By Chloe Yang
Since the fall of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, Putin has been working to increase Russian influence throughout the former Soviet zone. However, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), has been working to advance its own interests, but with democratic values in mind instead. Since the early 1990s, several Baltic nations from the former Soviet Union, including Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, and more, all joined the NATO alliance. Now, numerous NATO states directly border Russia. NATO has now expressed interest in enrolling Ukraine into the alliance, which set off the beginning of the conflict.
The Kremlin has been especially angered by the fall of Russian power in formerly-Soviet areas, with President Putin describing Soviet disintegration as “one of the greatest catastrophes of the 20th century that robbed Russia of its rightful place among the world’s great powers.” Having spent his past 22 years in power building up the Russian military and growing the nation’s geopolitical power, Putin now believes that Russia is ready to face the West.
Specifically, Putin has his sights set on integrating Ukraine with Russia. Putin has repeatedly claimed that Ukraine should be a part of Russia, both culturally and historically. In 2014, Putin acted on these hopes of integration, when he annexed Crimea, a region in Ukraine. Since then, Western pressure has been mounting on Russia to demilitarize the region, yet Russia has ignored these calls.
In December of 2021, Russia presented NATO with a set of demands, including a pact that Ukraine would never join NATO and that NATO would pull back forces in NATO member Eastern European countries. The NATO alliance quickly dismissed these demands, and Russia quickly began mobilizing on the Eastern border of Ukraine. By the beginning of 2022, over 100,000 Russian troops had mobilized on the border.
February 24th, 2022 marked a devastating day for countless Ukranians, as Russia invaded Ukraine, declaring the Ukrainian regions of Luhansk and Donetsk as independent states. Just two days later, Russian airstrikes began across the nation of Ukraine and Russian forces invaded the country from Belarus, Crimea, and Russia, essentially attacking the nation from all sides. After the first day of Russian invasion, many key Ukrainian zones, such as the Chernobyl exclusion zone, had been captured by Russia.
On the second day of invasion, Russian troops stormed the capital of Ukraine, Kyiv, where they faced surprisingly strong resistance from troops and civilians alike. By early March, Russia began attacking civilian areas, shelling the towns of Kharkiv and Mariupol. Dozens of civilians had already been killed by Russian forces, following numerous artillery attacks and airstrikes.
As of March 18th, the United Nations estimated that over three million people have fled Ukraine following the Russian invasion. Thousands of Ukrainians fled the country by train with thousands others attempting to drive out, creating long traffic lines out of the country. Ukrainian refugees have primarily been fleeing into neighboring countries, with Poland taking in nearly 2 million refugees, as of March 16th. Refugees entering Poland, primarily women and children, face wait times of over 24 hours, although they do not need documents to enter. Ukrainian citizens—those who are legally living in Ukraine—have been granted refugee status in Poland. If they do not have friends or relatives to stay with, many Eastern European countries have allowed Ukrainian refugees to stay in reception centers where they are given food, medical care, and information about their further travels away from Ukraine.
While Poland has been very accommodating towards refugees, the government of Poland has stated that it will need more money from the EU to continue to host more refugees in the future. Moldova, a nation with the largest concentration of refugees per capita, has also requested international help to deal with the influx of migrants.
In addition, an estimated 12 million people inside of Ukraine are also in need of assistance, according to the UN’s High Commissioner for Refugees. In southern Ukraine, bedding, medication, and heating are scarce, while in Eastern Ukraine, even basic necessities such as food, water, and shelter are needed as well. While the UN has been offering humanitarian assistance inside of Ukraine, the EU puts the total number of Ukraine refugees at up to seven million.
While the US Congress has passed legislation giving billions of dollars in aid to the Ukrainians, there is still much that the US can do. For example, the Boston Globe proposes that the Biden administration issue humanitarian parole visas to Ukrainian refugees so they can seek asylum for two years. Additionally, they advocate for the creation of a program that would allow ordinary citizens to host refugees.
The Russo-Ukrainian conflict took the world by surprise and is continuing to unfold each and every day. Hopefully, the conflict can be resolved by the international community soon, and peace can be brought to Eastern Europe. As European Commission foreign policy chief Josep Borrell says, “these are among the darkest hours of Europe since the Second World War.”