What You Need to Know About the War in Ukraine

Protest and riots in Ukraine

Heritage Explains

What You Need to Know About the War in Ukraine

How did the war in Ukraine start? What does Russian President Vladimir Putin want from Ukraine? And what's likely to happen next?

United States military planes recently flew over Ukraine as a warning to Russia. So how did this war in Ukraine actually start? What does Vladimir Putin want from Ukraine? What's likely to happen next? This week, on the "Heritage Explains" podcast expert Luke Coffey breaks down the conflict in Ukraine.

PETRO POROSHENKO: We will fight for our freedom. We will fight for our democracy, and we will fight for our soil. We don't allow anybody, and the Russians will pay a huge price if they attack us.

POROSHENKO: Please, get out from Ukraine, Mr. Putin.

MICHELLE CORDERO: From the Heritage Foundation, I'm Michelle Cordero, and this is Heritage Explains.

CORDERO: In order to understand what's going on in Ukraine, we need to go back to November 2013. Ukrainian President at the time, Viktor Yanukovych was offered a trade deal with the European Union, Ukraine's western neighbor. But, instead, Yanukovych took a bail-out deal from Russia, Ukraine's eastern neighbor. Many Ukrainians who wanted closer ties with Europe were really unhappy with this deal.

REPORTER: More than 200,000 protestors gathered in the Ukrainian capital of Kiev today furious over the government's refusal to sign a trade agreement with the European Union. Police used tear gas and clubs to beat back demonstrators who surrounded President Viktor Yanukovych's office. They are demanding his resignation saying the government is corrupt and too tied to Russia.

CORDERO: It was very bad, serious violent protests and riots broke out among the divided country. Yanukovych cracked down hard. There are graphic photos and video footage of Ukrainians being beaten by government authorities. It was terrible and led to the death of many Ukrainians.

CORDERO: Ukrainians revolted even more, and, ultimately, these protests led to a transition of power to a pro-Western government with Petro Poroshenko as the country's new President. Not long after this, Russia annexed Crimea and annexed is just a fancy political word for forcibly taking land or territory.

CORDERO: Russian soldiers in unmarked uniforms, under the auspices of protecting ethnic Russians living in the area from the new pro-Western leadership, stormed into Crimea and took over buildings and airports and, eventually, hundreds of these soldiers occupied Crimea.

REPORTER 2: … to what America is officially calling a Russian invasion of Ukraine. Russian troops spreading out throughout the strategic Crimean Peninsula, President Obama speaking with Russian President Vladimir Putin apparently pulling no punches. Although, it is unclear what the White House can really do about all of this.

REPORTER 3: Ukraine stands on the brink of disaster. After losing the Crimean Peninsula to Russian annexation, it now faces losing control of its eastern regions in a struggle with pro-Russian separatists.

CORDERO: There was a vote in Crimea, which no one knows if it was legitimate or not, and Vladimir Putin claimed that 90% of Crimeans wanted to become part of Russia, and that was it. He took it.

CORDERO: The EU and the US started slapping Russia with sanctions, and then things took an even more violent turn. Pro-Russian separatists in Eastern Ukraine started to rebel. They took control of Eastern buildings and got even stronger when they were joined by Russian nationals with military experience who crossed over to help them.

CORDERO: Ukraine's military fought back, but hundreds died. You might also remember when Russian-backed separatists shot down Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 killing almost 300 people.

REPORTER 4: Vladimir Putin responded to this horror in predictable fashion, by hunkering down, deflecting blame toward Ukraine.

VLADIMIR PUTIN: This tragedy would not have happened if there had been peace on that land, or if military operations in southeastern Ukraine had not been renewed.

REPORTER 4: But, US leaders are blunt. While he didn't set the launch codes, Putin support for the pro-Russian rebels in Ukraine believed to have fired the missile place a heavy burden on the man in the Kremlin.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: He has the most control over that situation, and, so far, at least, he has not exercised it.

SEN JOHN MCCAIN: I think he is responsible.


POROSHENKO: We will fight for our freedom. We will fight for our democracy, and we will fight for our soil. We don't allow anybody, and the Russians will pay a huge price if they attack us.

POROSHENKO: Please, get out from Ukraine, Mr. Putin.

CORDERO: How did this deep divide between Western and Eastern Ukraine start to begin with? What's been happening for the past five years since the conflict broke out? What does Russia ultimately want from Ukraine? Today, Luke Coffey, director of Heritage's Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy, helps explain.

CORDERO: Luke, in order to better understand why all this is happening, can you go a little farther back in history and explain the divide in Ukraine?

LUKE COFFEY: Well, Ukraine plays a very important role in the formation of the modern Russian state. It is said that the earliest Russians, the Kievan Rus, originated from the area that's modern-day Kiev, the capital of Ukraine, but we're talking going back more than a thousand years.

COFFEY: Obviously, borders change, times change, people move in, people move out. Modern-day Ukraine, and including the Ukraine that was part of the USSR, the Soviet Union, was really a mixture of different ethnic groups. Today, in Ukraine, you have ethnic Slavs, Slavic people who will speak Russian or Ukrainian in the eastern part of the country. As you move further west, and as you get across the Dnieper River, which the Dnieper River is the river that divides Ukraine in half, you start to lose that Slavic Christian Orthodox feeling, and you start to slowly transition to more of a Polish and Catholic influence, or there's a small Hungarian minority, or a small Romanian minority, and a Polish minority. You see that shift as you move from east to west.

COFFEY: It's a large country geographically. It has a lot of people. When people look at Ukraine, and they paint a very simplistic picture of, well, it's Russian. It's really Russian, or it's not Russian, it's something else. That's a very black and white view of the situation when in reality it's more complex.

CORDERO: Would you say that this lack of identity contributed to the conflict?


COFFEY: Well, I would say the presence of the Russian-speaking population ... Well, when I say Russian-speaking, most Ukrainians will speak Russian. But, the ethnic Russians, concentrated mainly in the east of the country. There are other pockets throughout the country but, mainly, in the east of the country.

COFFEY: When they realized that they didn't have very many economic opportunities, very many political opportunities for them or for their children, they became more susceptible to Russia's disinformation. Vladimir Putin, you have to remember, has had a policy since 1999 called the Compatriot Policy. The Compatriot Policy is a policy where Russia feels obligated to defend the interests of Russian compatriots no matter where they might live.

COFFEY: When the Soviet Union broke up, it left a lot of people who could be classified as a compatriot outside of Russia's borders. When Russia goes into a place like Crimea or Eastern Ukraine, they don't see themselves as taking something that belongs to someone else. They see themselves as taking something that belongs to them.

COFFEY: This is really the crux of the problem. You had a disenfranchised, or I should say a marginalized, to be more accurate, sector of Ukrainian society in Eastern Ukraine and, also, in Crimea that became very susceptible to Russian hybrid warfare and misinformation, and that set the conditions for the eventual invasion of Crimea and the separatist conflict that is produced by Russia that didn't exist before in Eastern Ukraine.

CORDERO: Fast-forwarding a little bit, since the annexation of Crimea, how many people have died in this conflict?

COFFEY: The number is over 11,000 now.


COFFEY: It's taken a toll on the Ukrainian economy that totals in the hundreds of billions of dollars in lost economic output. Crimea, the Crimean Peninsula, was 5% of Ukraine's whole territory. Now, that was annexed to be part of Russia. Then you have major ports, port cities that while are still under the control of the Ukrainian government, the shipping to and from these ports are heavily restricted and, in some cases, blocked by Russia which impacts the Ukrainian economy as well.

CORDERO: How much of Ukraine is actually a war zone right now? Can you explain to me where all this is happening?

COFFEY: Yup. Well, the Crimean Peninsula is under a full Russian occupation. There's no fighting that goes on there. It's under Russia's complete control. It's de facto part of Russia, but it's de jure part of Ukraine. It's internationally recognized to be part of Ukraine's borders, but it's now controlled by Russia.

COFFEY: Then, there's actual fighting going on in the southeastern corner of the country in two provinces. They're called oblasts, but, for all intents and purposes, they're provinces, and they're in, it's Luhansk and Donetsk. It's actually not all of each province. It's parts of each.

COFFEY: The separatists have created a so-called People's Republic of Luhansk and a People's Republic of Donetsk. There's these two individual republics that have since merged, and they're fighting as an entity backed by Russia, make no mistake about it, weapons, special forces, tanks, equipment from Russia fighting against Ukrainian forces along a front line that will stretch several hundred miles.

CORDERO: We hear this term a lot. What is the Kerch Strait, and why is it significant?

COFFEY: Well, this goes back to what I said earlier about key Ukrainian ports that are under the control of Ukraine that are, access to and from these ports are controlled or restricted by Russia. That you have the Black Sea, and then inside of the Black Sea because of the way the Crimean Peninsula sticks out, you have a smaller sea, the Sea of Azov.

COFFEY: To get to the Sea of Azov, you have to pass through the Kerch Strait, and the Kerch Strait is this narrow body of water that connects the Black Sea with the Sea of Azov, and, on either side of it, you have Crimea on one side and, then, the Russian Federation on the other. Over the summer, tensions have been really rising in this part of the world along the Kerch Strait, because Russia built a bridge to connect the Russian mainland with their newly conquered land of Crimea.

COFFEY: This is a very controversial bridge for two reasons. In Russia, it was controversial because of the price tag. It cost over $4 billion at a time when they have a terrible economy, economic sanctions are biting. Many people question the value of this, and there's also some dubious engineering apparently. They've already had problems with it structurally, so there's a safety issue.

COFFEY: Then, the other aspect, the other controversial aspect is with Ukraine. Large Panamax ships, the large cargo ships that when you picture cargo ships in your mind the massive ones that you see images of, these ships at one time accounted for more than a quarter of all the shipping, and, now, they're too big to go under the new bridge. This has seriously reduced the amount of trade exports and imports that Ukraine can conduct through the strait. Russia's also taken measures to block shipping going through the strait as well, just to harass Ukraine.

CORDERO: It also adds sort of a legitimacy to Russia's claim over Ukraine by connecting the two, correct?

COFFEY: Yeah, well, that's how they see it, for sure, because, right now the only way to access Crimea by land was through Ukraine itself. Russia was, in the earlier days of the war, was probably hoping to advance as far to, far enough to create that land bridge from mainland Russia into Crimea. But, they were unable to do so, so they created, they built a bridge.

COFFEY: In the eyes of the Russians, this bridge helps legitimize their claim. But, in the eyes of the international community, it's a blatant violation of Ukraine's sovereignty.

CORDERO: Many say that Ukraine and Russia relations are the worst they've ever been, and that's due to an incident that happened recently. What happened?

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COFFEY: Well, it happened in the Kerch, near the Kerch Strait. Actually, we should clarify it happened near the Kerch Strait but in international waters.

COFFEY: Three Ukrainian Navy ships were traveling from Odessa, which is a Ukrainian port in the west of the country, through the Kerch Strait to Mariupol, which is a major Ukrainian port in the east of the country. To access Mariupol, you have to go through the Kerch Strait, and Mariupol is important for trade, metal, steel, iron ore that comes out of Mariupol's port, account for roughly almost a third of Ukraine's net export revenue.

COFFEY: These three Navy ships were just going from one port to the other, and when they got to the bridge, there are only a few places with the bridge that you can pass under now. The Russians put a tanker horizontally to block it and stop the passage of these Ukrainian ships. They went back into, they were out in international waters, and then they were rammed and, then, shot at by the Russian ...

COFFEY: They're called Coast Guard in the press, but really they're FSB border patrol boats. Now, the FSB is like the modern-day KGB, and they have their own patrol boats. It was essentially the modern-day KGB that rammed and, then, fired on and, then, captured the three ships and 24 sailors, six of whom were wounded. They're now being held in Crimea, occupied-Crimea, and there is even some talk about some of them being moved all the way to Moscow, which is probably close to a thousand miles away.

CORDERO: Here in the United States, if that had happened in international waters to a US ship that would be an act of war.

COFFEY: Yeah, certainly so. We shouldn't forget that this act was a continuation of a war that is already taking place. People forget that there is actually a war going in Eastern Ukraine. Bullets are flying, soldiers are dying or being wounded every week, and it's a real-life affair.

COFFEY: We shouldn't forget that in 21st century Europe, there's a very complex system of trenches that soldiers are fighting in, shooting at each other from across a no-man's land. Not too dissimilar from what we saw a hundred years ago with World War I.

CORDERO: We'll be right back after this short break.

CORDERO: What steps is the Ukrainian government taking since this happened?

COFFEY: Well, they have done a number of things. They're trying to rally international support, to raise awareness of the maritime situation, and the fact that Ukrainian shipping, commercial shipping and its naval vessels aren't allowed the free access that they feel like they're entitled to.

COFFEY: More controversially, though, President Poroshenko, the President of Ukraine, instituted partial martial law.

CORDERO: What does that mean?

COFFEY: Well, I say partial, because it's only in certain parts of the country, about half of the country. It's only 30 days long, whereas other types of martial law under Ukrainian law can be I think up to 60 or 90 days. Basically, this puts restrictions on political gatherings, campaigning, this sort of thing.

COFFEY: This is controversial, because we're running up into Ukrainian elections next year, but this should end before the elections happen. But, nevertheless, it is still controversial.

CORDERO: In a sense is it anything that would rise tensions further?

COFFEY: Well, Ukraine, the Ukrainian government says it's a prudent act to respond to increased escalation from Russia. There's another view that President Poroshenko is using this for political reasons. He had to be seen as doing something. This was the easiest thing for him to do, and it's really not going to change much.

COFFEY: Then, there's the whole debate that we have here also in the United States about trading certain liberties for security, more security. Do you have to do this to be more secure? Should a democracy have to do this?

COFFEY: There is a debate going on in the policy community on if this was a good thing or not. But, in another act by the government, they have prohibited Russian males between the ages of 16, and I think 60, I could be off there by a few years, 60 or 65, from entering Ukraine, basically, military age males. They've implemented this, and that's already in force.

COFFEY: Because, if you remember what happened in late 2013, early 2014, you had the so-called little green men pop up in places around Ukraine. They were said to be local activists and separatists, but, in reality, they were Russian special forces. We know this from lazy social media management on behalf of the Russian 19-year-old soldier who geotags himself in Eastern Ukraine, when he's not supposed to be there.

COFFEY: We have seen measures taken by the Ukrainian government. I think for the most part, they've struck the right balance. But, we shouldn't forget that this is a very deadly situation. Ukraine is fighting for its existence, for its survival.

COFFEY: In many ways, the future viability of the Transatlantic community is being fought on the front lines in Eastern Ukraine. They're fighting the Russian invaders in many ways for us right now, and we should do what we can to support them for this.

COFFEY: We should not forget that it was Russia that invaded Ukraine. Russia is the aggressor. Ukraine is the victim. It's not the other way around.

CORDERO: What does Russia want? What does Putin want out of it?

COFFEY: Well, Russia sees, as I mentioned earlier, that Ukraine plays an important role in the foundation of the modern Russian state. In the Russian mentality, if Russia doesn't, and Putin's mentality, if Russia doesn't have control or greatly influence Ukraine, then Russia is merely an Asian power, and it's not a European power. Russia sees its involvement in Ukraine as existential to its European identity in many ways.

COFFEY: Also, Putin has ideas of the Russian empire and the greatness of it and goes back to those images and wants to promote a policy that
will bring that back to the Russian people. This is why when people say what we see today in Russia is Cold War behavior, it's soviet behavior. I think this is wrong.

COFFEY: What we see today in Russia is not soviet behavior, it's imperial behavior. It's how Russia behaved before the Bolshevik Revolution, during the time of the czar, when you had the czar on the throne calling the shots, trying to spread Russian influence throughout the region using all tools of government, military, security, trade, economics, diplomacy. That's what we see today with Russia.

CORDERO: Switching gears a little bit, has President Trump been helpful in aiding Ukraine?

COFFEY: Well, absolutely. Ukraine has benefited greatly from the Trump Administration. Let's be honest, there were many of us in the policy community who during the campaign were wondering, where would a Trump Administration go when it comes to issues like Ukraine or NATO.

COFFEY: By far, Trump has done, has been the toughest President on Russia since Ronald Reagan, and he's helped Ukraine in ways that seemed impossible during the Obama years. Whether it's providing advanced anti-tank weapons, the Javelin anti-tank weapon system, which is probably one of the best in the world. The Obama Administration refused to provide this to the Ukrainians. The Trump Administration has provided them in addition to other lethal weapons, more training.

COFFEY: During the Obama Administration, they were sending over blankets and military rations and stuff, which is nice. But, if you're a soldier on the front lines, you need a little bit more than that.

COFFEY: You have Trump's critics who will say, "Well, look what he says about Russia. Look at his Twitter account."

COFFEY: I'll tell you this having spoken to Ukrainian soldiers, if I was a Ukrainian soldier on the front lines in Luhansk, and I had a choice between having that Javelin anti-tank missile or a strongly worded tweet, I'll pick that Javelin anti-tank missile any day of the week. That's actually what they're getting. I think most Ukrainians are satisfied with the level of cooperation they are getting from the US.

CORDERO: Last question, Luke, what do you see happening here? I know that's an impossible question, because there's a lot that could happen. But, you've been studying this for a long time, what do you predict?

COFFEY: Well, considering this is recorded whatever I say will not happen, and then it will be forever around for people to-

COFFEY: Well, I think on the long-term level, looking out into the future, the ultimate goal of Russia is to keep Ukraine out of the Euro-Atlantic community, so out of NATO, out of the European Union, out of these European and Atlanticist groupings and structures and more aligned towards Russia, the Eurasian Economic Union, the Collective Security Treaty Organization, which is the Russian equivalent of NATO. That's the long-term goal.

COFFEY: Russia has perfected this policy, this method that if they just go in and partially invade a country, and, then, partially occupy it, it will keep them out of groupings like NATO and the EU forever, because, frankly speaking, people in NATO don't want to deal with bringing in a member whose territory is already under partial occupation. This is Russia's long-term strategy.

COFFEY: In terms of its short-term strategy, I think, well, I talked about the so-called republics in Luhansk and Donetsk. I think Russia will want to try to make these entities more like viable states, where they can have the functions of a country. This requires certain transit nodes, the Luhansk power plant, Mariupol, that city I referred to, its port and its port infrastructure, the railings connecting all of this. This is where I think Russia, you're going to see them gradually try to take more key areas that-

CORDERO: More infrastructure.

COFFEY: Infrastructure, things like this that are needed for a state. That's why I think the recent incident in the Kerch Strait was so concerning, because this had a direct impact on Mariupol and its port. Russia's slowly strangling that.

CORDERO: Thank you for your work on this, Luke.

COFFEY: Thank you for having me today.

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