Russia's at war with Ukraine. Here's how we got here
Updated February 24, 2022 at 9:27 AM ET
As Russian forces begin an all-out assault on Ukraine after months of troop buildup and failed diplomatic efforts by the U.S. and its European allies to head off conflict, the situation for Kyiv is the most high-stakes in the country's 30-year history.
Since breaking from the Soviet Union, Ukraine has wavered between the influences of Moscow and the West, surviving scandal and conflict with its democracy intact.
Now it faces its biggest test as Russia threatens its very existence as an independent country.
Since the illegal annexation of the Crimean Peninsula in 2014, many Ukrainians have turned away from Moscow and toward the West, with popular support on the rise for joining Western alliances such as NATO and the European Union.
But along the country's eastern border with Russia, separatists backed by Moscow took control of two regions in 2014. Violence in eastern Ukraine has killed more than 14,000 people in the years since, according to International Crisis Group research. Russia's recognition of the two regions' independence set the stage for moving its troops into Ukraine.
Read on to understand how Ukraine came to where it is today.
The 1990s: Independence from the Soviet Union
1989 and 1990
Anti-communist protests sweep central and Eastern Europe, starting in Poland and spreading throughout the Soviet bloc. In Ukraine, January 1990 sees more than 400,000 people joining hands in a human chain stretching some 400 miles from the western city of Ivano-Frankivsk to Kyiv, the capital, in the north-central part of Ukraine. Many wave the blue and yellow Ukrainian flag that had been banned under Soviet rule.
July 16, 1990
The Rada, the new Ukrainian parliament formed out of the previous Soviet legislature, votes to declare independence from the Soviet Union. Authorities recall Ukrainian soldiers from other parts of the USSR and vote to shut down the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in northern Ukraine.
Following a failed coup in Moscow, the Ukrainian parliament declares independence a second time on Aug. 24, a date that is still celebrated as Ukraine's official Independence Day. In December, Ukrainians vote to make their independence official when they approve the declaration by a landslide 92% of votes in favor. The Soviet Union officially dissolves on Dec. 26.
As NATO allies contemplate adding central and Eastern European members for the first time, Ukraine formally establishes relations with the alliance, though it does not join. NATO's secretary-general visits Kyiv, and Ukrainian President Leonid Kravchuk visits NATO headquarters in Brussels.
After the Soviet Union's collapse, Ukraine is left with the world's third-largest nuclear stockpile. In a treaty called the Budapest Memorandum, Ukraine agrees to trade away its intercontinental ballistic missiles, warheads and other nuclear infrastructure in exchange for guarantees that the three other treaty signatories — the U.S., the U.K. and Russia — will "respect the independence and sovereignty and the existing borders of Ukraine."
1994 to 2004
In 10 years as president, Leonid Kuchma helps transition Ukraine from a Soviet republic to a capitalist society, privatizing businesses and working to improve international economic opportunities. But in 2000, his presidency is rocked by scandal over audio recordings that reveal he ordered the death of a journalist. He remains in power about four more years.
The 2000s: Wavering between the West and Russia
The presidential election pits Kuchma's incumbent party — led by his hand-picked successor, Viktor Yanukovych, and supported by Russian President Vladimir Putin — against a popular pro-democracy opposition leader, Viktor Yushchenko.
In the final months of the campaign, Yushchenko falls mysteriously ill, is disfigured and is confirmed by doctors to have been poisoned.
Yanukovych wins the election amid accusations of rigging. Massive protests follow, and the public outcry becomes known as the Orange Revolution. After a third vote, Yushchenko prevails.
Yushchenko takes office as president, with Yulia Tymoshenko as prime minister.
Following efforts by Yushchenko and Tymoshenko to bring Ukraine into NATO, the two formally request in January that Ukraine be granted a "membership action plan," the first step in the process of joining the alliance.
U.S. President George W. Bush supports Ukraine's membership, but France and Germany oppose it after Russia voices displeasure.
In April, NATO responds with a compromise: It promises that Ukraine will one day be a member of the alliance but does not put it on a specific path for how to do so.
On Jan. 1, Gazprom, the state-owned Russian gas company, suddenly stops pumping natural gas to Ukraine, following months of politically fraught negotiations over gas prices. Because Eastern and central European countries rely on pipelines through Ukraine to receive gas imports from Russia, the gas crisis quickly spreads beyond Ukraine's borders.
Under international pressure to resolve the crisis, Tymoshenko negotiates a new deal with Putin, and gas flows resume on Jan. 20. Much of Europe still relies on Russian gas today.
Yanukovych is elected president in February. He says Ukraine should be a "neutral state," cooperating with both Russia and Western alliances like NATO.
Ukrainian prosecutors open criminal investigations into Tymoshenko, alleging corruption and misuse of government resources. In October, a court finds her guilty of "abuse of power" during the 2009 negotiations with Russia over the gas crisis and sentences her to seven years in prison, prompting concerns in the West that Ukrainian leaders are persecuting political opponents.
2014: The Maidan revolution and Crimea's annexation
November 2013 through February 2014
Just days before it is to be signed, Yanukovych announces that he will refuse to sign an association agreement with the European Union to bring Ukraine into a free trade agreement. He cites pressure from Russia as a reason for his decision.
The announcement sparks huge protests across Ukraine — the largest since the Orange Revolution — calling for Yanukovych to resign. Protesters begin camping out in Kyiv's Maidan, also known as Independence Square, and occupy government buildings, including Kyiv's city hall and the justice ministry.
In late February, violence between police and protesters leaves more than 100 dead in the single bloodiest week in Ukraine's post-Soviet history.
Ahead of a scheduled impeachment vote on Feb. 22, Yanukovych flees, eventually arriving in Russia. Ukraine's parliament votes unanimously to remove Yanukovych and install an interim government, which announces it will sign the EU agreement and votes to free Tymoshenko from prison.
The new government charges Yanukovych with mass murder of the Maidan protesters and issues a warrant for his arrest.
Russia declares that the change in Ukraine's government is an illegal coup. Almost immediately, armed men appear at checkpoints and facilities in the Crimean Peninsula. Putin at first denies they are Russian soldiers but later admits it.
With Russian troops in control of the peninsula, the Crimean parliament votes to secede from Ukraine and join Russia. A public referendum follows, with 97% of voters favoring secession, although the results are disputed.
Putin finalizes the Russian annexation of Crimea in a March 18 announcement to Russia's parliament. In response, the U.S. and allies in Europe impose sanctions on Russia. They have never recognized Russia's annexation. It remains the only time that a European nation has used military force to seize the territory of another since World War II.
With some 40,000 Russian troops gathered on Ukraine's eastern border, violence breaks out in the eastern Ukrainian region of Donbas — violence that continues to this day. Russian-supported separatist forces storm government buildings in two eastern regions, Donetsk and Luhansk. They declare independence from Ukraine as the Donetsk People's Republic and Luhansk People's Republic, though they remain internationally recognized as part of Ukraine. Russia denies that its troops are on Ukrainian soil, but Ukrainian officials insist otherwise.
The pro-West politician Petro Poroshenko, a former government minister and head of the Council of the National Bank of Ukraine, is elected Ukraine's president. He promotes reform, including measures to address corruption and lessen Ukraine's dependence on Russia for energy and financial support.
Sept. 5, 2014
Representatives from Russia, Ukraine, France and Germany meet in Belarus to attempt to negotiate an end to the violence in the Donbas. They sign the first Minsk agreement, a deal between Ukraine and Russia to quiet the violence under a fragile cease-fire. The cease-fire soon breaks, and fighting continues into the new year.
2015 through 2020: Russia looms
The Minsk group meets again in Belarus to find a more successful agreement to end the fighting in eastern Ukraine, resulting in the Minsk II agreement. It too has been unsuccessful at ending the violence. From 2014 through today, more than 14,000 people have been killed, tens of thousands wounded and more than a million displaced.
Together, the annexation of Crimea and the Russian-backed violence in the east have pushed Ukrainian public sentiment toward the West, strengthening interest in joining NATO and the EU.
2016 and 2017
As fighting in the Donbas continues, Russia repeatedly strikes at Ukraine in a series of cyberattacks, including a 2016 attack on Kyiv's power grid that causes a major blackout. In 2017, a large-scale assault affects key Ukrainian infrastructure, including the National Bank of Ukraine and the country's electrical grid. (Cyberattacks from Russia have continued through the present; the latest major attack targeted government websites in January 2022.)
In April, comedian and actor Volodymyr Zelenskyy is elected president in a landslide rebuke of Poroshenko and the status quo, which includes a stagnating economy and the conflict with Russia.
During his campaign, Zelenskyy vowed to make peace with Russia and end the war in the Donbas.
His early efforts to reach a solution to the violence are slowed by U.S. President Donald Trump, who briefly blocks U.S. military aid to Ukraine and suggests to Zelenskyy that he should instead work with Putin to resolve the crisis.
In a phone call with Trump in July 2019, Zelenskyy requests a visit to the White House to meet with Trump about U.S. backing of Ukraine's efforts to push off Russia. Trump asks Zelenskyy for "a favor": an investigation into energy company Burisma and the Bidens. A White House whistleblower complains, leading to Trump's first impeachment in December 2019.
Several U.S. officials later testify that Zelenskyy was close to announcing such an investigation, though he ultimately demurs, saying Ukrainians are "tired" of Burisma.
2021: The crisis escalates
Russia sends about 100,000 troops to Ukraine's borders, ostensibly for military exercises. Although few analysts believe an invasion is imminent, Zelenskyy urges NATO leadership to put Ukraine on a timeline for membership. Later that month, Russia says it will withdraw the troops, but tens of thousands remain.
Two years after his entanglement with Trump, Zelenskyy visits the White House to meet with President Biden. Biden emphasizes that the U.S. is committed to "Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity in the face of Russian aggression" but repeats that Ukraine has not yet met the conditions necessary to join NATO.
Russia renews its troop presence near the Ukraine-Russia border, alarming U.S. intelligence officials, who travel to Brussels to brief NATO allies on the situation. "We're not sure exactly what Mr. Putin is up to, but these movements certainly have our attention," says U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin.
Biden, speaking with Putin on a phone call, urges Russia not to invade Ukraine, warning of "real costs" if Russia does so.
Putin issues a contentious set of security demands. Among them, he asks NATO to permanently bar Ukraine from membership and withdraw forces stationed in countries that joined the alliance after 1997, including Romania and Balkan countries. Putin also demands a written response from the U.S. and NATO.
2022: Russia moves in
Leaders and diplomats from the U.S., Russia and European countries meet repeatedly to avert a crisis. In early January, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov tells U.S. officials that Russia has no plans to invade Ukraine.
The State Department orders the families of embassy staff to leave Ukraine on Jan. 23. NATO places forces on standby the next day, including the U.S. ordering 8,500 troops in the United States to be ready to deploy.
Representatives from the U.S. and NATO deliver their written responses to Putin's demands on Jan. 26. In the responses, officials say they cannot bar Ukraine from joining NATO, but they signal a willingness to negotiate over smaller issues like arms control.
Diplomatic efforts pick up pace across Europe. French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz travel between Moscow and Kyiv. Biden orders the movement of 1,000 U.S. troops from Germany to Romania and the deployment of 2,000 additional U.S. troops to Poland and Germany.
Russia and Belarus begin joint military exercises on Feb. 10, with some 30,000 Russian troops stationed in the country along Ukraine's northern border.
The U.S. and the U.K. urge their citizens to leave Ukraine on Feb. 11. Biden announces the deployment of another 2,000 troops from the U.S. to Poland.
In mid-February, the fighting escalates between Russian-backed separatists and Ukrainian forces in the two eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk. Separatist leaders call for evacuations. "In our view, what is happening in Donbas today is, in fact, genocide," says Putin on Feb. 15 — a false claim that Western officials say Putin is using to create a pretext for an invasion.
Russia continues to build its troop presence on its border with Ukraine. Estimates range from 150,000 to 190,000 troops. U.S. officials, including Biden, increase the urgency of their warnings, saying that Russia has decided to invade.
On Feb. 21, Putin formally recognizes the independence of the Donetsk People's Republic and the Luhansk People's Republic — including territory claimed by separatists but controlled by the Ukrainian armed forces. He orders Russia's military to deploy troops there under the guise of a "peacekeeping" mission.
In response, Biden declares the move "the beginning of a Russian invasion." Together, the U.S., the U.K. and the European Union enact a broad set of sanctions targeting Russian banks and oligarchs.
On Feb. 24, Russian forces launch a devastating assault on Ukrainian territory — the largest such military operation in Europe since the end of World War II. Missiles rain down on Ukraine's cities and columns of Russian troops from neighboring Belarus and from Russian-held Crimea reportedly begin streaming into the countryside. Ukrainian forces reportedly try to hold back the Russian advance on several fronts.
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