A year to the Russia-Ukraine war – An Objective Appraisal

With no signs of negotiations from either side, the international community must take it as a challenge and get involved to stop the ongoing dispute.

A year since Russian forces rolled into Ukraine, there are no real signs of a way out of the conflict. Neither side appears primed for an outright military victory, and progress at the negotiating table seems just as unlikely. Meanwhile, neither Russian leader Vladimir Putin nor Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy shows any signs of backing down and abandoning one of the largest military conflicts since the end of World War II. For the civilians caught in the crossfire, that means the bloodshed and suffering brought on by the war have no discernible end. 

Unfolding of the war

Armed conflict in eastern Ukraine erupted in early 2014 following Russia’s annexation of Crimea. The previous year, protests in Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv, against Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych’s decision to reject a deal for greater economic integration with the European Union (EU) were met with a violent crackdown by state security forces. The protests widened, escalating the conflict, and President Yanukovych fled the country in February 2014.

One month later, in March 2014, Russian troops took control of the Ukrainian region of Crimea. Russian President Vladimir Putin cited the need to protect the rights of Russian citizens and Russian speakers in Crimea and southeast Ukraine. Russia then formally annexed the peninsula after Crimeans voted to join the Russian Federation in a disputed local referendum. The crisis heightened ethnic divisions, and two months later, pro-Russian separatists in the eastern Ukrainian regions of Donetsk and Luhansk held their own independence referendums. And following the 7 years of the Donbas war, a new turn came where

In October 2021, months of intelligence gathering and observations of Russian troop movements, force build-up, and military contingency financing culminated in a White House briefing with U.S. intelligence, military, and diplomatic leaders on a near-certain mass-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine. The only remaining questions were when the attack would take place and whether the United States would be able to convince allies to act preemptively. Both were answered on February 24, 2022, when Russian forces invaded a largely unprepared Ukraine after Russian President Vladimir Putin authorized a “special military operation” against the country. In his statement, Putin claimed that the goal of the operation was to demilitarize and denazify Ukraine and end the alleged genocide of Russians in Ukrainian territory.

In early February 2022, satellite imagery showed the largest deployment of Russian troops to its border with Belarus since the end of the Cold War. Negotiations between the United States, Russia, and European powers—including France and Germany—failed to bring about a resolution. In late February 2022, the United States warned that Russia intended to invade Ukraine, citing Russia’s growing military presence at the Russia-Ukraine border. President Putin then ordered troops to Luhansk and Donetsk, claiming the troops served a “peacekeeping” function. The United States responded by imposing sanctions on the regions and the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline a few days later. Nevertheless, just prior to the invasion, U.S. and Ukrainian leaders remained at odds regarding the nature and likelihood of an armed Russian threat, with Ukrainian officials playing down the possibility of an incursion and delaying the mobilization of their troops and reserve forces. 

On February 24, 2022, during a last-ditch UN Security Council effort to dissuade Russia from attacking Ukraine, Putin announced the beginning of a full-scale land, sea, and air invasion of Ukraine targeting Ukrainian military assets and cities across the country. U.S. President Joe Biden declared the attack “unprovoked and unjustified” and issued severe sanctions against top Kremlin officials, including Putin and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov; four of Russia’s largest banks; and the Russian oil and gas industry in coordination with European allies. On March 2, 141 of 193 UN member states voted to condemn Russia’s invasion in an emergency UN General Assembly session, demanding that Russia immediately withdraw from Ukraine.

Ukraine after 24 February

Within days of its initial assault one year ago this Friday, Russia’s apparent strategy of a swift capture of Kyiv and toppling of Zelenskyy’s government came face to face with an inconvenient reality: Ukrainian resistance was much stronger than anticipated, thanks in part to years of Western training and arms. Russia then shifted its offensive to the south, where its forces captured the city of Mariupol after a devastating siege in an effort to secure a corridor along the Black Sea coast linking the Crimean peninsula and the Donbas region, areas Moscow invaded and annexed in 2014.

By late summer and into the fall, however, Ukrainian forces had struck back in a dramatic counteroffensive, routing Russian forces from parts of the south and east and liberating the key city of Kherson. On April 18, Russia launched a new major offensive in eastern Ukraine following its failed attempt to seize the capital. By May, Russian forces took control of Mariupol, a major and highly strategic southeastern port city that had been under siege since late February.

Since the summer of 2022, most fighting has largely been confined to Ukraine’s east and south, with Russian cruise missiles, bombs, cluster munitions, and thermobaric weapons devastating port cities along the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov. In mid-August, the southern shift of the war’s frontline sparked international fears of a nuclear disaster at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant along the Dnieper River. The largest nuclear plant in Europe, the Zaporizhzhia facility was seized by Russian forces in the earliest stages of the war. Escalating tensions between the plant’s Ukrainian staff and its Russian occupiers have also raised uncertainty regarding its continued safe operation. Beginning on October 10, Russia launched its most extensive attacks on Ukraine in months, striking military and energy facilities, as well as several civilian areas during rush hour. The attacks spanned fourteen regions and included assaults on the capital. This renewed Russian offensive comes after Ukrainian forces destroyed part of the only bridge connecting the occupied Crimean Peninsula to Russia.

However, Russia’s recent success has been in the regions of Soledar, Bakhmut via which Russia tries to take Donbas.

Have Western Sanctions worked?

That depends on their objective. Sanctions have inflicted some pain on Russia’s economy, but they have not caused the widespread economic collapse or halted Russia’s aggression against Ukraine. “While Western-led sanctions may be eroding Russia’s economic base, they have not come close to persuading Putin to reverse his policy,” writes CFR President Richard Haass. Some experts say this absence of coercive effectiveness indicates a broader flaw in the sanctions approach, arguing that sanctions too often inflict economic pain on normal citizens without causing the desired behavioural changes in target governments. 

Analysts say Russia is a particularly difficult target given its importance as an exporter of many crucial commodities, including oil, fertilizers, wheat, and precious metals. Indeed, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) recently forecast that the G7 price cap was unlikely to diminish Russian oil exports and that Russia’s gross domestic product (GDP) would grow 0.3 per cent in 2023, in contrast with predicted contractions in some Western economies. India, for example, has seen a sixteenfold increase in oil imports from Russia since the invasion began, while its total bilateral trade with the country has more than doubled. 

Russia has spent years bracing itself for this situation, including by hoarding more than $640 billion worth of central bank reserves. Only half of these reserves are in currencies subject to sanctions, with the remainder in gold and other foreign currencies.

Still, sanctions supporters say the punishments are not designed to crush Russia’s economy or end the war, so their effectiveness should be judged through a different lens. They say the purpose of sanctions is to send the message that violating international norms and invading a democratic neighbour will be met with a strong coalition response. They point out that sanctions have still caused a disruption; some estimates still predict a looming contraction of Russia’s economy. Other proponents argue that the effectiveness of the penalties should be measured over years rather than months. 

How has Moscow responded?

While Russia has lost access to the world’s most popular reserve currencies, it has adjusted to conduct much of its bilateral trade in rubles. In the immediate aftermath of the invasion, Russia’s central bank hiked interest rates to 20 per cent in a move that economists attributed to shoring up the ruble. It worked; the value of the ruble hit a seven-year high in June 2022 and has now stabilized to roughly its pre-invasion level. 

One side or the other has to score a decisive victory, or they need to get to negotiating a settlement. Moscow has advanced demands that it must know are non-starters. The Ukrainians in early March 2022 sought to negotiate an end to the war and, among other things, offered to accept neutrality. However, the Ukrainian government’s position hardened later in March, as the liberation of towns such as Bucha and Irpin revealed large-scale Russian atrocities. It is not just the government’s position that hardened; polling shows an overwhelming number of Ukrainians support fighting to win and oppose negotiations. With no signs of negotiations from either side, the international community must take it as a challenge and get involved to stop the ongoing dispute.

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