Why Is Russia Invading Ukraine? What to Know as Attacks Begin

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Russian President Vladimir Putin has launched a wide-ranging military attack against Ukraine, with explosions and air sirens heard across the country, including in the country's capital, Kyiv.

Ukraine’s leadership said at least 40 people had been killed so far in what it called a “full-scale war” targeting the country from the east, north and south. It said Russia’s intent was to destroy the state of Ukraine, a Western-looking democracy intent on moving out of Moscow’s orbit.

Leaders in the U.S. and European Union have announced that severe sanctions will come in response.

Russia and the West have been on a collision course since Moscow’s decision to formally recognize the independence of two Ukrainian breakaway regions largely held by separatists.

Here's a breakdown of the rebel-controlled territories in eastern Ukraine and what we know so far about Russia's attack.

How did the rebel-controlled territories begin?

When Ukraine’s Moscow-friendly president was driven from office by mass protests in February 2014, Russia responded by annexing Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula. It then threw its weight behind an insurgency in the mostly Russian-speaking eastern Ukraine region known as Donbas.

In April 2014, Russia-backed rebels seized government buildings in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, proclaimed the creation of “people’s republics” and battled Ukrainian troops and volunteer battalions.

The following month, the separatist regions held a popular vote to declare independence and make a bid to become part of Russia. Moscow hasn’t accepted the motion, just used the regions as a tool to keep Ukraine in its orbit and prevent it from joining NATO.

Ukraine and the West accused Russia of backing the rebels with troops and weapons. Moscow denied that, saying any Russians who fought there were volunteers.

Amid ferocious battles involving tanks, heavy artillery and warplanes, Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was shot down over eastern Ukraine on July 17, 2014, killing all 298 people aboard. An international probe concluded that the passenger jet was downed by a Russia-supplied missile from the rebel-controlled territory in Ukraine. Moscow still denied any involvement.

Were peace agreements reached in eastern Ukraine?

After a massive defeat of Ukrainian troops in August 2014, envoys from Kyiv, the rebels and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe signed a truce in the Belarusian capital of Minsk in September 2014.

The document envisaged an OSCE-observed cease-fire, a pullback of all foreign fighters, an exchange of prisoners and hostages, an amnesty for the rebels and a promise that separatist regions could have a degree of self-rule.

The deal quickly collapsed and large-scale fighting resumed, leading to another major defeat for Ukrainian forces at Debaltseve in January-February of 2015.

France and Germany brokered another peace agreement, which was signed in Minsk in February 2015 by representatives of Ukraine, Russia and the rebels. It envisaged a new cease-fire, a pullback of heavy weapons and a series of moves toward a political settlement. A declaration backing the deal was signed by the leaders of Russia, Ukraine, France and Germany.

What about the 2015 peace deal?

The 2015 peace deal was a major diplomatic coup for the Kremlin, obliging Ukraine to grant special status to the separatist regions, allowing them to create their own police force and have a say in appointing local prosecutors and judges. It also envisaged that Ukraine could only regain control over the roughly 200-kilometer (125-mile) border with Russia in rebel regions after they get self-rule and hold OSCE-monitored local elections — balloting that would almost certainly keep pro-Moscow rebels in power there.

Many Ukrainians see it as a betrayal of national interests and its implementation has stalled.

The Minsk document helped end full-scale fighting, but the situation has remained tense and regular skirmishes have continued.

With the Minsk deal stalled, Moscow’s hope to use rebel regions to directly influence Ukraine’s politics has failed but the frozen conflict has drained Kyiv’s resources and effectively stymied its goal of joining NATO — which is enshrined in the Ukrainian constitution.

Moscow also has worked to secure its hold on the rebel regions by handing out more than 720,000 Russian passports to roughly one-fifth of their population of about 3.6 million. It has provided economic and financial assistance to the separatist territories, but the aid has been insufficient to alleviate the massive damage from fighting and shore up the economy. The Donbas region accounted for about 16% of Ukraine’s GDP before the conflict.

Amid soaring tensions over the Russian troop concentration near Ukraine, France and Germany embarked on renewed efforts to encourage compliance with the 2015 deal, in hopes that it could help defuse the current standoff.

Facing calls from Berlin and Paris for its implementation, Ukrainian officials have strengthened their criticism of the Minsk deal and warned that it could lead to the country’s demise. Two rounds of talks in Paris and Berlin between presidential envoys from Russia, Ukraine, France and Germany have yielded no progress.

The lower house of the Russian parliament, meanwhile, urged Putin last week to recognize the independence of Ukraine's rebel regions.

What happened when Putin recognized the rebel regions' independence?

Putin’s recognition of the rebel-held territories’ independence effectively shatters the Minsk peace agreements and will further fuel tensions with the West. He said that Moscow would sign friendship treaties with the rebel territories, a move that could pave the way for Russia to openly support them with troops and weapons.

The move follows several days of shelling that erupted along the line of contact in Donetsk and Luhansk. Ukraine and the West accused Moscow of fomenting the tensions to create a pretext for an invasion. Russia, in turn, accused Ukraine of trying to reclaim the rebel-held territories by force, the claim that Kyiv strongly rejected.

On Friday, separatist leaders released video statements announcing the evacuation of civilians in the face of what they described as a Ukrainian “aggression." The data embedded in the video indicated that their statements had been pre-recorded two days earlier when the situation was still relatively calm, suggesting a deliberate plan to try to sever the regions from Ukraine.

The rebel chiefs put out new video statements Monday urging Putin to recognize their regions' independence and the Russian leader responded quickly by convening a carefully orchestrated meeting of his Security Council and then signing the recognition decrees in a televised ceremony.

What has happened since?

In a televised address as the attack began, Russian President Vladimir Putin said it was needed to protect civilians in eastern Ukraine, where Ukrainian forces and Russia-backed separatists have been fighting for almost eight years.

The U.S. had predicted Putin would falsely claim that the rebel-held regions were under attack to justify an invasion.

The Russian leader warned other countries that any attempt to interfere in Ukraine would “lead to consequences you have never seen in history" — a dark threat implying Russia was prepared to use its nuclear weapons.

Putin accused the U.S. and its allies of ignoring Russia’s demands to block Ukraine from ever joining NATO and offer Moscow security guarantees.

Putin said Russia does not intend to occupy Ukraine but plans to “demilitarize” it. Soon after his address, explosions were heard in the cities of Kyiv, Kharkiv and Odesa. Russia said it was attacking military targets.

He urged Ukrainian servicemen to “immediately put down arms and go home.”

Ukraine’s border guard agency said the Russian military attacked from neighboring Belarus, unleashing a barrage of artillery. The agency said Ukrainian border guards fired back. Russian troops had been in Belarus, a Moscow ally, for what Russian and Belarusian officials had described as joint military drills.

Russia, which for weeks has denied plans to invade Ukraine, said Thursday it aims to neutralize Ukraine's "military potential" as it launched attacks on the country. 

In a briefing, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Russia's attack on Ukraine was "dictated only by our national interests and concern for the future."

"These are the only goals," he said. "No one talks about occupation, this word does not apply here. Russia’s aim is neutralization of Ukraine’s military potential."

What is the West doing?

World leaders decried the start of an invasion that could cause massive casualties, topple Ukraine’s democratically elected government and threaten the post-Cold War balance.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg called Russia's attack “a brutal act of war” and said Moscow had shattered peace on the European continent.

U.S. President Joe Biden said Putin “has chosen a premeditated war that will bring a catastrophic loss of life and human suffering."

In Lithuania, a small Baltic nation and NATO member that borders Russia’s Kaliningrad region to the southwest, Belarus to the east, Latvia to the north and Poland to the south. President Gitanas Nauseda signed a decree declaring a state of emergency. The country's parliament was expected to approve the measure later in the day.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said Putin has “unleashed war in our European continent” and Britain “cannot and will not just look away.”

“Our mission is clear: diplomatically, politically, economically and eventually militarily, this hideous and barbaric venture of Vladimir Putin must end in failure,” Johnson said.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz sharply condemned Russia’s attack, calling it “a terrible day for Ukraine and a dark day for Europe.”

Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said: “This Russian invasion stands to put at risk the basic principle of international order that forbids one-sided action of force in an attempt to change the status quo."

Meanwhile, in Illinois, Sen. Dick Durbin, who met with foreign leaders in Lithuania on Wednesday, called the attack a “dire threat to the established international order,” while Gov. J.B. Pritzker said that Illinois residents stand with Ukrainian citizens during a Russian attempt to “undermine democracy” in the region.

“Tonight, we stand together in prayer for the people of Ukraine and united in our resolve against the tyranny of a Russian autocrat determined to undermine democracy and threaten peace on the European continent," Pritzker said in a statement.

What sanctions could be imposed?

UPDATE: President Joe Biden on Thursday announced a new round of sanctions targeting Russia after its invasion of Ukraine. Here's a look at what he announced.

The European Union is planning the “strongest, the harshest package” of sanctions it has ever considered at an emergency summit Thursday as the Russian military attacked Ukraine and world leaders reacted with outrage at Moscow's actions.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said that “the target is the stability in Europe and the whole of the international peace order, and we will hold President (Vladimir) Putin accountable for that.”

“We will present a package of massive and targeted sanctions to European leaders for approval,” she said.

Von der Leyen said the “massive and targeted sanctions” she will put to EU leaders “will target strategic sectors of the Russian economy by blocking the access to technologies and markets that are key for Russia.”

She said the sanctions, if approved, “will weaken Russia’s economic base and its capacity to modernize. And in addition, we will freeze Russian assets in the European Union and stop the access of Russian banks to European financial financial markets.”

Like the first package of sanctions that were imposed when Russia recognized the two breakaway eastern Ukrainian republics, von der Leyen said all Western powers were walking in lockstep.

The U.S. hasn't specified just what measures it will take now, although administration officials have made clear that all-out sanctions against Russia's major banks are among the likely options. So are export limits that would deny Russia U.S. high tech for its industries and military.

Another tough measure under consideration would effectively shut Russia out of much of the global financial system.

How could this impact the global economy?

Stocks plunged and oil prices surged by more than $5 per barrel Thursday after Putin launched military action in Ukraine.

Market benchmarks in Europe and Asia fell by as much as 4% as traders tried to figure out how large Putin's incursion would be and the scale of Western retaliation. Wall Street futures retreated by an unusually wide daily margin of 2.5%.

Brent crude oil briefly jumped above $100 per barrel in London for the first time since 2014 on unease about possible disruption of supplies from Russia, the No. 3 producer. Benchmark U.S. crude briefly surpassed $98 per barrel. Prices of wheat and corn also jumped.

The ruble sank 7.5% against the dollar.

Financial markets are in a “flight to safety and may have to price in slower growth" due to high energy costs, Chris Turner and Francesco Pesole of ING said in a report.

Sen. Durbin, who is in Europe meeting with American allies amid the standoff, is warning residents to expect retaliation of some sort by Putin amid new sanctions.

“Of course they will retaliate,” he said. “If they do it on an economic level, we may feel it in some sectors.”

One of the first sectors that could feel the impact is the energy field, which would likely take the form of higher prices for gasoline and natural gas.

“As we start to see sanctions put on Russia, it’s not impossible that Russia could retaliate by curbing the amount of oil coming from their country,” Patrick De Haan of Gas Buddy said.

Another potential threat could come in the form of cyberattacks. When Russia annexed Crimea, Putin and his government launched a series of cyberattacks on U.S. industries and infrastructure. Experts say that electrical grids and municipal water systems could be targeted.

NBC Chicago/Associated Press
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