On the edge of Europe and thousands of miles from the United States, the relevance of Ukraine extends far beyond its borders.
First and foremost, a Russian invasion would upend the lives of 44 million Ukrainians. But its fate has huge implications for the rest of Europe, the health of the global economy and America’s place in the world.
It would increase fears over the security of other former Soviet countries in Eastern Europe. It would heighten fears over the strength of the post-1989 international order and America’s ability to influence it. And it would risk raising fuel prices across the world.
Here’s how Ukraine ended up at the center of a global crisis.
Why do Russia, the U.S. and Europe care so much about Ukraine?
Both Russia and the West see Ukraine as a potential buffer against each other.
Russia considers Ukraine within 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 winning independence in 1991.
Russia was unnerved when an uprising in 2014 replaced Ukraine’s Russia-friendly president with an unequivocally Western-facing government.
Most former Soviet republics and allies in Europe had already joined the European Union or NATO. Ukraine’s lurch away from Russian influence felt like the final death knell for Russian power in Eastern Europe.
To Europe and the United States, Ukraine matters in part because they see it as a bellwether for their own influence, and for 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 that Moscow might feel empowered to raise tensions with other former Soviet republics that are now members of the Western alliance, like Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.
Any Russian incursion would also further threaten U.S. dominance over world affairs. By winning the Cold War, the United States established great influence over the international order, but that influence has waned in the past decade, and a Russian invasion might accelerate that process. By reinvigorating NATO, the United States may hope to slow that process down, or even reverse it.
Ukraine was often in the news during the Trump administration. Why?
Ukraine was central to the impeachment of former President Donald Trump in 2020.
Several months before impeachment proceedings, Trump had blocked $391 million in military aid to Ukraine. Soon after, Trump asked the newly elected Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, to investigate discredited corruption allegations involving Joe Biden, then the likeliest Democratic challenger to Trump.
As a result, Trump was accused of illegally asking a foreign entity — Ukraine — to intervene in the U.S. political system, and of changing state policy to help him personally. The impeachment vote narrowly failed.
Ukraine was also at the heart of a scandal involving Trump’s former campaign manager, Paul Manafort. In 2018, Manafort was jailed for concealing more than $30 million worth of consultancy fees he received from Ukrainian oligarchs and government officials to promote the political fortunes of Viktor Yanukovych, the pro-Russian Ukrainian president ousted in the 2014 uprising. Manafort advised Yanukovych between 2006 and 2014, before the latter fled to Russia, and before Manafort began working for Trump.
Didn’t Russia already invade parts of Ukraine?
Yes. After the uprising in 2014, 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 by an overwhelming majority to join Russia.
Later in 2014, pro-Russian separatists backed by Russian troops and military hardware captured parts of eastern Ukraine, setting up two rebel republics — in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions — that remain unrecognized by any other state.
Fighting continues today between the Ukrainian state and the separatists. To many Ukrainians, the threat of a broader Russian intervention in Ukraine is therefore merely the latest episode of an unfinished eight-year war. And that war is likely to continue, whether Russia invades in the coming days or not.
What do Ukrainians want?
The threat of another Russian invasion has consolidated 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 roughly half of Ukrainians supported the country’s departure from the Soviet Union. Today, more than 80% support Ukraine’s independence, and more than half back joining NATO.
Though anxiety courses through the country, life continues more or less as normal in most of it. Both civilians and government leaders say that they remain calm amid foreign reports of an imminent invasion, and some even say they doubt that Russia will actually invade. But at the same time, many civilians have increasingly joined volunteer defense units and signed up for first-aid courses.
How might Ukraine and its supporters stop another Russian invasion?
Ukraine could promise to abandon any effort to join NATO, or carry out a never-enforced pair of peace agreements signed in 2014 and 2015 that were considered favorable to Russia.
Under the agreements, known as the Minsk Accords, the two separatist territories would rejoin Ukraine — but only in a federal system that could give the territories a veto over Ukrainian foreign policy.
But the Ukrainian government’s hands are tied, at least in the short term. Abandoning NATO aspirations would contravene the Ukrainian Constitution. And a poll in December found that three-quarters of Ukrainians either entirely reject carrying out the Minsk Accords, or want them amended.
The United States and Europe have more cards up their sleeve. Washington could cut off 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 transporting Russian gas to Europe. The United Kingdom may place restrictions on Russian oligarchs with property and assets in Britain.
And then there is the diplomatic path: The Kremlin insists this crisis is not just about Ukraine but also about the NATO military presence in Eastern Europe, which President Vladimir Putin of Russia describes as an existential threat to Russia’s security.
He wants NATO to pull back from the region and guarantee that neither Ukraine nor any other countries there will ever join the alliance. President Joe Biden insists that the United States is ready to keep talking, but that it will remain committed to the idea that every country should be free to choose its own alliances.
Why is Ukraine so vulnerable?
Though given money and arms by the West, Ukraine is not actually a NATO member and so cannot count on the direct U.S. military support and of U.S. allies. Its military, though the recipient of hundreds of millions of dollars in Western aid in recent years, is still no match for Russia’s.
It is also surrounded by Russian allies and proxies — and by Russia itself. Russian troops are massed not only along Ukraine’s eastern border with Russia but also along the Belarusian border, just over 50 miles north of Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital. Russian troops are also stationed in Transnistria, a small and unrecognized breakaway region from Moldova, to Ukraine’s west. If Russian troops invaded from some or all of these locations, Ukraine’s army might be stretched too thin to mount an effective defense.
Would-be allies like Germany may also be wary of enacting economic measures to deter Russia. Europe is highly 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 main grain supplies are routed through the Black Sea, which borders both Russia and Ukraine, two major wheat producers. Military action could disrupt both grain production and distribution, raising food costs for consumers across the world.
Russia supplies about one-third of Europe’s gas, much of which is currently shipped through Ukraine. Any disruption at either end of that supply chain would force European countries to look elsewhere for fuel, most likely raising world oil prices.
Is an invasion certain?
The United States and other countries say an invasion is possible within days, and have evacuated staff from the Ukrainian capital in preparation. But Ukraine and the United States could still take measures to placate Russia. And Russia may still avoid an invasion.
The economic damage of Western sanctions, and the potential death toll of an extended war in Ukraine, might be too great a cost for Moscow to stomach.