KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) — With news of Russian tanks rolling through Ukrainian streets today, many Americans are wondering how events got to this point. A University of Tennessee political science professor spoke with WATE 6 about things the average person should know about the invasion and how it got to this point.

Associate Professor Gary Uzonyi breaks down the conflict and explains sanctions impose so far.

When did the Ukraine-Russia conflict begin?

The original conflict between Russia and Ukraine can be traced to the early 1990s when Ukraine gained independence from the former Soviet Union. The Ukrainian people then protested their pro-Russian leader in 2014, installing a more pro-western president. Russia began supporting separatist movements in Ukraine, funding and fighting alongside southeastern groups who were seeking to gain independence from Ukraine.

After his election in 2019, Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy turned to the West for assistance when Russia attempted to impose separatist terms onto Ukraine, rather than agreeing with Russia to follow them. In turn, he got escalating tension from the Russian side.

Putin also claims Ukraine inherited Russia’s historic lands after the Soviet collapse and that the West uses that to contain Russia.

Will gas prices go up?

President Joe Biden warned that gas prices could rise if the invasion happened. Russia is one of the biggest oil and gas producers in the world. Disruptions to that supply will naturally cause the supply-and-demand nature of the industry to react.

National gas prices tracked by AAA show the average for a gallon is $3.572 on Feb. 25, up about 24 cents a gallon from one month ago, and up 3 cents since the day before. In Tennessee, a gallon will cost you an average of $3.365, about 32 cents more than a month ago but just 6 cents higher since the Russians invaded Ukraine. But it could also depend on what day you fill the tank.

One barometer to keep an eye on is the Baker Hughes Rig Count. The company has tracked the number of oil rigs in operation since 1944. On Feb. 25, five rigs had become operational in the U.S. since the week before. A total of 650 rigs are in operation in the U.S. with 522 drilling oil. Another 12 are at work in the Gulf of Mexico. More rigs mean more oil on the market, helping curb any increases in price due to a lack of supply.

What is the role of NATO?

NATO, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, is an alliance between Western countries and was formed during the Cold War as a form of collective defense against the Soviet Union and its’ Eastern allies. The organization has been expanding East, and new members are required to have rule of law and be a democracy. All new applicants must be accepted by all existing members of the organization.

With more countries becoming interested in joining this organization, Russia’s concerns grew. Uzonyi says there is a fear that NATO is trying to create a ‘curtain or wall’ around Russia, boxing them out.

Determining the future of NATO is a large part of this conflict. Ukraine is not a member, but NATO has vowed to defend its territory from Russian attack. One of Russia’s goals is to keep Ukraine out of NATO.

Why is the United States involved?

President Joe Biden has engaged in diplomacy with Russia, trying to pull back Russian forces.

Russian president, Vladimir Putin, issued a set of ultimatums, or what they consider to be legally binding security guarantees onto the United States in which they required to pull back their forces.

These ultimatums, requesting that Ukraine could never become a member of NATO and NATO could never move eastward. In response, President Biden said no.

“The United States sees the Russian invasion as not only a violation of international law, of Ukraine’s territorial sovereignty and a threat to both international peace and security broadly, and European countries directly,” said Uzonyi.

Uzonyi explains the understanding between NATO countries, if there is an attack on one country it is an attack on all. While Ukraine is not a NATO country it falls within the sphere and is surrounded by NATO countries.

Surrounding countries have triggered Article 4 of NATO, stating the alliance as a whole should gather and consult what to do about the impending threat.

“The Parties will consult together whenever, in the opinion of any of them, the territorial integrity, political independence or security of any of the Parties is threatened,” says Article 4 of the NATO treaty. Read the full list of articles.

What is a sanction?

Uzonyi explains that a sanction is when a country imposes a punishment on a second country to get them to change their behavior. A tool of “coercive diplomacy,” it is meant to impose high costs on the behavior that is occurring in hopes of ending that behavior.

Most sanctions tend to be economic, Uzonyi said. The United States has focused its sanctions on Russian financial institutions in part to prevent Putin from seeking funding from the western world. The U.S. will not be allowing Russia to trade their debt on Western stock markets, nor allowing financing of Russian programs.

While the U.S. focused their sanctions around the economy, the United Kingdom is proposing to focus their sanctions around prohibiting Russian oligarchs from sending their families to the U.K.