Russia has invaded Ukraine. Minutes before 3:00 a.m. (GMT), Russian President Vladimir Putin announced the start of a “special military operation” in Ukraine. Immediately after, bombs rained down on Kyiv, and Russian troops moved into Ukraine. The death toll is rising as Ukrainian soldiers confront the Russian assault.
In the constant and unending power struggle that has always existed amongst the great powers of Europe and the wider world, the past decades have proven themselves to be an anomaly. Yet, as of February 24, this anomaly has been overturned. The Russian invasion of Ukraine, though brought to the public view by American intelligence agencies, marks an unprecedented devolution of the Unipolar global order. The unprecedented nature of this invasion also raises a number of questions surrounding Putin and his goals: Why did he choose to invade? What are his plans beyond the invasion? How will the West respond?
A GATHERING STORM
Unlike the 2014 Russian annexation of the Crimean Peninsula, no “little green men” were to be seen quietly and swiftly taking over strategic bases and government offices. Instead, Western observers have seen tens of thousands of Russian armed forces amassed surrounding Ukraine, not only in Russia but also in Belarus (a fellow C.S.T.O. member and closely allied to Russia) and Transnistria (a Russia-backed breakaway territory bordering Ukraine and Moldova). Thus, Ukraine found itself surrounded to its North, East, and South. Secrecy, in this case, was not the aim of Russian military officials. As of late January, around 130,000 troops had moved to the region from all across the Russian Federation. What’s more, the sheer volume of troops caused analysts to term this the largest military buildup in Europe since World War Two.
Such a brazen amassment of Russian armed forces along the border heightened the already fraught tensions between Russia and the West. While Russian threats of military actions towards various neighbors have been historically common, this buildup raised alarm bells in the West as a result of its sheer scale. There had been warnings from the U.S government and allies about the potential of a Russian invasion, with various documents and communications intercepted by the U.S purportedly describing orders and plans for a large-scale war. U.S. President Joe Biden had made a number of claims surrounding the likelihood and timing of an invasion, such as describing war as “imminent” in late January. To some parties, this was seen as hyperbolic. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, along with many other Ukrainian government officials, pushed back against Biden, with Zelensky requesting that Biden “calm down the messaging.” Though it is not certain whether this was a result of his desire to prevent domestic chaos or a true lack of intelligence to support Biden’s claim, many in Ukraine were of the assumption that war would be far from a reality.
THE FINAL ADDRESS
On February 21, Putin announced that Russia would recognize the separatist territories Donetsk and Luhansk in Eastern Ukraine, with the rebels in those two territories forming the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) and Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR), respectively. Historically, these regions had seen the mixing of ethnic Russians and Ukrainians. However, the political uncertainty of 2014 resulted in large-scale protests throughout Luhansk and Donetsk, snowballing into armed uprisings and protracted insurgency movement. The actual territory controlled by these two governments represents about a third of their respective territorial claims. Following mass civilian evacuations from these regions, Denis Pushilin and Leonid Pasechnik, leaders of the DPR and LDR, respectively, requested, according to the Russian Foreign Minister, assistance “in repelling the aggression of the Ukrainian armed forces.” Putin responded to these requests with emphatic support, sending troops to both of the separatist regions. The Russian president has said that the troops were sent in for “peacekeeping” purposes, as well as to “demilitarize and denazify” Ukraine, a point of particular irony given the Ukrainian President Zelensky’s Jewish heritage.
This address, as well as a number of other video speeches from Putin are believed to have been prerecorded, adding to the highly coordinated nature of this operation. Notably, many officials’ watches were found to display a time not in sync with the release of the video. Moreover, metadata from several videos seem to suggest that they were recorded on February 21 and meant to be released on February 22 for a historic date, however, the Kremlin has supplied data that they claim suggests otherwise. Nonetheless, the Russian military response following Putin’s speech, seen largely as his declaration of war, was swift and calculated.
Despite Putin’s claim that Russia would not “impose anything on anyone by force”, artillery and missile barrages were battering major Ukrainian cities like Kyiv and Kharkiv. Major airports throughout the country, such as Kyiv’s Boryspil Int’l Airport, became targets of Russian bombs. As many war analysts have predicted in the past, Russia sought to eliminate air defense systems as a means to establish air superiority in the region, allowing their land forces to move in without the threat of Ukrainian air barrages. Further, the U.S. alleges that Russia’s GRU military intelligence agency was responsible for a number of cyber-attacks throughout Ukraine, such as disabling government websites. Indeed, this has been another aspect of a previously theorized Russian invasion that has been observed. In targeting power grids, communications technology, and other electrical infrastructure, Russia likely sought to sow discord both among the military and population, leaving the country even more vulnerable to a land invasion.
Following the air and cyber-attacks, Russian troops marched into the DPR and LDR with tanks and naval support. Border checkpoints were overwhelmed, and the Russian forces advanced from the South, East, and North, likely advancing towards major cities such as Kyiv and Odessa. Meeting only Ukrainian resistance, Russian forces took control of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. Officials have already reported an increase in radioactivity as a result of Russian shelling, and the situation is a glaring callback to the 1986 accident that spread nuclear dust across Belarus, Russia, and Ukraine. If history were to repeat itself, the human and environmental impacts would be felt across Europe. In addition to Russian forces, Belarussian forces also joined in, effectively marking their entry into the conflict.
Disagreements over military casualties remain pervasive in determining accurate numbers, but Ukraine claims to have shot down a number of Russian aircraft, while Russia denies this outright. Control over the Hostomel Airport has also been a point of contention, with Ukraine and Russia both claiming control. Should Ukraine successfully push Russia out, this would mark a turning point in a Russian advance towards Kiev. What’s more, the sheer scale of both militaries, as well as the large number of reservists within Ukraine, create the risk of a long and bloody land based conflict.
Though Russia had largely targeted military sites and infrastructure, civilian houses and public spaces found themselves victims of Russian weaponry. There have been dozens of military and civilian casualties. Rescuers conduct operations in ruins as people pour into the streets and bomb shelters underneath a backdrop of heavy black smoke. As of late Thursday, at least ten civilian casualties were reported, though the number is expected to rise quite significantly.
THE PRESIDENT WHO WOULD BE TSAR
For Putin, control over Ukraine bears a significant historical imperative. In an article published July 2021, Putin outlined what he called the “Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians”. He derives a common heritage from the Kievan Rus, and uses this shared history to justify the invalidity of a separate Ukrainian state. Moreover, Putin focuses on Kyiv as a center of Russian culture, suggesting in a way that Russia is incomplete without it. He further blames external meddling from Austria and Poland, for example, who divided and altered the Ukrainian people. Putin also ties the construction of the Soviet Union to Ukraine, describing its role in the revolution and how many leaders, such as Kruschev and Brezhnev, were of Ukrainian descent themselves. He blames the division of ethnic groups in the Soviet Union for creating the modern Ukrainian identity, and laments the “single economic system over decades and centuries” between the two nations. Putin also blames a division of “spiritual unity” and a rising tide of Neo-Nazism in Ukraine for this most recent failure of relations. Yet, in his analysis, Putin seems to ignore the historical ethnolinguistic and cultural divergences of the two peoples, instead glossing over them by claiming that they were products of meddling actors. This argument could be applied to any culture in recent history, as many groups and peoples have linked histories. But the creation of a nation state and common identity is hard to combat, and genocides against the Ukranian people by Russia suggest that the two groups have historically been distinct. Moreover, Putin sidesteps the democratic will of the Ukrainian people, seeming to almost suggest that the Ukranians themselves were unable to choose their path, as they had been misled by historical forces and a belligerent government.
DELUSIONS OF GRANDEUR
This leads to the inevitable question: What does Putin seek to gain from invading Ukraine?
To peer into the brain of one of the most powerful leaders in the world is something very few have succeededing in, and Putin is no exception. Yet, analysts have outlined a number of possible scenarios following the collapse of the Ukrainian military and solidification of Russian control over major cities. Some have argued that Ukraine may annex the two breakaway republics once they have fulfilled their territorial ambitions. However, given the scale of the conflict, this seems unlikely. If Putin were seeking territorial gains, many believe that he would annex land up to the Dnieper River, or possibly even all of Ukraine’s Black Sea coast. Firstly, this would ensure that the Ukrainian state would fail to regain any semblance of its former power, economic and military. This would be in spite of any move it may make to join NATO or the EU. However, controlling any portion of Ukraine would be difficult for Russia. A mass insurgency and rebel organization would be expected in any outcome with territorial gains. Western leaders have already begun debating whether to arm resistance fighters and set up networks outside of the country. What’s more, some estimated suggest 900,000 Russian forces would be requires to maintain the occupation, far outnumber the 150,000 or so Russian troops currently invading.
Another possibility relies less on the annexation of territory and more the change of Ukrainian leadership. Some analysts have suggested the Russian goal of creating a decentralized and federal Ukrainian state. In this outcome, the various regions of Ukraine are given more authority and the central government remains powerless, in essence. Thus, Russia would be able to use soft power tactics to induce various regions to fall under Russian control. In this way, Russia has less of a direct occupation (and Ukraine maintains a veil of independence), but they can slowly eat up what remains of a Ukrainian nation. Lastly, Russia could simply install a Pro-Russian government, but this risks popular Ukrainian revolution, as had occurred in the past. In any event, this conflict will pervade Eastern European geopolitics far longer than the war itself.
As Russian police continue to arrest and detain anti-war protestors as forces continue to move through Ukraine, one can assume they are fearful of this resistance. This opens the metaphorical door for Russian leaders to capitalize on this fear and commit mass killings of Ukrainians seen as a security risk. One would assume they possess enough willingness, seeing as they have already shelled hospital patients. It would be a humanitarian disaster of unprecedented scale.
THE WEST DEFIANT?
On Thursday morning, G7 leaders met to discuss and subsequently carry out the implementation of sanctions. Biden stated that the US forces will “defend every inch of NATO territory” but will not “be engaged in a conflict with Russia in Ukraine.” Biden called Putin the “aggressor” who “chose this war,” but said war has, so far, consisted only of economic sanctions. The US government has done little beyond sanctioning Russian banks and Putin while stopping technological exports to Russia in an attempt to put a dent in the Kremlin’s military capacity.
An emergency NATO summit took place today, but, while the US and other member countries have condemned Russia’s actions and repositioned troops near Ukraine, the organization as a whole has otherwise declined to militarily respond to Russian aggression. Yesterday, a Turkish ship was hit by a bomb near Odessa. The location of NATO countries that border Belarus and Ukraine makes further accidents likely. It’s unlikely that Europe will stand by if a NATO country is attacked. However, should Russia continue to solely target Ukraine, the organization will most likely follow the US’ example.
Without foreign mobilization, Ukraine will very likely fall under Russian control. A full-scale invasion, which appears to be all but imminent, would signal the destruction of the current global world order and set a precedent for countries looking to reunify territories – including the Republic of China.
China views the province of Taiwan, self-governed by largely unrecognized as a sovereign country, as part of its territory and has, in the past few years, increasingly stepped up its military actions around the island as well as verbally demanded reunification. The Chinese Foreign Ministry has already refused to call Russian military actions an “invasion,” and stated in response to the situation in Ukraine that, “Taiwan has always been an inalienable part of China.” In the wake of the Ukrainian invasion, Taiwan reported that nine Chinese military aircraft had violated its airspace. The risk of global conflicts would grow even larger if Russia manages to escape serious punishment.
If things proceed, the global hierarchy will be rearranged. Russian dominance coupled with US inactivity will drastically alter the economic and military balance of today. The new world order will be one that disregards civil rights and accepts human casualties in the wake of political maneuvers. Moreover, the liberal democratic and unipolar mandate of the past 30 years would be overturned, as Russia and China, as well as smaller powers such Iran, seek to enact their own geopolitical goals. Within the invasion of Ukraine, the status quo is at stake and American credibility wanes as the hours drag on.
REQUIEM FOR HUMANITY
Lastly, the fate of the Ukrainian people themselves has been upended in only a few days. Some groups predict a refugee crisis of up to between 5 and 10 million people. For the E.U., which continues to deal with the aftershocks of the Syrian Refugee Crisis, this would be devastating. With the predicted casualty count upwards of 50,000, a humanitarian crisis would almost be guaranteed. The destruction of infrastructure and housing would set back the Ukrainian people by many decades, and make life significantly more difficult, further worsened by the economic destruction. It reminds us that, though wars are often represented by their statistical impacts and treaties, there are no real winners. The civilians, who had no choice in deciding their geopolitical fate, now face a scenario in which their lives and livelihoods risk total destruction. Indeed, the price of this war will be paid in blood.
By: Nicholas Donnellan and Amber Ting