Tue. Jul 16th, 2024

Why has Russia invaded Ukraine and what does Putin want?

When Vladimir Putin shattered the peace in Europe by unleashing war on a democracy of 44 million people, his justification was that modern, Western-leaning Ukraine was a constant threat and Russia could not feel “safe, develop and exist”.

But after weeks of bombardment, thousands of deaths and the displacement of 10 million people inside Ukraine and beyond, the question remains: what is his war aim and is there a way out?

What does he want?

The Russian leader’s initial aim was to overrun Ukraine and depose its government, ending for good its desire to join the Western defensive alliance Nato.

He told the Russian people his goal was to “demilitarise and de-Nazify Ukraine”, to protect people subjected to what he called eight years of bullying and genocide by Ukraine’s government. “It is not our plan to occupy the Ukrainian territory. We do not intend to impose anything on anyone by force,” he insisted.

This was not even a war or invasion, he claimed, merely the fiction of a “special military operation” that Russian state-controlled media are required to adopt.

The claim of Nazis and genocide in Ukraine was also a fiction. And there was no swift victory.

The goals he set at the start of Russia’s invasion appear to have been watered down but what is clear is that the Kremlin sees this as a pivotal moment in Russian history. “Russia’s future and its future place in the world are at stake,” says foreign intelligence chief Sergei Naryshkin.

The bombardment continues – but latest reports from peace talks suggest Russia is no longer seeking to overthrow the government and is instead aiming for a neutral Ukraine. Russia may also seek to hold on to its territorial conquests – both Crimea in the south and in Ukraine’s east.

Map showing the areas of Ukraine where Russians controlled or were advancing into a week ago and today.

The question is whether Russia’s authoritarian leader has designs beyond Ukraine.

Putin wants to build a Russian empire,” concluded German Chancellor Olaf Scholz after hours talking to him. “He wants to fundamentally redefine the status quo within Europe in line with his own vision. And he has no qualms about using military force to do so.”

Even if he has broader goals, the shortcomings of Russia’s military in the face of strong Ukrainian resistance will for now keep them in check.

Why Putin wants a neutral Ukraine

Since Ukraine achieved independence in 1991, as the Soviet Union collapsed, it has gradually veered to the West – both the EU and Nato.

Russia’s leader aims to reverse that, seeing the fall of the Soviet Union as the “disintegration of historical Russia”.

He has claimed Russians and Ukrainians are one people. “Ukraine never had a tradition of genuine statehood,” he asserted, denying Ukraine its long history.

In 2013 he pressed Ukraine’s pro-Russian leader, Viktor Yanukovych, not to sign a deal with the European Union, prompting protests that ultimately ousted the Ukrainian in February 2014.

Russia retaliated in 2014 by seizing Ukraine’s southern region of Crimea and triggering a rebellion in the east, backing separatists who have fought Ukrainian forces in an eight-year war that has claimed 14,000 lives.

There was a ceasefire, and a 2015 Minsk peace deal that was never implemented. Just before his invasion, President Putin tore up the peace agreement and recognised two Russian-backed statelets as independent from Ukraine.

As he sent in the troops, he accused Nato of threatening “our historic future as a nation”, claiming without foundation that Nato countries wanted to bring war to Crimea.

But what would neutrality mean?

Russia is considering a “neutral, demilitarised” Ukraine with its own army and navy, along the lines of Austria or Sweden, which are both EU members. Austria is neutral, but Sweden is not, and Russia has threatened “serious military-political consequences” if it joins.

Is there a way out of this war?

Both sides have made progress in negotiations but the prospect of a meeting involving the two presidents, considered key by Kyiv to ending the “hot phase” of the war, appears some way off.

At the start of the invasion, the Russian leader wanted Ukraine to recognise Crimea as part of Russia and to recognise the independence of the separatist-run east. Ukraine would also have to change its constitution to guarantee it would not join Nato and the EU.

Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky is adamant that Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity is a “red line”, so there is little chance of that issue being resolved immediately. But he does not see the future of Crimea and the east as key to ending the war, because any change of historical importance would require a referendum.

Map showing the Donetsk and Luhansk regions in eastern Ukraine and the Russian-backed separatist-held areas within those regions.

Russia does appear to have accepted it cannot depose Ukraine’s leadership and replace it with a puppet government, as exists in Belarus. President Zelensky said at the start of the war he had been warned “the enemy has designated me as target number one; my family is target number two”.

“It feels like [Putin] will have to accept a much more limited list,” says Tatiana Stanovaya, of analysis firm RPolitik and the Carnegie Moscow Center.

Not everyone is convinced Russia is negotiating in good faith. Several Western nations have warned that Russia is using them as a smokescreen while Ukrainian presidential adviser Alexander Rodnyansky said the talks were a trap to distract Western attention from the continuing bombardment and to ward off further sanctions.

What are Ukraine’s demands?

Ukraine’s requirements are clear: a ceasefire and the withdrawal of Russian troops, but also legally binding security guarantees that would give Ukraine protection from a group of allied countries that would actively prevent attacks and “take an active part on the side of Ukraine in the conflict”.

Securing Russian military withdrawal to pre-war positions will not only be a Ukrainian demand, it will also be a red line for the West, which will refuse to accept another of Russia’s “frozen conflicts”, says Marc Weller, professor of international law and former UN mediation expert.

Ukraine has also softened its stance since Russia’s invasion, with President Zelensky saying that Ukrainians now understood that Nato would not admit them as a member: “It’s a truth and it must be recognised.”

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky visiting positions on the frontline with pro-Russian militants in the Donetsk region, Ukraine, 06 December 2021
Image caption,Before the war Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky paid regular visits to the front line in eastern Ukraine

Will Putin reach a deal with Nato?

If anything, the Russian president has doubled down on his loathing of the West and its 30-member defensive military alliance. He may be considering a compromise with Ukraine, but for him the West has one aim – to split society in Russia and ultimately destroy it.

Ahead of the war, he demanded that Nato turn the clock back to 1997 and reverse its eastward expansion, removing its forces and military infrastructure from member states that joined the alliance from 1997 and not deploying “strike weapons near Russia’s borders”. That means Central Europe, Eastern Europe and the Baltics.

Graphic showing Nato's expansion since 1997
2px presentational grey line

In President Putin’s eyes, the West promised back in 1990 that Nato would expand “not an inch to the east”, but did so anyway.

That was before the collapse of the Soviet Union, however, so the promise made to then Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev only referred to East Germany in the context of a reunified Germany. Mr Gorbachev said later that “the topic of Nato expansion was never discussed” at the time.

Having witnessed Mr Putin’s willingness to lay waste European cities to achieve his aims, Western leaders are now under no illusion. President Joe Biden has labelled him a war criminal.

Both Mr Scholz and France’s Emmanuel Macron have spoken of a continent at a turning point in its history.

Before the war, Russia demanded all US nuclear arms be barred from beyond their national territories. The US had offered to start talks on limiting short- and medium-range missiles, as well as on a new treaty on intercontinental missiles, but there is little chance of that happening for now.

Tatiana Stanovaya fears a spiral in a new Cold War confrontation: “I have very firm feelings that we should get prepared for a new ultimatum to the West which will be more militarised and aggressive than we could have imagined.”

What next for Russia?

President Putin has been stunned by the scale of the Western response to his invasion. He knew Nato’s members would never put boots on the ground in Ukraine, but he could not have guessed the extent of the sanctions that are already having a dramatic effect on Russia’s economy – and he is furious.

The EU, US, UK and other Western nations have targeted Russia’s economy in a variety of ways:

  • Russia’s central bank has had its assets frozen and major banks are shut out of the international SWIFT payment transfer network.
  • The US has banned imports of Russian oil and gas; the EU aims to cut gas imports by two-thirds within a year; and the UK aims to phase out Russian oil by the end of 2022
  • Germany has halted approval on Russia’s Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, a major investment by both Russia and European companies
  • Russian airlines have been barred from airspace over the EU, UK, US and Canada
  • Personal sanctions have been imposed on President Putin, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and many other individuals

No peace deal with Ukraine will bring these sanctions to an end, and Vladimir Putin knows that. Instead he has turned on Russians who have opposed the war.

More than 15,000 anti-war protesters have been jailed and virtually all independent media have been silenced.

There is no meaningful political opposition left as they have either fled the country, or in the case of opposition leader Alexei Navalny, they have been jailed.

“The Russian people will always be able to distinguish true patriots from scum and traitors,” says Russia’s president.


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By Chala Dandessa

I am Lecturer, Researcher and Freelancer. I am the founder and Editor at ETHIOPIANS TODAY website. If you have any comment use caalaadd2@gmail.com as email contact. Additionally you can contact us through the contact page of www.ethiopianstoday.com.

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