russian citizens thought about the conflict. It’s really easy to separate yourself from the situation when you live across the ocean from the countries, especially if you don’t know any Ukrainians or Russians. While this happens naturally due to geography and language barriers, I firmly believe that we should go out of our way and comfort zone to extend our consciousness to the people currently actually fearing for their lives, homes, and ways of living. Although I obviously know no better than most, professors O’Loughlin and Sokhey provided good run-downs on some popular Ukrainian and Russian opinions.

As with all polling data, remember that many factors can play a role in conclusions, and that these polls were taken before the conflict was exacerbated. 

As for Ukrainians, a 2014 poll that O’Loughlin played a heavy part in conducting concluded that the majority of both Ukrainians and Russians in the poll (53%) cared more about a strong welfare state and high standard of living than who controlled what territory. However, this is an incredibly small minority and this data shouldn’t be used against Ukrainians in saying they don’t care about invasion–obviously, nobody wants their home invaded. Instead, it should be thought about when considering how many citizens would prefer peace. Additionally, according to O’Loughlin, the majority of Ukrainians have now shifted towards supporting joining NATO, which was previously controversial. 

Russian citizens, according to Sohkey, apparently do not want war either, but it is unclear how warfare so close to home will change those opinions. As of December 2021, only 8% of Russians thought Russia should send military forces to Ukraine. At the same time, 75% think that NATO is a threat to Russia’s sovereignty, which complicates things.   

Anti-war protests are currently going on in Russia, and 5,000 people and counting have already been detained. Additionally, an online protest hashtag, #нетвойне (which is Russian for no war), is going viral. Overall, while complicated, compassion should be felt for Ukrainian citizens who have been thrust into a war zone, as well as Russian citizens who are being led into a war by a leader who doesn’t seem to be affected by public opinion (we will see if that changes). 

Twitter is full of art and protests showing disdain for war like the one seen above.

Are There Any Non-Violent Options For The United States To Take, While Still Becoming Involved?

Again, I’m not going to write much about live updates on international policy simply because the material will become outdated within a day. What I can explain, though, is the concept of economic sanctions and what they mean. 

You’ve probably heard constant talk on the news of sanctions against Russia. Economic sanctions, as defined by economics professor David Bearce, are “deliberate terminations of preexisting economic relations”. Economic relations can be defined as trade relations, exchange rates, inflation, and/or interest rates. If they work, however, is a different question. 

The efficacy of economic sanctions can be placed into a fake relationship scenario just as Russia and Ukraine’s history can. If sanctions are terminations with existing relationships, you must be in a good place with the country you are trying to punish in the first place. If Russia and Ukraine (personified) are in the middle of a breakup, and the United States comes in and says “Russia, if you mess with Ukraine I’ll stop talking to you”, knowing very well Russia and the United States have never liked each other, is Russia going to care if the United States stops talking to them? That’s the question so many experts, as well as world leaders, have on their minds. The United States and Russia do not have very strong economic ties, due to the Cold War ending relatively recently. Other European countries rely on Russia for energy sources and have stronger ties, but this leads to issues for both countries–If Germany, who gets one-third of its energy sources from Russia, tries to intervene in the breakup by threatening Russia, it will lose necessary services for its citizens.

Another issue with economic sanctions is that historically, they rarely hurt the people that they mean to. By applying punishment that affects a country’s economy broadly, citizens will hurt the most from financial duress. In the best-case scenario, this will encourage them to then rise up to overtake the leader that’s causing the sanction, but from a human rights standpoint, even the best-case scenario will end in deaths of civilians, either from hunger or rebellion. And that’s assuming the country is democratic enough to withstand an uprising–in non-democratic countries, leaders may have no problem shutting down citizens who attempt to push them out of power. 

A more modern model of sanctions, as defined by Bearce, is targeted towards the elite, state officials, and oligarchs (usually a rich business leader with an excessive amount of political influence). Ideally, this model would leave society, who may not even want war, as previously discussed, alone. 

When reading the news, you should look for three features of current Western sanctions against Russia that Bearce provided. One is targeted sanctions against elites, one is restrictions on what Russia’s central bank can do in terms of inflation (meaning this will affect how they can adjust the economy in terms of economic crisis), and the last is what Bearce refers to as “the nuclear option”. This is the exclusion of Russian banks from interbank financial networks, specifically SWIFT, or the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication. This will affect any financial transaction that includes banking institutions. 

If you would like to go more in-depth with learning about sanctions, check out this site.

So, Is The United States Going To War?

This is probably why you started reading this article in the first place. So, you’re going to be disappointed to learn that I, a college student, am not going to be able to predict this and am not going to try. Sorry! What I am going to be doing with my new background knowledge on the conflict is reading more news and ingesting more media from Ukraine on the topic, and I suggest you do so as well.

Furthermore, while it is totally natural to worry about your own well-being when global conflicts arise, it should be remembered that this is not just a news story or op-ed article for millions of Ukrainians. As previously stated, acting with compassion and using this article as a starting point to learn more about the issue will not only push concerns about your own safety thousands of miles away from the conflict to the back of your head, but you will likely become more humanitarian and an educated citizen for it. 

If you feel the urge to help in any way (which is natural, even in geopolitical conflicts much larger than your wallet and influence), check out this article on providing aid in helpful ways. 

Genevieve Andersen is the President of HCCU, as well as a co-Campus Coordinator. As President, she oversees the senior executive team, executive team, national partnerships, and assists with coordinating events. She manages meetings, recruitment, campus communications, and chapter finances and is one of HCCU's biggest fans. Since she joined the club in 2021, she has found a passion for writing on subjects like politics, law, feminism, environmental justice, and local features. Outside of HCCU, Genevieve is a senior at the University of Colorado Boulder, majoring in political science and French and minoring in journalism. Besides magazine writing, she has published and assisted with political science research, with her latest project involving international environmental policy being based in Geneva, Switzerland, where she worked with the United Nations Environmental Program and various European environmental NGOs. When she is not busy reading member's HCCU articles, you can find Genevieve on a ski or hiking trail, hanging out with her friends, playing with her dogs, or staring at her pet fish wishing he could be played with.