Russia’s War in Ukraine, Explained

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Russia’s war in Ukraine has persisted more than three weeks, with a relentless bombardment of the country that has resulted in over 800 civilian deaths, wrecked civilian infrastructure and forced more than 3.3 million people to flee their homes, ushering in Europe’s first significant conflict in decades.

In a late February TV address, Russian President Vladimir Putin explicitly denied that Ukraine had ever had “real statehood,” and said the country was an integral part of Russia’s “own history, culture, [and] spiritual space.” According to TIME Magazine, Putin’s speech, which lasted over an hour, “was a new twist in the long-running battle to define Ukraine’s place in the world.” In it, Putin reaffirmed his opinion that Ukraine is fundamentally Russian, that its three decades as a nation-state have been incoherent and that the country owed its existence to a succession of inept Soviet leaders’ failures.

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A few days later, on Feb. 24, he ordered special military actions in Ukraine, and Russian forces launched missile and artillery strikes against major Ukrainian cities, including the capital city of Kyiv. Fighting erupted across the country, with Russian forces crossing into Ukraine from Belarus in the north, Russia in the east and Crimea in the south, ultimately resulting in the fleeing of approximately 500,000 Ukrainian refugees by Feb. 28.

Other ordinary Ukrainians and reservists stayed and banded together, putting up a fierce fight against Russia’s larger, better-equipped troops and complicating their efforts to seize control of Ukraine. On the front lines, these Ukrainian resistance measures have resulted in a stronger-than-expected opposition, with bridges being blown up to halt Russian troops, street signs being changed to confuse Russian forces and Russian supplies being attacked and destroyed.

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On top of the resistance movement, Russia is also facing a variety of sanctions and economic consequences from around the world. “Russia’s actions have been met with international condemnation,” said a research briefing published by the Parliament of the United Kingdom. “Western sanctions are being imposed on Russia, military assistance is being provided to Ukraine, and discussions are underway between Western allies on collective next steps.”

According to VOX, the sanctions, which target Russia’s financial system, wealthy individuals and Russian fossil fuels, are “designed to punish Putin and the oligarchs who support and depend on him, and hobble the Russian economy,” ultimately leading to a massive economic slowdown in Russia. With significant implications already occurring — the stock market has been shuttered, Russian companies with international shares have seen equity values plummet and the Russian ruble is near an all-time low — Russia is facing large economic consequences that experts predict will be comparable to the slowdowns experienced during the 2008 financial crisis or the COVID-19 pandemic.

“None of this has gone to plan for Russia,” said Michael Kofman, an expert on the Russian military with CNA, a think tank. “The plan was bewildering and based on assumptions that had no clear relationship to reality. The outcome now is indeterminate.”

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Despite Western sanctions, and a Ukrainian resolve against regime change, Russian bombardment has not been stilted: since the initial attack, Russian troops have continued to shell multiple Ukrainian cities, including residential buildings and hospitals. Mariupol, a strategic port on the Azov Sea, has been particularly devastated, having been surrounded by Russian troops, cut off from energy, food and water supplies and subjected to a relentless bombardment since the beginning of the Russian invasion. On March 20, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy accused Russia of war crimes in connection with the Mariupol siege and a reported strike on an art school within the city where 400 people had sought refuge, describing the attack as “a terror that will be remembered for centuries to come.”

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With what is quickly becoming the fastest-growing refugee crisis since the second world war, there are multiple ways you can help: NPR put together a non-exhaustive list of organizations that are asking for assistance and the Obama foundation organized a helpful guide identifying organizations doing critical humanitarian work in Ukraine.

“Putin may circle Kyiv with tanks, but he will never gain the hearts and souls of the Ukrainian people,” President Joe Biden said during his State of the Union Address earlier this month. “He will never extinguish their love of freedom. He will never weaken the resolve of the free world.”



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