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Crisis in Ukraine (updated at 10am on 24 February 2022)

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(This blog was published to inform the Scottish Parliament debate on solidarity with Ukraine which took place on 24 February 2022. As such, it does not reflect on developments following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine since that date.)

Over the last two months tensions have risen between Russia and Ukraine.  These tensions have escalated following Russia’s recognition of the independence of the separatist regions of Donetsk and Luhansk in Ukraine and on 24 February 2022, the Russian military began attacking Ukraine.

Ahead of this afternoon’s Scottish Parliament debate on the situation in Ukraine, this blog provides background to the conflict and summarises some of the recent developments including the international response. 


In November 2013, protests broke out in Kiev against Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych’s decision to reject a deal for greater economic integration with the European Union.  The protests escalated, despite an attempted crack down, leading to President Yanukovych fleeing the country in February 2014.

With Ukraine appearing set to seek to further develop closer links with the European Union and potentially NATO, the Russian President Vladimir Putin sought to intervene. 

In March 2014, Russian troops invaded eastern Ukraine occupying the Crimean Peninsula.  Following a Russian organised and run referendum, Crimea voted to join the Russian Federation thereby leaving Ukraine.  As the Council on Foreign Relations highlights this led to further unrest in the south east of Ukraine:

“Russian President Vladimir Putin cited the need to protect the rights of Russian citizens and Russian speakers in Crimea and southeast Ukraine. The crisis heightened ethnic divisions, and two months later pro-Russian separatists in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions of eastern Ukraine held a referendum to declare independence from Ukraine.”

Violent clashes between the Ukrainian military and Russian backed separatists in Donetsk and Luhansk continued throughout 2014 and into 2015.  The clashes led to Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 being shot down over Ukraine in July 2014 by a Russian-made missile launcher fired by Russian-backed rebels.

The Minsk Agreement

As a result of the worsening situation in south-east Ukraine, France and Germany brought Russia and Ukraine together to attempt to find a peaceful solution.  These negotiations held in the Belarusian capital Minsk ultimately led to the agreement of the Minsk accords in February 2015.  The key points of the agreement were:

  • That there should be a full and immediate bilateral ceasefire in the Ukrainian regions of Donetsk and Luhansk.
  • All heavy weapons should be withdrawn on both sides of the conflict.
  • The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) should monitor and verify the withdrawal of heavy weaponry
  • Full Ukrainian government control should be restored over the state border, throughout the conflict zone in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions following local elections held under Ukrainian law.
  • Withdrawal of all foreign armed groups, weapons and mercenaries from Ukrainian territory
  • Constitutional reform in Ukraine, with adoption of a new constitution by the end of 2015 a key element of which will be decentralisation (taking account of the special features of certain parts of Donetsk and Luhansk regions, agreed with representatives of those regions), and adoption of permanent laws on the special status of those areas.

Duncan Allan from Chatham House wrote that “the Minsk Agreement rests on two irreconcilable interpretations of Ukraine’s sovereignty: is Ukraine sovereign, as Ukrainians insist, or should its sovereignty be limited, as Russia demands?”  On the political requirements set out in the Minsk Agreement in relation to the special status for the Donetsk and Luhansk regions and the need for a new Ukrainian constitution, Duncan Allan added that they clearly favoured Russia:

“Implementation of these measures would in effect destroy Ukraine as a sovereign country. The DNR and LNR would be reincorporated into Ukraine but as distinct political, economic and legal entities tied to Russia – thus introducing a constitutional Trojan Horse that would give the Kremlin a lasting presence in Ukraine’s political system and prevent the authorities in Kyiv from running the country as an integrated whole. Indeed, radical devolution to Donbas might well prompt other regions to press for similar powers, causing central authority to unravel and effectively balkanizing Ukraine.

The implications for Ukrainian foreign policy would be far-reaching. A neutrality clause in the constitution would rule out NATO accession. Yet the DNR and LNR would be able to sign agreements with other countries (i.e. Russia), perhaps establishing Russian military bases on their territories. Fresh doubts would also surround EU integration. The adoption of Russia’s demands might so weaken the central authorities in Kyiv that implementation of the Association Agreement would be rendered impossible.”

The Minsk Agreement has provided the starting point in attempts to reach a diplomatic solution over the last seven years.  But there has been no successful progress towards that goal and conflict has continued between separatists and Ukrainian forces in Donetsk and Luhansk. 

Russian aggression

In October 2021, Russia began moving troops and military hardware towards its border with Ukraine raising concerns that it was planning to attack or invade Ukraine.  According to the Council on Foreign Relations, by December, more than one hundred thousand troops were in place near the border and U.S. intelligence officials warned that Russia may be planning an invasion of Ukraine in early 2022.

Russia denied planning an invasion and instead suggested its actions were as a result of NATO’s approach to eastern Europe with President Putin saying he sees “the forceful containment of Russia as a direct and immediate threat”.  As the House of Commons Library notes:

“Russia is seeking longer term security guarantees from the Alliance that Ukraine will not be admitted as a Member State and that NATO military infrastructure will not be deployed in the country. The Kremlin has said these are “red lines” for Russia’s national security.”

On 21 February 2022, Russia formally recognised the self-declared independence of the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) and Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR), the regions of eastern Ukraine that are under the control of Russian-backed separatist forces.  According to the House of Commons Library:

“Treaties of Friendship, Cooperation and Mutual Assistance have been signed and Russian “peacekeeping” forces have been deployed to the DPR and LPR. Russia’s actions have been met with international condemnation and an initial round of Western sanctions are in the process of being imposed on Russia.”

Western intelligence agencies had warned that alongside Russia’s recognition of the DPR and LPR, it was preparing to invade Ukraine.  On 24 February 2022, the Russian military began attacks on targets in Ukraine,  The BBC described the attacks as a “full-scale invasion” with reports of missile strikes and explosions in major cities including the capital Kiev.  The United Nations Secretary General António Guterres tweeted an appeal to President Putin to withdraw his troops and stop the conflict. 

At the time of writing it is not clear whether an invasion will seek to secure the DPR and LPR areas currently held by separatists, the whole of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions in Ukraine or even the whole of Ukraine. 

The international response

Ukraine is not a NATO member, as such in the event of invasion by Russia, there is no commitment from NATO members to provide military support to Ukraine.  Both the United States and UK Governments have been clear that they will not provide military support to Ukraine in the shape of boots on the ground.  However, the international community has provided defensive weapons to Ukraine.

NATO members in the region, including the three Baltic states (Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia) which share a border with Russia have been keen to see NATO and the EU take a strong line in response to the Russian actions. It has been argued that Russian aggression needs to be stopped or the Russian President may turn his eyes to further territories such as the Baltic states. This would lead to the activation of NATO’s Article 5 which relates to collective defence and means “that an attack against one Ally is considered as an attack against all Allies”.

Whilst the international community is unlikely to commit ground troops to Ukraine, it has moved to impose sanctions.  These sanctions build on previous rounds of sanctions imposed since the 2014 annexation of Crimea.

On 22 February 2022, the German government announced that the Nord Stream 2 pipeline meant to ferry natural gas directly from Russia to northern Germany and predominantly owned by a subsidiary of Russian energy giant Gazprom would not go ahead.  Whilst the pipeline is not  yet operational, this would be a serious blow to Russia’s ability to sell natural gas direct to Western Europe.  Germany also announced that it would produce a new energy supply security report recognising its current reliance on Russian gas imports. 

The United States, United Kingdom and the EU all announced new sanctions targeted at Russian financial institutions and individuals linked to the Russian state.

  • The United States announced measures targeting Russia’s ability to finance aggression against its neighbours by sanctioning the Corporation Bank for Development and Foreign Economic Affairs Vnesheconombank (VEB) and Promsvyazbank Public Joint Stock Company (PSB), along with 42 of their subsidiaries.  It also targeted action against a number of people and families close to Russian President Putin. 
  • The United Kingdom announced measures targeting five Russian banks: Rossiya, IS Bank, General Bank, Promsvyazbank and the Black Sea Bank. The UK also announced it was sanctioning three very high net worth individuals: Gennady Timchenko, Boris Rotenberg, and Igor Rotenberg.
  • The European Union announced the following series of measures:
    • sanctions against the 351 members of the Russian State Duma (parliament’s lower house), who voted on 15 February in favour of the appeal to President Putin to recognise the independence of the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk ”republics”
    • sanctions against an additional 27 individuals and entities who have contributed to the undermining or threatening of the territorial integrity, sovereignty and independence of Ukraine
    • restrictions on economic relations with the non-government controlled areas of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts
    • restrictions on the ability of the Russian state and government to access the EU’s capital and financial markets and services

All those who have imposed sanctions have also indicated they stand ready to implement further measures in the event Russia invades Ukraine. It is likely further sanctions will be announced during the coming days as a result of Russia’s military action.

There have also been calls for the UEFA Champions League final – to be held in May- to be moved from the Gazprom Stadium in St Petersburg as a result of Russia’s actions. 

The House of Commons heard a statement from the Prime Minister and debated the UK Government’s approach to the Ukraine crisis on 22 February 2022. 

Scotland’s response

Whilst there are no definitive figures for the size of the Ukrainian diaspora in Scotland, it has been reported there are around 20,000 diaspora Ukrainians and Britons of Ukrainian descent who live in the UK

During the meeting of the Scottish Parliament on 22 February 2022, there was cross-party condemnation of Russia’s actions and solidarity with the Ukraine.  The First Minister told Parliament:

“We must all be—I hope that, across the Parliament, we will be—united in standing in solidarity with Ukraine and its people as they defend their independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity. I am sure that that will unite us across the Parliament and the country.”

In a further statement from the Scottish Government on 22 February 2022, the First Minister said:

“I am deeply concerned by the actions of Russia and the disturbing reports of its invasion of Ukraine. The Scottish Government unreservedly condemns Russia’s actions, which are in flagrant violation of international law and which further destabilise an already volatile situation.

The Scottish Government calls for an immediate cessation of such aggressive activities, with an assurance of the protection of all civilians within Ukraine.

“We offer our unqualified support for Ukrainian independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity and to the people of Ukraine. We stand with members of the International Community in opposing Russian aggression, in demanding the most severe sanctions on Russia and in seeking to deter a further and wider invasion of Ukraine.”  

The Scottish Parliament will debate the crisis in Ukraine on the afternoon of Thursday 24 February.

(This blog was updated at 10am to include a map of Ukraine and also a contents page.)

Iain McIver, SPICe Research