On Thursday, tensions escalated in Ukraine as Russian forces fired missiles in several cities across Ukraine. Over the past few weeks, Russian military presence has been increasing in eastern Ukraine, and the invasion on Thursday marks the start of what Russian President Vladimir Putin has referred to as a “special military operation” against Ukraine. The invasion comes days after Putin officially recognized the Donetsk People’s Republic and Luhansk People’s Republic (known collectively as Donbas) by signing mutual cooperation agreements with the two separatist-controlled regions of Ukraine.
These recent and evolving developments, however, can be traced back to the years following the disintegration of the USSR and the independence of Ukraine.
Historical Roots of the Conflict
In 1991, Ukrainians declared their independence from the Soviet Union through a referendum and a presidential election that was largely considered free and fair, resulting in the election of Leonid Kravchuk as president.
However, in 2004, Pro-Russian candidate Viktor Yanukovich was elected president in spite of allegations of vote-rigging. Yanukovich’s election triggered wide scale protests across Ukraine, fuelled by the desire to reverse authoritarian attempts at capturing power. Ultimately, the Supreme Court ordered a re-vote in which former prime minister Viktor Yushchenko, broadly considered pro-Western, was elected instead. Yushchenko offered an alternative, a European vision to the Ukrainian population, advocating for Ukraine’s inclusion in NATO and the European Union.
This trend was reversed yet again when in 2010 Victor Yanukovich came to power. Backed by Russia, his attempts to distance Ukraine from Europe continued. Significantly, his government was able to secure a gas pricing deal with Russia, in exchange for extending the lease for the Russian navy in a Ukrainian Black Sea port. In the meantime, trade and association talks with the EU came to a standstill in November 2013. As Kyiv’s economic ties with Moscow were revived, protests broke out in Ukraine yet again. In Kyiv’s Maidan Square, these demonstrations turned particularly violent, resulting in the deaths of dozens of protestors.
In February 2014, the Ukrainian parliament voted for the removal of Yanukovich as president. However, this was met with retaliation in the Ukrainian region of Crimea, where “armed men began occupying key facilities and checkpoints on the Crimean peninsula.” The Kremlin, which initially denied any ties with these armed men, eventually went on to admit to their association with Moscow. By March, Russian troop presence had expanded across the Peninsula. Through a referendum conducted without the presence of any international observers, Moscow’s claims to Crimea were strengthened. Local authorities reported implausible numbers, claiming a turnout of 87% (of which 96.7% seemed to have voted for joining Russia) in a region where ethnic Ukrainians and Crimean Tatars comprised close to 40% of the population. The annexation of Crimea was completed with the signing of the Treaty of Accession of the Republic of Crimea to Russia on March 18.
By April 2014, pro-Russian separatists in the Donbass region had also declared independence, leading to sporadic fighting between separatist forces and Ukrainian armed forces that continues till date. The Minsk Agreement of 2014 between Ukraine and Russia-backed separatists that included a series of measures aimed at easing tensions broke down quickly. Minsk II in 2015, brokered by France and Germany guaranteed, among other things, the possibility of dialogue on interim self-government for Donetsk and Luhansk, in accordance with Ukrainian law. However, it remained unimplemented, particularly with Russia insisting that it could not be considered a party to the conflict and therefore, was not bound by its terms.
The Run-Up to the Invasion
In January 2021, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky made an appeal to Joe Biden, now US President, to allow Ukraine to join NATO. This was accompanied with sanctions against the opposition leader, Viktor Medvedchuk over his ties with Putin. Over the spring, Russian troop presence increased along the Ukrainian border in what were described as “training exercises.” Ukraine’s use of the Turkish Bayraktar TB2 drone, in October that year, with the objective of destroying mobile artillery in the Donbass particularly seemed to trigger the Kremlin. Russia continued to mass troops even while denying any plans to invade Ukraine.
While the U.S. warned Russia of serious consequences in case of an invasion, Russia presented its own demands for the cessation of NATO military activities in eastern Europe and Ukraine. In response to growing Russian troop build-up in neighboring Belarus, NATO put troops on standby in addition to sending ships and fighter jets to bolster Europe’s eastern defenses. With Washington refusing to rule out the possibility of Ukraine joining NATO and Putin’s allegations of NATO expansion and deployment of “strike weapons systems near Russia’s borders,” tensions continued to grow. After days of shellfire between Ukrainian forces and separatist forces, on February 22, Russia recognised the breakaway regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, sending troops in on the pretext of “peacekeeping.” Finally, Thursday, 24 February marked the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Behind the People’s Republics of Donetsk and Lugansk
Monday the 24th February 2022 will go down in history as the day in which Russian President Vladimir Putin delivered a long speech that ended with the “long overdue decision” to recognize the rebel-held territories of Donetsk and Lugansk as independent and sovereign republics. Soon after the message, some Russian allies such as Cuba, Venezuela, Nicaragua, and Syria, as well as the breakaway Georgian provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia followed suit, whereas the Western world in particular strongly condemned Putin’s remarks. On Tuesday, the Secretary General of the UN, António Guterres, was among the strongest critics of the speech, referring to the situation in Ukraine as “the biggest global peace and security crisis in recent years”.
Arguably, Putin’s words on Donetsk and Luhansk are the last nail in the coffin of the Minsk peace agreements. His move came after several days of shelling along the line of contact in Donetsk and Luhansk, a situation that, according to Ukraine and the West, was part of the Russian strategy to create a pretext for invasion. On the other hand, Russia argued that Ukraine was using force to reclaim those territories and, despite Kyiv’s rejection of the claim, Moscow’s accusations were seemingly supported by a video statement released by separatist leaders last Friday.
Further analysis of the data embedded in the video, however, revealed that the latter had been pre-recorded on 16th February, when the situation was still relatively calm. Amid accusations by the West of creating “false flag” incidents to invade Ukraine, Putin convened a meeting of his Security Council on Monday, soon after the separatist chiefs published a video statement calling on Russia to recognize their independence. The recognition decrees were then signed in a televised ceremony that signaled to the West Moscow’s commitment to defend the regions.
Nevertheless, the issue of borders continued to worry Kyiv and international analysts alike. Earlier this week, the Deputy Foreign Minister Andrey Rudenko told the Interfax News Agency that Russia would currently recognize “the borders, where the leadership of the DNR and the LNR are executing their authority”. Today’s invasion, however, arguably shows that Putin intends to support the rebels in their military actions to “restore” their statelets to the original borders, which comprised the whole Eastern-Ukrainian region known as Donbas.
In the hours following the invasion, there seems to be a crucial question lingering behind every single article that has been written on the topic: what military strategy will Russians adopt in Ukraine? Whenever we talk about strategy, we should bear in mind that having clear objectives is the pre-condition of success. Although Putin’s actual plan will remain top-secret for some time to come, it may be argued that, apparently, his ambitions are not limited to helping the rebel chiefs consolidate their power over Donetsk and Lugansk.
Looking at the map created by the New York Times to track the Russian invasion, it is clear that Moscow’s objectives are not limited to the Donbas region. Since the start of the invasion, multiple strikes have been reported in several parts of the country. Despite Russian claims that their strategy only involves high-precision blows to knock off Ukrainian defenses and war industry, civilian casualties were reported in various parts of the country. In particular, there seems to be a North-South line of advancement that would cut through the regions of Odessa on the one hand and Kharkiv on the other. If confirmed, this move may be a bold attempt to cut-off and isolate Ukrainian forces fighting along the line of contact in the East and beyond. In the military domain, this famous strategy takes the name of “pincer movement” or “double envelopment” and, since the famous Battle of Marathon in 490 BC, history has shown multiple times that this tactic is highly dangerous for the encircled forces for both strategic and tactical reasons.
But there is more. As of a few hours ago, Russian forces have officially entered the region of the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv. Therefore, Russia seems far from focused on seizing “only” Eastern Ukraine, as this recent development may well be the first step towards the isolation of the capital. In a previously published article, one of the co-authors, Simone Mezzabotta, reported that Ukraine was particularly worried about the amassing of Russian troops at Klintsy and Pochep, since the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, which is near the two Russian cities, is only about 140 kilometers away from the capital. Hours into the invasion, Russian forces captured the Chernobyl power plant while Ukrainian forces battled them on three sides.
In the past couple of days, some analysts, such as CNN’s Tom Foreman, argued that, in case of invasion, Russian forces could aim at creating a land-bridge between the Donbas and Crimea. Nevertheless, the latest updates suggest that Putin might have a more ambitious plan in mind for the region. The West now fears that Russian forces aim at controlling all the area east of the Dnipro River, substantially reducing Ukraine’s territory and creating a buffer zone between Kyiv and the Donbas. Thursday morning, the Republican Senator Marco Rubio went as far as suggesting that Putin’s final objective is to invade Kyiv and “decapitate” the government by bombing their buildings and targeting their systems.
In a declaration signed late Thursday, the Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenski ordered a general mobilization that will be in effect for at least 90 days and, under martial law, he introduced a temporary restriction banning all male citizens aged 18-60 from leaving the country. Furthermore, as he said in a separate video statement, he believes that Russians marked him and his family as primary targets and that sabotage groups have already entered Kyiv.