On the edge of Europe and thousands of miles from the United States, Ukraine’s significance extends far beyond its borders.
Above all, a Russian invasion would disrupt the lives of 44 million Ukrainians. But his fate has huge implications for the rest of Europe, the health of the global economy, and America’s place in the world.
This would increase fears about the security of other former Soviet countries in Eastern Europe. This would increase fears about the strength of the post-1989 international order and America’s ability to influence it. And it could drive up fuel prices around the world.
Here’s how Ukraine found itself at the center of a global crisis.
Why do Russia, the United States and Europe care so much about Ukraine?
Russia and the West see Ukraine as a potential buffer against each other.
Russia considers Ukraine to be part of its natural sphere of influence. Most of it was for centuries part of the Russian Empire, many Ukrainians are native Russian speakers, and the country was part of the Soviet Union until its independence in 1991.
Russia was troubled when an uprising in 2014 replaced Ukraine’s pro-Russian president with a resolutely Western-minded government.
Most of the former Soviet republics and their allies in Europe had already joined the European Union or NATO. Ukraine’s estrangement from Russian influence was felt to be the final death knell for Russian power in Eastern Europe.
For Europe and the United States, Ukraine matters in part because they see it as an indicator of their own influence and Russian intentions in the rest of Europe. Ukraine is not part of the European Union or NATO. But it receives considerable financial and military support from Europe and the United States. If Russia invades, it suggests Moscow may feel empowered to escalate tensions with other former Soviet republics that are now members of the Western alliance, such as Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.
Any Russian incursion would also further threaten American dominance in world affairs. By winning the Cold War, the United States established great influence in the international order, but this influence has diminished over the past decade, and a Russian invasion could accelerate this process. By reinvigorating NATO, the United States can hope to slow this process, if not reverse it.
Ukraine has often made headlines under the Trump administration. Why?
Ukraine played a central role in a failed attempt to impeach President Donald J. Trump in 2020.
Several months before the impeachment proceedings, Mr. Trump had blocked $391 million in military aid to Ukraine. Shortly after, Mr. Trump asked newly elected Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, to investigate discredited corruption allegations involving Joseph R. Biden Jr., then Mr. Trump’s most likely Democratic challenger.
As a result, Mr. Trump was charged with illegally asking a foreign entity – Ukraine – to intervene in the US political system, and changing state policy to help him personally. The impeachment vote narrowly failed.
Ukraine has also been at the center of a scandal involving former Mr Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort. In 2018, Mr. Manafort was jailed for concealing more than $30 million in consulting fees he received from Ukrainian oligarchs and government officials to promote the political fortunes of Viktor Yanukovych, the pro-Ukrainian president. Russian ousted in the 2014 uprising. Mr. Manafort advised Mr. Yanukovych between 2006 and 2014, before the latter fled to Russia, and before Mr. Manafort began working for Mr. Trump.
Hasn’t Russia already invaded parts of Ukraine?
Yes. After the 2014 uprising, Russian troops wearing unmarked uniforms invaded Crimea, a strategically important peninsula on the Black Sea. In a referendum condemned as illegal by most of the world, the region then voted overwhelmingly to join Russia.
Later in 2014, pro-Russian separatists backed by Russian troops and military equipment captured parts of eastern Ukraine, creating two rebel republics – in Donetsk and Luhansk regions – which are not recognized by no other state.
Fighting continues today between the Ukrainian state and the separatists. For many Ukrainians, therefore, the threat of wider Russian intervention in Ukraine is only the latest episode in an unfinished eight-year war. And this war is likely to continue whether Russia invades in the next few days or not.
What do Ukrainians want?
The threat of another Russian invasion has cemented a growing sense of national pride and unity among Ukrainians, even among those who grew up speaking Russian.
As recently as 2001, opinion polls suggested that about half of Ukrainians supported the country’s departure from the Soviet Union. Today, more than 80% support Ukrainian independence and more than half join NATO.
Although anxiety roams the country, life goes on more or less as normal in most of them. Civilians and government leaders say they remain calm amid foreign reports of an impending invasion, and some even say they doubt Russia will actually invade. But at the same time, many civilians increasingly joined voluntary defense units and enrolled in first aid courses.
How could Ukraine and its supporters stop another Russian invasion?
Ukraine could promise to abandon any effort to join NATO, or to implement a pair of never-before-implemented peace agreements signed in 2014 and 2015 that were seen as favorable to Russia.
Under the agreements, known as the Minsk agreements, the two breakaway territories would join Ukraine – but only in a federal system that could give the territories a veto over Ukrainian foreign policy.
But the hands of the Ukrainian government are tied, at least in the short term. Abandoning NATO aspirations would be contrary to the Ukrainian Constitution. And a poll in December found that three-quarters of Ukrainians totally reject the implementation of the Minsk agreements or want them changed.
The United States and Europe have more cards up their sleeve. Washington could cut Russia’s largest financial institutions from the global financial system, crippling the Russian economy. Germany could halt the implementation of Nord Stream 2, a major new pipeline carrying Russian gas to Europe. The UK can impose restrictions on Russian oligarchs owning property and assets in Britain.
Understanding the escalation of tensions over Ukraine
And then there is the diplomatic route: the Kremlin insists that this crisis is not just about Ukraine, but about NATO’s military presence in Eastern Europe, which Russian President Vladimir V. Putin describes as an existential threat to Russian security.
He wants NATO to withdraw from the region and guarantee that neither Ukraine nor any other country will ever join the alliance. President Biden insists the United States is ready to keep talking, but will remain committed to the idea that each country should be free to choose its own alliances.
Why is Ukraine so vulnerable?
Although the West has given it money and weapons, Ukraine is not actually a member of NATO and therefore cannot count on direct military support from the United States and its allies. Its military, although the recipient of hundreds of millions of dollars in Western aid in recent years, is still no match for Russia’s.
He is also surrounded by Russian allies and proxies – and Russia itself. Russian troops are massed not only along Ukraine’s eastern border with Russia, but also along the Belarusian border, just over 80 km north of Kiev, the Ukrainian capital. Russian troops are also stationed in Transnistria, a small unrecognized breakaway region of Moldova, west of Ukraine. If Russian troops invade from some or all of these locations, the Ukrainian military may be overstretched to mount an effective defense.
Potential allies like Germany may also be reluctant to adopt economic measures to deter Russia. Europe is heavily dependent on Russian fuel and Russia is a major trading partner of Germany.
What are the possible economic effects of an invasion?
Some of the world’s major grain supplies come through the Black Sea, which borders both Russia and Ukraine, two major wheat producers. Military action could disrupt both grain production and distribution, increasing food costs for consumers around the world.
Russia supplies around a third of Europe’s gas, much of which is currently shipped via Ukraine. Any disruption at either end of this supply chain would force European countries to look elsewhere for fuel, which would most likely increase global oil prices.
Is an invasion certain?
The United States and other countries say an invasion is possible within days and have evacuated personnel from the Ukrainian capital in preparation. But Ukraine and the United States could still take steps to appease Russia. And Russia can still avoid an invasion.
The economic damage from Western sanctions and the potential death toll from a protracted war in Ukraine could be too high a cost for Moscow.