Ukraine: A Brief Explanation

Matthew R. Bishop
6 min readFeb 25, 2022


A Brief Explainer on Ukraine

Matthew R. Bishop, February 24, 2022

I: What Happened So Far?

Russia formally invaded Ukraine with a force of approximately 200,000 combined air and ground forces. The Ukrainian capital, Kiev, is likely to fall to Russian forces within hours or days. Prior to invading, President Putin implicitly warned the West that he might use nuclear weapons against anyone who intervenes. The United States and Western Allies (UK, France, Germany, Japan, Australia et al, plus NATO and EU alliance states) issued crippling sanctions in direct response to the invasion and its accompanying threat, and Russia is now in economic free-fall. The Russian ruble has lost all value, and Russian stocks have nosedived by 50% in just 72 hours.

II: Why is Russia Invading Ukraine?

A) Ukraine is a mineral-rich nation containing high amounts of uranium, titanium, and iron, in addition to deep oil and natural gas reserves. Though poorly developed and poorly governed, Ukraine has enormous reserves of untapped natural wealth, making this nation an appealing target for expansionist dictators like Russia’s Putin — who happens to live right next door, sharing a 2,000km border with Ukraine.

B) Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union prior to its breakup around three decades ago. Soviet-style authoritarians like Putin dream not only of (re)conquering Ukraine, but of conquering large parts of Europe which at one historical point or another belonged either to Russia or the Soviet Union, in order to “Make Russia Great Again”, so to speak. Some of these leaders believe that it is their mission in history to “restore” these “provinces” to “the motherland” — regardless of what the actual citizens of those nations (Ukrainians et al) have to say about it, and regardless of how many people suffer or die as a result.

III: Why should we Care?

A) Russia has launched an unprovoked invasion against a sovereign neighbor without just cause. This is illegal under international law and is against the core principles of the post-World War II global security system. Weakening that system makes a third global war more likely (the current system was literally created for the express purpose of preventing a third world war, so it’s generally a bad idea to dismantle that system), and will probably escalate other armed conflicts around the world even in a best-case scenario.

B) Putin’s history of invading sovereign nations (Crimea, Georgia, Ukraine) suggests that Ukraine will not be the last European nation that Russia invades. The fact that Putin himself delegitimized the sovereignty of other key nations, including Poland, in his speech the night before the invasion, strongly suggests that he already has his next targets in mind and is planning to conquer more countries once he is done with Ukraine. It is extremely unlikely that Putin will stop with just Ukraine.

C) Autocrats and aspiring dictators have recently been “winning” against democracy around the world (Orban in Hungary, Trump in the US, Bolsonaro in Brazil, etc.) Putin’s move reflects his beliefs that the global balance of power has shifted towards autocracy and away from democracy, and also that Western hegemony has collapsed, allowing him an opportunity to recreate the former Soviet Union.

D) If he succeeds, it is almost certain that he will go on to invade more European nations. Finland, Poland, Lithuania, Estonia, and a few others are very high on his list, and will likely be invaded within a number of years. China is likely to move against Taiwan in this scenario. This scenario carries a huge risk of a third world war and must be avoided at all costs, preferably by making Ukraine into a “red line” that cannot be crossed.

E) The entire global security architecture of the Late Modern Era (1945-present) will collapse if the above events play out.

F) Ukraine is also a top exporter of wheat and food items. With these exports interrupted by a Russian occupation, in a worst-case scenario, a lot of random innocent humans might starve to death in nations like Pakistan and Egypt, which rely heavily on Ukrainian food exports to feed their citizens.

IV: Will America Send Troops?

Short Answer: No. At least, not as things currently stand. But things can change quickly in times of war.

A) Ukraine is not a member of NATO, the West’s military alliance, and therefore the United States and its allies are not legally required to send in their own forces to defend Ukraine. This is key: While the United States does have a legal basis for armed intervention under existing international law, it is not required to intervene unless a formal NATO ally is directly attacked. Around 60% of Ukrainians want to join NATO, but unfortunately Ukraine’s armed forces do not meet the minimum requirements necessary for joining the alliance.

B) So far, President Biden has ruled out the possibility of sending in ground forces, preferring instead to hit the Russian oligarchy with crippling economic sanctions. Key Western allies (UK, France, Germany, Canada, Japan, Australia, EU et al) have taken the same approach, coordinating their response in terms of sanctions instead of ground forces.

C) Because a direct exchange of gunfire between Russian and American forces would escalate the risks of a global war, this is a scenario that President Biden is being careful to avoid, and he is unlikely to send in any US ground forces unless this crisis escalates dramatically and becomes a more serious threat to all of global human security.

V: What About Nuclear Weapons?

In his speech, Putin threatened to use nuclear weapons against any power which contests his invasion of Ukraine. This is probably hollow rhetoric intended to inflame the warmongering passions of his supporters. It would be enormously stupid and self-destructive for Putin to employ nuclear weapons against the Western Allies — which are also nuclear powers themselves, and stronger than Russia.

VI: What About Nazis?
In his justification for invasion, Putin referenced pro-Nazi movements inside Ukraine. This has at least a grain of truth: Nazis are, in fact, a very real security risk in Ukraine. In supporting Ukrainian resistance, Western allies should be careful that their weapons and supplies do not fall into the hands of local Nazi militias. This should be among the highest priorities for US Congresspeople as they design new legislation to support a long-term Ukrainian insurgency. The last thing we want is for the Russians to lose, but then for the Nazis to win. This is one argument that the Western Allies should not simply dismiss.

VII: Is this World War III?
A) This moment in history has been compared to the late 1930s, when Hitler ravaged across Europe uncontested, as the Western Allies played a game of “appeasement” — letting him swallow up countries because they were afraid if they said “no” there’d be another war. There was, of course, another war anyways — leading some writers to ask the question about whether our current situation will inevitably result in a similar crisis.

B) The world is transitioning into a multipolar system, and away from a hegemonic system. Forget about those terms. What you really need to know is that the most dangerous moment is during the transition itself, rather than just being in one system or the other. Unfortunately, we are in that dangerous transitional period right now, and we will be for the next decade.

C) Having issued these disclaimers, the best thing we can do is to prevent a direct exchange of gunfire between US and Russian forces. If forced to make the unfortunate decision, we should do everything we can to make sure this becomes the Cold War Part 2, instead of World War Part 3. A war fought with sanctions, espionage and cyberattacks is far better than a war fought with bombed-out cities and piles of human corpses.

D) If Putin ever invades a NATO nation, a third world war will begin by default, and all Western powers will declare war against Russia — probably within hours. Unfortunately, Putin does seem to be entertaining such plans as we speak. Western Allies must be fully prepared and mobilized in case this occurs.

VIII: Can I Do Anything to Help?

Yes, you can! The International Red Cross and Doctors Without Borders are continuing to operate even under Russian siege. Various orphanage and adoption societies are also continuing their good work. Right now, because the situation is changing by the hour, we cannot advise any particular group over another. What we do know for sure is that we are probably facing a displaced persons/refugee crisis in the millions, and so if there are any refugee organizations you’d like to support, they will surely need your help moving forward! Otherwise, we advise waiting a few days or even a week to see who, what, and where needs the most support.



Matthew R. Bishop

Matt is an author, journalist, international affairs writer, and a federal civilian crisis responder for the United States.