The Great War in Ukraine: Background, Internal and External Consequences for Russia and the World

On February 24, the Russian army openly attacked Ukraine, crossing its border from several different directions at once: from the territory of Belarus near the Pripyat River, from the villages of Ivankovo, from the airport in Gostomel near the capital, where Russians attempted to land troops. But despite statements by the Kremlin media, this attempt failed. As a result, the airport in Gostomel changed hands until it turned into ruins, thus ceasing to be a target for the military1. Another direction of attack by Russian forces was concentrated in the direction of Chernihiv along the Nova Huta-Ripki highway. However, their main task was to take Kyiv as an outpost of Ukrainian “nationalism,” against which was directed the “Special Military Operation,” as it is called by the Kremlin2.

At the same time, from the territory of the Russian Federation, the troops began to advance in the direction of Kharkiv, Sumy, Okhtyrka, Konotop, Hlukhiv, due to which the length of the “northern” front only expanded by little more than 200 km. Forces of the self-proclaimed DPR-LPR began to move from the eastern direction, the army of which at the time of the invasion amounted to about 30,000-35,000 people, along with about 500 tanks and more than 1,000 armored vehicles3. This grouping began advancing towards Volnovakha, Dokuchaevsk, Maryinka in the Donetsk direction, and Popasna, Severldonetsk, Rubizhne in Luhansk region4. At the same time, the offensive to the south from Donetsk was undertaken in order to push back the Ukrainian grouping for the further capture of Mariupol, as one of the key industrial centers, as well as the country’s largest commercial seaport. So, according to the Minister of Finance of Ukraine, Serhiy Marchenko, the war-torn territories account for about 50% of the country’s GDP5. The economic factor played an important role in planning the military operation of the Russian Federation. But there are other reasons as well.

Back in June 2021, President Zelensky announced that if the Russian Federation built a “land corridor” to the temporarily occupied Crimea, this would initiate the start of a full-scale war. “There are many military options possible from the Russian side, including maritime operations. We are very concerned about this, and now there is a blockade of the Azov-Black Sea region by Russian ships. They control it, despite international law, violating it,” Zelensky said at the time6.

The “southern front” was an offensive from Crimea in two directions at once: in the direction of Skadovsk – Kherson – Mykolaiv, as well as Genichesk – Melitopol – Berdyansk – Mariupol. Their main task was the encirclement of Mariupol, as well as the capture of Mykolaiv and Odesa, which would actually deprive Ukraine of maritime communications.

It is likely that at the time of the invasion, Moscow did not have a single scenario of action. The political goal of such a campaign was the “denazification” and “demilitarization” of Ukraine, as well as its neutral status, together with obligations to not join NATO and the EU7. Obviously, in the event of a quick capture of Kyiv, the Kremlin also pursued the goal of changing power in Ukraine. As early as January 23, representatives of British intelligence published Moscow’s plans after the impending invasion and occupation of the country. Thus, according to the Kremlin’s plan, the ex-people’s deputy and leader of the Nashi party, 45-year-old Yevhen Muraev, was to become the head of government. Also, runaway officials from the time of the former President Yanukovych, including Serhiy Arbuzov, Andriy Klyuev, Volodymyr Sivkovich, Mykola Azarov, and others, claimed high positions in the new government8.

It is noteworthy that a week after the invasion, Yanukovych himself, who has been hiding in the territory of the Russian Federation since 2014 and is wanted in Ukraine on serious charges, including treason, publicly appealed to Zelensky with a call to “stop the bloodshed.”9 At the same time, Yanukovych himself, after his escape in February 2014, personally appealed to President Putin with a request “to use the armed forces of the Russian Federation to restore law, peace, law and order, stability, and protect the population of Ukraine.”10 Probably, it was he who was supposed to play the role of Moscow’s protege in the event of the capture of Kyiv and the overthrow of the current Zelensky’s government.

At the same time, the Kremlin does not understand that the presence of Yanukovych in Ukraine since 2014 has become extremely toxic. First of all, this is due to the killings of activists on the Euromaidan in 2014, when more than a hundred activists in the capital were killed by the Ukrainian security forces. The then head of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, Vitaliy Zakharchenko, was close to Yanukovych and, according to the investigation, he most likely gave orders to shoot the activists.11 He also fled to the Russian Federation along with Yanukovych and other members of the government. Therefore, even if Moscow managed to bring back the ex-president, who has been in the Russian Federation for eight years now, Ukrainian society would not accept him, and his chances of winning the presidential election again, as it happened in 2010, were approaching zero.

Initially, the “special military operation” of the Kremlin pursued other political goals which precipitated the attacks on the cities of Kharkiv, Odesa, Mariupol, Kherson, as well as on the Donbas. It was in these areas that the highest pro-Russian sentiments were observed. Despite the fact that the war in Donbass began back in 2014, the local population actively voted for pro-Russian parties: the Opposition Platform For Life (OPZZH), the Shary Party, the Opposition Bloc, Nashi, the Socialist Party. It is noteworthy that the activities of these forces after the invasion of the Russian Federation were suspended by the decision of the National Security and Defense Council of Ukraine (NSDC).12 Most likely, by launching a military offensive in these regions, Moscow was counting on the loyalty of the local population, which, according to the Kremlin, should have met the Russian army as liberators from the “Kyiv junta” and “neo-Nazis,” whom President Putin especially often referred to in his speeches.13

As a result, Moscow achieved the exact opposite result, while the local population of these regions began to sign up en masse in the territorial defense forces and to volunteer and carry out other initiatives. Thus, of the key southeastern regions of Ukraine, as of March 22, the Russian army managed to take control only of Kherson, Melitopol, and Berdyansk, and all attempts to capture Mykolaiv, Odesa, Kharkiv or Mariupol were unsuccessful and resulted in high losses for the Russian army. According to the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, after a month of active hostilities, the number of Russian losses was the following: 15,300 personnel, 509 tanks, 1,556 armored combat vehicles, 99 aircraft, 123 helicopters, 3 warships and other military equipment.14

In turn, the General Staff of the Russian Federation refuses to comment on the number of their dead during the “special military operation.” Only on March 2, the military announced 498 people dead, but these data are rather doubtful and radically differ from the official figures in Kyiv.15 At the same time, on March 20, the Russian edition of Komsomolskaya Pravda, citing high-ranking officials in the Russian Defense Ministry, published data on 9,861 Russian servicemen killed and about 16,000 wounded. But soon this article was removed from the KP website.16

If we take into account the fact that about 100-120 thousand Russian soldiers were intended for the “military special operation,” then such losses are very tangible. Some units of the Russian Federation have lost about 80% of their personnel, so further military operations are impossible for them, and they urgently need to make up for their losses. So, for example, in only one clash near the city of Brovary near Kiev, the commander of the 331st Guards Airborne Regiment, Sergei Sukharev, and four of his subordinates were killed.17 In total, at least six Russian generals were killed during the hostilities, including the following: commander of a motorized regiment of the Russian Guard Magomed Tushaev, commander of the 29th Army of the Eastern Military District Andrei Kolesnikov, deputy commander of the 41st Army of the Central Military District Andrei Sukhovetsky, Andrey Mordvichev, Commander of the 8th Guards Command Army of the Southern Military District, and others.18 The Russian army has not known such losses since the two military campaigns in Chechnya, as well as the Soviet war in Afghanistan, where, according to various estimates, from 15,000 to 30,000 soldiers and officers of the Soviet army died during 1979-1988.19

Military losses in Ukraine are primarily due to a lack of understanding of the essence of Ukrainian society and the country as a whole, which the inhabitants of the Kremlin still consider to be part of the “Russian world,” an ideology that was actively promoted in early 2014 in the Donbas.20 The essence of this idea resides in the archaic views of the leadership of the Russian Federation,  in particular President Putin, about the “one people” of Russians, Ukrainians and Belarusians, who were divided after the collapse of the USSR, “the biggest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century,” as Putin stated in his famous Munich speech in 200721 despite the fact that 15 years ago the speech sounded quite “peaceful” as Putin also strssed the importance of international law, because “unilateral, illegitimate actions did not solve a single problem. Moreover, they have become a generator of new human tragedies and hotbeds of tension.” A year and a half later, the Kremlin began a military campaign in Georgia, and the world began to observe the rapid decline of democracy and freedom of speech in Russia.

At the same time, Putin’s rhetoric regarding Ukraine has not actually changed since then. In April 2008, in a conversation with then US President George W. Bush, Putin argued that “Ukraine is not a state,” but rather an artificial entity that was created during the formation of the Ukrainian SSR as one of the republics. As a result of the “geopolitical catastrophe,” Ukraine inherited territories that had not previously belonged to it. Also back in 2008, Putin explained that in the event of joining NATO, Ukraine could cease to exist as a single state.22

In his publication “Russia: the national question” dated January 23, 2012, Putin argued: “The Russian people are state-forming – by the fact of the existence of Russia. The great mission of the Russians is to unite and strengthen the civilization. By language, culture, “worldwide responsiveness”, as defined by Fyodor Dostoevsky, to hold together Russian Armenians, Russian Azerbaijanis, Russian Germans, Russian Tatars… To consolidate them into a type of state-civilization where there are no “national minorities”, and the principle of recognition of “friend or foe” is determined by a common culture and common values.”

“We will strengthen our “historical state” inherited from our ancestors. A state-civilization that is able to organically solve the problem of integrating various ethnic groups and confessions. We have lived together for centuries. Together we won the most terrible war (World War II – ed.). And we will continue to live together. And for those who want or try to divide us, I can say one thing – you will fail.”23

This publication, which is ten years old, clearly shows the imperial intentions and geopolitical claims of President Putin, who really intended to restore the USSR in one form or another.

Putin’s historical reflections culminated in his July 12, 2021, article “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians.” Soon the publication was included as one of the mandatory topics in the military-political training classes in the Russian army.24 In it, the President of the Russian Federation reflected on the fact that in recent years Ukraine has gradually turned into “anti-Russia,” not without the help of “Western masters,” who “always sought to undermine our unity.” As a result, according to Putin, Ukraine is completely under “external control,” primarily by the United States, which has turned it into the “poorest country in Europe,” in which the Russian-speaking population is subjected to “forced identity change” and “forced assimilation.”25 Rather, it was this publication, which received insufficient attention in the public, that became the manifesto for the military invasion of Ukraine under the slogans of “denazification” and “demilitarization.”

Obviously, Putin and his entourage in the Kremlin have been preparing for this war politically, economically, ideologically, and informationally for a long time, and feuds with the West only intensified this process. As a result, over the past ten years, all the rudiments of democracy, freedom of speech and any oppositional activity have been destroyed in Russia. The apogee was an attempt to poison the Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, and his further imprisonment. Simultanioulsy, the government cracked down on independent media and public organizations, which were branded as dozens of “foreign agents” and classified as “undesirable.” All these internal processes served as a prelude to further external aggression in Europe.

At the same time, military actions against Ukraine since 2014 only pushed its citizens towards European integration. Thus, according to sociological research in 2012, only 19% of Ukrainians supported Ukraine’s NATO mambership, while almost 2/3 were against it. In 2010, the percentage of NATO supporters was slightly higher than 24-26%. Also, opinions were divided on the issue of supporting the formation of a single state out of Ukraine, Russia and Belarus (41%), while 44% opposed such an idea. At the same time, 52% of those polled supported Ukraine’s accession to the EU, while 34% opposed it.26

In 2014, after the annexation of Crimea and the outbreak of hostilities in the Donbas, support for joining NATO more than doubled to 47.8%, and 32.4% of those surveyed were against it. These figures have hardly changed and remained at the same level according to polls last year.27

After February 24, anti-Russian sentiment in Ukraine rose to a record high. According to opinion polls on March 18, 77% of Ukrainians believe that the country is moving in the right direction, and only 14% hold the opposite opinion. At the same time, 93% of respondents are confident that Ukraine will be able to repel the attack of the Russian Federation, while a quarter (23%) of respondents believe that the war will last several months. At the same time, 98% of respondents consider the Russian Federation a hostile country as well as Belarus (84%). Support for the country’s integration into NATO received a record 72% among the respondents, which has not been observed since the country’s Independence in 1991.28

Thus, the start of full-scale military actions of the Russian Federation against Ukraine not only put an end to the project of the “one people” as an integral part of the ideology of the “Russian world,” but it also increased the hostility between the two peoples to a historically record high, regardless of the outcome of the current military confrontation.

Conclusions:

  • From the very coming to power in the early 2000s, President Putin and his entourage have systematically built an authoritarian model of state governance, nullifying all the achievements of democracy during the presidency of Boris Yeltsin (1991-1999), thereby gradually plunging the country into an even greater isolationism and autocracy;
  • since the beginning of Putin’s presidency, Moscow has gradually reopened the previously “frozen” military conflicts in Chechnya, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and then in Ukraine. At the same time, the geopolitical ambitions in the Kremlin were constantly growing along with claims for the territorial integrity of the neighboring states of Georgia, Ukraine, Moldova, the Baltic countries, which was all actively promoted by the state media. The Kremlin systematically cultivated a “special path”29 for Russia, even if such actions violated international law;
  • at least since 2007, Putin has repeatedly raised the topic of the USSR’s revenge on the return of “historical territories” after the collapse of 1991. In this concept, Ukraine occupied a key place, since its territory made up 1/8 of the USSR, along with its economic, industrial and defense heritage. At the same time, Putin has repeatedly stressed that the Ukrainian state itself is a “misunderstanding” and an “artificial formation,” which included the territories of the Ukrainian SSR. It is the revision of the borders of neighboring states that has become a key factor in the foreign policy of the Russian Federation, especially over the past 10 years;
  •  the desire of Ukraine and Georgia to join NATO and the EU could not be a reason for a military invasion, which is constantly being restated in Moscow. Six months after the Bucharest Summit in 2008, when Ukraine and Georgia were denied the NATO Membership Action Plan (MAP), Russia committed military aggression against Georgia, occupying 20% ​​of the country’s territory. In 2014, Ukraine also could not obtain membership in NATO and / or MAP, due to the presence of the Black Sea Fleet of the Russian Federation in Crimea on its territory and for a number of other reasons, although this did not stop the military aggression of the Russian Federation, first in Crimea and then in the Donbass;
  •  since 2014, the Russian Federation has been gradually sliding into international isolation, it has been expelled from the G8, the Council of Europe, the WTO coordinating council, the International Union of Railways. It has been suspended for four years from participating in the Olympic Games and other international organizations. Also there are plans to exclude Russia from the G20. These measures automatically turn the Russian Federation into a rogue state, pushing it to the level of North Korea, Cuba, Venezuela, Syria;
  • the full-scale invasion of Ukraine under the guise of a “military special operation” on February 24 and hostilities that have not been seen in Europe since the Second World War did not resolve either the military or political goals of the Kremlin. As of March 23, the Russian army has lost about 40% of the personnel involved.30 These losses are comparable to the losses of the Soviet contingent in Afghanistan in 1979-1989 and also exceed the total losses of the Russian army in military conflicts since 1991;
  • politically, the Kremlin also failed to subjugate Ukraine, since the key cities of Kyiv, Kharkov, Dnipro, Nikolaev, Chernihiv were never taken. In some occupied regions, active propaganda is being carried out, but local residents continue to take part in mass pro-Ukrainian protests, as well as sabotage the decrees and orders of the occupation administration of the Russian Federation31;
  • the imposed sanctions against the Russian Federation are catastrophic for its economy, plunging the country into a pre-default state. Since the invasion, the Russian economy has contracted by 8%, while the default in 1998 cost the country 5.4%.32 The indirect consequences of the sanctions are the exodus from the Russian Federation of hundreds of foreign companies, brands and services, the replenishment of which will take many more years in the Russian Federation.33

Notes:

[1] https://lenta.ru/news/2022/02/25/ne_pravda/

[2] https://www.bbc.com/russian/media-60612327

[3] https://rian.com.ua/politics/20171128/1029852333/Avakov-nazval-chislennost-voysk-DNR-LNR-Donbass.html

[4] https://www.pravda.com.ua/rus/news/2022/02/28/7326740/

[5] https://forbes.ua/inside/na-desyat-okhoplenikh-viynoyu-regioniv-pripadae-50-vvp-ukraini-ministr-finansiv-sergiy-marchenko-pro-ekonomichni-naslidki-viyni-intervyu-14032022-4595

[6] https://interfax.com.ua/news/general/747592.html

[7] https://lenta.ru/news/2022/03/05/putin_ukr/

[8] https://www.eurointegration.com.ua/rus/news/2022/01/23/7132947/

[9] https://t.me/radiogovoritmsk/76351

[10] https://www.bbc.com/russian/international/2014/03/140303_ukraine_russia_standoff_threats

[11] https://lb.ua/news/2016/11/28/351980_prikaz_strelyat_mitinguyushchim.html

[12] https://nv.ua/ukraine/politics/voyna-rossii-protiv-ukrainy-zapretili-opzzh-nashi-partiya-shariya-oppoblok-novosti-ukrainy-50226633.html

[13] https://www.ekhokavkaza.com/a/31723483.html

[14] https://thepage.ua/news/boevye-poteri-rossijskoj-armii-na-22-marta-2022

[15] https://www.bbc.com/russian/news-60593311

[16] https://focus.ua/voennye-novosti/510043-rossiyskaya-komsomolskaya-pravda-soobshchila-o-gibeli-pochti-10-tys-voennyh-rf-v-ukraine

[17] https://novayagazeta.ru/articles/2022/03/17/v-ukraine-pogibli-komandir-polka-vdv-sukharev-i-chetvero-ego-podchinennykh-news

[18] https://hromadske.ua/ru/posts/s-nachala-vojny-v-ukraine-unichtozhili-po-menshej-mere-6-rossijskih-generalov

[19] https://babel.ua/ru/texts/76649-33-goda-nazad-sovetskie-voyska-ushli-iz-afganistana-vspominaem-o-posledney-voyne-sovetskogo-soyuza-kotoraya-uskorila-ego-razval-v-15-foto

[20] https://regnum.ru/news/3514398.html

[21] https://www.currenttime.tv/a/putin-doctrine-analizing-munich-speech/31709917.html

[22] https://www.pravda.com.ua/rus/news/2008/04/7/4437118/

[23] https://www.ng.ru/politics/2012-01-23/1_national.html

[24] http://kremlin.ru/events/president/news/66181

[25] https://www.currenttime.tv/a/statya-putina-stala-obyazatelnoy-dlya-izucheniya-v-armii/31361220.html

[26] https://ratinggroup.ua/ru/research/ukraine/dinamika_ideologicheskih_markerov.html

[27] https://ru.slovoidilo.ua/2021/08/24/infografika/obshhestvo/30-let-nezavisimosti-kak-menyalos-otnoshenie-ukraincev-chlenstvu-nato

[28] https://ratinggroup.ua/ru/research/ukraine/pyatyy_obschenacionalnyy_opros_ukraina_v_usloviyah_voyny_18_marta_2022.html

[29] https://www.kp.ru/daily/26817/3853772/

[30] https://www.ukr.net/news/details/economics/90354402.html

[31] https://www.bbc.com/russian/features-60825476

[32] https://www.forbes.ru/finansy/458215-moody-s-ponizilo-rejting-rossii-c-musornogo-do-preddefoltnogo

[33] https://ru.slovoidilo.ua/2022/03/18/novost/jekonomika/rossijskij-rynok-pokinuli-uzhe-bolee-220-inostrannyx-kompanij-spisok-mid