Russian-Ukrainian Conflict Explained

World leaders have been scrambling this week, nervous about the rising volatility of Ukraine's political landscape, which appears to be careening the nation toward war with Russia. Any meaningful evaluation of potential outcomes first requires an understanding of the conflict's root causes.
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World leaders have been scrambling this week, nervous about the rising volatility of Ukraine's political landscape, which appears to be careening the nation toward war with Russia, a development that would almost certainly implicate U.S. and international involvement. Any meaningful evaluation of potential outcomes that could ensue, and in turn the complex implications of those outcomes, first requires an understanding of the conflict's root causes.

While tensions in Ukraine have become increasingly intense in the past few days, one thing remains constant: The conflict arising in Ukraine today stems from the Ukrainian president's rejection of a single economic deal with the European Union regarding an association agreement. Ironically, the interests driving this proposed agreement were quite straightforward. The EU sought more Eastern European economies to enter into their trade agreements, while Ukrainians yearned for further involvement with Western Europe's more modern and productive economies. Unfortunately, even a textbook case of "win-win" economic reform was still not strong enough to withstand the highly fractured nature of Ukraine's political alliances in this case.

When the deal was being considered late last year, Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych began to capriciously voice doubts in the final stages about signing the EU's proposed association agreement. For Ukrainians, their president's waffling was a clear signal that he was caving to pressure from President Vladimir Putin of Russia to reject the EU's proposed deal. A few days later, President Yanukovych outright rejected the EU proposal, accepting a new deal from Russia in the form of $15 billion in aid and other economic benefits.

President Yanukovych's retreat beneath the wings of Russia immediately incited the ire of many Ukrainians. For years, Ukrainians have sought economic reform that would bring the country's economy in line with the economies of more prosperous Western countries. President Yanukovych's rejection of the EU proposal not only ignored the views of a majority of Ukrainians but signaled the government's strengthened alignment with Russia. These factors spawned a serious uproar among the Ukrainian people in which they condemned their government's corruption and denounced the legitimacy of their president's patriotism.

Within hours of the EU proposal's rejection, thousands of protesters stormed the streets of Kiev (the capital of Ukraine) to renew their cry for economic reform and voice their opposition to the president's decision, calling for his immediate resignation.

In response to the protesters (opposition), the Ukrainian government began to carry out aggressive action. Riot police, armed guards, and military personnel quickly descended on protest sites throughout Ukraine in order to shut down the opposition. Tensions between the two groups quickly escalated, with YouTube videos showing protesters throwing Molotov cocktails at riot police and armed guards tormenting opposition prisoners.

These protests have persisted and slowly escalated over the past two months. Throughout, the United States and the European Union have offered new deals for the Ukrainian government to enter into, providing its government with several "last chances" to come around and respect the decisions of its mobilized public.

In mid-February, the death toll from the protests in Kiev rose sharply into the hundreds. Talks of a resolution between opposition leaders and President Viktor Yanukovych appeared less and less likely. On Feb. 21, protesters overtook the capital and the president's residence. President Viktor Yanukovych quickly fled to Russia, fearing for his life, while also facing charges from the opposition for the killing of protesters. His residence can only be described as characterized by outrageous opulence, a symbol of the political corruption within the nation.

President Yanukovych's retreat essentially rattled the cage of the bear, waking Russia up to the fact that their political influence over Ukraine was dwindling. Russia, however, has viewed the protests as an illegitimate threat to the Ukrainian president's power that must be quashed. Russia has a significant interest in helping President Viktor Yanukovych stay in power, and in curbing any sort of democratic political reform that would align Ukraine more with Europe and less with Russia. Simply put, Russia will not allow itself to lose its once-satellite state so quickly.

Why would Russia care about Ukraine or its economic deals? For one, Russia had (and continues to have) legitimate fears about the economic blowback it would endure if Ukraine signed an association agreement with the EU. This kind of agreement would translate to a massive influx of high-quality, low-priced European products into Ukraine. Some of these products would inevitably end up in Russia and would not be subject to tariffs due to Ukraine and Russia's free-trade agreements.

In addition, the Cold War may be over, but Russian sentiments regarding its regional supremacy very much live on. With the recent Sochi Olympics, and this year's G8 Summit also slated to take place in Sochi, Russia was poised for a steady stream of positive publicity on the global stage. An economic deal between the EU and Ukraine would severely undercut the image of Russia as a formidable world power (at least in Putin's view).

After the opposition had completely taken control of Kiev, sending its president running to Russia for cover, unmarked guards began appearing on the Ukrainian-Russian border. Russian President Vladimir Putin also called for a military drill involving over 100,000 troops, many of whom were situated by the Ukrainian border. President Putin's deliberate show of force sent the message that Russia was prepared to go to war with Ukraine.

Following the initial movements of Russian aggression, the unmarked soldiers quickly began to enter the Ukrainian province of Crimea. Crimea is an autonomous republic within Ukraine that contains a large Russophone population and generally identifies more closely with Russia. Crimea is roughly the size of Massachusetts and is also the location of several strong naval bases for Russia.

Russia has now gained full control of the Crimean province and is continuing to maintain a militaristic occupation of Ukraine's military installations in the area, arguing that they are protecting their own interests within the region from the political instability of the nation. President Putin has also received parliamentary approval to send more troops toward Ukraine, a development that has sent waves of panic throughout the global community. The possible Russian annexation of Crimea has moved Russian and Ukrainian forces closer and closer to violent conflict.

Last Thursday United States President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin engaged in a 90-minute phone call in which they tried to halt the mounting tensions between Russia, Ukraine and other world leaders. The conversation didn't get very far. According to a statement made by the Kremlin regarding the phone conversation, Russia remains firm in its position that it will protect its interests in Ukraine, specifically in the Crimean province.

The conflict within Ukraine has created a political schism, where some of the eastern parts of Ukraine have come out as sympathetic to the Russians and against reform. Clashes have begun to ensue across the country between them and the opposition forces that now control the country.

The United States and most of the EU have threatened economic sanctions against Russia as well as voting to kick them out of the G8 if they do not withdraw their troops from Ukraine.

However, strict economic sanctions against Russia could actually end up hurting Germany and Italy more than Russia due to the inevitable oil scarcity and increased prices that would follow from such sanctions. Russia provides oil for a large portion of Europe, oil that just so happens to travel through Ukraine. A conflict or any further escalation would almost certainly implicate a rapid rise in prices within the EU. In addition, Russia may have a less difficult time bouncing back from sanctions. China, a close neighbor, politically and geographically, could potentially be able to fulfill some of its economic needs.

Russian military aggression has also been seen as the reason behind a massive drop in Russian stocks and the Russian ruble. The market has decided the recent Russian aggression is an egregious decision, and the economic status of Russia will continue to plummet with the continuation of their provocations.

The situation is dangerously unstable and has the potential to reach a global scale very quickly. President Obama has sternly repeated his administration's stance that Ukraine should begin to set up a new government and prepare for elections this spring, while admonishing Russia and urging it to stay out of Ukraine. He recently condemned the moves by Russia, labeling them as a "clear violation of Ukrainian sovereignty and territorial integrity, which is a breach of international law, including Russia's obligations under the UN Charter, and of its 1997 military basing agreement with Ukraine." EU leaders met Thursday morning to discuss possible sanctions, asset freezes, and an arms embargo. Aiming to stabilize Ukraine's finances and economy, they are finalizing a $15-billion aid package for Ukraine.

The Kremlin released a statement deeming President Viktor Yanukovych the legitimate leader of Ukraine, and asserting that an invasion would not be breaking international law because they have permission from the president.

Between the domestic disputes between Russian sympathizers and Ukrainian patriots and the international pressures around the Russian invasion and all the societal and economic consequences that follow, there is a lot that could change in the next few days, even the next few hours. For live updates, I encourage you to follow this Reddit Live page, bringing the breaking news from on the ground.

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