Vladimir Putin unleashed the biggest war in Europe since World War Two with the justification that modern, Western-leaning Ukraine was a constant threat and Russia could not feel “safe, develop and exist”.
Thousands of people have since died, towns and cities such as Mariupol lie in ruins and 13 million people have been displaced. But the questions remain: what was it all for and how will it end?
What was Putin’s original goal?
The Russian leader’s initial aim was to overrun Ukraine and depose its government, ending for good its desire to join the Western defensive alliance Nato. After a month of failures, he abandoned his bid to capture the capital Kyiv and turned his ambitions to Ukraine’s east and south.
Launching the invasion on 24 February he told the Russian people his goal was to “demilitarise and de-Nazify Ukraine“. His declared aim was to protect people subjected to what he called eight years of bullying and genocide by Ukraine’s government. Another objective was soon added: ensuring Ukraine’s neutral status .
Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov spoke of freeing Ukraine from oppression while foreign intelligence chief Sergei Naryshkin argued “Russia’s future and its future place in the world are at stake”.
Ukraine’s democratically elected president, Volodymyr Zelensky, said “the enemy has designated me as target number one; my family is target number two”. His adviser said Russian troops made two attempts to storm the presidential compound.
Russia’s leader refused to call it an invasion or a war. Moscow continues to coin Europe’s biggest war since 1945 a “special military operation”.
The claims of Nazis and genocide in Ukraine are completely unfounded but part of a narrative repeated by Russia for years. “It’s crazy, sometimes not even they can explain what they are referring to,” complained Ukraine’s foreign minister Dmytro Kuleba.
However, an opinion piece by state-run news agency Ria Novosti made clear that “denazification is inevitably also de-Ukrainisation” – in effect erasing the modern state.
And it is Russia that is now accused by the international community of carrying out war crimes. Several countries including the US and Canada go further and call it genocide.
After so much destruction, the Russian leader’s words ring very hollow now: “It is not our plan to occupy the Ukrainian territory; we do not intend to impose anything on anyone by force.”
How have Putin’s aims changed?
A month into the invasion, Russia pulled back from Kyiv and declared its main goal was the “liberation of Donbas” – broadly referring to Ukraine’s eastern regions of Luhansk and Donetsk. More than a third of this area was already seized by Russian proxy forces in a war that began in 2014, now Russia wanted to conquer all of it.
The Kremlin claimed it had “generally accomplished” the aims of the invasion’s first phase, which it defined as considerably reducing Ukraine’s combat potential. But it became clear from Russia’s withdrawal that it had scaled back its ambitions.
“Putin needs a victory,” said Andrei Kortunov, head of the Russian International Affairs Council. “At least he needs something he can present to his constituency at home as a victory.”
Russian officials are now focused on seizing the two big eastern regions and creating a land corridor along the south coast, east from Crimea to the Russian border. They have claimed control of the southern region of Kherson and a leading Russian general has said they have hopes of seizing territory further west along the Black Sea coast towards Odesa and beyond.
“Control over the south of Ukraine is another way out to Transnistria,” said Maj Gen Rustam Minnekayev, referring to a breakaway area of Moldova, where Russia has some 1,500 troops.
If Russia does capture both eastern regions, he will most likely try to annexe them after a sham vote, as he did with Crimea in 2014. Ukraine also accuses occupying forces in Kherson of planning a referendum: they are already introducing Russia’s currency, the rouble, from 1 May.
Capturing Donbas and the land corridor is a mandatory minimum for the Kremlin, warns Tatiana Stanovaya, of analysis firm RPolitik and the Carnegie Moscow Center: “They will keep going. I always hear the same phrase – ‘we have no choice but to escalate’.”
The question is whether Russian forces have the numbers to press forward. By not declaring this a war, the Kremlin cannot mobilise nationally and military analyst Michael Kofman believes unless that happens Russia’s Donbas offensive is the last it can attempt.
Is there a way out?
A few weeks into the war, Russia said it was considering a Ukrainian proposal of neutrality, but there have been no negotiations since Kyiv’s offer at the end of March and for now the Kremlin appears set on pursuing its war.
Although President Putin told the UN Secretary General at the end of April “we are negotiating, we do not reject [talks]”, he had earlier declared negotiations at a dead end. After a meeting with the Russian leader, Austrian Chancellor Karl Nehammer gave a very downbeat assessment of a man who had entered into a “logic of war”.
Volodymyr Zelensky had already responded to Russia’s anger over Nato by accepting Ukraine would not be admitted as a member: “It’s a truth and it must be recognised.”EPA/Ukraine presidencySecurity guarantees and neutrality, the non-nuclear status of our state – we are ready to go for it… If I remember correctly, this is why [Russia] started the warVolodymyr Zelensky
President of Ukraine
Kyiv then gave a series of proposals for future neutrality:
- Ukraine would become a “non-bloc (or non-aligned) and non-nuclear” state, with no foreign military bases or contingents on its territory
- Strict, legally binding guarantees would require other countries to protect a neutral Ukraine in the event of attack
- Within three days guarantor states would have to hold consultations and come to Ukraine’s defence
- Ukraine would be allowed to join the European Union, but would not enter military-political alliances and any international exercises would require consent of guarantor states
- The future status of Russian-annexed Crimea would be negotiated over the next 15 years
- Ukraine’s bid to join Nato (and the EU) is enshrined in its 2019 constitution, so any change would require a referendum.
For Vladimir Putin, neutrality appears not to be enough. Close Putin ally Nikolai Patrushev has blamed the West and Kyiv for a policy that can only result in “the disintegration of Ukraine into several states”.
Increasingly that appears to be Russia’s policy. “Ultimately [Putin] wanted to divide the country and I think it’s becoming more evident that’s what he wants,” says Barbara Zanchetta of King’s College London’s Department of War Studies.
While the Kremlin wants to annex some areas of Ukraine, Tatiana Stanovaya believes “much more important is the fate of Ukraine: Putin wants to end Ukraine as a current state”.
How Putin sees Ukraine
Since Ukraine achieved independence in 1991, as the Soviet Union collapsed, it has gradually looked to the West – both the EU and Nato.
Russia’s leader has sought to reverse that, seeing the fall of the Soviet Union as the “disintegration of historical Russia”. He has claimed Russians and Ukrainians are one people, denying Ukraine its long history and seeing today’s independent state merely as an “anti-Russia project”. “Ukraine never had stable traditions of genuine statehood,” he asserted.
It was his pressure on Ukraine’s pro-Russian leader, Viktor Yanukovych, not to sign a deal with the European Union in 2013 that led to protests that ultimately ousted the Ukrainian president in February 2014.
Russia then seized Ukraine’s southern region of Crimea and triggered a separatist rebellion in the east and a war that claimed 14,000 lives.
As he prepared to invade in February, he tore up an unfulfilled 2015 Minsk peace deal and accused Nato of threatening “our historic future as a nation”, claiming without foundation that Nato countries wanted to bring war to Crimea. He has lately accused Nato of using Ukraine to wage a proxy war against Russia.
What’s Putin’s problem with Nato?
For Russia’s leader the West’s 30-member defensive military alliance has one aim – to split society in Russia and ultimately destroy it.
Ahead of the war, he demanded that Nato turn the clock back to 1997 and reverse its eastward expansion, removing its forces and military infrastructure from member states that joined the alliance from 1997 and not deploying “strike weapons near Russia’s borders”. That means Central Europe, Eastern Europe and the Baltics.
In President Putin’s eyes, the West promised back in 1990 that Nato would expand “not an inch to the east”, but did so anyway.
That was before the collapse of the Soviet Union, however, so the promise made to then Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev only referred to East Germany in the context of a reunified Germany. Mr Gorbachev said later that “the topic of Nato expansion was never discussed” at the time.
And the context in the 1990s was very different, says Barbara Zanchetta: “It was not done as a provocation, there was a partnership for peace.”
Does Putin have designs beyond Ukraine?
If he has, his military setbacks in Ukraine may have put paid to any wider ambitions beyond its borders. The most immediate threat is to Moldova, which is not part of Nato and has already come under Russian threat.
But President Putin’s ambition to roll Nato back to the late 1990s has taken a hit, with Finland and Sweden looking closely at joining an alliance that now seems as unified as ever. “He has triggered the opposite effect of what he wanted. He wanted to weaken Nato but Nato is now much stronger,” says Barbara Zanchetta.
Nato has warned of a war that could last weeks, months or even years, and said its members need to be prepared for a long haul.
Russia has already punished two Nato members, Poland and Bulgaria, for the West’s support for Ukraine, by cutting off their gas supplies.
Having witnessed Mr Putin’s willingness to lay waste to European cities to achieve his aims, Western leaders are now under no illusion. US President Joe Biden has labelled him a war criminal and the leaders of both Germany and France see this war as a turning point in the history of Europe.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz believes “Putin wants to build a Russian empire… he wants to fundamentally redefine the status quo within Europe in line with his own vision. And he has no qualms about using military force to do so.”
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What next for Russia itself?
President Putin has been stunned by the scale of the Western response to his invasion. Not only has Ukraine been supplied with weaponry but a wide array of sanctions threaten to contract Russia’s economy by up to 10% this year and hike inflation by more than 20%.
The EU, US, UK and other Western nations have targeted Russia’s economy in a variety of ways:
- Russia’s central bank has had its assets frozen and major banks are shut out of the international SWIFT payment transfer network.
- The US has banned imports of Russian oil and gas; the EU aims to cut gas imports by two-thirds within a year and is working on a phased oil embargo; the UK aims to phase out Russian oil by the end of 2022
- Germany has halted approval on Russia’s Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, a major investment by both Russia and European companies
- Russian airlines have been barred from airspace over the EU, UK, US and Canada
- Personal sanctions have been imposed on President Putin and his daughters, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and many other individuals
Russia’s leader has turned on anyone who has opposed the war. “The Russian people will always be able to distinguish true patriots from scum and traitors,” he said.
More than 15,400 anti-war protesters have been detained and virtually all independent media have been silenced.
There is no meaningful political opposition left as they have either fled the country, or in the case of opposition leader Alexei Navalny, been jailed for years in a strict-regime penal colony.
On February 24, Russian President Vladimir Putin declared war on Ukraine shortly before 6 a.m. Moscow time, when Vladimir Putin announced that he would launch a “special military operation.” In the early hours of February 24, Vladimir Putin announced a “special military operation” against Ukraine, when Vladimir Putin unfoundedly declared the need for “demilitarization and demilitarization” Fears of a Russian invasion of Ukraine continue to rage. After eight years of fighting in the Donbass, a neighbouring country was nazified. The full-scale invasion of Ukraine comes just days after President Vladimir Putin announced that Russia would officially recognize the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republic in eastern Ukraine’s Donbass, with Russian troops stationed in pro- areas beyond the control of Russian separatists. . .
Russia’s annexation of Crimea after the 2014 Ukrainian Dignity Revolution saw Russian-backed separatist forces occupy parts of the Donbass in southeastern Ukraine, sparking an eight-year war in the Donbass. Russia annexed the Crimean peninsula to Ukraine in 2014 after Moscow’s friend, Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, was ousted in mass protests. Tensions escalated further in 2014 when the Ukrainian people overthrew pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych, prompting an angry Putin to annex Crimea and back Ukraine’s separatist war in eastern Ukraine.
The refusal led to massive protests across Ukraine, and in 2014 Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych resigned. In early 2014, mass protests in Kyiv, known as Euromaidan, forced the pro-Russian president to refuse to sign an association agreement with the EU.
President Vladimir Putin has sought to ease the current tensions, which some blame primarily on Russia, by calling for a ban on Ukraine’s potential membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and for limiting NATO deployment of troops and forces. weapons from Eastern Europe – calls for the formal pushing back of both the United States and its allies. Russian President Vladimir Putin also feared that Ukraine would join a military alliance with the US and Europe, posing a threat to Russia.
Russian President Vladimir Putin added that Russia did not seek to occupy Ukraine, but said that the Ukrainian “regime” was responsible for the bloodshed. He accused the US and its allies of ignoring Russia’s request to prevent Ukraine from joining NATO and to provide Russia with security guarantees. Russian President Vladimir Putin said the Russian military operation was aimed at ensuring the “demilitarization” of Ukraine, adding that all Ukrainian soldiers who laid down their arms would be able to leave the war zone safely.
Part of Russia
Simply put, it appears that Russian President Vladimir Putin considers Ukraine traditionally part of Russia and would like to see Ukraine returned to his control. More importantly, Putin sees Ukraine and Russia as inseparable, “one people, one whole” and is deeply suspicious of his closer integration with the West and, above all, his aspirations to join NATO, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
US and US Allies
Vladimir Putin said the US and US allies had pledged to refrain from expanding the alliance after the fall of the Soviet Union, citing it as the main reason for the military escalation after Western leaders refused to reject Ukraine’s entry into NATO. Before Russia launched the invasion, Russian leader Vladimir Putin demanded that NATO exclude new members from the former Soviet republics – most notably Ukraine – and that NATO forces be withdrawn from positions in other neighboring countries to Russia. In the months leading up to the invasion, Russian officials accused Ukraine of incitement and repression, with Russia making numerous security demands to Ukraine, NATO and non-NATO EU allies.
Last year, a spate of ceasefire violations in the east and a buildup of Russian troops near Ukraine heightened fears that another war was about to break out, but tensions eased when Russia withdrew most of its military forces after the April maneuvers. . Putin initially refrained from indiscriminate bombing, but Ukrainian resistance thwarted a Russian attempt to seize the Ukrainian capital Kyiv and topple its pro-Western government.
Putin says the aim of the attack is to protect Russian-speakers in Ukraine, especially those living in the two self-proclaimed republics of Donetsk and Luhansk regions, which seceded from Ukrainian control in 2014. the occupation was simply a defense of ethnic Russians living in the east of Donbass, many of whom have never supported Ukraine’s democratically elected government. First, Vladimir Putin sees Ukrainians and Russians as one people and says that the invasion is aimed at protecting the citizens of eastern Ukraine, many of whom live in two pro-Russian separatist territories. In other words, Russia could seek to return to Russia the dominant position in the European security system, the position it believes it deserves.
Russian President Vladimir Putin also declared that Crimea was part of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic during Soviet times, part of Russia, and annexed Crimea to Russia in late February 2014 and March 2014 . In a televised address, Russian President Vladimir Putin said it was necessary to protect civilians in eastern Ukraine, where Ukrainian troops and Russian-backed separatists have been fighting for nearly eight years. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the leaders of the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics sent a letter to Putin asking for Russian military support “to repel the aggression of the Ukrainian armed forces,” saying the explosion was a Ukrainian government bombing. civilian deaths. Ukraine’s president has decided not to sign a trade deal to bring Ukraine closer to Europe.
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