News·7 min read

What You Need to Know About Russia and Ukraine’s Complicated Relationship

Ukrainian military.
Getty Images
February 24, 2022

Russia’s had its neighbor Ukraine on its wish list for decades. And on Feb. 24, after months of tension, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a “special military operation” (aka an invasion) in Ukraine. Ukrainians awoke to a nightmare of attacks by air, land, and sea. Russians targeted major cities and military bases — throwing countries near and far into a frenzy. Many are asking, how did it come to this? Here's what you need to know about the conflict — and how it started.

PS: This is a Skimm’d down version of a decades-long conflict.

The Latest: Russia Attacks Ukraine

On Feb. 24, Ukrainians woke up to sounds of air raid sirens and explosions. Russia had finally invaded Ukraine after weeks of building up hundreds of thousands of troops at its borders. Putin claimed that his goal was to "denazify" and "demilitarize" Ukraine, (tap here to read more on that). The invasion comes after Putin recognized two regions in Ukraine — Donetsk and Luhansk — as independent. But Russia's attacks extended beyond these places. Instead, major cities and military bases across Ukraine were hit in airstrikes.

“What the Russians are trying to do is get air dominance,” Melinda Haring, deputy director of the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center and an expert on Ukraine, told the “Skimm This” podcast team. “They’re striking at military sites and airports in Ukraine. As soon as they get dominance to the skies, that's when we expect tanks to roll in.”

So far, a Ukrainian gov official said that dozens of soldiers and at least 10 civilians have died. And one expert on the ground in Ukraine says that's just the beginning. 

“This conflict is all but certain to be the biggest war that Europe has seen since the days of Stalin and Hitler,” Richard Ensor, a journalist with the Economist and resident of Kyiv, said. “We're talking about 200,000 Russian troops fighting against hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian soldiers. And that is something that's not going to be resolved easily.”

In a televised address shortly after the invasion, Putin had some choice words for anyone considering intervention: "No one should have any doubts that a direct attack on our country will lead to defeat and dire consequences for any potential aggressor."

Psst…Have questions about the invasion? We answer your big Qs about Russia's attack on Ukraine here.

How We Got Here: Ukraine and Russia’s Tumultuous History

It’s been a long and winding road for these foes. For decades, both countries were part of the Soviet Union. But after its collapse in 1991, more than 90% of Ukrainians voted to become an independent country — breaking away from the USSR. Ever since, the relationship between Russia and Ukraine has been complicated. 

  • Partners in crisis: One expert says the two are “joined at the hip” — literally because they share a border. And figuratively, for a number of reasons. While Ukrainian is the official language of Ukraine, many also speak Russian. Families are spread out across the two, something that happened in part because of migration during the Soviet era. The Kremlin has even described Ukrainians and Russians as “one people.” 

Putin has taken steps to keep close ties to the former USSR country over the years. But Ukraine has always dealt with a tough question: Should it stick with Russia or cozy up with the West? Enter: NATO. Aka a treaty between 30 countries that was formed at the start of the Cold War. Its goal: To stand up against Soviet threats — and deter their expansion. But since the fall of the USSR, it’s focused more broadly on countries working together on security and defense. Ukraine has expressed interest in joining the group. But surprise: Putin’s nyet a fan of that idea. While Western European nations have mixed feelings about it, they agree that it should be Ukraine’s choice — not Russia’s.

The game of tug-of-war between the West versus East hit a turning point in 2014. That’s when Ukraine’s pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych put a trade pact with the EU on hold. And Ukrainians took to the streets to protest. Just a few months later, Yanukovych got the boot from office — and a pro-Western interim gov took the reins. Another (not) surprise: Russia wasn’t happy about that. 

In retaliation, pro-Russian separatists took over government buildings in Crimea (an autonomous region in southern Ukraine), with the Kremlin throwing its weight behind them. And by March 2014, Russia had formally annexed the peninsula — resulting in an ongoing eight-year conflict between the two nations. Which has left more than 14,000 dead.

  • Not-so-peaceful deal: In 2015, Russia and Ukraine brokered a peace deal (with France and Germany helping out). The fine print: Ukraine would get back full control of its borders. And both sides would agree to a cease-fire, pull back their heavy weapons, foreign fighters, and exchange prisoners and hostages. Plus, both regions would have some degree of self-government. But the plan was never implemented.

Since then, Ukraine has been in an ongoing seven-year war with Russian separatists in the region. And after new information came to light, things took another turn for the worse.

Timeline of Events Leading Up to the 2022 Invasion

December 3, 2021: A US intel report was leaked. Indicating that Russia could invade Ukraine in 2022. At the time, American and Ukrainian intel believed there were anywhere from 70,000 to 94,000 Russian soldiers stationed along the Ukrainian-Russian border.

December 17, 2021: Putin made a list of security-related demands. Including: NATO must not accept Ukraine and other ex-Soviet countries into its ranks. And the org must stop its military activity in Eastern Europe and Central Asia. But NATO and the US refused to approve any of his requests. Pushing for diplomatic solutions instead. 

January 29, 2021: Russian troops continued to build up along its border with Ukraine — reaching a peak of 130,000 troops by Feb 13. In response, the US took precautionary measures and deployed thousands of troops to Eastern Europe (think: Romania, Poland, Germany). Closed its embassy in Kyiv. And, along with the UK, told its citizens to leave Ukraine ASAP. Meanwhile, the Kremlin spread disinformation campaigns against Ukraine and NATO.

February 15, 2022: Putin threw the world a curveball, saying Russia will "partially pull back troops." But he didn't elaborate on any details. Like exactly how many troops leave, when they'd leave, or if they'd return in the near future. Leaving many with unanswered questions.

How Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine Impacts the West

The invasion is still pretty recent. And it's still unclear what the short-term and long-term impacts of it could be. But here's what we know so far...

In the US…Biden wanted to avoid an invasion at all costs. Especially because of the impact it might have on American wallets. (Think: a possible energy crisis, high gas prices, even higher inflation.) Another concern is how it could affect him and his constituents' prospects in November’s midterm elections

  • Zooming out: the conflict clashes with the president’s core values. And as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) put it, “an assault on Ukraine is an assault on democracy.” 

In other NATO countries…This conflict could result in a major refugee crisis. With Ukrainians already fleeing their homes to neighboring countries.

How the West Has Responded

The same day as the attack, Biden put the blame on Putin. Saying, “[he’s] the aggressor.” And that “Putin chose this war. And now he and his country will bear the consequences.” He added sanctions to four more Russian banks (impacting Putin’s inner circle of wealthy friends). And blocked Russia’s access to high tech (limiting Russia’s military advancement and capabilities). None of the actions targeted Putin himself. But Biden said that option is still “on the table.” Biden also announced that he’s sending more ground and air forces to NATO’s eastern territories.

These sanctions are in addition to several Biden implemented a few days earlier, including…

  • “Full blocking” on Russian bank VEB and its military bank. Meaning: American financial institutions will stop processing transactions from these banks.

  • And, cutting off Russia from Western financing. Biden imposed sanctions on Russia’s national debt. Meaning: The country can no longer do things like trade its new debt on US or European markets.

The US will also deploy thousands of troops to NATO-backed countries near Ukraine and send ammunition to strengthen their defensives. But Biden made it clear that the US will not fight against Russia or be sent to Ukraine.

Several European countries have also slapped Russia with financial penalties. Including Germany, whose chancellor hit pause on certifying the Nord Stream 2 pipeline — a $10 billion project that would have shuttled natural gas directly between Germany and Russia. Meanwhile, NATO said 'we got your back Ukraine' and plans to send troops to the countries bordering Ukraine. 


The tension between Ukraine and Russia has again come to a head. And the West has been anxiously waiting for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine for months. How it plays out is anyone’s guess. But it's a vital moment for Ukraine, NATO, and other Western nations who are aiming to keep Russia in check and help Ukraine keep its independence.

Updated on Feb. 24 to include details on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. 

Updated on Feb. 22 to include new US sanctions against Russia

Live Smarter

Sign up for the Daily Skimm email newsletter. Delivered to your inbox every morning and prepares you for your day in minutes.