The world has watched the Russia-Ukraine conflict with horror since Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February. Russian President Vladimir Putin has expressed opposition to the expansion of NATO, Ukraine’s membership in the organization, and to Ukraine’s existence as a country.
Since February, the world has condemned Russia for its actions, including potential war crimes, and enacted sanctions on the country. But this conflict has actually been going on since 2014 and includes the Russian annexation of Crimea and decades-long mounting political tension between pro-Russians and revolutionaries in Ukraine.
There might be no one better to help analyze recent events in this conflict than a Russian expatriate who has spent the second half of his life living in America. Eugene Plotkin was born in Russia and is currently a fintech CEO and consultant living in NYC with his dog.
‘Start With the History’
As a Russian in the U.S., Eugene Plotkin stands on two of the many sides of this ongoing conflict. According to him, the best way to begin understanding what’s happening now is to go back and grasp the historical factors at play.
Taking us back to the Russian Revolution in 1917, Plotkin explains the Bolsheviks, the revolutionary labor party that would later be the Communist Party of Russia, “were trying to get support so they promised … large tracts of land [to Russia] as an incentive to support the Bolsheviks.” When the head of the Bolsheviks, Vladimir Lenin, won, those land tracts became autonomous Soviet Republics. Despite having many Russian residents, Ukraine was one of those republics.
These pseudo-symbolic borders didn’t matter much at the time, since the entire region was controlled by the central Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). Therefore, it didn’t seem consequential when Russian leader Nikita Khrushchev made Crimea part of Ukraine in the 1950s.
After the Fall
“And then fast-forward to 1991,” Plotkin explains. “Soviet Union collapses. And all of a sudden these borders become extremely meaningful. So these countries become independent states. And in this new world, these countries, they’re very heterogeneous, because they have these multiethnic groups.”
This melting pot effect of newly independent states with local majorities but significant Russian minorities created issues from the start. Russia was anxious about national security, and the Warsaw Pact (the collective Eastern European defense pact) had collapsed. NATO suddenly had a lot of power with new countries in the region.
NATO’s New Nature
When the Soviet Union collapsed, NATO not only had a lot of new countries to invite, but its overall approach began to change. According to Plotkin, Russia was thinking, “‘Essentially, you are our historic enemy. And now you’re taking in all these new member states, and you’re getting close to our borders. We’re concerned about our security.’”
At the same time as Vladimir Putin gave a speech in Munich about Russia’s opposition to NATO expanding any further — which was called “disappointing and not helpful,” by NATO secretary Jaap de Hoop Scheffer — NATO invited Georgia and Ukraine to join. It’s clear here how tensions between Russia and Ukraine were building long before 2022 and that NATO played a major role.
Changes in Ukraine
Since its creation as a country, between 1991 and 2014, Ukraine has had a political divide between pro-Western and pro-Russian. “The whole eastern region always voting pro-Russian … They consider themselves Russian. They speak Russian. They have families right across the border. That’s who they are culturally,” says Plotkin. So the political voting in Ukraine had historically been split.
Then in 2014, the scandal-ridden, pro-Russian Ukrainian President Victor Yanukovych was removed in what he called a coup, ushering in a pro-Western regime that was much more hostile to Russians than the previous one. The dividing line that had always existed was drawn even deeper.
As a Russian, Eugene Plotkin had a lot of exposure to the events and the violence that ensued in Ukraine. The 2014-2015 war in Donbas and the annexation of Crimea both contributed.
Plotkin postulates that while the annexation of Crimea, which was “heavily Russian,” was the event that led most directly to the current state of affairs in the region, it’s important to take the entire history into account.
“I think from the Russian perspective,” Plotkin says, “they’re coming in because they’re saying, ‘OK, well, for eight years there’s been violence against ethnic Russians.’”
Eugene Plotkin is a Russian-born, Harvard-educated finance, business, and technology professional. During his time at Melvin Capital, he realized his passion for new financial technologies. Today, Plotkin is a consultant for fintech startups and the CEO and co-founder of TechWallet. Eugene Plotkin has a special passion for helping as many people use technology to understand and organize their finances as possible.