Russia declared war on Ukraine. Here’s why

Published 2022-02-24 14:30

Most countries around the world urging Russia to stop


Russia declared war on Ukraine on Thursday.

The conflict between the two countries has been bubbling for several years and has come to a head.

In the early hours of the day, explosions were reported in Ukraine’s capital of Kyiv and other cities.

Russia is the biggest country in the world in terms of territory. It’s located in eastern Europe. It borders Ukraine, which it has now invaded. (Graphic design by Allison Cake)

The attacks were orchestrated by Russia’s leader, Vladimir Putin, who first became president in 1999.

Some experts say that Putin is doing this because he wants Russia to regain the power that it once had.

But Ukraine and other world leaders say they don’t want to start a war because it could be devastating to the Ukraininans, their military and people around the world.

It’s all very complicated, but CBC Kids News has you covered.

First, we’ll tell you what’s happening now, then give you some of the history to put everything into context. 

We’ve asked Stéfanie von Hlatky, a political science professor at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, to break down and simplify that complex history.

What’s happening now?

Russian forces invaded Ukraine by land, air and sea on Thursday morning, with Russian missiles raining down on Ukrainian cities and reports of troops pouring across the border.

Putin said he ordered the attacks “to protect people, including Russian citizens,” who have been subjected to what he called “genocide” in Ukraine.

He claims that his goal is to strip Ukraine’s military power, not to take over the country.

smoke billows from an apartment building in Ukraine

Firefighters try to extinguish a fire after an airstrike hit an apartment complex in Chuhuiv, Kharkiv Oblast, Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022. (Image credit: Aris Messinis/AFP via Getty Images)

Countries in the West say this is absurd propaganda and that Putin is creating artificial reasons to justify invading Ukraine. This will make more sense further down in the article. 

The West includes countries like Canada, the United States and most of Europe.

Ukraine’s minister of foreign affairs, Dmytro Kuleba, said that Russia is executing “a full-scale invasion” and is calling on the world to help.

Tweet from Dmytro Kuleba reads Russia has laucnhed a full-scale attack on Ukraine. This is a war of agression. Ukraine defend itself. The world can and must stop Putin.

Almost all of the world — but not China — disapproved of the attacks and vowed to stand with Ukraine.

The United Nations is warning of “devastating consequences” of Russia's military action in Ukraine and is calling on neighbouring countries to open their borders to refugees.

People have been fleeing their homes in Ukraine. These kids boarded a train bound for the capital, Kyiv, from Kramatorsk, in the Donetsk region, on Feb. 24. (Image credit: Vadim Ghirda/Getty Images)

Why is this even happening?

To understand this conflict, we need to go back to just after the second  World War, which ended 77 years ago.

At the time, Russia was a lot more powerful and was aligned with many other countries as part of the Soviet Union, which included Russia, Ukraine and a handful of other republics.

The Soviet Union, which helped the U.S. and other European countries in the Second World War, didn’t agree with how to reorganize territories in Europe after Germany was defeated.

This disagreement, along with other factors, led to decades of tension and morphed into something called the Cold War.

For decades, Canada, the U.S. and many allied European countries were on high alert, fearing the Soviet Union would escalate another war, but it never happened, which is why it’s called the Cold War.

The Cold War ended with the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991.

The Berlin Wall separated East and West Germany. East Germany was part of the Soviet Union, and when the wall came down in 1989, it was seen as the biggest symbol of the Cold War coming to an end. (Image credit: Peter Kneffel/dpa/AFP)

According to von Hlatky, the main reason the Soviet Union fell apart was because Russia, the centre of its power, could no longer afford the military and other costs associated with maintaining such a large union.

After the Soviet Union ended, many countries that were a part of it, like Ukraine, became independent.

New allegiances were formed.

Many of those countries turned toward the West, which they saw as much more prosperous than Russia.

For security and protection, many joined an alliance called the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), which includes Canada and the U.S.

Since 1999, many more countries have joined NATO, and Ukraine has expressed interest in joining for protection. 

Protesters in Edinburgh, Scotland, demonstrate outside the Russian Consulate on Feb. 24. (Image credit: Jane Barlow/PA/AP)

OK — but how does this explain what’s happening now?

1. Putin is worried about NATO forces

Von Hlatky says one reason that Russia is invading Ukraine is because as Russia has struggled since the Soviet Union collapsed, NATO has continued to grow, and Putin sees that as a threat.

Although Ukraine hasn’t joined NATO, NATO countries like Canada and the U.S. have bolstered Ukraine’s military and have provided other resources in the country since 2014.

Why? In 2014, Russia invaded and took over Crimea, a part of Ukraine, and NATO has seen that as a huge concern.

As a result, NATO has also bolstered its military presence in some countries around Russia.

Upon announcing his invasion of Ukraine, Putin accused NATO of threatening “our historic future as a nation.”

The Ukrainian military has been preparing for an invasion for several weeks, after Russian forces moved closer to its border. (Image credit: Sergey Bobok/AFP via Getty Images)

2. Russia wants Ukraine to be aligned with them

Von Hlatky said Russia sees Ukraine as being historically and culturally part of Russia.

In a television address earlier this week, Putin said that Ukraine is a key part of Russia’s history and that parts of Ukraine are ancient Russian lands.

The same day, he declared two parts of Ukraine with Russian-speaking minorities, Donetsk and Luhansk, as independent from Ukraine.

(Graphic design by Philip Street/CBC)

Some people who live in Donetsk and Luhansk are separatists, meaning they want those areas to be their own countries rather than a part of Ukraine.

By declaring these regions as independent, Putin is justifying the invasion of Ukraine, claiming that Russia is helping to liberate these regions in the name of peace.

Von Hlatky says this is why the West is calling this bogus.

“He’s framing these interventions as peacekeeping. But when you’re peacekeeping, you’re not supposed to be intervening for one side over another,” she said.

3. Putin is creating a distraction

Finally, von Hlatky said that Putin, who is nearing the end of his political career, may be trying to distract from all the problems happening in Russia, such as the toll the COVID-19 pandemic is taking on the economy.

“As a political leader, he’s trying to survive and maintain the support of his people,” she said.

“It’s a nice and convenient diversion.”

Vladimir Putin’s current term as president of Russia began in 2012. (Image credit: Sputnik/Alexey Nikolsky/Kremlin/Reuters)

How are other countries responding?

NATO has made it clear that it has no plans to send troops to Ukraine itself.

However, it has put warplanes on alert and has sent NATO troops to surrounding countries like Poland.

NATO is also sending weapons and medical support to Ukraine.

The major response, however, is coming through what are called sanctions: limitations that countries make in order to put major stress on Russia’s economy.

The U.S., for example, said it will cut off Russia's government from accessing banks in the West, among other limitations.

On Thursday, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced a new suite of “severe” sanctions, including measures that will stop the export of goods from Russia.

That, among other sanctions, will negatively impact Russia’s economy.

Is this news upsetting to you? If you're looking for someone to talk to, reach out to an adult you trust. You can also call Kids Help Phone, or text them at 686868. Click here to visit their website.


Here are some tips for dealing with sad or scary news:

Share your thoughts

Have more questions? Want to tell us how we're doing? Use the feedback link below.⬇️⬇️⬇️

With files from Reuters

Was this story worth reading?