Fact Sheet: 6 Things to Know as You Read About the War in Ukraine

Research type:
Published on
February 28, 2022

Amid the ongoing crisis of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, it is important for journalists and news consumers to understand some basic facts about the history, relationship, and political conditions in both nations. Here, the Technology and Social Change team at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center compiles essential background information to help to interpret the events unfolding in Ukraine.

  1. This war did not start in 2022. Russia’s military assault against the country of Ukraine began in 2014 with the forcible annexation of the Crimean peninsula and occupation of Eastern regions of Donetsk and Lugansk in response to country-wide protests against Russian influence, the Revolution of Dignity. Today’s invasion is an escalation of this 8-year conflict, which has claimed over 14,000 lives already.1

    • 1 “Conflict in Ukraine,” Global Conflict Tracker, accessed February 24, 2022, https://cfr.org/global-conflict-tracker/conflict/conflict-ukraine.
  2. Russian President Vladimir Putin has a history of using disinformation as a weapon. He is pushing a false history in order to claim that Ukraine has always been a part of Russia, which involves denying the statehood of Ukraine as well as misinterpreting its historical relationship with Russia, the Russian language, and the USSR.1

    • 1Alexander Smith, “‘Very Strange’: Putin’s Version of Ukraine’s History Baffles and Concerns Experts,” NBC News, February 22, 2022, https://www.nbcnews.com/news/world/putin-russia-ukraine-history-speech-rcna17132; Christopher Paul and Miriam Matthews, The Russian "Firehose of Falsehood" Propaganda Model: Why It Might Work and Options to Counter It, Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2016, https://www.rand.org/pubs/perspectives/PE198.html.
  3. Ukraine most recently gained independence after the fall of the Soviet Union (USSR) in 1991.1 However, Ukraine has existed as a distinct identity and people for hundreds of years.2  Ukraine's national history is complex, with roots that date back to the 9th Century, but Putin's argument that Ukraine was created by Russia is, as the New York Times put it, "a misreading of history."3

    • 1History of Ukraine,” Britannica, accessed February 24, 2022, https://www.britannica.com/place/Ukraine/History.
    • 2Noel King, Miles Bryan, and Lauren Katz, “The Real and Imagine History of Ukraine,” Vox.com, Feb. 25, 2022, https://www.vox.com/22950915/ukraine-history-timothy-snyder-today-explained.
    • 3Michael Schwirtz, Maria Varenikova and Rick Gladstone, "Putin Calls Ukrainian Statehood a Fiction. History Suggests Otherwise.," The New York Times, February 21, 2022, https://www.nytimes.com/2022/02/21/world/europe/putin-ukraine.html
  4. Although Ukraine is a partner of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), it is not a member. As such, NATO’s collective defense pledge (Article 5 of the Washington Treaty), which stipulates that "an attack against one Ally is considered as an attack against all Allies" does not apply to Ukraine.1

    • 1Sara Bjerg Moller, "NATO can’t send troops to Ukraine. Here is what it will probably do instead," The Washington Post, Feb. 28, 2022, https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2022/02/28/nato-cant-send-troops-ukraine-here-is-what-it-will-probably-do-instead/; Collective defence - Article 5, NATO, Feb. 25, 2022, https://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/topics_110496.htm.
  5. Vladimir Putin is the current president of Russia, a position he’s held since 2012. Putin has served as either President or Prime Minister of Russia since 1999.1 Prior to his political career, Putin worked for 16 years as a KGB intelligence officer.2   Volodymyr Zelensky is the current president of Ukraine, serving since 2019 following an election he won in a landslide. Zelensky is Jewish and campaigned with appeals to broker peace with Russia.3

    • 1Reuters Staff, “Timeline: Vladimir Putin - 20 Tumultuous Years as Russian President or PM,” Reuters, August 9, 2019, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-russia-putin-timeline-idUSKCN1UZ185.
    • 2Bennetts, Marc. “Soldier, Spy: More Details of Vladimir Putin's Past Revealed,” The Guardian, January 8, 2019, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/jan/08/soldier-spy-more-details-of-vladimir-putins-past-revealed.
    • 3Hopkins, Valerie. “Zelensky Steps Into a Role Few Expected: Ukraine’s Wartime President,” New York Times, February 24, 2022, https://www.nytimes.com/2022/02/24/world/europe/ukraine-zelensky-speech.html.
  6. Ukraine does not have nuclear weapons. The country completely denuclearized following a 1994 security agreement known as the Budapest Memorandum, which assured Ukraine would trade its weapons in exchange for a guarantee of its security from Russia, the United States and the United Kingdom.1 Russia has violated the agreement twice, first in 2014 with the annexation of Crimea and again in February 2022.2

    • 1Kelly, Mary Louise, and Kat Lonsdorf, “Why Ukraine Gave up Its Nuclear Weapons — and What That Means in an Invasion by Russia,” National Public Radio, February 21, 2022, https://www.npr.org/2022/02/21/1082124528/ukraine-russia-putin-invasion.
    • 2Sanger, David, “Putin Spins a Conspiracy Theory That Ukraine Is on a Path to Nuclear Weapons,” New York Times, February 23, 2022, https://www.nytimes.com/2022/02/23/us/politics/putin-ukraine-nuclear-weapons.html.