The Ukraine-Russia War: A Snapshot

Posted On March 1, 2022

Disclaimer: this article is accurate as of the evening of 28/02/2022

Q. What triggered the war?
A. Only Russia’s president Vladimir Putin really knows – it’s being called “Putin’s war” for a
reason. Russia was not provoked into a war by neighbouring Ukraine by any means that we know of. Putin had been threatening an invasion for some time, with Russian troops having amassed at Ukraine’s borders for months. But even experts doubted Putin would actually go through with it until the very last minute, believing it to be a bluff or a ploy to strengthen his hand at the negotiating table. Despite attempts by Europe and the USA to de-escalate the situation via negotiations, however, not only did he order it, but he opted for a full-scale one. This decision is likely a result of a combination of factors.

Firstly, it is widely known (and admitted by Putin himself) that the Russian autocrat laments the collapse of the Soviet Union, and wishes to recreate it. He sees this recreation as the renaissance of Russian power which, in his eyes, the “West” (a contentious term used to refer to Europe, USA, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand) has long lost respect for. He resents this perceived lack of respect afforded to his country, and believes Russian hegemony is its birthright, seeming to be willing to do anything it takes to obtain it. One way to go about this recreation is to invade Ukraine, a former member state of the Soviet Union and the birthplace of Kievan Rus, the first East Slavic state in history and now its capital centre Kyiv. Putin appears to believe that the shared history of the two countries means that Ukraine should not be a separate sovereign state but rather a part of Russia.

Secondly, Putin sees Ukraine’s potential NATO membership as a threat. While the process for Ukraine to acquire this membership had not even started, Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy (who has improbably become a heroic wartime figure) had been voicing his support for Ukrainian NATO membership for some time, and it is likely that Putin reasoned that now was the time to strike, before things went any further. The USA’s catastrophic withdrawal from Afghanistan and its heavy preoccupation with China, together with Europe having its hands full dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic and its reluctance to deal severely with past Russian aggression, most probably contributed to this decision. A Ukraine in NATO would mean the presence of US troops in the country, and the loss of a valuable buffer zone between Russia and NATO states, both of which are unacceptable to Putin.

Thirdly, it is possible that Putin saw Ukraine’s emergent democracy as a threat to his rule. Russia and Ukraine share plenty of history, and are ethnically, culturally and linguistically very similar. Putin may fear that Russians would become inspired by the successes of a mature Ukrainian democracy, catalysing revolutionary thoughts in its citizens that would lead to the overthrow of his regime.

Lastly, tyrants like Putin are also known to seek war merely to consolidate their power, as it
usually has the added benefit of uniting the country against a perceived enemy “other”, triggering a wave of patriotism.

Q. What do the Russians think of the war?

A. By all accounts, Putin has not managed to bring about this unity and patriotism, with a
significant percentage of Russians instead being horrified at the decision to invade their sister Slavic state. To express this displeasure, they have been protesting en masse in public areas, despite group protests in Russia being outlawed, and despite knowing that opposing Putin’s will could land them in jail or worse. There are of course some Russians and even pro-Russia Ukrainians who believe the narrative that Moscow is spouting, and are supporting the invasion. However, these seem to be in the minority rather than in the majority.

Q. What does Putin hope to achieve?
A. Again, this is something that only Putin can answer, but he is probably aiming to accomplish one of three endgames:

  • the full or partial annexation of Ukraine;
  • the overthrow of the Ukrainian government followed by the installation of a pro-Putin puppet regime
  • the complete collapse of Ukraine as a state, leading it to become what is known as a “failed state”.

In the first scenario, Russia would have a better buffer zone between itself and the West, keeping its perceived enemies at arm’s length, with the Dnieper River likely serving as a natural border should Putin opt for a partial annexation. On the other hand, Putin may intend to invade the entirety of Ukraine, which would mean the creation of borders between itself and four NATO member states: Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, and Romania. None of these countries would enjoy having Russia as a neighbour, who joined NATO in the first place as a security guarantee against Russian aggression.

The second outcome is the most likely, with reports citing Moscow as already having selected Zelenskyy as its primary target. Putin said Russia must “defend itself” and “denazify” Ukraine. However, Russia is neither being attacked by Ukraine nor are there Nazis in the country – indeed, its president is Jewish. But one can interpret Putin’s statements as having a focus on regime change in Ukraine and not annexation or disruption.

Merely causing the collapse of Ukraine as a state is the least likely aim, as he would gain more from either of the other two schemes, but one that Putin may decide to go for should Russia not be able to conquer significant parts of Ukrainian territory or install a more amenable government.

Q. Which countries are supporting which, and what actions have they taken?
Belarus is actively supporting Russia, hosting Russian troops and indeed today announcing it may send Belarussian troops to join them. However, Belarussian president Alexander Lukashenko is a puppet of Putin’s and this has not surprised anybody. Long-term Russia allies Syria, Iran, Venezuela, Cuba, together with Brazil’s divisive president Jair Bolsonaro, have voiced support for the invasion, and there are also a significant number of countries which have refused to take a stand against Russian aggression but have not supported them either – most prominently China, India, and the United Arab Emirates, together with many South American, Asian and African countries.

All European countries (with the exception of Belarus), together with the USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Georgia, and even Turkey, are supporting Ukraine and have implemented a number of measures against Russia such as the imposition of economic sanctions, provision of military resources to Ukraine, or blocking access to Russian troops. The sanctions in particular have been unprecedented, including the removal of Russian banks from the SWIFT international payments system, the blocking of transactions with the Russian central bank, and freezing Russian leaders’ assets, even those of Putin. The EU has, for the first time in its history, agreed to finance the purchase and delivery of military equipment to a country under attack by another. Germany, reliant on Russia for over 50% of its natural gas, has suspended the Nord Stream 2 pipeline that was to be connected to Russia; Switzerland, normally neutral in such conflicts, has agreed to maintain sanctions in line with those of the EU.

Q. What’s the current status of the war?
Russia is currently invading Ukraine from three directions: north (via southern Russia and pro-Putin Belarus), east (via eastern Russia) and south (via Crimea, which Russia annexed from Ukraine in 2014; and via Transnistria, which is a breakaway pro-Putin state in Moldova). It is unable to invade Ukraine on the ground from the west as the countries bordering Ukraine in that direction are all NATO member states (the four countries mentioned earlier). The situation on the ground is changing constantly and significant casualties have been reported, but Russian troops seem not to have had as much success as was envisaged so far, with Ukrainian combatants having managed up until now to keep the Russians from taking control of any major city. However, the Russians have taken control of significant amounts of Ukrainian territory and are closing in on the main urban
centres of Kyiv and Kharkiv – what happens next is anyone’s guess.

Christopher Spiteri is a Master’s graduate in International Relations.


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