The origins of the war in Ukraine

Origins of the war in Ukraine :



In February 2014, Russia launched a war in Ukraine, and the reasons for this invasion are still not clear.

We can ask ourselves what motivated President Vladimir Putin to send troops into Crimea and why the conflict spread to eastern Ukraine with Russian support. (Roots of Russia’s War in Ukraine, 2015).

To understand the actual situation of Ukraine and the reason for the Russian invasion of this territory, we have to go back to the past.

World stability depends on the relationship between major powers. Two scenarios can be imagined: the first one is a world with a balance of power, and the second one is a world with collective security.

Since the end of the big world war and the cold war, the scenario can change, between the balance of power and collective security. It is a fragile balance.

We are going to try to explain the origins of the war in Ukraine.

To begin, it is important to note that the war in Ukraine is only a consequence of a larger conflict between two power blocs. To understand the situation, we must study the «architecture» of Europe post-Cold-war.

The two power blocs we are talking about are Europe (the Occident) and Russia.

After the cold war, the two blocs are not at an equal level in terms of security. In fact, the Occident kept NATO (The North Atlantic Treaty Organization) alive. This conservation has deteriorated the relationship of Occident with Russia. NATO continues its expansion without listening to Russia, who mentioned many disagreements with the NATO projects.

La mémoire collective : définition et instrument politique

Indeed, NATO proposed to Ukraine become a new member of the organization. Moreover, the EU offered Trade and Association Agreement talks to Ukraine. As a result, the relationship between the blocks derived toward the balance of power. (The Origins of the Ukraine Crisis and the Need for Collective Security between Russia and the West, October 2016).

Now, let’s talk about the policy implications. Logically, the way how the losers of war are treated is determinative of future stability. We are here talking about the situation post-Cold-war. The Occident missed an opportunity to integrate Russia into the Euro-Atlantic security architecture (so in NATO).

To keep a security balance, the nations need to have friendly neighbours (mainly for nations within landlocked). By this way, the «friends» help to protect their country from any form of attack.

These neighbours are forming spheres of influence which can be formalized in the form of alliances. The major goal of such an alliance is to be a collective defence organisation. Thus, the aim is to defend each other, militarily, in case of an attack from another country. According to the alliances’ theory, this should deter potential enemies from attacking and therefore keep stability and security.

Any potential aggression is considered a subject of the highest importance, as a result, it can be an aggressive reaction and war. By reading these words, we can think alliances are good and permit to keep peace in the world, but the reality is another thing.

A structural problem of alliances is that they are always looking for external enemies that may compromise their territory. This process can become a «self-fulfilling prophecy». It means that mistrust can create more mistrust, tensions, conflicts, and finally war. That’s why a bad balance can end up in war.

The balance of power system needs to be softened by security rules, agreed upon by the nations. This is the principle of collective security.

Collective security organizations aim to reinforce security with rules aimed at managing conflicts and preventing them. In that process, all the nations need to feel equal and consider each other as equal. This doesn’t mean that they have to live with the same values and beliefs, particularly in the type of political system.

A historical example of a collective security system is the Concert of Europe, established between 1815 and 1854 when the five major states in Europe agreed on basic rules with external respect for security.

Another example of a collective security organization is the UNO (United Nations Organization). Alliances are difficult to reconcile with collective security systems alliances are looking for external enemies, which stand in opposition to the idea of collective security.

During the last decade, the EU met difficulties to reappraise its policies in response to significant changes in Russia.

L’Holodomor au Musée canadien des droits de la personne

A decrease in collective analytical capacity has weakened the Member States in reading the political changing in Russia and then finding a sufficient authoritative response. This lack of capacity was evident during the Ukraine crisis, and before but the EU had not considered the exceptional nature of Ukraine and its unique position with neighbours.

Already since the end of the Cold War Russia did not feel respected by the Occident, particularly with the creation of NATO. The Occident never really noticed this lack of respect. As a result, Putin doesn’t know what Occident thinks, and vice versa The Occident doesn’t understand Putin.

The two blocks also communicate differently. Some specialists think that as a result of this misunderstanding, Putin feels like his message is not transmitted and it creates frustration among him, that’s why he is delivering his message again but with more aggression, by backing up his words with military action. (The Origins of the Ukraine Crisis and the Need for Collective Security between Russia and the West, October 2016).

If we look at the past 200 years, four major points are noticeable: the Congress of Vienna in 1815, the end of the First World War, the end of the Second World War and the end of the Cold War.

The big nations in post-Napoleonic Europe decided to include France (which had lost the war) in the European security architecture. This «Concert of Europe» enabled stability and peace for many decades, at least until the war in Crimea in 1854. In comparison, in the post-first World war, the international community failed to integrate Germany.

Particularly, the treaty of Versailles didn’t enable Germany to be included in the international community and was perceived as a Diktat. This exclusion led to the rise of Nazism; this is also the explanation of the origins of the Second World war.


The Post Second World War was managed differently, in a better way.

In fact, the big nation having learned from the past and the previous negative consequences of their choices established a new collective security organization. Nowadays, the five victorious nations were given a permanent seat and veto power in the UN Security Council.

Moreover, the two major losers of this war, Germany and Japan, were integrated into the Occident. Unfortunately, the UN suffered from the cold war period. The post-cold war configuration is two alliances standing opposite each other, this configuration is complicated to manage.

The end of the cold war in 1989 was not predicted, particularly by the leaders in the Kremlin. At the same time, Soviet President Gorbachev wanted to change progressively the economic and political system of the USSR, while the USSR and the Warsaw Pact imploded in 1991.

Le caractère génocidaire de l’Holodomor

The post-cold war was a rude period for Russia, the domestic politics was different with a small communist party and a state-based economy transformed by capitalism. In this way, the Russian superpower fell apart, particularly geographically and economically. At the end of the 1990s, Russia’s GDP was as small as Portugal’s.

So, Russia was considered a developing country but with nuclear weapons. In 1998, Russia was also hit by a financial crisis and the leadership fell apart progressively in the same period. (The Origins of the Ukraine Crisis and the Need for Collective Security between Russia and the West, October 2016).

After the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the Occident triumph, the capitalist system was more effective than the economic system of the USSR. The end of the cold war was not a disaster, the two blocks could have rebuilt a relationship based on peace.

Russia hoped to change NATO, particularly Moscow wanted the abolition of NATO. It was a realistic hope because all alliances are temporary, as shown with the end of the Warsaw Pact. Although Russia rejoined NATO’s Partnership for Peace program, it was never invited to be a regular NATO member.

Russia never officially asked to become a NATO member because it knew the answer in advance, but even Putin was potentially interested to participate in NATO, during his first term.

And previously, Gorbachev already talked about NATO membership during German reunification talks with US Secretary of State James Baker in May 1990. This idea of integrating Russia on equal feet was not taken seriously in the West. (Roots of Russia’s War in Ukraine, 2015).


In 1991, Ukraine became independent, but without any revolution. They appeared later, in 2004 and 2014. The independence came in 1991 following the collapse of the central Soviet power in Moscow. After this period, it is important to consider the Russian identity in parts of Ukraine. The country always defended its traditional Orthodox Christian faith.

However, some distinctions came, geographically, between those who settled in the west, called the Right Bank, and those who settled east of the river, known as the Left Bank.

The Left Bank includes the current regions of Crimea, Dnipropetrovsk, Donetsk, Kharkiv, Kherson, Lugansk, Odesa, Nikolayevsk, and Zaporizhzhia. They form a cultural community, distinguished by the strong influence of Russian culture (even if the majority of the population defines itself as Ukrainian).

Simplified historical map of Ukrainian borders: 1654-2014

Figure 3: Simplified historical map of Ukrainian borders: 1654-2014. (Ukraine and Russia People, Politics, Propaganda and Perspectives, 2015).

In this eastern region that supported Viktor Yanukovych in the 2004 elections, the percentage of the population that considered itself ‘Russian’ was about 34 %, however, the percentage of people considering themselves being primarily ‘Russian speakers’ was up to 82 %.

Origins of the war in Ukraine - Percentage of Russians and Russian speakers in regions that supported V. Yanukovych

Figure 4 : Percentage of Russians and Russian speakers in regions that supported V. Yanukovych. (Ukraine and Russia People, Politics, Propaganda and Perspectives, 2015).

This heritage can be justified by the different Russian settlements in the East, firstly in Slobodskaya Ukraine, then in Novorossiya, in Crimea, and finally in the Donbas.

Slobodskaya Ukraine and Slobozhanshchyna include the Ukrainian regions of Kharkiv and Sumy, but also the regions of Voronezh, Kursk and Belgorod, which are currently part of the Russian Federation. These areas gained local autonomy in exchange for defending service within the Russian Empire’s borders. They also benefited from trading privileges and certain tax exemptions.

Kharkiv is the second-largest city of Ukraine, it is also the capital of the Ukrainian SSR, from 1919 to 1934. Kharkiv was also the administrative and cultural capital of Slobozhanshchyna.

Due to its university which is the second oldest in the Russian Empire, this place became the major Russian cultural centre. It was a prominent centre for the study of the Ukrainian language as well. There was an extension of Slobodskaya Ukraine in the south, and some military forts were established there, so the settlement of this region was incorporated into the Russian Empire.

Since the conquest of Novorossiya, new ports were implanted to promote trade there. It added a new coastline to the Russian Empire. Nowadays, this town is known as Odesa, the third-largest city in Ukraine.

It became the region’s cultural and commercial center. Its post of free port with foreign administrators contributed to a cosmopolitanism that attracted a lot of Jews, Greeks, Armenians, and Italians. By the end of the nineteenth century, this town was known as the ‘Southern Capital of the Russian Empire’. (Roots of Russia’s War in Ukraine, 2015).

It was only in 1954 that Crimea was transferred administratively from the Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic (RSFSR) to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic (SSR). Moreover, it is the unique region of Ukraine whose population considers itself Russian.

In link with the recent events, the problem with Crimea was about to become an independent part of Ukraine. The Crimea autonomy was stopped in 1946, but in January 1991, the Crimean regional government decided to instate a referendum to refine the Crimean autonomy.

Ukraine was still part of the USSR; this new referendum was the beginning of the separation of Crimea from the USSR.

Over 93 per cent of the participants voted for autonomy and in February, the parliament of Soviet Ukraine acknowledged this referendum. On 4 September 1991, the Supreme Soviet of the Autonomous Crimean Republic (ACR) claimed its sovereignty and declared its intent to create its democratic state within Ukraine.

Under Kyiv’s pressure, it was cancelled the next day, but the Crimea kept a specific constitution that is conflictual with the Ukrainian one. In the following years, relations between the Ukrainian governments and Crimea remained tense.

Despite this pressure, the situation seemed to be resolved in 1995. In fact, Russia did not respond to Ukraine’s decision to revoke the 1992 Crimean constitution. Unfortunately, the situation got worse in 2014 with street manifestations in Kyiv. These manifestations turned violent.

The consequence was the removal of President Yanukovych from office. The day after, a lot of regional officials (up to three thousand) from Ukraine’s east and south went to Kharkiv. They voted to gain political control in their region, and until the restoration of the constitutional order in Kyiv. During this meeting, the Crimean’s regional parliament called for a referendum on Crimean autonomy within Ukraine.

Kyiv responded quickly. Kyiv put the Ukrainian military under the direct command of president Oleksandr Turchynov (temporary president).

Then he tried to replace local military commanders and security forces in Crimea. In consequence, the Crimean government called on the resident Russian Black Sea Fleet to gain assistance in maintaining security.

On the 1st of March, President Putin asked for the use of Russian troops in Ukraine, and he received the authority to use it. The pretext to resort to these troops was the threat to Russian citizens, military personnel and compatriots in Crimea.

The Crimean referendum was moved up one week later. The text changes from autonomy within Ukraine to secession (with the intent of joining Russia). Then, on 16 March, more than 80 % of the population approved the secession.

Most international legal experts consider this referendum illegal because the Russian intervention facilitated a lot of the ability to hold such a referendum.

However, the court of justice declared that «there was no general rule prohibiting declarations of independence, or authorizing them for that matter, that these were political acts». Russia considered its act as a political act, the government in Kyiv being in dispute, the Crimean government as well in its right to act, according to Russia. (Ukraine and Russia People, Politics, Propaganda and Perspectives, 2015).

According to Ukrainian nationalists, the region of Donbas is also a region identified as a Soviet one, like Crimea.

The former President of Ukraine, Viktor Yushchenko, even qualified the Donbas region and the Crimea as regions «where our language practically does not exist, where our memory is nonexistent, where our church is absent, where our culture is absent». With the expansion of the Russian empire, these regions grew as well.

The consequence was the print of the impact on these regions’ identity, their historical-cultural pattern is bicultural. Both regions, Donbas and Crimea, known as «the other Ukraine» have developed a self-sustaining regional identity where both Russian and Ukrainian interact freely.

Whereas the only language considered official in the Ukrainian constitution is Ukrainian, in the rebellious Donetsk constitution, Russian and Ukrainian are declared as official languages. Moreover, these territories are in a border region, between Moscow and Kyiv.

There are consequences for the inhabitant’s opinions on both sides. In the West of Ukraine, people are more convinced that there is no Russian invasion, and that Ukraine must remain a unitary state, with a unique official language.

However, in the East, people think the crisis is due to Kyiv and that the Russian language needs an equal status with Ukrainian. Almost all the people on this site are favourable to separating from Ukraine. (Ukraine and Russia People, Politics, Propaganda and Perspectives, 2015).

No solutions were found, the problem is that the Russian-speaking minority of Ukraine owns a powerful patron, in the exterior of the country.

La nation, l’identité nationale et la mémoire collective

The two requirements of Putin are that the population, in the east and south, be safe and be part of his political process. He pronounced these two requirements in an interview in March 2014. Ukraine could improve the situation by adopting the Russian language and culture as legitim parts of Ukrainian identity.

This will be good to recognize the obvious reality: Ukraine is bilingual and bicultural. This recognition could enable them to remain loyal to the state without further dividing the Ukrainian nation.

In February 2022, Ukraine was invaded by Russia. Since the day before the invasion, no one could believe this catastrophic scenario, but it happens. (Roots of Russia’s War in Ukraine, 2015).

Pour citer ce mémoire (mémoire de master, thèse, PFE,...) :
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The impact of the Russian-Ukrainian war on Poland
Université 🏫: Université Grenoble (UGA) - Grenoble IAE – Gaduate school of management
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FARAG Noureldin

FARAG Noureldin
Année de soutenance 📅: Mobility Study dissertation - Licence – mobilité études - Program Management - 2021 – 2023
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