February 24, 2022 was a usual day until Putin delivered a televised address announcing the beginning of a “special military operation,” and within minutes Russian air strikes were carried out against cities across Ukraine.
The dreaded war which was brewing for over a decade became a reality. Putin’s unprovoked attack was condemned by leaders around the world, and many vowed that even harsher sanctions were to come.
But What led to the war?
When did the crisis begin, how did it escalate to outright war – and what has happened throughout the conflict?
After the disintegration of the USSR, Ukraine gained its independence in 1991 and Russia has tried to maintain the country in its orbit since then.
Ukraine and Russia have shared cultural and linguistic ties for hundreds of years. Ukraine was the most powerful state in the Soviet Union after Russia.
Ukraine has been a hub for commercial industries, factories and defence equipment. It also provides Russia with access to the Black Sea and the Mediterranean Sea.
Russia, considering the economic significance of Ukraine, sought Ukraine’s membership in the Eurasian Economic Community (EAEC), which is a free trade agreement that came into being in 2015. With its huge market and advanced agriculture and industrial output, Ukraine was supposed to play an important role but Ukraine refused to join the agreement.
The tipping point however was the bid for eastward expansion by the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) which infuriated Russia. For Russia, Ukrainian membership in NATO is a red line. Russia calls it an enlargement – a threat to its sovereignty.
Russia even presented a security pact to the United States and an agreement with NATO. Russia, in its security demands, wanted a guarantee from NATO that it will deny membership to Ukraine and other former Soviet Countries, de-escalate military deployments from Central and Eastern Europe, and halt its eastward expansion.
Russia wanted a guarantee from the United States that it will refrain from sending its forces to regions such as the Baltic States and the Black Sea but NATO did not pay heed.
Annexation of Crimea
This is the eastern industrial province of Ukraine, Donetsk. In 2014, a separatist insurgency started here. After months of popular unrest Yanukovych flees to Russia he was replaced by a pro-Western interim government which commits to orienting Ukraine towards European Union.
When a pro-western and anti-Russian government took over Ukraine, Putin had no other choice than to annexe Crimea.
As the new interim government of Ukraine was dealing with a reeling economy, heavily armed pro-Russian separatists seized government buildings in Crimea and, with the support of Russian troops, declared independence from the central government.
After this move, Russia gained a maritime advantage in the region. As Russia annexed Crimea it got access to the warm water port of Sevastopol, which Russia always desired.
In 2019, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, a former comedian, defeats pro-Russian Petro Poroshenko in a presidential election in Ukraine. He promised to end the war against Russia and wipe corruption out of Ukraine.
In December 2021, Putin issues demands to NATO and the United States that – Ukraine should never be admitted to NATO. Biden administration rejected this request.
On February 2022, Putin recognises the breakaway Ukrainian regions of Donetsk and Luhansk as sovereign. He also sends troops there to keep these regions independent.
Russia launched a full-scale attack on Ukraine on February 24, 2022, from multiple directions. After several weeks of building up troops on the country’s border. Tens of thousands of Ukrainians fled the country and others took up arms against Russian soldiers, while NATO deployed troops to member states in the region. The EU, US and allied countries introduced a series of sanctions.
The war has so far had two broad phases.
Phase I began when the Russian military invaded four main fronts in Ukraine on 24 February 2022—two of them towards Kyiv, one towards Kharkiv, and a southern front from Crimea towards Odessa. The Russian military failed in its campaign to swiftly decapitate the Ukrainian leadership by a strike on the airport, 10 km northwest of Kyiv. Russia tried to capture Kyiv, but Ukraine held its fort.
In this phase, the inability of the Russians to establish air superiority also became obvious. Neither could they counter the Ukrainian use of drones for surveillance, electronic jamming, and attacks.
As the war stretched, the Russians found themselves running short on weaponry. A further burden for them has been the difficulty in acquiring many key components used for missiles, because of Western sanctions.
Perhaps more important in this phase was the cyber war between Russia and Ukraine. At the outset, the Russians hacked the commercial US Viasat satellite used by Ukraine for its communications.
In response, Western countries rallied behind Ukraine, and in a systematic action involving intelligence agencies and private players, have been supporting Ukraine in maintaining its military communications and degrading the Russian ones, while boosting Ukraine’s ability to project its side of the conflict to the world.
The US’s Space X Starlink system played a significant role: it quickly provided Ukraine with resilient and reliable means of communication.
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, and now Russia wanted to conquer all of it.
Phase II of the war has been different. The Russians regrouped in the Donetsk and Luhansk fronts (the Donbas region) and launched a slow and systematic campaign using superior artillery-based firepower to make incremental advances.
The Russians also made effective use of drones and electronic warfare. They had already seized territory in the south in the opening days of the war, yet they learnt another series of lessons in urban warfare that saw them take three months to capture Mariupol.
Thereafter redeploying their forces, they advanced through sheer attrition to capture the cities of Sievierodonetsk and Lysychansk in early July, suffering heavy losses, but imposing similar costs on the Ukrainians, too.
The pace of advance was slow, similar to the First World War. This was mainly an army battle with air forces being reluctant to fly low to provide support because both sides had strong air defences over their respective fronts.
What the closing stage of the Donbas battle revealed was the importance of long-range precision firing artillery. They compelled the Russians to alter their tactics.
By mid-August 2022, the war appeared to have reached a stalemate, with both sides entrenching themselves in World War I-style defences in the eastern and southern parts of the country.
There is scattered fighting in the east.
Izium City- the gateway to the Donbas region has been recaptured by Ukraine’s forces on September 11.
After this Russia targeted power stations near Kharkiv, the second largest city in Ukraine
Russia’s war in Ukraine has left 17.7 million people in serious need of humanitarian aid, according to United Nations estimates.“Millions of people across the country have endured months of intense hostilities without adequate access to food, water, health care, education, protection and other essential services,” the group wrote in a report. “Massive destruction of civilian infrastructure has left hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians without their homes or livelihoods.”
It’s been 200 days since then and images of present-day Ukraine depict the scale of devastation. Around 6000 civilians have been killed and another 8000 injured, according to the United Nations – likely a significant underestimate. Countless homes, schools, hospitals, and other civilian structures have been damaged or destroyed, many during apparently unlawful indiscriminate or disproportionate attacks, the vast majority by Russian forces. Often these attacks have used explosive weapons with wide area effects in populated areas, including some with widely banned cluster munitions. This violence and abuse have led 6.7 million Ukrainians to flee the country over the past six months, while internally displacing another 6.5 million.
Russian and Russian-affiliated forces have been forcibly transferring Ukrainian civilians, including those fleeing hostilities, to the Russian Federation or areas of Ukraine occupied by Russia, Human Rights Watch said in a report.
Since the invasion, prices for fossil fuels have risen dramatically internationally, while the costs for food staples such as wheat are causing millions in the Global South to sleep hungry, laying a foundation for a global food crisis.
Western countries have called on Russia to immediately withdraw its military forces from the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant amid continuing fears over its fate, with both sides accusing each other of shelling the facility. Putin in contrasting statements since the war began has hinted at nuclear war as well.
Early in the war, he pointedly referred to Russia’s nuclear arsenal and warned outside powers that any attempt to interfere would “lead you to such consequences that you have never encountered in your history”. However he made a statement in a letter to participants of a conference on the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT) in August, “We proceed from the fact that there can be no winners in a nuclear war and it should never be unleashed, and we stand for equal and indivisible security for all members of the world community,” he said.
With no end to the war in sight and the estimates of a loss of lives and infrastructure in numbers, the world leaders shouldn’t lose sight of the unaccounted suffering of the survivors of war and the socio-psychological impact on generations to come. It’s high time Putin and Zelensky TALK!