It is too early to tell exactly how bad the consequences of Russia’s senseless and unnecessary war against Ukraine will be. The least pessimistic scenario – a short war followed by a ceasefire – still entails widespread destruction and suffering in Ukraine. And the situation could get even worse, as further players become involved in a proxy war that has every chance of exploding beyond Ukraine’s boundaries. How did it come to this, and could it have been avoided?
The answer to the second question is yes. Primary responsibility lies with the Russian government, which was under no imminent threat from Ukraine, and decided not only to abandon diplomacy but to proceed with an assault on its neighbour. The shift was rapid. On 20 February, Emmanuel Macron claimed to have laid the groundwork for a summit between Putin and Biden. The following day, Putin officially recognised Luhansk and Donetsk, two provinces of eastern Ukraine controlled by Russian-backed militias, as independent states. Early in the morning of 24 February, he announced that Russia would begin a ‘special military operation’ in Ukraine, launching air strikes and sending in troops. The invasion long predicted by Western media, and strenuously denied by Russian officials, had begun. By 25 February, Russian forces were closing in on Kyiv, artillery battles were ongoing in the east of Ukraine and as many as 50,000 people had fled the country.
A share of blame must also lie with Ukraine’s Western backers, in particular the US and its Nato allies, who helped to create the conditions for the conflict. The strategic concern driving Russia’s actions has been apparent for more than a decade now: no further enlargement of Nato. Faced with this, the US and its allies have repeatedly insisted that Nato expansion is non-negotiable. Relations between Russia and the West in recent years have foundered on the incompatibility of these views, from the Nato Bucharest summit and Russo-Georgian War in 2008 through the Ukraine crisis of 2013-14 to the present. The refusal to give ground on enlargement was made in the knowledge that it would create further conflict with Russia, and that it would not make Ukraine any safer. The decision is all the more culpable because the costs will not be borne in Brussels or London or Washington, but measured in Ukrainian lives.
In Russia there is little domestic appetite for conflict with Ukraine, as was made clear by the scores of anti-war protests held in more than fifty cities on 24 February, despite such gatherings being illegal. Protesters carried banners reading ‘No to the War’ and ‘Peace to Ukraine’, and chanted ‘Shame’; they were met with fierce repression, with close to 1800 arrests on that day alone. But although it hardly bothered to conjure up a casus belli, the Kremlin seems to be preparing for a prolonged conflict. Its stated war aims have stark implications. In his speech announcing the start of hostilities, Putin referred to the ‘demilitarisation’ and ‘denazification’ of Ukraine. The first term suggested a conflict of limited scope, targeting military infrastructure (including the equipment recently shipped to Ukraine by its Nato allies). But the second pointed to a larger, neo-imperial project. Since 2014, Russian state media have seized on the prominence of right-wing nationalists in Ukrainian public and political life to depict the country’s rulers as fascist sympathisers (on 25 February Putin called them ‘a gang of drug addicts and neo-Nazis’). In the current context, ‘denazification’ is shorthand not just for regime change, but for sweeping away the entire post-2014 political settlement. Doing this by force in a country the size of Ukraine – Europe’s largest by area – would involve long-term military occupation, and a death toll on the level of Afghanistan or Iraq.
Three days before the invasion, on 21 February, Putin made a speech to Russia’s National Security Council disputing Ukraine’s claim to sovereignty over the land within its current borders. He described modern-day Ukraine as an artificial creation of the Bolsheviks, who had ‘squeezed in’ the Russian-speaking territories of the Donbass alongside Ukrainian-speaking lands to the west. The move to recognise the People’s Republics of Donetsk and Luhansk – DNR and LNR, in the Russian acronyms – may be the first step in a plan to absorb these provinces into Russia, cleaning up the Bolsheviks’ historical ‘mistake’. (This, incidentally, should put paid to the idea that Putin is bent on reconstituting the USSR: on the contrary, he claims that the Bolsheviks redrew Russia’s borders to its disadvantage and gave national minorities too many rights – including the right to self-determination for the USSR’s fifteen constituent republics, which provided the constitutional basis for the break-up of the union.)
It is possible that Russia does not intend to absorb the DNR and LNR just yet, preferring to leave them in limbo. In that scenario, the two territories would be less like Crimea, swiftly incorporated into the Russian Federation in 2014, than South Ossetia and Abkhazia, the two breakaway regions of Georgia whose independence Russia recognised after the 2008 Russo-Georgian War; or Transnistria, another Russian-backed unrecognised state wedged between Ukraine and Moldova. Either way, the decision to recognise the independence of the DNR and LNR on 21 February showed that Russia had given up on influencing Ukraine’s internal politics by means other than force. The invasion confirmed this shift.
In the process, Russia reanimated Nato’s Cold War status as a military alliance against Moscow, and has surely consolidated public opinion in Ukraine firmly behind Nato membership. Though the aspiration to join Nato was written into the Ukrainian constitution in 2019, surveys showed that barely half the population were in favour – surveys that did not include Donetsk or Luhansk, which in 2018 numbered 3.8 million people, around a tenth of Ukraine’s total population.
It is a bitter irony that Russia’s invasion will be taken to justify membership in an organisation that did nothing to prevent it. Western chancelleries are insisting that Ukraine’s sovereignty must be defended, but while arms deliveries will be ramped up, it is not clear how else they intend to do that, short of declaring war on Russia. Might Nato declare a no-fly zone over Ukraine, as it did in Libya, drawing the alliance into an air war with Russia?
In any scenario the conflict is likely to result in a massive reduction in Ukraine’s sovereignty. Russia’s goal is at the very least to demonstrate that it can neutralise Ukraine’s military and slice off pieces of its territory at will. Its resort to force is also designed to cripple Ukraine as a functioning, independent state. Even in the event of a ceasefire or a Russian withdrawal, Ukraine will see its room for manoeuvre drastically reduced, its economy further crippled and its security compromised. Ukraine as a Nato client state in an intensified geopolitical struggle with Russia is not a happier prospect. This would be the sovereignty of a battlefield. The other possibility is for Ukraine’s sovereignty to be uncoupled from the question of Nato membership. There is no intrinsic connection between ‘Europe’ and Nato, as demonstrated by the EU membership of Austria, Ireland and Sweden – none of them Nato states, all of them neutral. On 24 February, President Zelensky expressed a willingness to discuss Ukrainian neutrality in exchange for peace, and this may be his, and Ukraine’s, best chance of survival.
Other paths were possible. The second Minsk Protocol of February 2015 established a ceasefire between Ukrainian pro-government forces and Russian-backed separatist militias in the Donbass. It stipulated that the Ukrainian government should recognise the two separatist provinces of Luhansk and Donetsk as legitimate interlocutors, and amend its constitution by the end of that year to allow for a degree of decentralisation. This would have given the rebel provinces constitutional protection, while still maintaining Ukraine’s territorial integrity. It would also have provided Ukraine’s Russian-speaking provinces with a de facto veto on Nato membership. This would have left the country internally divided between pro-Western and pro-Russian blocs; it would also have done nothing to address the continuing Ukrainian claim to Crimea. But it would have at least provided a political framework for addressing Ukraine’s pressing dilemmas, rather than continuing to militarise them.
There are many reasons Minsk II didn’t work. The ceasefire was scarcely observed: UN figures give 13,000 casualties in the Donbass between 2014 and 2021. But the larger problems seem to have been political. Since the fall of Yanukovych in 2014, two successive Ukrainian presidents have been elected as ‘peace candidates’, Petro Poroshenko in 2014 and Zelensky in 2019. Each had a democratic mandate to negotiate a deal that would reincorporate the two rebel provinces and thus restore Ukraine’s territorial integrity. Neither did so. Having been compelled to accept a peace deal at Russian gun-point, it is perhaps not surprising that Ukraine would drag its feet about implementing it. But there has been little serious pressure on Kyiv from its Western allies; instead, successive US administrations have kept arms shipments flowing and continued to promote Ukraine’s bid for Nato membership. The implicit message was that the political process laid out in Minsk would sooner or later be a dead letter. Russia’s invasion suggests that its own commitment to the agreements was a sham, but the broader failure to implement Minsk II never put that to the test. The troubled peace has been shattered. The question remains, why did all those who for so long foretold this war do so little to stop it, and so much to hasten the disaster Russia has now set in motion?