Russia's attack on Ukraine - The King Notes Version
Welcome to my newsletter by me, King Williams. A documentary filmmaker, journalist, podcast host, and author based in Atlanta, Georgia. This is a newsletter covering the hidden connections of Atlanta to everything else.
This is an overview of a complex situation, the relationship between Russia, Ukraine, and the US. This is an evolving situation and I hope this piece is seen as a primer to understanding the ongoing conflict.
Both Russia and Ukraine are countries with over 1,000 years of history. To have a single-issue newsletter would not do it justice. But this is an issue that will be divided into two parts, and the second part will be issued tomorrow evening.
This newsletter issue is meant to be a generalized understanding of the current situation between Ukraine, Russia, and the US. I hope this helps.
1. Russia has attacked Ukraine
One week ago, Russian President Vladimir Putin has stated in a pre-recorded televised statement that Russia has begun a military operation in the country of Ukraine. Following that announcement, several hundred thousand troops surrounding the border of Ukraine began to advance into the country. This advancement has been followed by a simultaneous bombing campaign of Ukrainian cities all at once. This included the capital of Kyiv and Kharkiv the second-largest city. Russia has also attacked Mariupol, a city that has been under attack from foreign forces back in 2014. Russia has also attacked Odesa, a strategic port city. Additionally, there is the continued occupation of Crimea to the south since 2014 (more on that later).
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has also confirmed Russian military advancement within the country. Zelenskyy is currently engaged with military forces to retain the country against Russian aggression. While the US has stated currently, that it will not send in any military troops into Ukraine, but will be going with sanctions against Russia as a result of this attempted takeover. The US may consider sending more weapons and aid to Ukraine but this will be determined as the situation evolves. As of the time of this writing, a failed talk between the two countries has led to continued violence within the country.
2. How did we get here?
Russia is invading Ukraine under debatable pretenses. According to President Putin, Russia is invading Ukraine because of denazification, a claim aimed at the real rise in neo-nazi movements throughout Europe over the last decade, including Ukraine.
President Putin also cites the move as a hedge against three claims: 1) encroachment of NATO towards Russia, 2) Ukraine’s status as an independent country is not valid, and 3) that Ukraine’s two pro-Russian separatist regions are under attack of acts of ethnic cleansing. But experts on the subject believe this is a larger reflection of decades of tension dating back to the end of the USSR. Most importantly, Putin’s lifelong goal of re-unifying the USSR.
Russia’s motivations for invading Ukraine
For Russia, the move to invade Ukraine is an overlap of several important needs to the country. These needs range from political, to economic, and historic.
Putin/Russian leadership believes that Ukraine is not a separate country, but a part of Russia proper. The same logic it is using against neighboring Belarus.
Ukraine’s status as independent is a byproduct of colonialism that resulted after the dissolution of the USSR in 1991.
Russia is deliberately invading, knowing some form of retaliation would happen, giving validation to even more extreme retaliatory efforts if necessary.
The invasion of Ukraine is also a hedge against believed encroachment by Russian aggressors further into Europe, in particular, NATO.
2014’s annexation of Crimea from Ukraine.
By taking over Ukraine, Russia gains a strategic military outpost for the deployment of ground forces into other European countries if necessary.
Ukraine also gives Russia a ‘bumper’ region to operate against neighboring countries should ever a terrestrial battle emerge but also for military exercises.
Ukraine’s large deposit of natural resources, plus in its neighboring East region the infrastructure to support extraction. Ukraine is also one of the world’s largest exporters of food, feeding over 500 million people globally, including being Eurasia’s largest exporter of wheat.
Ukraine’s recent efforts to rid itself of Russian energy independence are too costly to lose out on. Also, Ukrainian energy independence gives the country much more autonomy, making it less subject to Russian pricing controls.
Both Ukraine’s size (the second-largest country in Europe) and its geographic connections to both Europe and the Middle East are too valuable a trading outpost to not have.
Russia did it because they could, knowing the options would be advantageous to do so. Due to the US’s current internal political and social climate, Russia understands that the US reluctance to go to war is at its highest now, considering the backlash to the war in Afghanistan including the US departure.
Additionally, the US social standing has taken a hit since the election of Donald Trump in 2016 and his anti-NATO efforts. This is alongside the response to covid in the US, including the astroturfed anti-vaccination efforts. Efforts which has made the country look foolish on a global stage.
3. Why is Russia always in conflict?
Russia has always been a territory in conflict. The conception of ‘Russia’ as a state started in 862 with the establishment of Kievan Rus', ‘land of the rus’ derived from the Old Norse word ‘Rus’ meaning the men who row. The Kievan Rus overlaps current day country’s Ukraine, Russia, and Belarus.
Kievan Rus was the first empire of the area. Comprising a vast territory of early Slavic, Baltic, and Finnic ethnic groups with Old Nordic (Viking) origins pre-dating their arrival in the region. It lasted until 1240 after being taken over by the Mongols, led by the grandson of Ghengis Khan, Batu Khan. The Mongol Empire would be the first step toward creating the geographic boundaries today associated with Russia.
3b. The Mongols and rise of Feudal Russia - 1240-1480
During this conquest, the city of Kyiv, located in current day Ukraine, was also destroyed by Batu Khan, this included burning down the original city of Moscow, then called Moskov. The Mongol Empire’s final western stretch ended in the Kievan Rus.
The Mongols were the second most successful land-acquiring empire in world history, amassing nearly 9.3m sq miles (24m sq km) of land. The Mongol Empire was second only to the British Empire which amassed 13.7m sq mi (35.5m sq km). Compared to the Roman Empire who, at its height held 1.9m sq miles (5m sq km) of land, and the Ottoman Empire, which last nearly four times longer (600 years) but peaked at 7.6m sq miles (19.9m sq km). The Mongol’s push into present-day Russia and Ukraine would mark the end of their empire’s expansion, albeit it lasted over 200 years in the territory. This period would eventually be the basis for the eventual territory that Russia would later absorb during its eras of empire expansion.
The successful defense of the city-state of Moskov from the Mongol Empire in 1366, only to be retaken over by the Mongols by 1389. But this late 1300s era of conflicts in Mongolian Europe saw the rise of the city-state of Moscov. This era of Mongol-dominated Russia/eastern Eurasia lasted until 1480. This period also Russia rebuild the city of Moskov, now named Moscow, as well as Keiv (Kyiv). Moscow, to the north, would be the new establishment of the country of Russia. But this Russia still was not the size it is today. Over the next three-plus centuries, Russia took over the vast territory that Mongols acquired in addition to marking the transition into Tsardom.
3d. Tsarist Russia - 1480-1917
Following this period the 1500s saw the expansion of what was known as the Grand Duchy of Moscow. A territory of roughly 20,000 sq km, roughly 10% less than the current size of the state of New Jersey. By the 1540s some of the adjacent Kievan Rus territories began to call the area Rossiya, the Byzantine name for Rus’. In 1547, Tsardom of Rus’ was the name given to the territory by Ivan the IV (Ivan the Terrible). The area was called Putin’s claim that “Modern Russia started in Ukraine” is based on the establishment of the new Tsar system in the current-day Ukrainian city of Kyiv (key-EV) in 1721. During that period it was known as the Russian Empire by Peter the Great. This period of Russia would see a larger shift of political influence by the Cossacks in the region of Ukraine. The increased role of religion in the political systems, and a disastrous invasion by Napoleon. As well as the end of the Romanov family dynasty.
3e. Russian Revolution and foundation of the Soviet Union - 1917-1923
World War I saw the end of Russia’s Tsar based political system, as well as the end of the Ottoman Empire. The end of Tsarist Russia brought about the revolutions which would become the foundation of the Soviet Union.
These revolutions would see a political and an ideological shift away from the punitive top-down leadership of the Tsar era. It also saw the rise of massive political violence, several civil wars in both Russia and Ukraine. By the end of this period, the foundations of a more unified, pro-worker, pro-everyman idea of communism would become the foundations of a new political system. But would still contain many of the same top-down/autocratic leadership systems that had existed since the days of the Kievan Rus and the Mongols. Soviet Russia started as everything it wanted not to be.
3f. Soviet Russia - 1923 -1991
The foundation of Soviet Russia is marked by the political goals of Marxism, Leninism, and Communism meeting the reality of an emerging dictatorship. Under this era of Russia, led by Josef Stalin, Russia would see the emergence of a new form of top-down leadership. Communism became synonymous with the varying brutal political regimes of Stalin and Nikita Khrushchev. This time period also saw the Cold War between Russia and the US. A decades-long effort of espionage, non-violent civil conflicts, propaganda, and threats of war from both countries. For both countries, the real or perceived threat of western democracy in the USSR or communism in the US was the basis of many political + military initiatives.
3g. The Cold War
The Cold War was the 52-year stalemate between US and Russian relations, lasting from 1947 to 1989. That period saw the rampant expansion of both the US and Russian military-industrial complexes. This period saw internal paranoia in addition to a rise in cultural conservatism + nationalism in both the US and Russia.
This also included the establishment of military bases and weapons depots in adjacent countries. This saw the US stockpiling nuclear weapons in Turkey in 1961. As a retaliatory effort, the USSR stockpile of nuclear weapons in Cuba led to the Cuban Missle Crisis in 1962. These efforts continued into the 1960s space race, continued nuclear arms race, and the 1980s ‘star wars’. That era of 1980s war development saw both countries eventually attempting to build an interstellar weapons program. Both countries spent billions, to keep up with each other.
These decades of military spending resulted in an ongoing arms race between the two countries. For the US, the national debt raised to the highest it has ever with the biggest surge in debt at the time happening under President Reagan. But also led to the bankrupting of Russia, then the USSR, which saw its fall in stages, including the Berlin Wall, falling down in 1989, then the dissolution of the USSR in 1991.
3h.Modern Russia - 1991 - present
Modern Russia is defined by four major points: 1) the fall of the USSR, 2) the exclusion of Russia from political/social liberalization, 3) the exclusion from the EU + NATO, and 4) the rise of Vladimir Putin.
At the fall of the USSR, Russia was once again in a similar situation to the one it had at the end of World War II. The rest of Europe was moving towards a new system of political unity, in this case, the establishment of the European Union (EU), the creation of the Euro, and the expansion of NATO, which once again left Russia outside looking in. Part of this was due to concerns of Russian influence within the EU, how Soviet Russia was percieved by other countries, Russia’s oligarchy-based political/economic system, and lack of trust toward the country’s political leadership. On the other end, Russia has become known as a major exporter of oil and natural gas to many EU and non-EU member states, becoming a semi-based petrol economy.
4. The end of the USSR
Estonia in 1988 was the first country to declare itself a sovereign state. While the fall of the Berlin Wall in East Germany in 1989 marked the beginning of the end for the USSR. By December of 1991, the USSR official dissolved via the Belovezh Accords, creating the recognition of the independence of several former territories. After a series of leadership mistakes, US-led espionage, ongoing financial issues, unification of East and West Germany, a costly arms race, all resulted in losing the Cold War to the US. In the wake of this dissolution, Russia and its additional territories comprising the USSR, dissolved into 15 individual countries. These countries in varying degrees differed in political and economic policies from the former USSR.
Following the end of the USSR saw countries defect from Russia. As well as the creation of the Russian Federation. The end of the USSR also saw the creation of 15 new(ish) countries, including Ukraine, which went back to a Tsarist border for its country. The 15 new countries also became varying degrees more or less aligned with Russia. Which also saw 1990s Russia in an undefined space. This new shuffling in the former USSR, as well as the rise of what would be the eventual European Union, would lead to the rise of a nationalistic strongman leader in Vladimir Putin. Within 8 years after the end of the USSR, a relatively unknown KGB agent would become the future leader of one of the world’s most powerful countries. So who is Vladimir Putin?
5. Who is Vladimir Putin?
Vladimir Putin is the current President of Russia, he has been in power since 1999. Putin is a former KGB agent who specialized in intelligence work beginning his career as a spy. At the time of the USSR’s collapse in 1991, he was at the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. Upon the dissolution of the USSR, Putin first got into politics by becoming the mayor of St. Petersburg, Russia in 1991. By 1999, Putin became Prime Minister of Russia, occupying control over the country both directly and indirectly ever since. Prior to this invasion, Putin has been one of Russia’s most popular leaders.
Putin’s rise to power
The new Russia’s first president-elect Boris Yeltsin, unexpectedly resigned on December 31st, 1999 appointing then-Prime Minister Vladimir as the temporary President. While Yeltsin was re-elected in 1996, including accusations of stealing the election, the tide against him had turned. Yeltsin’s election was fraught with controversy, including thoughts of him canceling or postponing the election. Yeltsin even asked then-president Clinton to postpone NATO expansion with the hopes of winning without that controversy lingering on his campaign trail. Yeltsin’s second term remained with a black cloud of unpopularity to the point of his sudden departure. Vladimir Putin was elected president officially on May 7th, 2000. Since that time Putin has been either Russian Prime Minister or President. Putin’s tenure has seen a dismantling of Russian election standards including overseeing a national referendum on term limits, allowing him to serve as president until 2036. He’s up for re-election again in 2024.
5b. Russian re-unification
Russia’s aggression is a part of a prolonged effort dating back decades to attempt to reunify the Soviet Union. Since his arrival on the national stage in Russia, Putin has vowed to reunite the Soviet Union. Many people have bought into his ideas of a unified USSR because of Russian nationalism. For those who long for the day of a new Russian empire and those (including Putin himself) who believe that many of these countries including Ukraine should not exist.
The attempted seizure of Ukraine is one that stems from President Putin’s moves into more aggressive expansion efforts over the last 15+ years. Including the 2008 invasion of the country of Georgia and the 2014 annexation of the island of Crimea, a part of the country of Ukraine, that was lost via a controversial election.
5c. Russia’s interior culture war and strong man tactics
Under Putin, Russia has moved into an internal culture war based on strong man leadership, quelling dissenters, terrorizing LGBT members, attacking Islamic terrorism, and creating a new social media-based culture war against the US. Putin’s high ranking of support is due to his emphasis on attacking old guard oligarchs (while installing new ones), a commodities boom that benefits Russian exports and a relatively stable economy. His strong man image often is focused on showing off often overtly masculine activities including using weapons, hunting, tough talk speeches, crushing protests, jailing opponents, and showing off his fighting skills (he’s a black belt in judo).
5d. Russia’s rise as the world’s pre-eminent cyber warfare leader
One hallmark of the Putin era of Russian leadership has been the country’s evolution as the world’s preeminent cyberwarfare leader. Russian cyber espionage has been accused of tampering with other countries’ elections, power grids, weapons systems, financial institutions, government organizations, and social media propaganda.
This includes a potential hack of Ukraine’s electrical grid back in 2015. As well as being alleged to have purposely created dissent online in the UK ahead of 2016’s Brexit vote. The manufacturing of dissent amongst US residents via Facebook during the 2016 election. In addition to claims of attempting to hack election systems in all 50 US states in 2016. Russia has been linked to the downing of Estonia’s entire internet ecosystem in 2007. Estonia is the most internet-dependent nation, alongside being the first e-country in the world as well as a former USSR territory.
5e. Putin’s crushing of dissent and terrorizing LGBT citizens
Putin’s Russia has also seen the country become one of the most antagonistic toward LGBT residents. This includes a 2013 law that banned ‘gay propaganda’. A law that was the basis of protests before and during the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. This also includes 2017’s ‘gay purge’ in Chechnya, which saw raids, torture, and some killings of LGBT residents. Then it happened again in 2019.
5f. Russia’s LGBT politics
Russia is a socially and religiously conservative Orthodox Christian country, in some ways Russia mirrors that of the US Republican/ Conservative/American Christian political bent. Both maintain a strong sense of nationalism + religious doctrine + sexual politics. Alongside an affinity for strongman leadership.
But in some ways, it’s ahead of the US and some EU membered countries. Some aspects of Russia, are more affirming towards LGBT and sex-related issues than other countries. Russia in 1999 removed homosexuality as a mental illness, something current EU members Bulgaria and Romania still recognize as such.
5f. Russia’s sexual politics
Russia’s national abortion policy is guaranteed for any woman up until the first 12 weeks, up to the first 22 weeks for rape or health reasons. Russia was also the first country in the modern era to legalize abortion. Russia also allowed for transgender and transsexual residents to be legally assigned their new genders after surgery since 1997. Russia’s national adoption policy is complicated, technically a same-sex couple can adopt a child but those who are single in a country that recognizes legally same-sex couples cannot.
6. NATO and the Warsaw Pact
Since the start of Russia’s attack on Ukraine, the role of NATO has been debated. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) was formed in 1949 as a collection of 30 countries including the US. NATO was created for the sole purpose of providing military-level protection for membered countries against the USSR. Including an equal number of weapons, soldiers, and warfare infrastructure from each country. The Soviets wanted Russia to be a member of NATO in 1954. Despite NATO being created to stop the encroachment of any additional superpower, like the USSR.
Over the decades this has been expanded to include protections of economic trade and exclusionary efforts for membership of NATO countries. Additionally, each member of NATO is required to spend the same amount of money annually to be a member. But due to the post-World War II economies and rebuilds from its foundation, the US is the primary military and financial contributor. As a result, the US foreign policy agenda in Europe often has NATO as a guiding force in decision making. Including whether or not to defend members’ interests within the region.
The Warsaw Pact
The Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Mutual Assistance, better known as ‘The Warsaw Pact’, was formed in 1955. The pact was created as a military defense coalition between the USSR, Albania, Poland, Romania, Hungary, East Germany, Czechoslovakia, and Bulgaria. The move was a counter to the creation of NATO, to which most of western Europe, including West Germany, was a member.
With the exception of 1968’s invasion in Czechoslovakia, the two sides did not engage in conflict. It was until the 1989 cultural revolutions, including the reunification of East and West Germany in 1990, then the fall of the USSR in 1991, that the Warsaw Pact was dissolved. A key tenet of the controversy of the Warsaw Pact and the subsequent NATO-Russia Act of 1997 was the role of whether or not, the US/Western Europe would not move further eastward, a contentious topic to this day. The US/NATO argues that there is no formal agreement post-1991 and that NATO has always been open to new members since its founding in 1949.
*NATO has also recently released its own fact check regarding misnomers on this issue of expansion and its relationship with Russia’s claims. You can read it here.
6b. If Ukraine is not in NATO why do the US and EU care?
At the end of the USSR, Ukraine was home to the third-largest base of nuclear weapons on the planet. As a result, the US, UK, Ukraine, and Russia agreed to a disarmament strategy via the Budapest Memorandum.
That saw Ukraine give back all of its nuclear weapons from 1994 to 1996, it was a mistake. Because of Ukraine’s nuclear disarmament, there was an explicit/implicit agreement that the US, UK, and Russia, would represent Ukraine militarily in case of a major crisis arising. All members pledged to recognized sovereignty and not attack.
As a result, Ukraine did not have enough motivating reasons from other countries for them to join NATO, despite an attempt in 2008. Six years later, Russia violated the agreement invading Ukraine in 2014 after Russia invaded Crimea.
7. The European Union (1993) and the Euro (1999)
The creation of the European Union in 1993, was ahead of unity amongst the European nations against hegemonic power like Russia. The creation of the EU dealt another blow to Russian supremacy and any thoughts of recreating another USSR. The European Union’s liberalism and a political shift towards a more westernized democracy left Russia once again looking from the outside. Some of this was due to fears of Russian influence within this new system, the other being its then uncertain political system, as well as the concerns of a new rise of totalitarianism.
7b. The Euro
This was aided by the creation of the Euro, a singular currency that would be accepted amongst the other dozen nations in the newly formed European Union. The Euro was created via the 1991 Maastricht Treaty, an idea that had been gestating since 1929 but did not gain traction until the 1960s. The move to the Euro allowed for more economies to be less vulnerable to a Russian financial takeover. As the Ruble fell in value during the 1990s, the Euro has become at times the world’s most valuable currency.
While the Rouble has found some stability, both have managed to grow in value since 1999. Despite this, the Rouble is much less stable than rival currencies the Euro, the Franc, British Pound, and US dollar. Prior to the drastic dip since the announcement of new sanctions, Russia’s large petro-economy, being the largest natural gas provider in the world, and an overall rise in prices of commodities since 2000, has managed to keep the currency a mostly top-10 player. Until the start of the current invasion.
8. The Russian POV
In Russia’s POV, especially by admitting more members. Resulting in more NATO member countries surrounding Russia, as well as Ukraine, who was considering membership. Additionally, Russia was denied membership into NATO. Russia is currently neighboring 5 members of NATO, which in their purview is a threat to their sovereignty. Because NATO protects member countries from becoming under the threat of another regional power, NATO is always at odds with Russia. Russia has maintained the stance that it is defending itself against NATO.
8b. NATO and the Warsaw Pact
The US and Russia at the end of the Soviet Union decided upon an agreed set of terms. These terms included borders, recognizing independent countries, weapons disarmament, and the number of accepted members of NATO. In Russia’s pov, the US’s continual support of an expansion of NATO violates these agreements.
Since the establishment of NATO, the coalition has expanded from 12 members in 1949, to 30 members as of 2022. Should Ukraine join, (it is a NATO partner, not a member) it would be the closest NATO member of a sizeable landmass, weaponry, and population near Russia.
The Warsaw Pact
In Russia’s pov, the US violated the Warsaw Pact by its continued eastward expansion. The reason for this debate centers on a 1990 meeting between Bush I era Secretary of State James Baker, who while meeting with Germany’s chairman of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), Hans-Dietrich Genscher. In that meeting, Secretary Baker stated that a unified Germany would be beneficial to be a member of NATO, resulting in the US not moving any closer to Germany. Baker to this day defends that he did not give any guarantee to the newly unified Germany (and by proxy Russia), that the US/NATO wouldn’t expand eastward.
8c. Russia is defending itself from US/European imperialism
Since the establishment of NATO, then the European Union, Russia has maintained its stance that it’s defending itself. But more importantly, the US, NATO, and the EU over the last decade have taken severe hits in credibility, which undergirds the most recent moves by Russia. Putin believes that the US has been acting like an empire, enforcing its rule abroad via treaties, military bases, and economic policy.
8d. Russia is geographically isolated from much of the world, it needs to get bigger
Since its inception, Russia is geographically too far away from other countries. Because of this isolation the country has needed to assert its dominance and influence. With the USSR claiming up to now 15 current day countries many of which occupied the middle portion of Eurasia. Because Russia is so much further away geographically from major economic hubs in western Europe and southeast Asia, Russia is more prone to the negative effects of economic isolationism than others.
8e. The US is acting hypocritical and their inclusion in NATO is hypocritical
From the Russian point of view, the US is the aggressor and the manipulator. Putin on several occasions has called the US hypocrites for its acts in international affairs. Or that the US is as equally guilty for committing similar actions but is seen favorably compared to Russia. Both Russia and the US have also invaded Afghanistan. Putin directly called the 2003 invasion of Iraq a ‘mistake’. Russia has called out the human rights abuses of the US. The role of the US arming countries like Israel as well as its role in the bombing of Syria. Russia has also claimed that the US has engaged in political manipulation in several Latin American countries. the US has a similar system of cronyism, and while not at the degree of an oligarch-based financial system of Russia, the US is nearly there as well.