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BY ANDRIAN PROKIP

On February 24, the Russian Federation launched a massive war against Ukraine. Most of the events before the war were connected with the upcoming escalation in hostilities.

1. PREWAR DEVELOPMENTS IN UKRAINE

Russia Pressures the West with Demands Regarding Ukraine
Last year’s negotiations between U.S. and Russian top officials on security regimes at the Russia-Ukraine border and NATO expansion continued in early 2022. Among other unfulfillable requests, Russia demanded a written guarantee that Ukraine would never join NATO. The U.S. representatives and NATO reiterated that the decision on joining NATO could not be based on third-party pressure and that it was the sovereign right of states to shape their own security policy.

On January 12, according to media reports, CIA director Bill Burns unofficially visited Kyiv and met with President Volodymyr Zelensky to discuss Russia’s military buildup. On January 19, U.S. secretary of state Antony Blinken visited Kyiv to discuss the same issue.

After Russian attempts to gain concessions failed, the Kremlin resorted to blackmail: Putin threatened a "military-technical" response if NATO did not acquiesce to Russian demands. Two days before the invasion Vladimir Putin said that the situation might be normalized if Ukraine canceled its NATO aspirations and recognized Russia’s annexation of Crimea. But by then it was very clear that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was not about NATO but about something much bigger, the Kremlin’s desire to control the country in the same way it controls some other former Soviet Union states.

Negotiations Over the Donbas
The year 2022 started with political negotiations over peacemaking in the Donbas: a meeting of the quadrilateral group—Russia, Ukraine, Germany, and France—in the Normandy Format was held on January 26 in Paris and again on February 10 in Berlin. The Ukrainian representatives insisted on keeping the discussions focused on Ukraine’s national security interests, while the Russians blamed the Ukrainians for stalling the negotiations. Some analysts believe that Moscow’s inability to impose its will on Ukraine with respect to implementing the Minsk agreements was among the factors that finally pushed Russia to invade. (Two earlier Kennan Focus Ukraine posts addressed this issue: one described the risks of implementing the Minsk agreements as they currently stand; and the other noted that for Ukraine, the accords represent a national humiliation.)

On February 18 and 19, Russian representatives refused to attend a planned meeting of the Trilateral Contact Group—Russia, Ukraine, and the OSCE—to discuss peacemaking, a meeting convened at the OSCE’s initiative.

Concentration of Russian Troops on the Ukrainian Border
Since the first information about Russia’s plan to attack Ukraine came to light in October 2021, Russia has continued aggregating troops and equipment on the border with Ukraine, even as Moscow dismissed such troop movements as routine exercises and issued statements saying it was moving the forces back from the border. In mid-January Putin’s spokesperson, Vladimir Peskov, said that Russia could not put up with “NATO’s invasion of Ukraine” anymore—a reference to NATO member states sending military equipment and instructors to Ukraine—and so would need to keep forces along Ukraine’s border. Later, Russia transferred to the border helicopters, tanks, truck-mounted Grad rocket launchers, fuel, and blood supplies.

In January, Russia announced the largest joint military drills with Belarus ever, “Allied Determination-2022,” to take place February 10–20. In addition, Russia conducted drills in Abkhazia, an occupied part of Georgia, and military exercises in the Black Sea, which affected Ukraine economically by virtually halting shipping and severing Ukraine’s sea connections. The six Russian ships sent to the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov were of the kind typically used to unload troops and equipment onto land.

A few days before the invasion, Russian general Stanislav Zas, the secretary general of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, a Russia-led military alliance of a few former Soviet Union states that in early 2022 had helped suppress protests in Kazakhstan, proposed sending peacekeepers to Ukraine. Later, when Russia started the war, Kazakhstan refused to join the operation.

At the same time, however, Russian officials on several occasions issued statements denying any plans to invade Ukraine, saying that Russia had a right to engage in troop maneuvers. However, Secretary of the Russian Security Council Nikolai Patrushev blamed the West for ”imposing” war on Russia against Ukraine for its own purposes, and said the United States was responsible for the war’s escalation. Earlier, in 2021, Patrushev had said that a “fire might swallow” Ukraine that would lead to millions of refugees fleeing the country.

In mid-February, the Verkhovna Rada called on foreign parliaments, governments, and international organizations to condemn the concentration of Russian troops on the border and to demand a de-escalation.

The Belarusian Factor before the War
In mid-January 2022, Russian military troops and equipment began arriving in Belarus to take part in Allied Determination-2022 drills on Ukraine’s border. In late January Russia dispatched fighter aircraft to airfields in Belarus. Aleksandr Lukashenko said Ukraine had been engaged in troop buildup near the border and stated that Belarus needed “reliable protection in the case of inadequacy of Ukraine’s government.”

Lukashenko described the military concentration in the Baltic states and Ukraine as a threat and promised to organize a huge military presence at the Belarusian border. Later, NATO’s Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg observed that the Russian military buildup in Belarus was the biggest since the Cold War. The head of the Russian General Staff, Valery Gerasimov, joined the drills to direct them in January 2022.

Diplomatic Escalation on the Russian Side
One month before the invasion, Russian officials started accusing Ukraine of preparing to attack the unrecognized republics in the Donbas, the self-declared Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR) and Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR), and Russia. This was done to justify Russia’s war intentions.

In late January the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs accused Ukraine and the United States of planning military and information provocations against Russia. On February 19 Russian officials said a shell had hit a building in Rostov oblast, close to the border with Ukraine, and on February 21, a border patrol facility also in Rostov and 150 meters from the border was shelled. Russia laid responsibility for these isolated attacks at Ukraine’s feet; Kyiv denied the accusations.

Russia also fabricated the story that Ukraine planned to produce nuclear weapons. On February 21, Russian defense minister Sergei Shoigu said that Ukraine had everything necessary to manufacture nuclear weapons. That same day, Vladimir Putin in his hourlong address said that it was impossible for Russia not to respond to this threat.

Russia’s Military Support for and Recognition of the DPR and LPR

Arm supplies. In late January, Russian representatives said they intended to protect Russian citizens living in the DPR and LPR if Ukraine and the West attacked them. The Russian ruling party called on Putin to send arms and military equipment to the Donbas separatists. Commenting on this, Foreign Affairs Minister Sergei Lavrov did not exclude such support, arguing that the West had failed to pressure Ukraine to implement the Minsk agreements.

Separatists playing along with the Kremlin’s speculations. Following provocative statements from Russia implying that the Ukrainian army was preparing to launch an operation against the self-declared republics in eastern Ukraine, on February 18 the separatist leaders announced the evacuation of civilians to Russia. Later in February these leaders announced a general mobilization.

Recognizing the separatists. On February 15 the Russia State Duma voted to ask Vladimir Putin to recognize the independence of the LPR and DPR. On February 21 the separatists addressed the Kremlin with the same demand. Later that same day, President Putin issued a decree recognizing the independence of the self-declared republics, and the next day the State Duma and the Federation Council ratified the recognition. After this step, Putin said that the Minsk agreements were no longer in force.

Exposing the Kremlin’s Plans

Moscow’s desire to establish a pro-Russian government in Kyiv. In late January 2022, the UK foreign office said it had evidences that Russia intended to change the authorities in Ukraine and install a pro-Russian puppet regime. According to media reports, the U.S. State Department had acquired similar information about Russia’s plans. Naturally, Russian representatives denied that the Kremlin harbored such plans.

Later, Ukrainian intelligence said that Moscow considered former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych, who had fled Ukraine for Russia during the 2013–2014 Maidan uprising, to be Ukraine’s legitimate president, and that Moscow had characterized the Euromaidan and the following elections as a coup. In January 2022, Yanukovych addressed the court in Kyiv demanding he be returned to the presidency, which he lost in 2015 after parliament passed a corresponding law. In early March 2022 Yanukovych visited Minsk, but since then he has kept a low profile.

Planned repressions. A few days before the beginning of the war, the US ambassador to the UN sent a letter to the UN high commissioner for human rights saying credible evidence existed that Russian authorities planned repressions on the territory of Ukraine in case of war, to include forced detention and killings. Later, Ukrainian forces, following successful attacks on Russian military convoys, found that the Russian forces had riot-police gear, typically used to disperse demonstrations.

Military Escalation in the Donbas before the Start of Full-Fledged War
Since the beginning of 2022 and up to the start of the war, the number of ceasefire violations in the Donbas grew exponentially. In the four-day period of February 20–23 alone, the number of ceasefire violations exceeded the typical number for a month in relatively quiet periods.

On February 19, a delegation that included members of Ukraine’s parliament, Interior Affairs minister Denys Monastyrskiy, and foreign journalists from CNN, FoxNews, the Washington Post, the New York Times, and Voice of America came under fire from the Russia-backed separatists in the Donbas. The Ukrainian officials had joined the visiting journalists to demonstrate provocations on the part of the separatists. Massive fires set by the separatists to destroy civilian infrastructure and take out Ukrainian army positions were arguably an attempt to provoke the Ukrainian army into creating a casus belli for the Russian invasion.

In response to the military escalation, and facing a clear risk of further lethal provocations, on February 23 the Ukrainian parliament approved President Zelensky’s decision to introduce a state of emergency across the country, stipulating close security control.

The Final Stage of Escalation before the War
Putin’s February 21 decree recognizing the self-proclaimed republics in Luhansk and Donetsk region as independent also stipulated sending Russian army troops to the Donbas to “support peace.” The decree was followed by the movement of troops and tanks to the line between the government-controlled and the occupied territories of the Donbas. After a brief hesitation, Putin said he recognized all parts of the Donbas, including the territory controlled by Ukraine, as independent republics. This announcement made clear that Russia would try to get more territory under the control of its proxies in eastern Ukraine.

On February 23, Russia evacuated its diplomatic staff from Kyiv and closed the airspace on Ukraine’s eastern border, where the Russian troops were located, to civilian aviation. That same day, the separatist leaders of the non-government-controlled LHR and DPR asked Putin to introduce military forces to protect them from “the Ukrainian threat.”

2. ROLLOUT OF THE WAR

The First Stage of the War

Putin announces war. In the early morning of February 24, Vladimir Putin appeared on TV announcing his decision to conduct a “special military operation”—to this day he has not called it a war—against Ukraine. This speech had allegedly been recorded three days earlier, on February 21. During the address he mentioned the separatists’ request for military aid and rehearsed the by now customary Russia propaganda messaging, blaming the West, and in particular the United States, for NATO in expansion to the east, the “Maidan coup” in Ukraine, and the like. He characterized the “special operation” against Ukraine as aimed at the “demilitarization and denazification of Ukraine” and at “protecting” Ukrainians from “those who had taken them as hostages.”

First strikes. The speech was followed by air strikes on Kyiv, Kharkiv, and Odesa, and against military and civilian infrastructure across Ukraine. Then Russian troops crossed the border of Ukraine from Russian and Belarusian oblasts and from Crimea.

Shortly after the start of the invasion, the Verkhovna Rada approvedPresident Zelensky’s decision to introduce martial law in the country and announced a general mobilization.

The Kremlin’s plan to kill Zelensky. According to Western media reports, the Russian leadership ordered mercenaries to assassinate President Zelensky and members of the Ukrainian government to help shift power in Kyiv. Later, representative of Ukraine’s presidential administration confirmed the facts of attempts to assassinate Zelensky.Despite several threats to his life, Zelensky refused offers from the UK and the United States to help him leave the country.

Failed Russian plan for a blitzkrieg. On the second day of the war, Russian army units attempted to enter Kyiv. Since then all attempts to capture Ukraine’s capital have failed.

Civilians Join the Fight
When the war started, many volunteers, not just those with military experience, sought to join Ukraine’s armed forces: Ukrainian officials reported there were about 100,000 volunteers during the first two days of the war. Besides the regular army, reserve Territorial Defense units in each region are accepting local residents ready to fight. In some regions and cities, such as Kyiv, the government has provided guns and arms to Territorial Defense volunteers to protect their cities. About 150,000 Ukrainian men who lived or stayed abroad have returned to Ukraine to help defend their country.

In addition, thousands of foreign volunteers with military experience from more than fifty countries have joined the Ukrainian forces to fight the Russian occupants in Ukraine.

Civilian Infrastructure and Civilians under Attack
When Russia’s plan for a quick regime change failed, Russian forces adopted a different strategy, bombing and shelling civilian infrastructure. Cities close to the Russian border, including Kharkiv, Chernihiv, Sumy, are among those that have borne the brunt of the shelling. In some cases, Moscow has not even bothered to deny the deliberate shelling of civilian infrastructure, as happened in the critical Black Sea port of Mariupol. Residents of this city have not had access to humanitarian aid or food or water for weeks, and evacuation routes have been repeatedly shelled.

As of late March, over four million Ukrainians had left the country as refugees, and another 6.5 million had become internally displaced persons. More than a quarter of the country’s population has had to leave home.

Kidnappings. On the temporarily occupied territories, Russian forces have kidnapped local officials—mayors of cities and members of city and regional councils—as well as journalists and activists, forcing them to cooperate or leave.

Use of prohibited weapons by the Russian army. Ukraine’s representatives and international organizations, including NATO, say that Russia has used cluster and vacuum bombs and white phosphorus munitions, which use is condemned by international agreements. Western governments and intelligence also point to the high risk that Russia will use chemical and biological weapons in Ukraine.

Engagement of Belarus
On February 27, Belarusian president Aleksandr Lukashenko confirmed that some missiles used to attack Ukraine had been launched from Belarus, but denied that Belarus was engaged in the war against Ukraine. Nonetheless, Lukashenko cited a possible attack from Ukraine as a reason for going to war, and threatened a Belarusian “special operation” against Ukraine.

President Zelensky then held a phone conversation with Lukashenko to try to persuade him not to join the Russian war against Ukraine. After that conversation, and up to the time of publication of this text, Belarusian troops have not entered Ukraine. However, Russian troops have on several occasions used Belarus as a base for launching missiles into Ukraine.

Nuclear Terrorism
During the war, the Russian army has exhibited highly risky behavior with respect to nuclear facilities and hydroelectric power plants, behavior that poses a great danger to Ukraine and neighboring states and to the Russian troops themselves. The risky Russian maneuvers have included seizing control of the decommissioned Chernobyl nuclear power plant (NPP), with a subsequent increase in levels of radiation in that area, and of Zaporizhzhia NPP, the largest NPP in Europe. Russian forces also took NPP personnel hostage, shelled the NPP grounds, and so forth, as elaborated in a recent Kennan Focus Ukraine analysis.

Negotiations with Russia
On February 25, Volodymyr Zelensky called on his Russian counterpart to start negotiations in earnest to stop the war and the killings. The first round of negotiations was held on February 28 in Belarus. Among other key issues, the parties discussed opening humanitarian corridors to allow noncombatants to leave areas of heavy fighting. Regardless of what agreements were reached, Russian troops often violated them by blocking evacuation routes or shelling evacuation corridors.

On March 10, Ukrainian and Russian foreign affairs ministers met in Turkey, but reached no agreement on a ceasefire. On March 29 the parties held another round of talks in Istanbul mediated by Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan. A representative of the Russian delegation said that Russia would reduce military activity in two sectors near Kyiv, but the situation after the meeting proved his words false.

Ukraine presented its initial terms on March 29. It is expected that Russian authorities will provide their answer in the next two weeks, which would then be followed by another meeting of Russian and Ukrainian foreign affairs ministers. Direct meetings of the presidents are not yet countenanced.

3. INTERNATIONAL AFFAIRS
Investigation of Russian War Crimes in Ukraine

After the Russian army invaded Ukraine, on February 28 the International Criminal Court prosecutor Karim A. A. Khan announced he was prepared to open an investigation into the acts of violence committed against civilians and the destruction of civil infrastructure. Even though Ukraine is not a State Party to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court and so cannot itself refer the situation to the court, the investigation was opened on the referral of thirty-nine states on March 2, 2022. The Ukrainian government has collected evidence of Russian army crimes since then.

On March 16, the UN’s International Court of Justice ordered Russia to halt its invasion of Ukraine, but the Kremlin rejected the order. In late March the UN established a commission to investigate violations and abuses of human rights, violations of international humanitarian law, and related crimes in the context of the aggression against Ukraine by the Russian Federation.

Alliance with UK and Poland
One week before the war, Ukraine—together with Poland and the UK—announced establishing a new strategic cooperative alliance designed to contribute to security and develop trade among the three states. The idea of the alliance was proposed by Kyiv in October 2021. As of now, the UK and Poland are among the key partners supporting Ukraine in the war with Russia.

EU Integration
On February 26, Polish president Andrzej Duda proposed that the EU offer Ukraine an accelerated path to EU membership. This idea was later supported by Hungary, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. Ukraine’s EU aspirations were also supported by the president of the European Commission. Representatives of some other states, including France and the Netherlands, however, did not endorse a fast track to EU membership.

On February 28, President Zelensky signed a request to join the EU. On March 10, participants in a European Council summit expressed support for Ukraine’s application and approved a decision on Ukraine’s future EU membership: the council acknowledged the European aspirations of Ukraine and invited the European Commission to submit its opinion regarding this application. Later, Slovenia’s prime minister Janez Jansa said that the EU should have specifically promised Ukraine EU membership. According to polls, most people in Germany, France, and Italy support the idea of Ukraine becoming a member of the EU.

Relations with NATO
Since the start of the war, President Zelensky has persistently called on NATO to establish a no-flight zone over Ukraine. However, NATO itself and member states have refused, fearing escalation or the unleashing of a world war.

At an extraordinary session on March 24, NATO issued a statement urging Russia to allow rapid, safe, and unhindered humanitarian access and safe passage for civilians, and to allow humanitarian aid to be delivered to the besieged cities. NATO member states committed to continue supporting Ukraine politically and offered to provide assistance in cybersecurity and protection against threats of a chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear nature. They also called on China to cease amplifying the Kremlin’s false narratives and to promote a peaceful resolution to the conflict.

Canada
In March, Canada’s parliament voted to introduce a visa-free regime for Ukrainians. Earlier Canada had expressed support for Ukraine and committed to helping with energy exports to reduce Ukraine’s need for Russian oil, gas, and uranium.

4. INTERNAL AFFAIRS

Energy Crises Avoided and Energy Developments during the War
In the winter of 2021–2022, many politicians and experts expected an energy crisis in Ukraine because of a rally in energy prices and restrictions on importing coal supplies from Russia. With a warm winter, however, the energy sector survived the season without much problem. Despite the Russian invasion, Ukraine’s energy sector has exhibited an unexpected resilience, as detailed in an earlier Kennan Focus Ukraine analysis.

Once the war started, Ukraine lost supplies from Russia and Belarus. Now fuel is being delivered only from the EU.

Confiscation of Russian Property in Ukraine
On March 10, President Zelensky signed a law stipulating the confiscation of Russian property in Ukraine. The law set out the rules for seizing without compensation property owned by Russian residents, the Russian state, or Russian companies.

Ban on Pro-Russian Political Forces for the Duration of the War
In March 2022, Ukraine’s Security Council suspended operations of the Opposition Platform—For Life political party, co-led by the pro-Russian politician Viktor Medvedchuk, and of ten more political parties suspected of harboring pro-Russian sympathies. Medvedchuk had been under house arrest, suspected of high treason, but he escaped when the war started.

The opinions expressed in this article are those solely of the authors and do not reflect the views of the Kennan Institute.

About the Author

Andrian Prokip

Andrian Prokip

Senior Associate, Ukraine;
Energy Expert, Ukrainian Institute for the Future
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Kennan Institute

The Kennan Institute is the premier U.S. center for advanced research on Russia and Eurasia and the oldest and largest regional program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The Kennan Institute is committed to improving American understanding of Russia, Ukraine, Central Asia, the Caucasus, and the surrounding region though research and exchange.  Read more