two people in Ukrainian street

On February 24, 2022, the world watched in horror as Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, inciting the largest war in Europe since World War II. In the months prior, Western intelligence had warned that the attack was imminent, amidst a concerning build-up of military force on Ukraine’s borders. The intelligence was correct: Putin initiated a so-called “special military operation” under the  pretense  of securing Ukraine’s eastern territories and “liberating” Ukraine from allegedly “Nazi” leadership (the Jewish identity of Ukraine’s president notwithstanding). 

Once the invasion started, Western analysts predicted Kyiv would fall in three days. This intelligence could not have been more wrong. Kyiv not only lasted those three days, but it also eventually gained an upper hand, liberating territories Russia had conquered and handing Russia humiliating defeats on the battlefield. Ukraine has endured unthinkable atrocities: mass civilian deaths, infrastructure destruction, torture, kidnapping of children, and relentless shelling of residential areas. But Ukraine persists.

With support from European and US allies, Ukrainians mobilized, self-organized, and responded with bravery and agility that evoked an almost unified global response to rally to their cause and admire their tenacity. Despite the David-vs-Goliath dynamic of this war, Ukraine had gained significant experience since  fighting broke out  in its eastern territories following the  Euromaidan Revolution in 2014 . In that year, Russian-backed separatists fought for control over the Donetsk and Luhansk regions in the Donbas, the area of Ukraine that Russia later claimed was its priority when its attack on Kyiv failed. Also in 2014, Russia illegally annexed Crimea, the historical homeland of indigenous populations that became part of Ukraine in 1954. Ukraine was unprepared to resist, and international condemnation did little to affect Russia’s actions.

In the eight years between 2014 and 2022, Ukraine sustained heavy losses in the fight over eastern Ukraine: there were over  14,000 conflict-related casualties  and the fighting displaced  1.5 million people . Russia encountered a very different Ukraine in 2022, one that had developed its military capabilities and fine-tuned its extensive and powerful civil society networks after nearly a decade of conflict. Thus, Ukraine, although still dwarfed in  comparison  with  Russia’s GDP  ( $536 billion vs. $4.08 trillion ), population ( 43 million vs. 142 million ), and  military might  ( 500,000 vs. 1,330,900 personnel ;  312 vs. 4,182 aircraft ;  1,890 vs. 12,566 tanks ;  0 vs. 5,977 nuclear warheads ), was ready to fight for its freedom and its homeland.  Russia managed to control  up to  22% of Ukraine’s territory  at the peak of its invasion in March 2022 and still holds 17% (up from the 7% controlled by Russia and Russian-backed separatists  before the full-scale invasion ), but Kyiv still stands and Ukraine as a whole has never been more unified.

The Numbers

Source: OCHA & Humanitarian Partners

Civilians Killed

Source: Oct 20, 2023 | OHCHR

Ukrainian Refugees in Europe

Source: Jul 24, 2023 | UNHCR

Internally Displaced People

Source: May 25, 2023 | IOM

man standing in wreckage

As It Happened

During the prelude to Russia’s full-scale invasion, HURI collated information answering key questions and tracing developments. A daily digest from the first few days of war documents reporting on the invasion as it unfolded.

Frequently Asked Questions

Russians and Ukrainians are not the same people. The territories that make up modern-day Russia and Ukraine have been contested throughout history, so in the past, parts of Ukraine were part of the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union. Other parts of Ukraine were once part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Ottoman Empire, the Republic of Poland, among others. During the Russian imperial and Soviet periods, policies from Moscow pushed the Russian language and culture in Ukraine, resulting in a largely bilingual country in which nearly everyone in Ukraine speaks both Ukrainian and Russian. Ukraine was tightly connected to the Russian cultural, economic, and political spheres when it was part of the Soviet Union, but the Ukrainian language, cultural, and political structures always existed in spite of Soviet efforts to repress them. When Ukraine became independent in 1991, everyone living on the territory of what is now Ukraine became a citizen of the new country (this is why Ukraine is known as a civic nation instead of an ethnic one). This included a large number of people who came from Russian ethnic backgrounds, especially living in eastern Ukraine and Crimea, as well as Russian speakers living across the country. 

See also:  Timothy Snyder’s overview of Ukraine’s history.

Relevant Sources:

Plokhy, Serhii. “ Russia and Ukraine: Did They Reunite in 1654 ,” in  The Frontline: Essays on Ukraine’s Past and Present  (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute, 2021). (Open access online)

Plokhy, Serhii. “ The Russian Question ,” in  The Frontline: Essays on Ukraine’s Past and Present  (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute, 2021). (Open access online)

Ševčenko, Ihor.  Ukraine between East and West: Essays on Cultural History to the Early Eighteenth Century  (2nd, revised ed.) (Toronto: CIUS Press, 2009).

“ Ukraine w/ Kimberly St. Julian-Varnon  (#221).” Interview on  The Road to Now   with host Benjamin Sawyer. (Historian Kimberly St. Julian-Varnon joins Ben to talk about the key historical events that have shaped Ukraine and its place in the world today.) January 31, 2022.

Portnov, Andrii. “ Nothing New in the East? What the West Overlooked – Or Ignored ,” TRAFO Blog for Transregional Research. July 26, 2022. Note:  The German-language version of this text was published in:  Aus Politik und Zeitgeschichte , 28–29/2022, 11 July 2022, pp. 16–20, and was republished by  TRAFO Blog . Translation into English was done by Natasha Klimenko.

Ukraine gave up its nuclear arsenal in exchange for the protection of its territorial sovereignty in the Budapest Memorandum.

But in 2014, Russian troops occupied the peninsula of Crimea, held an illegal referendum, and claimed the territory for the Russian Federation. The muted international response to this clear violation of sovereignty helped motivate separatist groups in Donetsk and Luhansk regions—with Russian support—to declare secession from Ukraine, presumably with the hopes that a similar annexation and referendum would take place. Instead, this prompted a war that continues to this day—separatist paramilitaries are backed by Russian troops, equipment, and funding, fighting against an increasingly well-armed and experienced Ukrainian army. 

Ukrainian leaders (and many Ukrainian citizens) see membership in NATO as a way to protect their country’s sovereignty, continue building its democracy, and avoid another violation like the annexation of Crimea. With an aggressive, authoritarian neighbor to Ukraine’s east, and with these recurring threats of a new invasion, Ukraine does not have the choice of neutrality. Leaders have made clear that they do not want Ukraine to be subjected to Russian interference and dominance in any sphere, so they hope that entering into NATO’s protective sphere–either now or in the future–can counterbalance Russian threats.

“ Ukraine got a signed commitment in 1994 to ensure its security – but can the US and allies stop Putin’s aggression now? ” Lee Feinstein and Mariana Budjeryn.  The Conversation , January 21, 2022.

“ Ukraine Gave Up a Giant Nuclear Arsenal 30 Years Ago. Today There Are Regrets. ” William J. Broad.  The New York Times , February 5, 2022. Includes quotes from Mariana Budjeryn (Harvard) and Steven Pifer (former Ambassador, now Stanford)

What is the role of regionalism in Ukrainian politics? Can the conflict be boiled down to antagonism between an eastern part of the country that is pro-Russia and a western part that is pro-West?

Ukraine is often viewed as a dualistic country, divided down the middle by the Dnipro river. The western part of the country is often associated with the Ukrainian language and culture, and because of this, it is often considered the heart of its nationalist movement. The eastern part of Ukraine has historically been more Russian-speaking, and its industry-based economy has been entwined with Russia. While these features are not untrue, in reality,  regionalism is not definitive in predicting people’s attitudes toward Russia, Europe, and Ukraine’s future.  It’s important to remember that every  oblast  (region) in Ukraine voted for independence in 1991, including Crimea. 

Much of the current perception about eastern regions of Ukraine, including the territories of Donetsk and Luhansk that are occupied by separatists and Russian forces, is that they are pro-Russia and wish to be united with modern-day Russia. In the early post-independence period, these regions were the sites of the consolidation of power by oligarchs profiting from the privatization of Soviet industries–people like future president Viktor Yanukovych–who did see Ukraine’s future as integrated with Russia. However, the 2013-2014 Euromaidan protests changed the role of people like Yanukovych. Protesters in Kyiv demanded the president’s resignation and, in February 2014, rose up against him and his Party of Regions, ultimately removing them from power. Importantly, pro-Euromaidan protests took place across Ukraine, including all over the eastern regions of the country and in Crimea. 

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Understanding Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine

Understanding Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine

  • Aaron Stein
  • Maia Otarashvili
  • February 24, 2022
  • Eurasia Program

Introduction 

On February 24, 2022 Russia began its invasion of Ukraine. 

In times of crisis, balanced, in-depth analysis and trusted expertise is paramount. The Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI) remains committed in its mission to provide expert analysis to policy makers and the public on the most pressing foreign policy challenges.

To help you understand this evolving crisis, we have compiled a list of publications, event recordings, and podcasts to help explain current events in Ukraine. FPRI has also included resources about other protracted conflicts, the neighboring Baltic states, and the role of NATO in managing the fallout from the war.

If you have not already done so, be sure to follow the FPRI fellows listed below for further reading and resources. For press inquiries, please contact [email protected]

Russian Aggression in Ukraine & Russian Defense 

  • Moscow’s Mind Games: Finding Ideology in Putin’s Russia – February 2023
  • The Confrontation with Russia and US Grand Strategy – February 2023
  • Tanks a Lot (Well, Actually Not That Many for Ukraine) – February 2023
  • Wagner Group Redefined: Threats and Responses – January 2023
  • ‘Let’s Make a Deal’? Ukraine and the Poor Prospects for Negotiations with Putin – January 2023
  • Will Russia Survive Until 2084? – December 2022 
  • How the Battle for the Donbas Shaped Ukraine’s Success – December 2022 
  • Ecological Path to Peace Is Possible in Ukraine – November 2022 
  • Putin’s Philosophers: Reading Vasily Grossman in the Kremlin – November 2022 
  • The Russian-Ukrainian War Triggers an Energy Revolution – September 2022 
  • Ukraine’s Defense Industry and the Prospect of a Long War – September 2022
  • Understanding Russia’s Efforts at Technological Sovereignty – September 2022
  • Watching the War on Russian Television – August 2022
  • War Crimes in Ukraine: In Search of a Response – August 2022
  • Why Russian Elites Are Standing By Putin – July 2022
  • Climate Action Meets Energy Security: The Russian Invasion of Ukraine Adds a New Dimension to Energy Transition – June 2022
  • The War’s Impact on Russia’s Economy and Ukrainian Politics – June 2022
  • The Evolving Political-Military Aims in the War in Ukraine After 100 Days   – June 2022
  • How Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine has Affected Kazakh Politics – June 2022
  • Russia’s Use of Cyberattacks: Lessons from the Second Ukraine War – June 2022
  • What’s Next for Ukraine’s (and its Neighbors’) Domestic and Foreign Policy? – June 2022
  • Reviving the Prospects for Coercive Diplomacy in Ukraine – May 2022
  • Food Prices, Elections, and the Wagner Group in Africa – April 2022
  • Appraising the War in Ukraine and Likely Outcomes – April 2022
  • Ukraine War Sparks Suspicion over Russia’s Designs on Kazakhstan – April 2022
  • Do Russians Really “Long for War” in Ukraine? – March 2022
  • Kadyrov’s Ukraine Gamble – March 2022
  • Lukashenka’s Fatal Mistake – March 2022
  • What We Can Learn about Russian Strategy from Ivan III – March 2022
  • The Russian Navy in the Russia-Ukraine War Scare – February 2022
  • How Will China Respond to the Russia-Ukraine Crisis? – January 2022
  • Moscow’s Compellence Strategy – January 2022
  • Zapad 2021 and Russia’s Potential for Warfighting – September 2021 
  • Russia’s Coercive Diplomacy – August 2021 
  • Russia’s Forever Wars: Syria and Pursuit of Great Power Status – September 2021
  • Understanding Russia’s Cyber Strategy – July 2021
  • Russia’s Nuclear Strategy: A Show of Strength Despite COVID-19 – May 2021
  • Even Thieves Need a Safe: Why the Putin Regime Causes, Deplores, and Yet Relies on Capital Flight for its Survival – November 2021
  • Five Years of War in the Donbas – October 2019 
  • Coal Mines, Land Mines and Nuclear Bombs: The Environmental Cost of the War in Eastern Ukraine – September 2019
  • ​​ Volodymyr Zelensky: Ukraine’s Servant of the People? – September 2019 
  • Russia’s Tragic Great Power Politics – March 2019
  • Ukraine’s Presidential Election and the Future of its Foreign Policy – March 2019
  • Bond of War: Russian Geo-Economics in Ukraine’s Sovereign Debt Restructuring – September 2018
  • The Ukrainian Military: From Degradation to Renewal – August 2018
  • Reflecting on a Year of War – February 2023
  • Will Russia Survive Until 2084? – January 2023
  • The Russia-Ukraine War and Implications for Azerbaijan – July 2022
  • Russia’s War in Ukraine: Uncompromising Objectives and an Uncertain Future – June 2022 
  • The State of Play in Ukraine – May 2022
  • Russia’s War in Ukraine: Nukes, Negotiations, and Neutrality – April 2022 
  • Russia’s War in Ukraine: Implications for China  – March 2022
  • What the West Needs to Know About Russia’s War in Ukraine – March 2022
  • Russia’s War in Ukraine: Analyzing the Western Military and Economic Response – March 2022
  • Russia’s War in Ukraine: The Humanitarian Crisis and Prospects for Resolution – March 2022
  • Russia’s Long Shadow and the Future of Europe – February 2022
  • Russia-Ukraine Tensions: Will Moscow’s Compellence Strategy Work? – January 2022 
  • Interview with Russian Dissident Ilya & Former Duma Member Ilya Ponomarev – January 2022
  • Russia’s Coercive Diplomacy  – August 2021
  • FPRI Special Briefing: U.S. Sanctions Against Russia – March 2021
  • FPRI Special Briefing: Alexeyi Navalny and U.S.-Russia Relations – February 2021
  • Don’t Mention the War – April 2023
  • Torn in the USA: How Important is the War in Ukraine for the United States? – March 2023
  • Ukraine One Year In: The Helpers – March 2023
  • Reflecting on a Year of War – February 2023 
  • Mobilize This – January 2023
  • War in Ukraine: A Firsthand Account – December 2022 
  • Public Opinion in Russia: What Do We Know, What Can We Know? – November 2022
  • Russia’s War in Ukraine: The Strategic Picture – September 2022
  • Russia’s Manpower Conundrum in Ukraine – May 2022
  • The Air War Over Ukraine – March 2022 
  • Debating a No Fly Zone: The Risk of Escalation with Moscow – March 2022
  • Examining Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine – March 2022
  • The Risk of War: Russia’s Options for War in Ukraine – February 2022
  • The Risk of War in Ukraine: Moscow’s Military Posture – February 2022
  • Tensions Over Ukraine: Russia’s Rationale for War – February 2022
  • Russian Perceptions of Military AI and Automation – February 2022
  • Russia’s Anti-Satellite Weapon: Understanding Russia’s ASAT Test – November 2021
  • How Do You Solve a Problem Like Navalny? – September 2021
  • Russia’s Coercive Diplomacy: Looking Back at the Ukraine Crisis – August 2021
  • Russian-Turkish Relations and Their Implications for the West – May 2021
  • Learning From Our Adversaries: Russian Aerial Operations in Syria – April 2021

Protracted Conflicts: Moldova and Georgia

  • War As a Neighbor: Moldova and the Challenges of Facing Russian Aggression in Ukraine – April 2023
  • Strategic Connectivity in the Black Sea: A Focus on Georgia – December 2021
  • Taking Stock of U.S. Military Assistance to Georgia – December 2021 
  • Georgia’s Democracy is in Trouble, It’s Time for Closer Engagement – November 2021 
  • Russia’ Permanent War Against Georgia – March 2021
  • Georgia’s Doomed Deep-Sea Port Ambitions: Geopolitics of the Canceled Anaklia Project – October 2020
  • Anatomy of a Fraud: The Moldovan Parliamentary Elections – March 2019
  • Geopolitical Games Expected Ahead of Moldova’s 2018 Elections – October 2017 
  • The Future of US Strategic Interests in the South Caucasus: Challenges and Opportunities for the Biden Administration – October 2021
  • Tug of War in the Black Sea: Defending NATO’s Eastern Flank – July 2021
  • The Turkish Veto: Why Erdogan Is Blocking Finland and Sweden’s Path to NATO – March 2023
  • Article 5 for the Next Decade of NATO – December 2022 
  • The Art of the Possible: Minimizing Risks as a New European Order Takes Shape – November 2022 
  • The Baltics Predicted the Suspension of the Ukraine Grain Deal — and Contributed to its Resumption – November 2022
  • Good and Bad Neighbors: Perceptions in Latvian Society – September 2022
  • Europe’s Wait for Turkmen Natural Gas Continues – September 2022 
  • From the Migrant Crisis to Aggression in Ukraine: Belarus is Still on the Baltic Agenda – July 2022 
  • Two Less Obvious Lessons for Baltic Defense from Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine – June 2022
  • The Baltic Road to Energy Independence from Russia Is Nearing Completion – May 2022
  • America Needs a Comprehensive Compellence Strategy Against Russia – April 2022
  • Baltic Sea Mining as an Extension of the Russian Gray Zone – April 2022
  • The Significance of the Turkish Straits to the Russian Navy – March 2022
  • Fear, Solidarity, and Calls for Further Action in the Baltics as Russia Invades Ukraine – March 2022
  • Latvia’s First Response to Russia’s War in Ukraine – March 2022
  • Turkey’s Careful and Risky Fence-Sitting between Ukraine and Russia – February 2022
  • At the Double: Poland’s Military Expansion – January 2022 
  • Turkey’s Response to the Russia-Ukraine Crisis – January 2022 
  • Afghanistan was a Turbulent NATO Proving Ground for the Baltic States – December 2021
  • Crowded Pond: NATO and Russian Maritime Power in the Baltic Sea – December 2021 
  • Baltic Perspectives on U.S. and Transatlantic Nuclear Negotiations with Russia – October 2021
  • Namejs vs. Zapad: Military Exercises on Both Sides of the Frontline – September 2021 
  • Reconceptualizing Lithuania’s Importance for U.S Foreign Policy – July 2021
  • Russian-Turkish Relations and Their Implications for the West – April 2021
  • Nord Stream 2: Germany’s Faustian Bargain with Gazprom and Why it Matters for the Baltics – December 2020
  • Cooperation, Competition, and Compartmentalization: Russian-Turkish Relations and Their Implications for the West – May 2021
  • America’s Approach to the Three Seas Initiative – May 2021
  • The Baltic States as NATO Heavyweights – March 2023 
  • The Future of European Energy – February 2023
  • What’s Happening With Russian Speakers in Latvia? – January 2023
  • We Can France if We Want To: What Does Paris Want for Ukraine and Europe? – November 2022 
  • Giorgia on My Mind: Italy’s Rightward Turn and Its Implications – October 2022 
  • Stuck in the Magyar: Why is Hungary the “Bad Boy” of Europe? – October 2022 
  • Bloc Party: The EU and the War in Ukraine – September 2022 
  • The View from Ukraine: An interview with Dr. Volodymyr Dubovyk – August 2022 
  • What Does Erdogan, Erdo-want? – July 2022
  • Baltic Power Hour – July 2022
  • No More Niinistö Nice Guy: Has Finland’s Security Calculus Changed? – June 2022
  • Swedening the Deal: Stockholm Turns to NATO – June 2022
  • The Energy Trilemma: An interview with Dr. Andrei Belyi – May 2022
  • The Sejm Difference? Poland and the New, Old Europe – May 2022
  • Bundes-where? Germany’s Politics and Security in Changing Times – May 2022
  • Ukrainian Refugees in Latvia: An interview with Agnese Lāce  – April 2022
  • Who Speaks For Eastern Europe? – February 2022
  • Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkēvičs on Latvia’s Foreign Policy Challenges – November 2021 
  • Reframing the Baltic states: An Interview with Dr. Andres Kasekamp – October 2021

FPRI Experts to Follow 

  • Rob Lee – @RALee85   Eurasia Senior Fellow, PhD Student at King’s College, London
  • Bob Hamilton – @BobHam88   Black Sea Fellow, Research Professor at the U.S. Army War College  
  • Maia Otarashvili – @MaiaVanRijn Deputy Director of Research
  • Aaron Stein – @aaronstein1  
  • Chris Miller – @crmiller1 Director of Eurasia Program, Assistant Professor at The Fletcher School, Tufts University
  • Nikolas Gvosdev @FPRI_Orbis   Editor, Orbis: FPRI’s Journal of World Affairs, Captain Jerome E. Levy Chair in Economic Geography and National Security at the U.S. Naval War College
  • Clint Watts – @SelectedWisdom Distinguished Research Fellow , National Security Contributor for NBC News and MSNBC
  • Indra Ekmanis – @indraekmanis Baltic Sea Fellow and Editor of the Baltic Bulletin
  • Una Bergmane @UnaBergmane Baltic Sea Fellow, Researcher at the University of Helsinki
  • Mitchell Orenstein @m_orenstein   Eurasia Senior Fellow, Professor of East European and Russian Studies, University of Pennsylvania
  • Stephanie Petrella @sdpetrella  Eurasia Fellow
  • Sara Ashbaugh @sara_ashbaugh Editor in Chief, BMB Russia
  • Eilish Hart @EilishHart    Eurasia F ellow, Eurasia Program
  • Clara Marchaud @ClaraMarchaud Editor of BMB Ukraine

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The Russia-Ukraine war and its ramifications for Russia

Subscribe to the center on the united states and europe update, steven pifer steven pifer nonresident senior fellow - foreign policy , center on the united states and europe , strobe talbott center for security, strategy, and technology , arms control and non-proliferation initiative @steven_pifer.

December 8, 2022

  • 24 min read

This piece is part of a series of policy analyses entitled “ The Talbott Papers on Implications of Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine ,” named in honor of American statesman and former Brookings Institution President Strobe Talbott. Brookings is grateful to Trustee Phil Knight for his generous support of the Brookings Foreign Policy program.

Nine months into Russia’s latest invasion of Ukraine, the outcome of the war remains unclear. The Russian military appears incapable of taking Kyiv or occupying a major portion of the country. Ukrainian forces have enjoyed three months of success on the battlefield and could well continue to make progress in regaining territory. The war also could settle into a more drawn-out conflict, with neither side capable of making a decisive breakthrough in the near term.

Projecting the ultimate outcome of the war is challenging. However, some major ramifications for Russia and its relations with Ukraine, Europe, and the United States have come into focus. While the war has been a tragedy for Ukraine and Ukrainians, it has also proven a disaster for Russia — militarily, economically, and geopolitically. The war has badly damaged Russia’s military and tarnished its reputation, disrupted the economy, and profoundly altered the geopolitical picture facing Moscow in Europe. It will make any near-term restoration of a degree of normalcy in U.S.-Russian relations difficult, if not impossible, to achieve.

Russia’s war against Ukraine

This latest phase in hostilities between Russia and Ukraine began on February 24, 2022, when Russian President Vladimir Putin directed his forces to launch a major, multi-prong invasion of Ukraine. The broad scope of the assault, which Putin termed a “special military operation,” suggested that Moscow’s objectives were to quickly seize Kyiv, presumably deposing the government, and occupy as much as the eastern half to two-thirds of the country.

The Russian army gained ground in southern Ukraine, but it failed to take Kyiv. By late March, Russian forces were in retreat in the north. Moscow proclaimed its new objective as occupying all of Donbas, consisting of the oblasts (regions) of Luhansk and Donetsk, some 35% of which had already been occupied by Russian and Russian proxy forces in 2014 and 2015. After three months of grinding battle, Russian forces captured almost all of Luhansk, but they made little progress in Donetsk, and the battlelines appeared to stabilize in August.

In September, the Ukrainian army launched two counteroffensives. One in the northeast expelled Russian forces from Kharkiv oblast and pressed assaults into Luhansk oblast. In the south, the second counteroffensive succeeded in November in driving Russian forces out of Kherson city and the neighboring region, the only area that Russian forces occupied east of the Dnipro River, which roughly bisects Ukraine.

Despite three months of battlefield setbacks, Moscow has shown no indication of readiness to negotiate seriously to end the war. Indeed, on September 30, Putin announced that Russia was annexing Luhansk, Donetsk, Zaporizhzhia, and Kherson oblasts, even though Russian forces did not fully control that territory and consistently lost ground there in the following weeks. The Russian military made up for battlefield losses by increasing missile attacks on Ukrainian cities, aimed in particular at disrupting electric power and central heating.

As of late November, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and his government insisted on conditions that included Russian withdrawal from all Ukrainian territory (including Crimea and all of Donbas), compensation, and punishment for war crimes. While these are understandable demands given what Ukraine has gone through, achieving them would prove difficult. Still, Kyiv appeared confident that it could liberate more territory even as winter approached.

After nine months of fighting, the Russian military has shown itself incapable of seizing and holding a large part of Ukraine. While the war’s outcome is uncertain, however the conflict ends, a sovereign and independent Ukrainian state will remain on the map of Europe. Moreover, it will be larger than the rump state that the Kremlin envisaged when it launched the February invasion.

Whether the Ukrainian military can drive the Russians completely out or at least back to the lines as of February 23 is also unclear. Some military experts believe this is possible, including the full liberation of Donbas and Crimea. Others offer less optimistic projections. The U.S. intelligence community has forecast that the fighting could drag on and become a war of attrition.

Forging a hostile neighbor

Today, most Ukrainians regard Russia as an enemy.

Of all the pieces of the Russian Empire and Soviet Union that Moscow lost when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, no part meant more to Russians than Ukraine. The two countries’ histories, cultures, languages, and religions were closely intertwined. When the author served at the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv at the end of the 1990s, most Ukrainians held either a positive or ambivalent view regarding Russia. That has changed. Today, most Ukrainians regard Russia as an enemy.

Putin’s war has been calamitous for Ukraine. The precise number of military and civilians casualties is unknown but substantial. The Office of the U.N. Commissioner for Human Rights estimated that, as of the end of October, some 6,500 Ukrainian civilians had been killed and another 10,000 injured. Those numbers almost certainly understate the reality. U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley on November 10 put the number of civilian dead at 40,000 and indicated that some 100,000 Ukrainian soldiers had been killed or wounded (Milley gave a similar number for Russian casualties, a topic addressed later in this paper).

In addition, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees placed the number of Ukrainians who have sought refuge outside of Ukraine at more than 7.8 million as of November 8. As of mid-November, the Russian attacks had caused an estimated 6.5 million more to become internally displaced persons within Ukraine.

Besides the human losses, the war has caused immense material damage. Estimates of the costs of rebuilding Ukraine run from $349 billion to $750 billion, and those appraisals date back to the summer. Finding those funds will not be easy, particularly as the war has resulted in a significant contraction of the Ukrainian economy; the World Bank expects the country’s gross domestic product to shrink by 35% this year.

All this has understandably affected Ukrainian attitudes. It has deepened the sense of Ukrainian national identity. An August poll showed 85% self-identifying as Ukrainian citizens as opposed to people of some region or ethnic minority; only 64% did so six months earlier — before Russia’s invasion. The invasion has also imbued Ukrainians with a strongly negative view of Russia: The poll showed 92% holding a “bad” attitude regarding Russia as opposed to only 2% with a “good” attitude.

Ukrainians have made clear their resolve to resist. A September Gallup poll reported 70% of Ukrainians determined to fight until victory over Russia. A mid-October Kyiv International Institute of Sociology poll had 86% supporting the war and opposing negotiations with Russia, despite Russian missile attacks against Ukrainian cities.

It will take years, if not decades, to overcome the enmity toward Russia and Russians engendered by the war. One Ukrainian journalist predicted last summer that, after the war’s end, Ukraine would witness a nationwide effort to “cancel” Russian culture, e.g., towns and cities across the country would rename their Pushkin Squares. It has already begun; Odesa intends to dismantle its statue of Catherine the Great, the Russian empress who founded the city in 1794.

Ironically for an invasion launched in part due to Kremlin concern that Ukraine was moving away from Russia and toward the West, the war has opened a previously closed path for Ukraine’s membership in the European Union (EU). For years, EU officials concluded agreements with Kyiv, including the 2014 EU-Ukraine Association Agreement. However, EU officials avoided language that would give Ukraine a membership perspective. In June, four months after Russia’s invasion, the European Council recognized Ukraine’s European perspective and gave it the status of candidate country. Kyiv will need years to meet the EU’s standards, but it now has a membership perspective that it lacked for the first 30 years of its post-Soviet independence.

As for NATO, 10 alliance members have expressed support for a membership path for Ukraine, nine in central Europe plus Canada . Other allies have generally remained silent or noncommittal, reflecting the fact that many, while prepared to provide Ukraine financial and military assistance, are not prepared to go to war with Russia to defend Ukraine. Even though Kyiv cannot expect membership or a membership action plan any time soon, it will have continued NATO support in its fight against Russia and, once the war is over, help in building a modern and robust military to deter a Russian attack in the future.

The Kremlin has sought since the end of the Soviet Union to keep Ukraine bound in a Russian sphere of influence. From that perspective, the last nine years of Russian policy have been an abysmal failure. Nothing has done more than that policy to push Ukraine away from Russia and toward the West, or to promote Ukrainian hostility toward Russia and Russians.

A disaster for Russia’s military and economy

While a tragedy for Ukraine, Putin’s decision to go to war has also proven a disaster for Russia.

While a tragedy for Ukraine, Putin’s decision to go to war has also proven a disaster for Russia. The Russian military has suffered significant personnel and military losses. Economic sanctions imposed by the EU, United States, United Kingdom, and other Western countries have pushed the Russian economy into recession and threaten longer-term impacts, including on the country’s critical energy sector.

In November, Milley put the number of dead and wounded Russian soldiers at 100,000, and that could fall on the low side. A Pentagon official said in early August Russian casualties numbered 70,000-80,000. That was more than three months ago, and those months have shown no kindness to the Russian army. Reports suggest that newly-mobilized and ill-trained Russian units have been decimated in combat.

The Russian military has lost significant amounts of equipment. The Oryx website reports 8,000 pieces of equipment destroyed, damaged, abandoned, or captured, including some 1,500 tanks, 700 armored fighting vehicles, and 1,700 infantry fighting vehicles. Oryx advises that its numbers significantly understate the true nature of Russian losses, as it counts only equipment for which it has unique photo or videographic evidence of its fate. Others report much heavier losses. U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin commented that the Russian military had lost “staggering” numbers of tanks and other armored vehicles, adding that Western trade restrictions on microchips would inhibit production of replacements.

As a result of these losses, Russia has had to draw on reserves, including T-64 tanks first produced nearly 50 years ago. It reportedly has turned to tanks from Belarus to replenish its losses. To augment its own munitions, Russia has had to purchase attack drones from Iran and artillery shells from North Korea . As the Russian military has drawn down stocks of surface-to-surface and air-to-surface missiles, it has used S-300 anti-aircraft missiles against ground targets. The Russian defense budget will need years to replace what the military has lost or otherwise expended in Ukraine.

Poor leadership, poor tactics, poor logistics, and underwhelming performance against a smaller and less well-armed foe have left Russia’s military reputation in a shambles. That will have an impact. Over the past decade, Russian weapons exporters saw their share of global arms exports drop by 26%. Countries looking to buy weapons likely will begin to turn elsewhere, given that Russia’s military failed to dominate early in the war, when its largely modernized forces faced a Ukrainian military armed mainly with aging Soviet-era equipment (that began to change only in the summer, when stocks of heavy weapons began arriving from the West).

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As Russia went to war, its economy was largely stagnant ; while it recorded a post-COVID-19 boost in 2021, average real income fell by 10% between 2013 and 2020. It will get worse. The West has applied a host of economic sanctions on the country. While the Russian Central Bank’s actions have mitigated the worst impacts, the Russian economy nevertheless contracted by 5% year-on-year compared to September 2021. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development expects Russia’s economy to contract by 3.9% in 2022 and 5.6% in 2023, and a confidential study supposedly done for the Kremlin projected an “inertial” case in which the economy bottomed out only in 2023 at 8.3% below 2021. One economist notes that the West’s cut-off of chips and microelectronics has devastated automobile, aircraft, and weapons production, with the output of cars falling by 90% between March and September; he expects a long run of stagnation.

In addition to coping with the loss of high-tech and other key imports, the Russian economy faces brain drain, particularly in the IT sector, that began in February as well as the departure of more than 1,000 Western companies. It also has a broader labor force challenge. The military has mobilized 300,000 men, and the September mobilization order prompted a new flood of Russians leaving the country, with more than 200,000 going to Kazakhstan. Some estimates suggest several hundred thousand others have fled to other countries. Taken together, that means something like three-quarters of a million men unavailable to work in the economy.

Russia thus far has staved off harsher economic difficulties in part because of its oil and gas exports and high energy prices. High prices have partially offset the decline in volume of oil and gas exports. That may soon change, at least for oil. The EU banned the purchase of Russian crude oil beginning on December 5, and the West is prohibiting shipping Russian oil on Western-flagged tankers or insuring tankers that move Russian oil if the oil is sold above a certain price, now set at $60 per barrel. The price cap — if it works as planned — could cut sharply into the revenues that Russian oil exports generate. The cap will require that Russian exporters discount the price of oil that they sell; the higher the discount, the less revenue that will flow to Russia.

Weaning Europe off of Russian gas poses a more difficult challenge, but EU countries have made progress by switching to imports of liquefied natural gas (LNG). Moreover, European companies have found ways to cut energy use; for example, 75% of German firms that use gas report that they have reduced gas consumption without having to cut production. EU countries face a much better energy picture this winter than anticipated several months ago. If Europe successfully ends its import of Russian piped natural gas, that will pose a major problem for Gazprom, Russia’s large gas exporter. Gazprom’s gas exports move largely by pipeline, and Gazprom’s gas pipeline structure is oriented primarily toward moving gas from the western Siberian and Yamal gas fields to Europe. New pipelines would be needed to switch the flow of that gas to Asia. If Europe can kick the Russian gas habit, Gazprom will see a significant decline in its export volumes, unless it can build new pipelines to Asian markets and/or greatly expand its LNG export capacity, all of which will be expensive.

A further problem facing Russia’s energy sector is that, as existing oil and gas fields are depleted, Russian energy companies must develop new fields to sustain production levels. Many of the potential new fields are in the Arctic region or off-shore and will require billions — likely, tens of billions — of dollars of investment. Russian energy companies, however, will not be able to count on Western energy companies for technical expertise, technology, or capital. That will hinder future production of oil and gas, as current fields become exhausted.

Another potential economic cost looms. The West has frozen more than $300 billion in Russian Central Bank reserves. As damages in Ukraine mount, pressure will grow to seize some or all of these assets for a Ukraine reconstruction fund. Western governments thus far show little enthusiasm for the idea. That said, it is difficult to see how they could turn to their taxpayers for money to assist Ukraine’s rebuilding while leaving the Russian Central Bank funds intact and/or releasing those funds back to Russia.

Western sanctions did not produce the quick crash in the ruble or the broader Russian economy that some expected. However, their impact could mean a stagnant economy in the longer term, and they threaten to cause particular problems in the energy sector and other sectors that depend on high-tech inputs imported from the West. Moscow does not appear to have handy answers to these problems.

Changed geopolitics in Europe

In 2021, Moscow saw a West that was divided and preoccupied with domestic politics. The United States was recovering from four years of the Trump presidency, post-Brexit politics in Britain remained tumultuous, Germany faced September elections to choose the first chancellor in 16 years not named Angela Merkel, and France had a presidential election in early 2022. That likely affected Putin’s decision to launch his February invasion. In the event, NATO and the EU responded quickly and in a unified manner, and the invasion has prompted a dramatic reordering of the geopolitical scene in Europe. European countries have come to see Russia in a threatening light, reminiscent of how they viewed the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War. NATO’s June 2022 summit statement was all about deterrence and defense with regard to Russia, with none of earlier summits’ language on areas of cooperation.

Few things epitomize the change more than the Zeitenwende (turning-point) in German policy. In the days following the Russian invasion, Berlin agreed to sanctions on Russian banks that few expected the Germans to approve, reversed a long-standing ban on exporting weapons to conflict zones in order to provide arms to Ukraine, established a 100-billion-euro ($110 billion) fund for its own rearmament, and announced the purchase of American dual-capable F-35 fighters to sustain the German Air Force’s nuclear delivery role. Just days before the assault, the German government said it would stop certification of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline. Berlin’s follow-up has been bumpy and, at times, seemingly half-hearted, which has frustrated many of its partners. Still, in a few short weeks in late February and early March, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s coalition government erased five decades of German engagement with Moscow.

Other NATO members have also accelerated their defense spending. According to NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, European allies and Canada have boosted defense spending by a total of $350 billion compared to levels in 2014, when the alliance — following Russia’s seizure of Crimea — set the goal for each member of 2% of gross domestic product devoted to defense by 2024. Stoltenberg added that nine members had met the 2% goal while 10 others intended to do so by 2024. Poland plans to raise its defense spending to 3% next year, and other allies have suggested the 3% target as well.

Moscow did not like the small multinational battlegroups that NATO deployed in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland beginning in 2017. Each numbered some 1,000-1,500 troops (battalion-sized) and were described as “tripwire” forces. Since February, NATO has deployed additional battlegroups in Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary, and Slovakia and decided on a more robust forward presence, including brigade-sized units, while improving capabilities for reinforcement. The U.S. military presence in Europe and European waters has grown from 80,000 service personnel to 100,000 and includes deployment of two F-35 squadrons to Britain, more destroyers to be homeported in Spain, and a permanent headquarters unit in Poland.

In addition to larger troop deployments, the Baltic Sea has seen a geopolitical earthquake. Finland and Sweden, which long pursued policies of neutrality, applied to join NATO in May and completed accession protocols in July. They have significant military capabilities. Their accession to the alliance, expected in early 2023, will make the Baltic Sea effectively a NATO lake, leaving Russia with just limited access from the end of the Gulf of Finland and its Kaliningrad exclave.

In early 2014, NATO deployed virtually no ground combat forces in countries that had joined the alliance after 1997. That began changing after Russia’s seizure of Crimea. The recent invasion has further energized NATO and resulted in its enlargement by two additional members. As Russia has drawn down forces opposite NATO countries (and Finland) in order to deploy them to Ukraine, the NATO military presence on Russia’s western flank has increased.

The Kremlin has waged a two-front war this year, fighting on the battlefield against Ukraine while seeking to undermine Western financial and military support for Kyiv. The Russians are losing on both fronts.

The Kremlin has waged a two-front war this year, fighting on the battlefield against Ukraine while seeking to undermine Western financial and military support for Kyiv. The Russians are losing on both fronts. The Russian military has been losing ground to the Ukrainian army and has carried out a campaign of missile strikes against power, heat, and water utilities in the country, which threatens a humanitarian crisis . Much will depend on how bad the winter is, but Ukrainians have shown remarkable resilience in restoring utilities, and the Russian attacks could further harden their resolve. Moreover, the brutality of the Russian missile campaign has already led Ukraine’s Western supporters to provide Kyiv more sophisticated air defenses, and pressures could grow to provide other weapons as well.

As for the second front, despite high energy prices, having to house the majority of the nearly eight million Ukrainians who have left their country, and concerns over how long the fighting might last, European support for Ukraine has not slackened. Russian hints of nuclear escalation caused concern but did not weaken European support for Ukraine, and Moscow has markedly deescalated the nuclear rhetoric in recent weeks. Given Russia’s relationship with China, the Kremlin certainly noticed Chinese President Xi Jinping’s recent criticism of nuclear threats.

It appears Moscow’s influence elsewhere is slipping, including among post-Soviet states. Kazakhstan has boosted its defense spending by more than 50%. In June, on a stage with Putin in St. Petersburg, its president pointedly declined to follow Russia’s lead in recognizing the so-called Luhansk and Donetsk “people’s republics” as independent states. Neither Kazakhstan nor any other member of the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) — or any other post-Soviet state, for that matter — has recognized Russia’s claimed annexations of Luhansk, Donetsk, Zaporizhzhia, and Kherson. In a remarkable scene at an October Russia-Central Asia summit, Tajikistan’s President Emomali Rahmon openly challenged Putin for his lack of respect for Central Asian countries. Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan spoiled a late November CSTO summit; he refused to sign a leaders’ declaration and noticeably moved away from Putin during the summit photo op.

More broadly, in October, the U.N. General Assembly approved a resolution calling for rejection — and demanding reversal — of Moscow’s illegal annexation of the Ukrainian oblasts by a vote of 143-5 (35 abstaining). A recent article documented how Russia has found its candidates rejected and its participation suspended in a string of U.N. organizations, including the International Telecommunications Union, Human Rights Council, Economic and Social Council, and International Civil Aviation Organization. Putin chose not to attend the November G-20 summit in Bali, likely reflecting his expectation that other leaders would have snubbed him and refused to meet bilaterally, as well as the criticism he would have encountered in multilateral sessions. The summit produced a leaders’ declaration that, while noting “other views,” leveled a harsh critique at Moscow for its war on Ukraine.

A deep freeze with Washington

While U.S.-Russian relations had fallen to a post-Cold War low point in 2020, the June 2021 summit that U.S. President Joe Biden held with Putin gave a modest positive impulse to the relationship. U.S. and Russian officials that fall broadened bilateral diplomatic contacts and gave a positive assessment to the strategic stability dialogue, terming the exchanges “intensive and substantive.” Moreover, Washington saw a possible drop-off in malicious cyber activity originating from Russia. However, the Russian invasion prompted a deep freeze in the relationship, and Washington made clear that business as usual was off the table.

U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley, and CIA Director Bill Burns nevertheless have kept channels open to their Russian counterparts. These lines of communication seek to avoid miscalculation — particularly miscalculation that could lead to a direct U.S.-Russia or NATO-Russia clash — and reduce risk. But other channels remain largely unused. Burns’s November 14 meeting with Sergey Naryshkin, head of the Russian external intelligence service, was the most senior face-to-face meeting between U.S. and Russian officials in nine months. Biden and Putin have not spoken directly with one another since February, and that relationship seems irretrievably broken.

In a positive glimmer, Biden told the U.N. General Assembly “No matter what else is happening in the world, the United States is ready to pursue critical arms control measures.” Speaking in June, the Kremlin spokesperson said “we are interested [in such talks]… Such talks are necessary.” U.S. officials have privately indicated that, while they have prerequisites for resuming the strategic dialogue, progress on ending the Russia-Ukraine war is not one of them. This leaves room for some hope that, despite their current adversarial relationship, Washington and Moscow may still share an interest in containing their competition in nuclear arms.

Beyond that, however, it is difficult to see much prospect for movement toward a degree of normalcy in the broader U.S.-Russia relationship. With Moscow turning to Iran and North Korea for weapons, Washington cannot count on Russian help in trying to bring Tehran back into the nuclear deal (the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) or to increase pressure on North Korea to end its missile launches and not to conduct another nuclear test. Likewise, coordination on Syria is less likely. It may well be that any meaningful improvement in the overall bilateral relationship requires Putin’s departure from the Kremlin. A second requirement could be that Putin’s successor adopt policy changes to demonstrate that Russia is altering course and prepared to live in peace with its neighbors.

What happens will depend on how the Russian elite and public view his performance; while some signs of disaffection over the war have emerged, it is too early to forecast their meaning for Putin’s political longevity.

This does not mean to advocate a policy of regime change in Russia. That is beyond U.S. capabilities, especially given the opacity of today’s Kremlin. U.S. policy should remain one of seeking a change in policy, not regime. That said, the prospects for improving U.S.-Russian relations appear slim while Putin remains in charge. What happens will depend on how the Russian elite and public view his performance; while some signs of disaffection over the war have emerged , it is too early to forecast their meaning for Putin’s political longevity.

Still, while it remains difficult to predict the outcome of the war or the impact it may have on Putin’s time in the Kremlin, there is little doubt that the fighting with Ukraine and its ramifications will leave Russia diminished in significant ways. It must contend with a badly-damaged military that will take years to reconstitute; years of likely economic stagnation cut off from key high-tech imports; a potentially worsening situation with regard to energy exports and future production; an alarmed, alienated, and rearming Europe; and a growing political isolation that will leave Moscow even more dependent on its relationship with China. Putin still seems to cling to his desire of “regaining” part of Ukraine, which he considers “historic Russian land.” But the costs of that for Russia mount by the day.

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EXPLAINER: Why Did Russia Invade Ukraine?

Experts say the cause of the military conflict can be tied to a complicated history, Russia’s tensions with NATO and the ambitions of Vladimir Putin.

Why Russia Invaded Ukraine

TOPSHOT - A man sits outside his destroyed building after bombings on the eastern Ukraine town of Chuguiv on February 24, 2022, as Russian armed forces are trying to invade Ukraine from several directions, using rocket systems and helicopters to attack Ukrainian position in the south, the border guard service said. - Russia's ground forces today crossed into Ukraine from several directions, Ukraine's border guard service said, hours after President Vladimir Putin announced the launch of a major offensive. Russian tanks and other heavy equipment crossed the frontier in several northern regions, as well as from the Kremlin-annexed peninsula of Crimea in the south, the agency said. (Photo by Aris Messinis / AFP) (Photo by ARIS MESSINIS/AFP via Getty Images)

ARIS MESSINIS | AFP via Getty Images

A man sits outside his destroyed building after bombings on the eastern Ukraine town of Chuguiv, on Feb. 24, 2022.

Predictions of a full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine came true in the early morning hours of Feb. 24, 2022.

Russia had amassed up to 190,000 troops – according to reports from the U.S. – on Ukraine’s borders over the course of many months. The buildup of forces around Russia's neighbor and former Soviet Union state started in late 2021 and escalated in early 2022.

Prior to the invasion, Russian President Vladimir Putin recognized the Russian-backed breakaway regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, both located in the disputed Donbas area, as “independent” people’s republics and ordered so-called “peacekeeping” troops into those areas.

What started as a concerning situation with hopes for dialogue and diplomacy then evolved into what the Ukrainian foreign minister described as the “most blatant act of aggression in Europe since” World War II.

While the invasion took some leaders by surprise, experts do have insight on the origins of the conflict. They say the roots of the tension can be tied to some combination of the complicated history between the two countries, Russia’s ongoing tensions with NATO and the ambitions of one man: Putin.

What Is the History Between Ukraine and Russia?

The latest photos from ukraine.

A woman walks backdropped by bas-relief sculptures depicting war scenes in the National Museum of the History of Ukraine in the Second World War in Kyiv, Ukraine, Monday, April 8, 2024. (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda)

Russia and Ukraine have what either side might describe as a common or complicated legacy that dates back a thousand years. In the last century, Ukraine, known as the breadbasket of Europe, was one of the most populous and powerful republics in the former USSR as well as an agricultural engine until it declared independence in 1991, according to the Council on Foreign Relations . But Russia has kept a close eye on its neighbor to the West, while Ukrainians have found their independence to be tumultuous at times, with periods of protests and government corruption.

Ukraine’s ambitions to align itself more with Western countries – including its publicly stated interest in joining NATO , which itself was founded at least in part to deter Soviet expansion – has been met with aggression from Russia, the council notes. Tensions came to a head in 2014 after Ukrainians ousted a Russia-aligned president. Russia – under the dubious claim of protecting ethnic Russians and Russian-speakers from Ukrainian persecution – annexed the Crimea region of Ukraine in a move widely condemned by the international community.

At about the same time, Russia fomented dissension in the Donbas area of eastern Ukraine, backing a separatist movement in the regions of Donetsk and Luhansk that resulted in armed conflict. The regions declared independence as both sides dug in for a protracted standoff. The conflict between the two countries has persisted since, with at least 14,000 people dying, according to the council.

When Did the Current Conflict Between Russia and Ukraine Begin?

Russia started growing its military presence around Ukraine – including in Belarus, a close Russia ally to the north of Ukraine – in late 2021 under various pretenses while remaining vague on its intentions. By December of that year, tens of thousands of Russian troops were hovering on the border, virtually surrounding the country and stoking tensions that led to a call between Putin and U.S. President Joe Biden.

Russia Invades Ukraine: A Timeline

TOPSHOT - Black smoke rises from a military airport in Chuguyev near Kharkiv  on February 24, 2022. - Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a military operation in Ukraine today with explosions heard soon after across the country and its foreign minister warning a "full-scale invasion" was underway. (Photo by Aris Messinis / AFP) (Photo by ARIS MESSINIS/AFP via Getty Images)

Fears escalated in early 2022 as the number of Russian forces surrounding Ukraine increased. Biden and Putin talked again , U.N. Security Council sessions were called to address the crisis, and numerous leaders from NATO, the U.S. and other countries called on Russia to de-escalate or face retaliation in some form. The most recent estimates – prior to the invasion – put the number of Russian troops on the border at close to 200,000.

What Does Russia Want When it Comes to Ukraine?

A principal demand of Russia is to prevent Ukraine from joining NATO , a military alliance between 29 European countries and two North American countries dedicated to preserving peace and security in the North Atlantic area. Ukraine is one of just a few countries in Eastern Europe that aren’t members of the alliance. The Kremlin in general views NATO expansion as a “fundamental concern,” according to a translated readout of a Jan. 28, 2022, call between Putin and French President Emmanuel Macron.

It’s noteworthy, however, that NATO likely has “no intention right now” to admit Ukraine to the organization, says William Pomeranz, the acting director of the Kennan Institute at the Wilson Center, a non-partisan policy forum for global issues.

“I think NATO, and the invitation for Ukraine to join NATO at some point in the future, is simply just a pretext to potentially invade Ukraine,” he says, referring to Russia. “Ukraine is not a member of NATO, it doesn't have any of the NATO guarantees, and so there is no hint that Ukraine will become a member of NATO soon.”

Putin, specifically, does not want Ukraine to join NATO “not because he has some principled disagreement related to the rule of law or something, it's because he has a might makes right model,” adds Bradley Bowman, the senior director of the Center on Military and Political Power at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a non-partisan research institute focused on national security and foreign policy.

“He believes, ‘Hey, Ukraine, I'm more powerful than you, and because I'm more powerful than you, Ukraine, I can tell you what to do and with whom to associate,’” Bowman says.

Beyond the concern around NATO and other demands related to weapons and transparency, Russia’s nature of expansion is also at play when it comes to Ukraine. Some Russians, Putin included, remain aggrieved by the collapse of the USSR, and feel Russia has a claim to the former Soviet republic.

“The imperialistic policy of the Russian Federation requires from us and all the allies complex activities and complex deterrence and defense,” U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said during a Feb. 18, 2022, news conference .

What Does Vladimir Putin Want Out of Ukraine?

The demands of the Russian government are inseparable from those of its authoritarian leader. While analysts are quick to say that they cannot read Putin’s mind – Biden himself admitted as much during remarks on Feb. 18, 2022 – they note his broad ambitions, particularly those tied to his nostalgia for the territorial integrity of the USSR, that have been made clear by his actions.

“We know that Putin views the collapse of the Soviet Union as a disaster,” Bowman says. “We know he resents the success of NATO. We know that he genuinely reviles the expansion of NATO eastward. We know that he has an eye on history, he's getting older, he is mindful of how he's going to look in history books and he sees himself as kind of a neo-czar who would like to reconstitute as much of the Soviet Union as possible.”

Ukraine, in particular, is a “critical element” of this ambition, Bowman adds. Putin has a history of invading and occupying countries that approach NATO membership. Russian armies invaded the former Soviet state of Georgia in 2008 as that country was pursuing membership in the alliance. They briefly pressured the capital Tbilisi before withdrawing to separatist regions they still occupy today. The 2014 Crimea annexation is another example, Bowman notes, and Putin said on Feb. 22, 2022 , that he wants the world to recognize that territory as rightfully Russian. He rationalized in a 2021 essay that a common history and culture – which Ukrainians dispute – entitled Russia to exert its influence there.

“I think Ukraine has always been a sore spot for Vladimir Putin,” Pomeranz says. “He does not recognize its independence and its right to be a country, as he noted in his long article on Ukraine, where he said that, basically, Ukraine and Russia are one people in one country. There is this long-felt resentment about Ukrainian independence and the fact that the Soviet Union just let Ukraine go away, as it were. So I think he wants to end that independence.”

The Russian president, however, might not have predicted the type of strong response from the international community he saw to the buildup on the Ukraine border. Bowman says because of this, Putin “is the most persuasive billboard possible for the value of NATO membership.”

“What we’ve seen from President Putin is basically to precipitate everything he says he wants to prevent,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said during a Feb. 16, 2022, “Morning Joe” appearance on MSNBC. “He says he wants NATO further away from Russia. NATO has only gotten more united, more solidified as a result of the threat of Russian aggression, and of course, for defensive reasons, is moving more forces closer to Russia.”

Why Did Russia Invade Ukraine When it Did?

It all could have come down to Russia’s resources at that moment, Pomeranz says. It might have been the “most opportune time” from Putin’s perspective, he adds, because the country had $600 billion in foreign currency reserves and had already put significant resources into reconstructing Russia’s army.

“I think Vladimir Putin thinks this is the best time for him to right what he perceives as a great wrong and reverse Ukrainian independence and sovereignty,” says Pomeranz of the Wilson Center.

Putin likely also viewed the West – including the U.S., specifically – as weak, Pomeranz adds, which could have impacted how much help he thought Ukraine would actually get. Bowman echoes this sentiment and points to how the U.S. handled pulling troops out of Afghanistan in August.

“I don't know how he could have read that as anything other than American weakness,” says Bowman, who served as an adviser to Republican senators for years. “I think he wondered whether, frankly, the Biden administration would be as weak as the Obama administration was in dealing with aggression toward Ukraine.”

Biden administration officials would beg to differ on the U.S. response. Blinken, during a Feb. 23, 2022, appearance on “CBS Evening News” prior to reports of the invasion, said further Russian aggression in Ukraine would lead to “a price that Vladimir Putin and Russia will pay for a long, long time.”

“We’re not standing by and watching,” Blinken said. “To the contrary, we’ve spent months building with allies and partners these very significant consequences for Russia.”

Other reasons for action at the time could have been at play for Putin. A combination of factors – from the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s lack of political experience – led to somewhat of a “perfect storm” for the Russian leader to act when he did, says Kimberly St. Julian-Varnon, a presidential doctoral fellow at the University of Pennsylvania.

“I think it's his magnum opus,” she says. “I think this is his crowning achievement of whatever Putinism is.”

How Have the U.S. and Other Countries Responded to Russia’s Invasion?

The response was swift at the outset. The North Atlantic Council, the political decision-making arm of NATO, held an emergency meeting on Feb. 24, 2022, at which it activated its defense plans, which include the NATO Response Force. Biden had said before Russia’s attack that he would be sending more U.S. troops to Eastern Europe to defend NATO allies such as Poland but has repeatedly stated he will not be sending U.S. troops into Ukraine.

Some countries had already responded to Putin’s actions related to the Donbas, which the U.S. called the “beginning of an invasion.”

Biden on Feb. 22, 2022, announced a series of sanctions against Russian financial institutions and the country’s elites. That followed an executive order he issued prohibiting new investment, trade and financing by U.S. persons to, from or in Donetsk and Luhansk. Former U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced his own country’s sanctions that day, targeted against Russian banks and billionaires, the BBC reported .

The U.S. president also ordered sanctions against the Russian-built Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline company and its corporate officers on Feb. 23, 2022, prior to the invasion. The controversial project, which runs from Russia through Europe, is not yet online but is pivotal to both Moscow and Western Europe, which is becoming increasingly dependent on Russian supply to fulfill its growing energy needs. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz had already said before Biden’s sanctions announcement that his country would halt certification of the pipeline due to Russia’s actions. In late 2022, there were explosions at the pipeline under mysterious circumstances .

Biden promised in a statement late on Feb. 23 of that year that he would announce “further consequences the United States and our Allies and partners will impose on Russia for this needless act of aggression against Ukraine and global peace and security.”

That promise was kept. Since the war began, the U.S. has imposed thousands of different sanctions on Russia, according to a tally kept by the Atlantic Council that was last updated in November 2023. And that doesn’t include the 500 new sanctions announced by the U.S. government on Feb. 23, 2024.

Punishments have focused on, for example, Russian oil and gas imports and Russian banks. Many countries, such as Canada, the U.K. and others in Europe, have followed suit. The European Union has also imposed its own sanctions, targeting Russian individuals – including Putin himself – and energy. Countries have also committed about $278 billion in aid to Ukraine collectively, as of Jan. 15, 2024.

Two years in, the sanctions have inflicted some financial pain on Russia but haven’t done much to hinder economic growth. The International Monetary Fund in January 2024 projected Russia’s real GDP to grow 2.6% in 2024, which was up from the 1.1% projection just months prior.

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The consequences of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine for international security – NATO and beyond

  • Robert Pszczel
  • 07 July 2022

February 24, 2022, is likely to engrave itself on the history template of the contemporary world. Russia’s unprovoked, unjustified and barbaric invasion of Ukraine is not only a manifestation of a huge security danger that has shattered peace in Europe.

More structurally, it has broken the entire security architecture built patiently on the continent over many decades, including international commitments agreed in the last 30 years. As the top UK general recently observed, it is dangerous to assume that the war on Ukraine is a limited conflict. This could be “ our 1937 moment “, and everything possible must be done in order to stop territorial expansion by force, thereby averting a war similar to the one that ravaged Europe 80 years ago. Mobilising our resources must start today.

essay about russian and ukraine war

The magnitude of damage resulting from the ongoing conflict in Ukraine is immense and still increasing. Whole cities – like Mariupol – are being razed to the ground. Pictured: City of Mariupol © CNN

This is also a war against the West

The magnitude of damage is immense and still increasing. Ukrainians (military and civilians alike) are being killed simply because they are Ukrainians. Whole cities – like Mariupol – are being razed to the ground. Evident atrocities fitting the criteria of war crimes are being perpetrated and accompanied by genocidal talk on Russian state TV. Hundreds of thousands of people, including children, have been forcefully deported to Russia. Over six million (at the time of writing) have had to flee Ukraine; many more have been internally displaced. Hospitals, infrastructure, cultural treasures, private homes and industrial centres are either destroyed or pillaged , with stolen goods being sent to Russia in an organised manner.

The suffering of Ukraine presents a moral challenge to Europe and the world. Human rights and the UN Charter have been trampled upon and our values mocked. Indifference is simply not an option. As convincingly explained by Nicholas Tenzer: this is a war against the West too.

According to its own terminology, Putin’s regime has chosen confrontation with the “collective West”, irrespective of the costs for Russia itself. All efforts comprising security and confidence-building measures, or institutional arrangements designed to preserve peace, suddenly look very fragile when faced with blunt force. After many months of Moscow engaging in sham dialogue and blatantly lying to other countries and institutions, including NATO and the OSCE, all trust has been eroded. Moreover, by creating economic shocks in the energy markets and weaponising famine as a political instrument, Russia has further globalised the consequences of its war.

Russian threats

Russia has also purposefully raised the level of risk for the possible use of nuclear weapons, the main goal primarily being to discourage Western Allies from offering military support to Ukraine and to instil fear in decision-makers. A long-held taboo that made an actual application of nuclear force unthinkable has been verbally discarded. While many experts calculate that risk to be low - not higher than five percent - Putin and his aides have chosen to abandon the rational caution exercised by the majority of his Soviet predecessors. Compared to Cold War practice, today, Kremlin propagandists and officials engage in highly irresponsible rhetoric advocating for the use of Russia’s nuclear arsenal against Ukraine, and possibly even against NATO states. This is backed by exercises (at least two this year) openly testing the Russian military’s ability to fire nuclear warheads at Western targets and protect Russia from possible counter-strikes. The Russian president has even shown his willingness to bring Belarus into the nuclear equation. Such brinkmanship has contributed to the return of nuclear arms into the power competition on a global stage.

essay about russian and ukraine war

Russia tests nuclear-capable intercontinental ballistic missile Sarmat on 20 April 2022. © Reuters

With or without a nuclear threat dimension, Russia’s neighbours already have valid reasons to fear the Russian predator. They feel that, if not stopped in and by Ukraine, Putin may entertain aggression against other territories. The historic decision by both Finland and Sweden to apply for NATO membership points to the gravity of this threat. Small countries, such as Moldova and Georgia, but also Moscow’s formal allies such as Kazakhstan, may fear becoming Putin’s next target. The Kremlin has not made any attempt to assuage these fears, but has instead amplified them via direct menaces, propaganda and intimidation levers. Latest examples include curtailing gas supplies for political reasons, violating the airspace of a NATO country, threatening Lithuania, and using economic blackmail against Collective Security Treaty Organization member, Kazakhstan .

International response – good and not so good news

NATO and the European Union have, to a large extent, responded effectively in the first months of the war. US leadership has once again proven essential in successfully mobilising international efforts, especially in coordinating military support to Ukraine. NATO’s response to the war, balancing increasingly strong support to Ukraine with a justified reluctance to avoid open conflict with Russia, has been more or less vindicated. The majority of European countries turned to the tried and tested protective security umbrella of NATO, backed by American military capabilities. The G7 and EU have proven agile in tightening sanctions.

But, as the aggression continues, with Russia concentrating its efforts on gaining control of eastern and southern Ukraine via a war of attrition, Western unity is being tested. Divergent interpretations over sanctions that affect the transport of prohibited goods to Kaliningrad illustrate this problem.

The United Nations and the OSCE have not been able to offer meaningful responses, mainly due to the paralysing effect of Russia’s veto. Moreover, solidarity with Ukraine is not yet universal among all UN members.

Russia's long-term prospects are dim, but the threat is present

The myth of the invincible Russian military machine has evaporated in the space of a few weeks. The initial goals of the invasion have clearly not been achieved. Russian forces had to withdraw from the vicinity of Kyiv and were beaten off in many other locations. Ukrainian bravery and excellent use of limited resources (reinforced by foreign assistance) have so far proven a strong match against the badly led, poorly motivated and organised opponent, who are also experiencing logistic and technical problems, like faulty equipment. Corruption, a disease at the heart of the Russian state, displayed itself on a grand scale in the conduct of the military operation. Russia’s human losses are enormous and, in spite of censorship, becoming known to the Russian public.

essay about russian and ukraine war

The West can attempt to facilitate the export of grain from Ukraine in order to undermine the Russian blockade of Ukrainian Black Sea ports. Picture © Euromaidan Press

After more than four months of fighting, it is Russia that is experiencing manpower shortages. Fearing protests, the Kremlin is reluctant to call for mobilisation and is forced to take extraordinary steps (e.g. extending the age limit for volunteers ready to join the war), opting for a covert form of recruitment, like through the use of reservists. Numerous cases of conscription offices being set on fire in Russia suggest strongly that many young people are opposed to being sent to the frontlines in Ukraine. Almost four million Russians have travelled away from Russia so far in 2022, many choosing not to return for the time being. It is the largest such exodus since the Bolshevik revolution and could result in an enormous country-wide brain drain; something that is already being experienced in the IT sector.

Furthermore, the war has proven costly. On 27 May, Finance Minister Siluanov admitted that “money, huge resources are needed for the special operation”. He also confirmed that 8 trillion roubles (USD $120b) were required for the stimulus budget. Sanctions are starting to bite and will set the Russian economy - which is not able to produce a huge range of goods without foreign technology or parts – back for decades. Overall, unemployment is set to rise while GDP is unlikely to grow.

Putin has turned Russia into an international pariah and the country will not recover its reputation for a long time. In spite of the totalitarian nature of the Russian political system today, some signs of dissent (even amongst high ranking diplomats ) show a growing recognition of these facts. As one astute Russian expert put it, Putin has “amputated Russia’s future”. Russia is bound to be a weaker, less influential actor for the foreseeable future.

But barring Putin’s sudden departure - which would trigger a political transformation in Moscow - Russia will still present a dangerous threat to security in Europe. The regime, led by a delusional and ageing dictator, is prone to irrational decision-making. But the ruthless conduct of the military campaign (e.g. indiscriminate use of blanket shelling) means that even incompetent Russian forces can achieve gains against the Ukrainian military , though it is being modernised at record pace.

A transformative Madrid Summit, but the clock is ticking

Ukraine’s ability to contain Russian aggression will shape the security environment for years to come. At its Summit in Madrid in June 2022, NATO recognised this and offered an upgraded package of support. The volume and speed with which more sophisticated weapons systems (including heavy artillery, missile systems, armoured vehicles, and air defence systems) are supplied to Ukraine in the coming weeks will be decisive in preventing Russia from overrunning Ukraine’s defences. The onus is on individual Allies to ensure such help now.

essay about russian and ukraine war

Norwegian troops arrive to reinforce NATO Enhanced Forward Presence in Kaunas, Lithuania, on 27 February 2022. © Reuters

Special funding assistance will be required for long-term training and the modernisation of Ukrainian forces, de facto bringing them to NATO standards. This is necessary, as Ukrainian weapon stocks composed of Soviet-standards equipment are depleted, and availability of such arms outside Ukraine is limited too. Crowdfunding military equipment for Ukraine – already successful in Lithuania – shows that the general international public is sympathetic and wants to play its part in this process. To help Kyiv to counterbalance Russia’s size advantages and scorched earth tactics, Allies should consider more military exercises to show NATO’s readiness and strength. Creative solutions are also quickly needed to undermine the Russian blockade of Ukrainian Black Sea ports, facilitating the export of grain.

While the NATO-Russia Founding Act of 1997 – though effectively torn to shreds by Russia – was not formally revoked at the Summit, any self-restrictions which NATO took on as part of the agreement should now be considered null and void. Crucially, Allies have finally attributed responsibility where it lies, calling Russia “the most significant and direct threat to Allies’ security” in their new Strategic Concept.

Putin’s war has not yet tested the credibility of NATO’s Article 5 collective defence guarantees. Thus far, the very existence of Article 5, coupled with NATO’s Enhanced Forward Presence (which now includes more than 40 000 forces under direct NATO’s operational command), have offered sufficient deterrence. But Putin’s increasingly irrational behaviour together with Moscow’s readiness to use the most destructive missiles and weapons systems against foreign territory targets (something practiced in Syria) in the immediate vicinity of NATO territory creates a new reality. Moscow has shown its readiness to use indiscriminate force for no justifiable military reasons and to engage in war crimes, all while Putin openly discusses the reclamation of lands held by tsarist Russia. Not surprisingly, NATO Allies bordering Russia are concerned by the potential loss – even temporary - of parts of their territory, and having seen the obliteration of Mariupol and Kharkiv, have become alarmed by direct missile threats to their cities and critical infrastructure.

essay about russian and ukraine war

Sanctions are starting to impact the Russian economy. Pictured: Russians queue up to withdraw cash from an ATM in St Petersburg. © Reuters

A more ruthless form of deterrence, by denial rather than punishment, based on a beefed-up forward defence seems the only appropriate response. The new NATO Strategic Concept , which was adopted in Madrid on 29 June, explicitly takes NATO in that direction (para. 21). Substantial and persistent military presence, backed by the prepositioning of equipment and strategic pre-assigning of combat forces is now part of the new NATO Force Model. The goal of massively increasing the availability of troops at high readiness is essential for effective deterrence. But concrete pledges of national contributions, like those announced by US President Biden on 29 June, must follow quickly from all Allies.

The credibility of collective defence will also depend on the quick implementation of already-announced pledges for increased defence spending and the prioritisation of defence planning efforts based on the scenario of large-scale conflict in Europe. In this context, appropriate stockpiles of military equipment are essential. As current levels are eminently insufficient, procurement practices and defence industry production capacity must be adapted, and stocks augmented quickly.

Paragraphs 28 and 29 of the new Strategic Concept leave no ambiguity on the continued role played by nuclear weapons as the ultimate guarantee of Allied security. But to disable the corrosive effect of Moscow’s nuclear blackmail against Allies, a more robust declaratory nuclear policy by NATO is in order. Moreover, the use of nuclear weapons against targets in Ukraine – however improbable - cannot be ruled out. Allies should thus consider, as a matter of urgency, persuasive signalling to Russia about possible conventional military responses (e.g. a disabling of Russian military targets in the Black Sea) that would come as a result of such acts. Only the certainty of retaliation can dissuade the Kremlin from seriously contemplating such an option.

Concrete decisions will matter more than any new organisational organigrams, and sophisticated plans or strategies are valuable only as long as they are made real. Russia has started to relish its role as a predator, and it is using brutal force to achieve its imperialist goals. Even weakened, Russia remains capable of inflicting heavy damage upon others. Only strong deterrence and credible force will be able to stop it. Counter-intuitively, preparing for a possible war with Russia is the best approach to prevent it.

essay about russian and ukraine war

Meeting of the North Atlantic Council at the level of Heads of State and Government – NATO Summit in Madrid, Spain, 29 June 2022. © NATO

The collective West (and specifically NATO) can count on its likely ability to contain an aggressive Russia, at least in the long run. But Ukraine’s defeat of the aggressor is the indispensable goal in this context as it would severely limit Russia’s ability to attack other countries, provide time to augment collective defence and consolidate international unity against aggression. Madrid Summit decisions have supplied key elements of the required strategy. There is no time to lose in implementing them.

The GOP’s Pro-Russia Caucus Lost. Now Ukraine Has to Win.

Once U.S. money starts flowing again, the dynamics of the war will change.

a Ukrainian soldier

It’s not too late, because it’s never too late. No outcomes are ever preordained, nothing is ever over, and you can always affect what happens tomorrow by making the right choices today. The U.S. Congress is finally making one of those right choices. Soon, American weapons and ammunition will once again start flowing to Ukraine.

But delays do have a price. By dawdling for so many months, by heading down the blind alley of border reform before turning back, congressional Republicans who blocked weapons and ammunition for Ukraine did an enormous amount of damage, some of it irreparable. Over the past six months, Ukraine lost territory, lives, and infrastructure. If Ukraine had not been deprived of air defense, the city of Kharkiv might still have most of its power plants. People who have died in the near-daily bombardment of Odesa might still be alive. Ukrainian soldiers who spent weeks at the front lines rationing ammunition might not be so demoralized.

David Frum: Trump deflates

The delay has changed American politics too. Only a minority of House Republicans, including Speaker Mike Johnson, joined most Democrats to approve $60 billion in aid yesterday. What is now clearly a pro-Russia Republican caucus has consolidated inside Congress. The lesson is clear: Anyone who seeks to manipulate the foreign policy of the United States, whether the tin-pot autocrat in Hungary or the Communist Party of China, now knows that a carefully designed propaganda campaign, when targeted at the right people, can succeed well beyond what anyone once thought possible. From the first days of the 2022 Russian invasion, President Vladimir Putin has been trying to conquer Ukraine through psychological games as well as military force. He needed to persuade Americans, Europeans, and above all Ukrainians that victory was impossible, that the only alternative was surrender, and that the Ukrainian state would disappear in due course.

Plenty of Americans and Europeans, though not so many Ukrainians, supported this view. Pro-Russia influencers—Tucker Carlson, J. D. Vance, David Sacks—backed up by an army of pro-Russia trolls on X and other social-media platforms, helped feed the narrative of failure and convinced a minority in Congress to block aid for Ukraine. It’s instructive to trace the path of a social-media post that falsely claimed that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky owns two yachts, how it traveled up the food chain late last year, from the keyboard of a propagandist through the echo chamber created by trolls and into the brains of American lawmakers. According to Senator Thom Tillis , a Republican from North Carolina, some of his colleagues worried out loud, during debates about military aid to Ukraine, that “people will buy yachts with this money.” They had read the false stories and believed they were true.

But with the passage of this aid bill, Russia’s demoralization campaign has suffered a severe setback. This is also a setback for the Russian war effort, and not only because the Ukrainians will now have more ammunition. Suddenly the Russian military and Russian society are once again faced with the prospect of a very long war. Ukraine, backed by the combined military and economic forces of the United States and the European Union, is a much different opponent than Ukraine isolated and alone.

Read: The war is not going well for Ukraine

That doesn’t mean that the Russians will quickly give up: Putin and the propagandists who support him on state television have repeatedly stated that their goal is not to gain a bit of extra territory but to control all of Ukraine. They don’t want to swap land for peace. They want to occupy Kharkiv, Odesa, Kyiv, and more. Now, while their goals become harder to reach, is a good moment for the democratic countries backing Ukraine to recalibrate our strategy too.

Once the aid package becomes law this week, the psychological advantage will once again be on our side. Let’s use it. As Johnson himself recommended, the Biden administration should immediately pressure European allies to release the $300 billion in Russian assets that they jointly hold and send it to Ukraine. There are excellent legal and moral arguments for doing so—the money can legitimately be considered a form of reparations. This shift would also make clear to the Kremlin that it has no path back to what used to be called “normal” relations, and that the price Russia is paying for its colonial war will only continue to grow.

This is also a good moment for both Europeans and Americans to take the sanctions and export-control regimes imposed on Russia more seriously. If NATO were running a true economic-pressure campaign, thousands of people would be involved, with banks of screens at a central command center and constantly updated intelligence. Instead, the task has been left to a smattering of people across different agencies in different countries who may or may not be aware of what others are doing.

As American aid resumes, the Ukrainians should be actively encouraged to pursue the asymmetric warfare that they do best. The air and naval drone campaign that pushed the Black Sea Fleet away from their coastline, the raids on Russian gas and oil facilities thousands of miles from Ukraine, the recruitment of Russian soldiers, in Russia, to join pro-Ukraine Russian units fighting on the border—we need more of this, not less. The Biden administration should also heed Johnson’s suggestion that the United States supply more and better long-range weapons so that Ukrainians can hit Russian missile launchers before the missiles reach Ukraine. If the U.S. had done so in the autumn of 2022, when Ukraine was taking back territory, the world might look a lot different today.

This war will be over only when the Russians no longer want to fight—and they will stop fighting when they realize they cannot win. Now it is our turn to convince them, as well as our own pro-Russia caucus, that their invasion will fail. The best way to do that is to believe it ourselves.

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The War in Ukraine Is a Colonial War

By Timothy Snyder

When Vladimir Putin denies the reality of the Ukrainian state, he is speaking the familiar language of empire. For five hundred years, European conquerors called the societies that they encountered “tribes,” treating them as incapable of governing themselves. As we see in the ruins of Ukrainian cities, and in the Russian practice of mass killing, rape, and deportation, the claim that a nation does not exist is the rhetorical preparation for destroying it.

Empire’s story divides subjects from objects. As the philosopher Frantz Fanon argued, colonizers see themselves as actors with purpose, and the colonized as instruments to realize the imperial vision. Putin took a pronounced colonial turn when returning to the Presidency a decade ago. In 2012, he described Russia as a “state-civilization,” which by its nature absorbed smaller cultures such as Ukraine’s. The next year, he claimed that Russians and Ukrainians were joined in “spiritual unity.” In a long essay on “historical unity,” published last July, he argued that Ukraine and Russia were a single country, bound by a shared origin. His vision is of a broken world that must be restored through violence. Russia becomes itself only by annihilating Ukraine.

As the objects of this rhetoric, and of the war of destruction that it sanctions, Ukrainians grasp all of this. Ukraine does have a history, of course, and Ukrainians do constitute a nation. But empire enforces objectification on the periphery and amnesia at the center. Thus modern Russian imperialism includes memory laws that forbid serious discussion of the Soviet past. It is illegal for Russians to apply the word “war” to the invasion of Ukraine. It is also illegal to say that Stalin began the Second World War as Hitler’s ally, and used much the same justification to attack Poland as Putin is using to attack Ukraine. When the invasion began, in February, Russian publishers were ordered to purge mentions of Ukraine from textbooks.

Faced with the Kremlin’s official mixture of fantasy and taboo, the temptation is to prove the opposite: that it is Ukraine rather than Russia that is eternal, that it is Ukrainians, not Russians, who are always right, and so on. Yet Ukrainian history gives us something more interesting than a mere counter-narrative to empire. We can find Ukrainian national feeling at a very early date. In contemporary Ukraine, though, the nation is not so much anti-colonial, a rejection of a particular imperial power, as post-colonial, the creation of something new.

Southern Ukraine, where Russian troops are now besieging cities and bombing hospitals , was well known to the ancients. In the founding myth of Athens, the goddess Athena gives the city the gift of the olive tree. In fact, the city could grow olives only because it imported grain from ports on the Black Sea coast. The Greeks knew the coast, but not the hinterland, where they imagined mythical creatures guarding fields of gold and ambrosia. Here already was a colonial view of Ukraine: a land of fantasy, where those who take have the right to dream.

The city of Kyiv did not exist in ancient times, but it is very old—about half a millennium older than Moscow. It was probably founded in the sixth or seventh century, north of any territory seen by Greeks or controlled by Romans. Islam was advancing, and Christianity was becoming European. The Western Roman Empire had fallen, leaving a form of Christianity subordinate to a pope. The Eastern (Byzantine) Empire remained, directing what we now call the Orthodox Church. As Rome and Constantinople competed for converts, peoples east of Kyiv converted to Islam. Kyivans spoke a Slavic language that had no writing system, and practiced a paganism without idols or temples.

Putin’s vision of “unity” relates to a baptism that took place in this setting. In the ninth century, a group of Vikings known as the Rus arrived in Kyiv. Seeking a southbound route for their slave trade, they found the Dnipro River, which runs through the city. Their chieftains then fought over a patchwork of territories in what is now Ukraine, Belarus, and the northeast of Russia—with Kyiv always as the prize. In the late tenth century, a Viking named Valdemar took the city, with the help of a Scandinavian army. He initially governed as a pagan. But, around 987, when the Byzantines faced an internal revolt, he sensed an opportunity. He came to the emperor’s aid, and received his sister’s hand in marriage. In the process, Valdemar converted to Christianity.

Putin claims that this messy sequence of events reveals the will of God to bind Russia and Ukraine forever. The will of God is easy to misunderstand; in any case, modern nations did not exist at the time, and the words “Russia” and “Ukraine” had no meaning. Valdemar was typical of the pagan Eastern European rulers of his day, considering multiple monotheistic options before choosing the one that made the most strategic sense. The word “Rus” no longer meant Viking slavers but a Christian polity. Its ruling family now intermarried with others, and the local people were treated as subjects to be taxed rather than as bodies to be sold.

Yet no rule defined who would take power after a Kyivan ruler’s death. Valdemar took a Byzantine princess as his wife, but he had a half a dozen others, not to mention a harem of hundreds of women. When he died in 1015, he had imprisoned one of his sons, Sviatopolk, and was making war upon another, Yaroslav. Sviatopolk was freed after his father’s death, and killed three of his brothers, but he was defeated on the battlefield by Yaroslav. Other sons entered the fray, and Yaroslav didn’t rule alone until 1036. The succession had taken twenty-one years. At least ten other sons of Valdemar had died in the meantime.

These events do not reveal a timeless empire, as Putin claims. But they do suggest the importance of a succession principle, a theme very important in Ukrainian-Russian relations today. The Ukrainian transliteration of “Valdemar” is “Volodymyr,” the name of Ukraine’s President. In Ukraine, power is transferred through democratic elections: when Volodymyr Zelensky won the 2019 Presidential election , the sitting President accepted defeat. The Russian transliteration of the same name is “Vladimir.” Russia is brittle: it has no succession principle , and it’s unclear what will happen when Vladimir Putin dies or is forced from power. The pressure of mortality confirms the imperial thinking. An aging tyrant, obsessed by his legacy, seizes upon a lofty illusion that seems to confer immortality: the “unity” of Russia and Ukraine.

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In the Icelandic sagas, Yaroslav is remembered as the Lame; in Eastern Europe, he is the Wise, the giver of laws. Yet he did not solve the problem of succession. Following his reign, the lands around Kyiv fragmented again and again. In 1240, the city fell to the Mongols; later, most of old Rus was claimed by the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, then the largest state in Europe. Lithuania borrowed from Kyiv a grammar of politics, as well as a good deal of law. For a couple of centuries, its grand dukes also ruled Poland. But, in 1569, after the Lithuanian dynasty died out, a Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth was formalized, and the territories of Ukraine were placed under Polish jurisdiction.

This was a crucial change. After 1569, Kyiv was no longer a source of law but an object of it—the archetypal colonial situation. It was colonization that set off Ukraine from the former territories of Rus, and its manner generated qualities still visible today: suspicion of the central state, organization in crisis, and the notion of freedom as self-expression, despite a powerful neighbor.

During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, all the forces of Europe’s globalization seemed to bear down on Ukraine. Polish colonization resembled and in some measure enabled the European colonization of the wider world. Polish nobles introduced land-management practices—along with land managers, most of whom were Jewish—that allowed the establishment of profitable plantations. Local Ukrainian warlords rushed to imitate the system, and adopted elements of Polish culture, including Western Christianity and the Polish language. In an age of discovery, enserfed peasants labored for a world market.

Ukraine’s colonization coincided with the Renaissance, and with a spectacular flowering of Polish culture. Like other Renaissance thinkers, Polish scholars in Ukraine resuscitated ancient knowledge, and sometimes overturned it. It was a Pole, Copernicus, who undid the legacy of Ptolemy’s “ Almagest ” and confirmed that the Earth orbits the sun. It was another Pole, Maciej of Miechów, who corrected Ptolemy’s “ Geography ,” clearing Ukrainian maps of gold and ambrosia. As in ancient times, however, the tilling of the black earth enabled tremendous wealth, raising the question of why those who labored and those who profited experienced such different fates.

The Renaissance considered questions of identity through language. Across Europe, there was a debate as to whether Latin, now revived, was sufficient for the culture, or whether vernacular spoken languages should be elevated for the task. In the early fourteenth century, Dante answered this question in favor of Italian; English, French, Spanish, and Polish writers created other literary languages by codifying local vernaculars. In Ukraine, literary Polish emerged victorious over the Ukrainian vernacular, becoming the language of the commercial and intellectual élite. In a way, this was typical: Polish was a modern language, like English or Italian. But it was not the local language in Ukraine. Ukraine’s answer to the language question was deeply colonial, whereas in the rest of Europe it could be seen as broadly democratic.

The Reformation brought a similar result: local élites converted to Protestantism and then to Roman Catholicism, alienating them further from an Orthodox population. The convergence of colonization, the Renaissance, and the Reformation was specific to Ukraine. By the sixteen-forties, the few large landholders generally spoke Polish and were Catholic, and those who worked for them spoke Ukrainian and were Orthodox. Globalization had generated differences and inequalities that pushed the people to rebellion.

Ukrainians on the battlefield today rely on no fantasy of the past to counter Putin’s. If there is a precursor that matters to them, it is the Cossacks, a group of free people who lived on the far reaches of the Ukrainian steppe, making their fortress on an island in the middle of the Dnipro. Having escaped the Polish system of landowners and peasants, they could choose to be “registered Cossacks,” paid for their service in the Polish Army. Still, they were not citizens, and more of them wished to be registered than the Polish-Lithuanian parliament would allow.

The rebellion began in 1648, when an influential Cossack, Bohdan Khmelnytsky, saw his lands seized and his son attacked by a Polish noble. Finding himself beyond the protection of the law, Khmelnytsky turned his fellow-Cossacks toward revolt against the Polish-speaking, Roman Catholic magnates who dominated Ukraine. The accumulated cultural, religious, and economic grievances of the people quickly transformed the revolt into something very much like an anti-colonial uprising, with violence directed not only against the private armies of the magnates but against Poles and Jews generally. The magnates carried out reprisals against peasants and Cossacks, impaling them on stakes. The Polish-Lithuanian cavalry fought what had been their own Cossack infantry. Each side knew the other very well.

In 1651, the Cossacks, realizing that they needed help, turned to an Eastern power, Muscovy, about which they knew little. When Kyivan Rus had collapsed, most of its lands had been absorbed by Lithuania, but some of its northeastern territories remained under the dominion of a Mongol successor state. There, in a new city called Moscow, leaders known as tsars had begun an extraordinary period of territorial expansion, extending their realm into northern Asia. In 1648, the year that the Cossack uprising began, a Muscovite explorer reached the Pacific Ocean.

The war in Ukraine allowed Muscovy to turn its attention to Europe. In 1654, the Cossacks signed an agreement with representatives of the tsar. The Muscovite armies invaded Poland-Lithuania from the east; soon after, Sweden invaded from the north, setting off the crisis that Polish history remembers as “the Deluge.” Peace was eventually made between Poland-Lithuania and Muscovy, in 1667, and Ukraine was divided more or less down the middle, along the Dnipro. After a thousand years of existence, Kyiv was politically connected to Moscow for the first time.

The Cossacks were something like an early national movement. The problem was that their struggle against one colonial power enabled another. In 1721, Muscovy was renamed the Russian Empire, in reference to old Rus. Poland-Lithuania never really recovered from the Deluge, and was partitioned out of existence between 1772 and 1795. Russia thereby claimed the rest of Ukraine—everything but a western district known as Galicia, which went to the Habsburgs. Around the same time, in 1775, the Cossacks lost their status. They did not gain the political rights they had wanted, nor did the peasants who supported them gain control of the black earth. Polish landowners remained in Ukraine, even as state power became Russian.

Whereas Putin’s story of Ukraine is about destiny, the Ukrainian recollection of the Cossacks is about unfulfilled aspirations. The country’s national anthem, written in 1862, speaks of a young people upon whom fate has yet to smile, but who will one day prove worthy of the “Cossack nation.”

The nineteenth century was the age of national revivals. When the Ukrainian movement began in imperial Russian Kharkov—today Kharkiv , and largely in ruins—the focus was on the Cossack legacy. The next move was to locate history in the people, as an account of continuous culture. At first, such efforts did not seem threatening to imperial rule. But, after the Russian defeat in the Crimean War, in 1856, and the insult of the Polish uprising of 1863 and 1864, Ukrainian culture was declared not to exist. It was often deemed an invention of Polish élites—an idea that Putin endorsed in his essay on “historical unity.” Leading Ukrainian thinkers emigrated to Galicia, where they could speak freely.

The First World War brought the principle of self-determination, which promised a release from imperial rule. In practice, it was often used to rescue old empires, or to build new ones. A Ukrainian National Republic was established in 1917, as the Russian Empire collapsed into revolution. In 1918, in return for a promise of foodstuffs, the country was recognized by Austria and Germany . Woodrow Wilson championed self-determination, but his victorious entente ignored Ukraine, recognizing Polish claims instead. Vladimir Lenin invoked the principle as well, though he meant only that the exploitation of national questions could advance class revolution. Ukraine soon found itself at the center of the Russian civil war, in which the Red Army, led by the Bolsheviks, and the White Army, fighting for the defunct empire, both denied Ukraine’s right to sovereignty. In this dreadful conflict, which followed four years of war, millions of people died, among them tens of thousands of Jews.

Though the Red Army ultimately prevailed, Bolshevik leaders knew that the Ukrainian question had to be addressed. Putin claims that the Bolsheviks created Ukraine, but the truth is close to the opposite. The Bolsheviks destroyed the Ukrainian National Republic. Aware that Ukrainian identity was real and widespread, they designed their new state to account for it. It was largely thanks to Ukraine that the Soviet Union took the form it did, as a federation of units with national names.

The failure of self-determination in Ukraine was hardly unique. Almost all of the new states created after the First World War were destroyed, within about two decades, by Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, or both. In the political imaginations of both regimes, Ukraine was the territory whose possession would allow them to break the postwar order, and to transform the world in their own image. As in the sixteenth century, it was as if all the forces of world history were concentrated on a single country.

Stalin spoke of an internal colonization, in which peasants would be exploited so that the Soviet economy could imitate—and then overtake—capitalism. His policy of collective agriculture, in which land was seized from farmers, was particularly unwelcome in Ukraine, where the revolution had finally got rid of the (still largely Polish) landholders. Yet the black earth of Ukraine was central to Stalin’s plans, and he moved to subdue it. In 1932 and 1933, he enforced a series of policies that led to around four million people dying of hunger or related disease. Soviet propaganda blamed the Ukrainians, claiming that they were killing themselves to discredit Soviet rule—a tactic echoed, today, by Putin. Europeans who tried to organize famine relief were dismissed as Nazis.

The actual Nazis saw Stalin’s famine as a sign that Ukrainian agriculture could be exploited for another imperial project: their own. Hitler wanted Soviet power overthrown, Soviet cities depopulated, and the whole western part of the country colonized. His vision of Ukrainians was intensely colonial : he imagined that he could deport and starve them by the millions, and exploit the labor of whoever remained. It was Hitler’s desire for Ukrainian land that brought millions of Jews under German control. In this sense, colonial logic about Ukraine was a necessary condition for the Holocaust .

Between 1933 and 1945, Soviet and Nazi colonialism made Ukraine the most dangerous place in the world . More civilians were killed in Ukraine, in acts of atrocity, than anywhere else. That reckoning doesn’t even include soldiers: more Ukrainians died fighting the Germans, in the Second World War, than French, American, and British troops combined.

The major conflict of the war in Europe was the German-Soviet struggle for Ukraine, which took place between 1941 and 1945. But, when the war began, in 1939, the Soviet Union and Germany were de-facto allies, and jointly invaded Poland. At the time, what is now western Ukraine was southeastern Poland. A small group of Ukrainian nationalists there joined the Germans, understanding that they would seek to destroy the U.S.S.R. When it became clear that the Germans would fail, the nationalists left their service, ethnically cleansed Poles in 1943 and 1944, and then resisted the Soviets. In Putin’s texts, they figure as timeless villains, responsible for Ukrainian difference generally. The irony, of course, is that they emerged thanks to Stalin’s much grander collaboration with Hitler. They were crushed by Soviet power, in a brutal counter-insurgency, and today Ukraine’s far right polls at one to two per cent. Meanwhile, the Poles, whose ancestors were the chief victims of Ukrainian nationalism, have admitted nearly three million Ukrainian refugees , reminding us that there are other ways to handle history than stories of eternal victimhood.

After the war, western Ukraine was added to Soviet Ukraine, and the republic was placed under suspicion precisely because it had been under German occupation. New restrictions on Ukrainian culture were justified by a manufactured allocation of guilt. This circular logic—we punish you, therefore you must be guilty—informs Kremlin propaganda today. Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, has argued that Russia had to invade Ukraine because Ukraine might have started a war. Putin, who has said the same, is clearly drawing on Stalin’s rhetoric. We are to understand that the Soviet victory in the Second World War left Russians forever pure and Ukrainians eternally guilty. At the funerals of Russian soldiers, grieving parents are told that their sons were fighting Nazis.

The history of the colonization of Ukraine, like the history of troubling and divisive subjects in general, can help us get free of myths. The past delivers to Putin several strands of colonial rhetoric, which he has combined and intensified. It also leaves us vulnerable to a language of exploitation: whenever we speak of “the Ukraine” instead of “Ukraine,” or pronounce the capital city in the Russian style , or act as if Americans can tell Ukrainians when and how to make peace, we are continuing imperial rhetoric by partaking in it.

Ukrainian national rhetoric is less coherent than Putin’s imperialism, and, therefore, more credible, and more human. Independence arrived in 1991, when the U.S.S.R was dissolved. Since then, the country’s politics have been marked by corruption and inequality, but also by a democratic spirit that has grown in tandem with national self-awareness. In 2004, an attempt to rig an election was defeated by a mass movement. In 2014, millions of Ukrainians protested a President who retreated from the E.U. The protesters were massacred, the President fled, and Russia invaded Ukraine for the first time. Again and again, Ukrainians have elected Presidents who seek reconciliation with Russia; again and again, this has failed. Zelensky is an extreme case: he ran on a platform of peace, only to be greeted with an invasion.

Ukraine is a post-colonial country, one that does not define itself against exploitation so much as accept, and sometimes even celebrate, the complications of emerging from it. Its people are bilingual, and its soldiers speak the language of the invader as well as their own. The war is fought in a decentralized way , dependent on the solidarity of local communities. These communities are diverse, but together they defend the notion of Ukraine as a political nation. There is something heartening in this. The model of the nation as a mini-empire, replicating inequalities on a smaller scale, and aiming for a homogeneity that is confused with identity, has worn itself out. If we are going to have democratic states in the twenty-first century, they will have to accept some of the complexity that is taken for granted in Ukraine.

The contrast between an aging empire and a new kind of nation is captured by Zelensky, whose simple presence makes Kremlin ideology seem senseless. Born in 1978, he is a child of the U.S.S.R., and speaks Russian with his family. A Jew, he reminds us that democracy can be multicultural. He does not so much answer Russian imperialism as exist alongside it, as though hailing from some wiser dimension. He does not need to mirror Putin; he just needs to show up. Every day, he affirms his nation by what he says and what he does.

Ukrainians assert their nation’s existence through simple acts of solidarity. They are not resisting Russia because of some absence or some difference, because they are not Russians or opposed to Russians. What is to be resisted is elemental: the threat of national extinction represented by Russian colonialism, a war of destruction expressly designed to resolve “the Ukrainian question.” Ukrainians know that there is not a question to be answered, only a life to be lived and, if need be, to be risked. They resist because they know who they are. In one of his very first videos after the invasion, when Russian propaganda claimed that he had fled Kyiv, Zelensky pointed the camera at himself and said, “The President is here.” That is it. Ukraine is here.

More on the War in Ukraine

How Ukrainians saved their capital .

A historian envisions a settlement among Russia, Ukraine, and the West .

How Russia’s latest commander in Ukraine could change the war .

The profound defiance of daily life in Kyiv .

The Ukraine crackup in the G.O.P.

A filmmaker’s journey to the heart of the war .

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  • The dangerous new phase of Russia’s war in Ukraine, explained

Vladimir Putin’s war is still raging, signaling a frightening escalation on the ground.

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Russia’s war in Ukraine has stretched on for more than three weeks, a relentless bombardment of the country’s cities and towns that has led to more than 800 civilian deaths , destroyed civilian infrastructure , and forced more than 3.3 million people to flee Ukraine, creating a new humanitarian crisis in Europe.

The devastation is far from over.

Get in-depth coverage about Russia’s war on Ukraine.

Why Ukraine? 

Learn the history behind the conflict and what Russian President Vladimir Putin has said about his war aims .

The stakes of Putin’s war

Russia’s invasion has the potential to set up a clash of nuclear world powers . It’s destabilizing the region and terrorizing Ukrainian citizens . It could also impact inflation , gas prices , and the global economy. 

How other countries are responding

The US and its European allies have responded to Putin’s aggression with unprecedented sanctions , but have no plans to send troops to Ukraine , for good reason . 

How to help

Where to donate if you want to assist refugees and people in Ukraine.

The scale of the Russian invasion — the shelling of major cities like Kyiv, the capital, and Kharkiv, in the east — hinted at Russian President Vladimir Putin’s larger aims: Seizing control of Ukraine, with the goal of regime change. Though its military is far bigger than Ukraine’s, Russia’s apparently confounding strategic decisions and logistical setbacks , combined with the ferocity of Ukraine’s resistance , have stymied its advance.

That has not stopped a catastrophe from unfolding within Ukraine, even as it has prompted Western allies to effectively wage economic warfare against Moscow with unprecedented sanctions .

It will only get worse as this war grinds on, experts said. “Despite the surprisingly poor military performance of the Russian military to date, we’re still in the early opening phase of this conflict,” said Sara Bjerg Moller, an assistant professor of international security at Seton Hall University.

This toll is expected to climb, especially as the Russian offensive intensifies around Ukrainian cities, where shelling and strikes have hit civilian targets , and as efforts at high-level Ukraine-Russia negotiations have so far failed . All of this is happening as Russian forces appear to be preparing to lay siege to Kyiv .

essay about russian and ukraine war

“This war is about the battle of Kyiv,” said John Spencer, a retired Army officer and chair of urban warfare studies at the Madison Policy Forum.

Taking Kyiv would mean taking control of Ukraine — or at least deposing the government of Volodymyr Zelenskyy, the Ukrainian president whose defiance has galvanized the Ukrainian resistance. Most experts believe Russia will prevail, especially if it can cut off Kyiv, and the Ukrainian resistance, from supplies.

Just because Russia may ultimately succeed militarily does not mean it will win this war. A Ukrainian insurgency could take root. The political, domestic, and international costs to Russia could challenge Putin’s regime. The West’s sanctions are throttling Russia’s economy, and they could do lasting damage. Russia’s war has strengthened the Western alliance in the immediate term, but that political will could be tested as energy prices spike and as the war and refugee crisis wear on.

“War is never isolated,” Zelenskyy said in a video address Thursday. “It always beats both the victim and the aggressor. The aggressor just realizes it later. But it always realizes and always suffers.”

essay about russian and ukraine war

The war in Ukraine is likely going to become more violent

Russia’s strategic setbacks have undermined its mission to take Ukraine, but it has only exacerbated the brutal and indiscriminate war, not even a month old.

The longer and harder the Ukrainian resistance fights, the more likely Russia may deploy more aggressive tactics to try to achieve their aims. “This is what we would call a war of attrition. They are trying to grind down the Ukrainian people’s morale, and unfortunately, that includes the bodies of Ukrainians,” Moller said.

Urban warfare is particularly calamitous, as civilians who have not evacuated are often caught in the middle of battles that happen block-by-block. Russia’s military tactics in cities — witnessed in places like Syria and Grozny in Chechnya in 1999 — have shown little regard for civilian protection. Spencer, the urban warfare specialist, said even Putin is limited, to a degree, by the rules of war, and so he is likely to claim that civilian infrastructure — like hospitals — are also military targets.

NEW campaign update from @TheStudyofWar and @criticalthreats : #Russian operations to continue the encirclement of and assault on #Kyiv have likely begun, although on a smaller scale and in a more ad hoc manner than we expected. https://t.co/tt5uYJacyg pic.twitter.com/ZoQRaOwNHF — ISW (@TheStudyofWar) March 9, 2022

But urban warfare is, by nature, murky and complex and often far more deadly. Even if Russia attempts precision attacks, it can have a cascading effect — Russia bombs alleged military targets, those operations move, Russia bombs again. “You’re going to use so many of them, the end result is the same as if you just used indiscriminate, mass artillery barrage,” said Lance Davies, a senior lecturer in defense and international affairs at the UK’s Royal Military Academy.

Even in the early days of this war, Russia’s efforts are already having this effect. “They’re causing tremendous damage to civilian infrastructure,” said Rachel Denber, the deputy director of the Europe and Central Asia division at Human Rights Watch. “They’re taking many, many civilian lives.” Denber pointed to the use of weapons in heavily populated areas, including those that are explicitly banned, like cluster munitions. Human Rights Watch documented their use in three residential areas in Kharkiv on February 28. “You put that in a city like Kharkiv, and if it’s a populated area, no matter what you were aiming at, no matter what the target, it’s going to hurt civilians,” she said.

essay about russian and ukraine war

The United Nations has confirmed at least 2,149 civilian casualties, including 816 killed as of March 17, though these numbers are likely undercounts, as intense fighting in some areas has made it difficult to verify statistics.

All of this is exacerbating the humanitarian catastrophe on the ground in Ukraine, as shelling cuts off power stations and other supply lines, effectively trapping people within war zones in subzero temperatures without electricity or water, and with dwindling food, fuel, and medical supplies. In Mariupol, a city of 400,000 that has been under Russian siege for days, people were reportedly melting snow for drinking water . Humanitarian groups say the fighting is making it difficult to deliver aid or to reach those civilians left behind — often elderly or disabled people, or other vulnerable populations that didn’t have the ability to flee.

essay about russian and ukraine war

Ukrainian and Russian officials agreed to a temporary ceasefire to establish humanitarian corridors out of six cities on March 9, but the enforcement of those safe passages has been spotty, at best. According to the United Nations, on March 9, evacuations did happen in some places, but there was “limited movement” in the vulnerable areas, like Mariupol and the outskirts of Kyiv. Ukrainian officials have accused Russia of shelling some of those routes , and have rejected Russia’s calls for refugees to be evacuated to Russia or Belarus. Russian officials have blamed disruption on Ukrainian forces .

The fighting across Ukraine has forced about 9.8 million people to flee so far, according to the United Nations . Nearly 6.5 million people are internally displaced within Ukraine, although tens of thousands of Ukrainians were already forcibly displaced before Russia’s invasion because of the eight-year war in the Donbas region. Many have taken refugee in oblasts (basically, administrative regions) in western and northwestern Ukraine.

Another 3.3 million Ukrainians have escaped, mostly to neighboring countries like Poland, Romania, and Moldova. It is Europe’s largest refugee crisis since World War II, and host countries and aid agencies are trying to meet the astounding needs of these refugees, most of whom are women and children.

essay about russian and ukraine war

“They need warmth, they need shelter, they need transportation to accommodations,” said Becky Bakr Abdulla, an adviser to the Norwegian Refugee Council who is currently based in Poland. “They need food, they need water. Many need legal aid — their passports have been stolen, they’ve forgotten their birth certificates.”

How the war in Ukraine began, and what’s happened so far

For months, Russia built up troops along the Ukrainian border , reaching around 190,000 on the eve of the invasion. At the same time, Russia issued a series of maximalist demands to the United States and NATO allies, including an end to NATO’s eastward expansion and a ban on Ukraine entering NATO, among other “security guarantees.” All were nonstarters for the West.

But the short answer to why Russia decided to follow through with an invasion: Vladimir Putin.

From Putin’s perspective, many historians of Europe have said, the enlargement of NATO , which has moved steadily closer to Russia’s borders, was certainly a factor. But Putin’s speech on the eve of his invasion offers another clue: the Russian president basically denied Ukrainian statehood , and said the country rightfully belongs to Russia.

essay about russian and ukraine war

But Russia’s history of incursions, invasions, and occupations under Putin — including Chechnya, Georgia, and Crimea — have foreshadowed a new, even more brutal war. Seen through this lens, he is not a madman, but a leader who came to power with the lethal siege of Grozny in Chechnya in 1999, who has pursued increasingly violent policy, and who has been willing to inflict civilian casualties to achieve his foreign policy goals.

In 2014 , Russia launched an invasion of Ukraine that culminated in the occupation of the Crimea peninsula in the south. Later that year, Russia deployed hybrid tactics, such as proxy militias and soldiers without insignia, to attack the Donbas region, where 14,000 people have died since 2014. On February 22, in the days before Putin launched a full-fledged war on Ukraine, he sent Russian troops into Donbas and declared two provinces there independent.

This time, according to former State Department Russia specialist Michael Kimmage, Putin miscalculated the difficulty of taking over Ukraine. Still, as the days go on, this war could escalate to unimaginable levels of violence. “If Putin really is feeling very threatened, it’s possible that he will dig in his heels, double down and take a lot of risks in order to prevent any potential loss of power,” said Andrea Kendall-Taylor, a former intelligence officer who’s now a senior fellow and director of the Transatlantic Security Program at the Center for a New American Security.

Russia is committing possible war crimes in Ukraine, and Ukrainians are responding with their full military force. They have also developed a strong civil resistance enabled by volunteers of all stripes. “All the nation is involved, not only the army,” said a Ukrainian person who has been supplying medicines.

According to a conservative estimate by US intelligence , around 7,000 Russian personnel have died so far — more troops than the US lost over two decades of fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq.

essay about russian and ukraine war

But Russia’s initial setback could lead to increasingly brutal tactics. “We’re looking at World War II kinds of atrocities. Bombing of civilians, rocket fire and artillery, smashing cities, a million refugees; that what looked impossible before now looks within the realm,” said Daniel Fried, a former ambassador to Poland and current fellow at the Atlantic Council.

How the West has responded so far

In the aftermath of Russia’s Ukrainian invasion, the United States and its allies imposed unprecedented sanctions and other penalties on Russia, acting with a swiftness and cohesion that surprised some observers, including, most likely, Putin himself .

“The US and the Western reaction to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is essentially blowing the lid off of sanctions,” said Julia Friedlander, director of the Economic Statecraft Initiative at the Atlantic Council. “Never in the past have we accelerated to such strong sanctions and economic restrictions in such a quick period of time — and also considered doing it on one of the largest economies in the world.”

There’s a lot of sanctions, and the US and its partners have only increased the pressure since. President Joe Biden announced on March 8 that the US would place extreme limits on energy imports from Russia — the kind of last-resort option that few experts thought might happen because of the shock to energy prices and the global economy. (Europe, far more dependent on Russian energy imports, has not joined these sanctions.) On March 11, Biden pushed Congress to strip Russia of its “most favored nation” status, which would put tariffs on Russian goods, though it’s likely to have limited impact compared to the slew of sanctions that already exist.

Ukraine’s resistance in the face of Russian aggression helped push Western leaders to take more robust action, as this fight became framed in Washington and in European capitals as a fight between autocracy and democracy. A lot of credit goes to Zelenskyy himself, whose impassioned pleas to Western leaders motivated them to deliver more lethal aid to Ukraine and implement tougher sanctions.

essay about russian and ukraine war

Among the toughest sanctions are those against Russia’s central bank. The US and European Union did this in an effort to block Russia from using its considerable foreign reserves to prop up its currency, the ruble, and to undermine its ability to pay for its Ukraine war. Russia had tried to sanction-proof its economy after 2014, shifting away from US dollars, but the EU’s decision to join in undermined Russia’s so-called “ fortress economy .”

The US and the EU also cut several Russian banks off from SWIFT, the global messaging system that facilitates foreign transactions. As Ben Walsh wrote for Vox , more than 11,000 different banks use SWIFT for cross-border transactions, and it was used in about 70 percent of transfers in Russia . Even here, though, certain banks were excluded from these measures to allow energy transactions, and EU countries, like Germany, are so far blocking efforts to expand these penalties .

The US has targeted numerous Russian banks, including two of Russia’s biggest, Sberbank and VTB . The US, along with other partners, have put bans on technology and other exports to Russia, and they’ve placed financial sanctions on oligarchs and other Russian officials, including Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Putin himself . Russian oligarchs have had their yachts seized in European vacation towns because of these sanctions, and the US has launched — and, yes, this is real — Task Force Kleptocapture to help enforce sanctions, although oligarchs’ actual influence on Putin’s war is limited .

These penalties are widespread — besides Europe, partners like South Korea and Japan have joined in. Even neutral countries like Switzerland have imposed sanctions ( though there are loopholes .) Big Tech companies, cultural institutions , and international corporations , from Mastercard to McDonald’s , are pulling out of the country.

Experts said there are still some economic penalties left in the toolbox, but what’s already in place is massively damaging to the Russian economy. Russia’s economy is expected to dramatically shrink; its stock market remains closed . And even if these sanctions are targeted toward Russia’s ability to make war, the damage done to the Russian economic system will inevitably trickle down to ordinary Russians.

essay about russian and ukraine war

The fallout will not be limited to Russia. Biden’s announcement of an oil embargo against Russia has increased energy prices ; what Biden, at least, is calling “Putin’s price hike.” And Russia may still engage in some sort of countermeasures, including cyberattacks or other meddling activity in the West.

How we get out of this

The US is doing almost everything it can without officially being a party to the conflict. The US has funneled 17,000 anti-tank missiles so far, including Javelins missiles , to Ukraine. On March 16, the US announced $800 million in additional military aid , including thousands of anti-armor weapons and small arms, 800 Stinger anti-aircraft missiles, and millions of rounds of ammunition.

Biden rejected the US enforcement of a no-fly zone in Ukraine , a military policy that polls surprisingly well among Americans but essentially means attacking any Russian aircraft that enters Ukrainian airspace. Seventy-eight national security scholars came out against a no-fly zone, saying that scenario would edge the US too close to a direct conflict with Russia.

So far, negotiations between Russia and Ukraine have faltered . Dmitry Peskov, the Kremlin spokesperson, has said that the fighting could stop if Ukrainians agreed to neutrality (and no NATO membership), and agreed to recognize Crimea as Russian and the Donbas region as independent. “Is this a serious offer?” said Fried, the former ambassador who had experience working with Peskov. “It could be posturing. The Russians are liars.”

Zelenskyy has signaled some openness to neutrality , but Ukraine is going to want some serious security guarantees that it’s not clear Russia is willing to give.

The US’s absolutist rhetoric has complicated those efforts. Biden, in his State of the Union address , framed this conflict as a battle between democracy and tyranny. Even if a strong argument can be made in favor of that, given Putin’s actions, such language poses challenges for Western diplomats who must forge an off-ramp for Putin to end this war.

essay about russian and ukraine war

“If it’s good against evil, how do you compromise with evil?” said Thomas Graham, a Russia expert at the Council on Foreign Relations. “Putin does need a face-saving way to back down from some of his demands. But if we have a compromise solution to this conflict, we’re going to need off-ramps as well, to explain why we accept that less than a total defeat for Putin.”

In a Politico essay , Graham and scholar Rajan Menon proposed a framework for a negotiated outcome that begins with confidence-building measures between the US and Russia, rebuilding arms control treaties. The US and NATO would pledge that neither Ukraine nor Georgia will join NATO in the next several years or decades, though the possibility may be open someday. This would culminate in a “new security order for Russia,” they write . Russian academic Alexander Dynkin circulated a similar idea in the lead-up to the war.

Gavin Wilde, a former director for the National Security Council who focused on Russia during the Trump administration, says the opportunities for a diplomatic resolution have not yet been exhausted. “The conundrum we found ourselves in quite a lot with Russia is, you have to talk to them. Because lives are at stake. These are two nuclear powers, and you have to keep talking,” he said.

essay about russian and ukraine war

What a Russian victory would mean for the world

The world has been galvanized by Ukraine’s small victories in this conflict.

Still, Ukraine faces long odds. By the numbers , the Russian military budget is about ten times that of Ukraine. The Russian military has 900,000 active troops, and the Ukrainian military has 196,000. Ukrainians may have the tactical advantage and the spirit to persevere, but structural factors weigh in Russia’s favor.

This all presages what could be a long, drawn-out war, all documented on iPhones. “It’s not going to be pretty,” says Samuel Charap, who studies the Russian military at RAND. A siege of major Ukrainian cities means “cutting off supply lines to a city and making it intolerable for people to resist — to engender surrender by inflicting pain.”

Still, Russia’s performance so far has been so poor that the scales may ultimately tip toward Ukraine. Mark Hertling, who was the top commander of the US Army’s European forces before retiring in 2013, says that the corruption within the Russian military has slowed down the advance.

essay about russian and ukraine war

“Unless it’s just a continuous shelling — but I don’t think Russia can even sustain that with their logistics support. They have already blown their wad quite a bit in terms of missiles and rockets,” Hertling said. “They’re having trouble moving, they’re having trouble resupplying. And when you have those two things combined, you’re going to have some big problems.”

However this plays out, the cruel effects of this war won’t just be felt in Ukraine. It’s truly a global crisis . The comprehensive sanctions on Russia will have massive implications for the Russian economy, hurting citizens and residents who have nothing to do with their autocratic leader. There will also be vast knock-on effects on the world economy, with particularly frightening implications for food security in the poorest countries. Those effects may be most visceral for stomachs in the Middle East; Egypt and Yemen depend on Russian and Ukrainian wheat.

The unprecedented sanctions may have unprecedented impact. “We don’t know what the full consequences of this will be, because we’ve never raised this type of economic warfare,” Graham said. “It’s hard to overestimate the shock that the Russian military operation has caused around the world and the fears that it has stoked about wider warfare in Europe.”

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Ukraine war ‘stark reminder’ of the trials facing multilateralism

Foreign Minster Ian Borg of Malta, Chairperson-in-Office of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, briefs members of the UN Security Council.

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The Russian invasion of Ukraine is “a stark reminder” of the challenges to multilateralism and remains the top priority of UN partner the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the Security Council heard on Friday.  

OSCE Chairperson-in-Office Ian Borg briefed ambassadors during their annual meeting on cooperation between the UN and the regional body, which is comprised of 57 States spanning Europe, Central Asia and North America, representing one billion people.  

The Maltese Foreign Minister said OSCE countries and their societies “are confronted with an era of profound uncertainty ”, given the challenging security situation in the region following more than two years of conflict in Ukraine.

Multilateralism under fire 

“Russia's war of aggression against Ukraine not only reverberates through the dark corridors of history, but also serves as a stark reminder of the trials our multilateral system currently faces,” he said. 

Mr. Borg told the Council that the international rules-based order designed to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war is being rigorously tested in the current unprecedented times. 

Multilateral frameworks established not only to prevent the outbreak of conflict but also to nurture lasting peace are now being eroded as they strive to meet the complex demands of today’s world.  

He said these “testing times” should galvanize the international community “to move beyond support for the cause of multilateralism and commit ourselves to effective, tangible and sustainable engagement .” 

Meanwhile, the OSCE must remain anchored in the principles and commitments members agreed to 50 years ago, aimed at restoring peace and security across the region. 

End the war in Ukraine 

“Using the organization as a platform for accountability for acts in breach of these principles, this is why we must, and we will, keep Russia's illegal war of aggression against Ukraine at the top of the agenda ,” he said. 

Mr. Borg visited Ukraine and saw firsthand the devastation caused by the war, which has left thousands dead and forced millions to flee their homes. While in the capital, Kyiv, he also reaffirmed the OSCE’s unwavering support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, in accordance with international law.  

“The ongoing attacks must stop. This war must come to an end,” he said, while reaffirming commitment towards securing the release of three OSCE officials who have been detained in eastern Ukraine since April 2022.  

Preventing escalation, strengthening democracy  

During his tenure, Mr. Borg will also prioritize other conflicts in Nagorno-Kharabakh, Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Transnistria. 

“We aim to engage with all sides to improve the prospects for comprehensive resolution of conflicts by preventing escalation and restoring stability.”  

He also reported on recent visits to Serbia, Kosovo, and Moldova, where he underscored the OSCE’s readiness to support peace and strengthen democracy and the rule of law.  

Women, peace and security 

“We will continue leveraging our diplomatic initiatives here at the Security Council concerning the women, peace and security agenda,” he added. “Women's agency, perspectives and capabilities are crucial for fostering meaningful dialogue, shaping more effective policies, and enhancing security.” 

Other areas of focus include strengthening the OSCE’s work on challenges in the cybersphere, addressing transnational threats, narrowing the digital divide, promoting greater collaboration on climate action, and ensuring the safety of journalists, both on and offline, with particular emphasis on the safety of women journalists. 

As Foreign Minister of Malta, which holds the presidency of the Security Council this month, Mr. Borg said he had accepted the OSCE chair because “any multilateral organization depends on the work and commitment of all its members, regardless of their size.” 

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Ukraine Dispatch

In Western Ukraine, a Community Wrestles With Patriotism or Survival

As the war drags on, communities that were steadfast in their commitment to the war effort have been shaken by the unending violence on the front line.

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A white-haired woman, dressed all in black, lights a candle inside a church.

By Natalia Yermak

Photographs by Brendan Hoffman

Natalia Yermak visited the area of Khodoriv in western Ukraine in 2022, and again in March this year, to report this article.

It was sunset when Maj. Kyrylo Vyshyvany of the Ukrainian army stepped into the yard of his childhood home in Duliby, a village in western Ukraine, just after his younger brother, also a soldier, had been buried. Their mother was still crying in the living room.

“I can already see that she’ll be coming to visit him every day,” he said that day.

He was right, but he would not be by her side. A few days after the funeral, in March 2022, he was killed in a Russian missile strike on a Ukrainian military base and buried next to his brother, Vasyl.

The Vyshyvany brothers were the first deaths from Duliby and the surrounding community after Russia began its full-scale invasion on Feb. 24, 2022. Since then, 44 more Ukrainian soldiers from the area have been killed — more than four times the local death toll from the previous eight years of fighting Russian-backed separatists in the east .

For Duliby and its surrounding enclave of Khodoriv — total population around 24,000 people — waiting for the next solemn death notification and the funeral that follows has become a bitter routine. But even as the town meets and buries the fallen with modest ceremony, some neighbors are quietly weighing the price they are willing to pay for a war with no end in sight.

Divisions have started to form between residents agnostic about the war — often those whose family members have dodged the draft or fled the country — and those who have loved ones on the front line or who fully support the war effort.

In the earliest days of the war, before the news of the first combat deaths arrived, people in communities across Ukraine flocked to draft offices. Among them was Khodoriv, whose families have a long history of fighting for Ukraine’s independence and being executed or sent into exile during violent Soviet repressions of its nationalist movement in the last century.

In Duliby, the Russian invasion hit home early with the deaths of the Vyshyvany brothers. Suddenly, residents were burying soldiers whom most had known as lifelong neighbors.

“No one knew then how to do everything correctly,” said Natalia Bodnar, 41, the older sister of the Vyshyvany brothers. She arranged both her brothers’ funerals, she said, and even wrote the speeches for the priest.

As the war has ground on, the Khodoriv government has taken over the logistics of organizing funerals, and, inevitably, somber repetition has helped smooth the process. Public services have been moved to a central square, each time gathering crowds of people.

“Now everyone knows what kind of coffins, standards and what the procedure is,” Ms. Bodnar said from her apartment in Khodoriv last month.

Last fall, the deaths of locals mounted, and residents sought a visible commemoration of loss to go beyond the daily church services that drew dozens of faithful. So new memorial plaques of rock and bronze were hung on the outer walls of schools the killed soldiers had attended.

At those schools, people also honored the fallen with memorials of flowers and candles. But some parents complained that the offerings were too grim to look at and should be removed, said Olha Melnyk, 46, the head of the social services department in the Khodoriv administration. They were opposed to having their children reminded of the war happening hundreds of miles to the east.

Still, the makeshift altars have stayed put, and when the school the Vyshyvany brothers attended was renamed after them last fall, no one objected.

By 2023, the lines at draft offices across the country slowly disappeared as most volunteers had already gone to the front. New recruits were mostly summoned by draft notices given out in waves, based on the army’s needs, to men aged 27 to 60.

But gradually, the military has increased efforts to recruit soldiers, with some draft offices forcibly taking people from the streets to speed up the process. In the past six months, that tactic — widely known as forced mobilization — has frequently made headlines in Ukraine, symptomatic of the chronic troop shortage, which culminated this month in the government’s decision to lower the draft age in Ukraine to 25.

About 600 people from the Khodoriv community were serving in the army as of March, local authorities said, including over a dozen men from Duliby itself, some of whom were drafted from the streets. Men have since begun to avoid staying out during daylight, residents said.

“Everyone is afraid. No one wants to die,” said Bohdan, a school employee who declined to provide his surname for the fear of repercussions from the Ukrainian authorities.

Petro Panat, the leader of the territorial defense unit, an ad hoc military unit formed in the early days of the war to protect local communities, said 10 out of 30 men from the unit had since obtained documents to legally exempt them from fighting. The exemptions are granted for reasons like health problems or relatives in need of care.

Anna Kukharaska, 66, who runs a volunteer group that collects donations to aid soldiers at the front, said, “There are lots of indifferent people.”

In the Khodoriv area, relatives of soldiers who are fighting or who have died at the front said that in the last two years they have begun to resent men in the community who are said to have bought their way out of service while their own sons and fathers are fighting — a feeling that may be shared by many across the country as the Ukrainian government wrestles with how to mobilize up to 500,000 more troops .

“Sometimes people want to devalue the sacrifice of such families to justify themselves buying their sons out,” said Marta Hladii, 51, a therapist from nearby Stryi who works with the military and their families for free. Of the five mothers spoken to by Ms. Hladii who had lost their only sons to the war, she said two were criticized by neighbors for not bribing their way out of the military to protect them.

There is no legal way to pay for an exemption from military service in Ukraine, but there have been widespread reports of corruption in draft offices, with bribes ranging from $1,000 early in the war — “a buyout from death” — to as much as the $10,000 per head price that was revealed in a Kyiv draft center. Some of the most prominent draft-related scandals caused the government to fire top military enlistment officers last August .

One of the most recent soldiers to be buried in Khodoriv showed up to the fight willingly.

As a child growing up in Khodoriv, a 9-year-old Nazar Yankevych attended the funeral of a local activist, Roman Tochyn, who was shot in the head during Ukraine’s Maidan revolution, the protests in 2014 that renounced pervasive Russian influence on Ukraine.

“After that funeral, he told our mom, ‘When I grow up, I’ll go to war,’” said his sister Maria Yankevych.

Her brother had been accepted to a technology training program just before Russia invaded but instead went to a military training camp, she said, and joined an elite assault unit.

Mr. Yankevych was 19 when he died in combat in February outside the eastern Ukrainian city of Avdiivka. The shrapnel piece that killed him left a mark on his temple, the same place as the bullet that hit his hero 10 years earlier.

“A lot of young guys from all over Ukraine wrote to me,” his sister said, after she posted about him on Instagram. They wrote: “‘Your brother is a hero to me, I want to be like him.’”

Our Coverage of the War in Ukraine

News and Analysis

Chasiv Yar, a small Ukrainian town, has been under relentless attack by Russian forces. Controlling the town  would put them in striking distance of key Ukrainian operational and supply centers.

The United States secretly shipped a new long-range missile system  to Ukraine, and Ukrainian forces immediately used the weapons to attack a Russian military airfield in Crimea and Russian troops in the country’s southeast.

For residents of Ukraine’s second-largest city, daily Russian attacks have escalated fears  but have not brought life to a standstill. Here’s how a battered city  carries on.

Images From Year Three of the War: For all that time, photographers with The New York Times and other news organizations have chronicled the war , capturing a slice of how soldiers and civilians have experienced it. Some images will never leave them.

Nato’s Show of Force: About 90,000 NATO troops have been training in Europe for the Great Power war that most hope will never come : a clash between Russia and the West with potentially catastrophic consequences.

Resuming U.S. Military Aid: Weapons from the support package, considered “a lifeline” for Ukraine’s military , could be arriving on the battlefield within days . But experts say it could take weeks before there is a direct impact on the war . What would $60 billion buy ?

How We Verify Our Reporting

Our team of visual journalists analyzes satellite images, photographs , videos and radio transmissions  to independently confirm troop movements and other details.

We monitor and authenticate reports on social media, corroborating these with eyewitness accounts and interviews. Read more about our reporting efforts .

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Ukraine invasion — explained

The roots of Russia's invasion of Ukraine go back decades and run deep. The current conflict is more than one country fighting to take over another; it is — in the words of one U.S. official — a shift in "the world order." Here are some helpful stories to make sense of it all.

Ukraine pulls U.S.-provided Abrams tanks from the front lines over drone threats

The Associated Press

essay about russian and ukraine war

Secretary of the Army Christine Wormuth looks over the latest version of the M1A2 Abrams main battle tank as she tours the Joint Systems Manufacturing Center on Feb. 16, 2023, in Lima, Ohio. Carlos Osorio/AP hide caption

Secretary of the Army Christine Wormuth looks over the latest version of the M1A2 Abrams main battle tank as she tours the Joint Systems Manufacturing Center on Feb. 16, 2023, in Lima, Ohio.

WASHINGTON — Ukraine has sidelined U.S.-provided Abrams M1A1 battle tanks for now in its fight against Russia , in part because Russian drone warfare has made it too difficult for them to operate without detection or coming under attack, two U.S. military officials told The Associated Press.

The U.S. agreed to send 31 Abrams to Ukraine in January 2023 after an aggressive monthslong campaign by Kyiv arguing that the tanks, which cost about $10 million apiece, were vital to its ability to breach Russian lines.

But the battlefield has changed substantially since then, notably by the ubiquitous use of Russian surveillance drones and hunter-killer drones. Those weapons have made it more difficult for Ukraine to protect the tanks when they are quickly detected and hunted by Russian drones or rounds.

Five of the 31 tanks have already been lost to Russian attacks.

Biden signs $95 billion military aid package for Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan

Biden signs $95 billion military aid package for Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan

The proliferation of drones on the Ukrainian battlefield means "there isn't open ground that you can just drive across without fear of detection," a senior defense official told reporters Thursday.

The official spoke on the condition of anonymity to provide an update on U.S. weapons support for Ukraine before Friday's Ukraine Defense Contact Group meeting.

U.S. will work with Ukraine to reset tactics

For now, the tanks have been moved from the front lines, and the U.S. will work with the Ukrainians to reset tactics, said Joint Chiefs of Staff Vice Chairman Adm. Christopher Grady and a third defense official who confirmed the move on the condition of anonymity.

"When you think about the way the fight has evolved, massed armor in an environment where unmanned aerial systems are ubiquitous can be at risk," Grady told the AP in an interview this week, adding that tanks are still important.

"Now, there is a way to do it," he said. "We'll work with our Ukrainian partners, and other partners on the ground, to help them think through how they might use that, in that kind of changed environment now, where everything is seen immediately."

In Ukraine, the vote to renew U.S. aid was cheered. But unease for the future remains

In Ukraine, the vote to renew U.S. aid was cheered. But unease for the future remains

News of the sidelined tanks comes as the U.S. marks the two-year anniversary of the Ukraine Defense Contact Group, a coalition of about 50 countries that meets monthly to assess Ukraine's battlefield needs and identify where to find needed ammunition, weapons or maintenance to keep Ukraine's troops equipped.

Recent aid packages, including the $1 billion military assistance package signed by President Joe Biden on Wednesday, also reflect a wider reset for Ukrainian forces in the evolving fight.

The U.S. is expected to announce Friday that it also will provide about $6 billion in long-term military aid to Ukraine, U.S. officials said, adding that it will include much sought after munitions for Patriot air defense systems. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss details not yet made public.

New U.S. funding for counter-drone capabilities

The $1 billion package emphasized counter-drone capabilities, including .50-caliber rounds specifically modified to counter drone systems; additional air defenses and ammunition; and a host of alternative, and cheaper, vehicles, including Humvees, Bradley Infantry Fighting Vehicles and Mine Resistant Ambush Protected Vehicles.

A mayor in Ukraine aids his town's few remaining people, as Russia closes in

2 years of Russia-Ukraine war

A mayor in ukraine aids his town's few remaining people, as russia closes in.

The U.S. also confirmed for the first time that it is providing long-range ballistic missiles known as ATACMs, which allow Ukraine to strike deep into Russian-occupied areas without having to advance and be further exposed to either drone detection or fortified Russian defenses.

While drones are a significant threat, the Ukrainians also have not adopted tactics that could have made the tanks more effective, one of the U.S. defense officials said.

After announcing it would provide Ukraine the Abrams tanks in January 2023, the U.S. began training Ukrainians at Grafenwoehr Army base in Germany that spring on how to maintain and operate them. They also taught the Ukrainians how to use them in combined arms warfare — where the tanks operate as part of a system of advancing armored forces, coordinating movements with overhead offensive fires, infantry troops and air assets.

As the spring progressed and Ukraine's highly anticipated counteroffensive stalled, shifting from tank training in Germany to getting Abrams on the battlefield was seen as an imperative to breach fortified Russian lines. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy announced on his Telegram channel in September that the Abrams had arrived in Ukraine.

Since then, however, Ukraine has only employed them in a limited fashion and has not made combined arms warfare part of its operations, the defense official said.

During its recent withdrawal from Avdiivka, a city in eastern Ukraine that was the focus of intense fighting for months, several tanks were lost to Russian attacks, the official said.

A long delay by Congress in passing new funding for Ukraine meant its forces had to ration ammunition, and in some cases they were only able to shoot back once for every five or more times they were targeted by Russian forces.

In Avdiivka, Ukrainian forces were badly outgunned and fighting back against Russian glide bombs and hunter-killer drones with whatever ammunition they had left.

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Medical workers load children and equipment into an ambulance during the evacuation of a children’s hospital in Kyiv on Friday

Ukraine war briefing: Hospitals in Kyiv evacuated over fears of Russian strikes

Evacuations come after comments by head of Belarus KGB, who said buildings hosted military personnel. What we know on day 794

  • See all our Russia-Ukraine war coverage

Officials in Ukraine’s capital announced the evacuation of two hospitals – including a children’s hospital – that they fear could be targeted by Russian strikes . Kyiv’s city administration said on Friday that “a video is being widely circulated online, de facto announcing an enemy attack on these medical facilities”. It referred to comments made by the head of the KGB in Moscow-allied Belarus, who said on national TV that the buildings hosted military personnel “hiding behind sick children”, suggesting Russia could regard the facilities a legitimate military target. The city of Kyiv called the claim “an absolute lie”.

Ukraine’s agriculture minister has been detained after being named as a formal suspect in a multimillion-dollar corruption inquiry . Mykola Solskyi is facing allegations that he took part in illegally seizing state-owned land worth more than $7m when he was head of a major farming company and a member of parliament. He was released on bail. Solskyi denies the allegations and offered his resignation this week, promising to cooperate with the investigation.

Slavyansk oil refinery in Russia’s Krasnodar region was damaged in a Ukraine drone attack, local authorities said on Saturday, causing a fire to break out. There were a total of nine attacks on the tank farm and distillation column, Roman Siniagovskyi, head of the Slavyansk administrative district, said on Telegram.

Russia intercepted 68 Ukrainian drones overnight from Friday to Saturday in its southern Krasnodar region and over annexed Crimea, the defence ministry said . It said 66 of the drones were shot down over Krasnodar and the other two over the Crimean peninsula, which Moscow annexed in 2014.

Ukraine’s air defence shot down 21 of 34 Russian missiles fired in an overnight attack, the commander of the Ukrainian air force said on Saturday. Mykola Oleschuk said Ukrainian fighter planes, air defence missile units, mobile fire groups and means of radio-electronic warfare were involved in repelling the Russian missile strikes.

Russian air attacks hit an industrial facility and a residential building in north-eastern Ukraine on Friday, killing two people and wounding at least seven, local officials said. Three children and a woman were hurt when guided bombs hit central Derhachi, a town in the Kharkiv region, the governor, Oleh Syniehubov, said on Telegram. Two bombs struck an industrial facility in the Sumy region, regional authorities said. In a separate artillery strike on the Sumy region, two people were killed and three injured, the national police said.

The US defence secretary, Lloyd Austin, announced $6bn in new military aid for Ukraine as Washington rushes to fill gaps left by months of limited American assistance . The package is the second this week, following another valued at $1bn that was announced just after the US president, Joe Biden, signed a much-delayed bill to provide new funding for Ukraine as it struggles to hold back Russian advances.

Ukraine has said Moscow is ramping up attacks on railways in a bid to disrupt military supplies ahead of a fresh Russian offensive while Kyiv waits for new US weapon deliveries . Kyiv fears Russia is seeking to press its advantage on the battlefield ahead of symbolic 9 May Victory Day celebrations, as both sides continue to launch deadly cross-border strikes.

A 20-year-old British man has been charged with masterminding an arson plot against a Ukrainian-linked target in London for Russia and Moscow’s ambassador was summoned by the government, authorities said on Friday . Dylan Earl, from Elmesthorpe in Leicestershire, was charged under the National Security Act 2023, the first case to involve alleged offences under the new legislation. Jake Reeves, 22, from Croydon, has also been charged under the act after a fire at a warehouse in east London in March. The British defence secretary, Grant Shapps, said the “allegations of Russian malign activity in the UK are deeply concerning”.

The first reparation payments are to be made in the next few weeks to survivors of wartime rape by Russian soldiers during the invasion of Ukraine , in a move that Ukraine’s first lady, Olena Zelenska, called “an important step towards restoring justice”. Up to 500 Ukrainian survivors of conflict-related sexual violence are being identified and awarded with interim reparations this year, including financial, medical and psychological support.

France is working with Germany to convince their European partners to provide more air defence capacities to Kyiv , the French defence minister, Sebastien Lecornu, has said.

  • Russia-Ukraine war at a glance

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Ukraine is losing its war against Russia. Here's what its defeat might look like.

  • Ukraine is on the ropes amid a $60 billion US aid block. 
  • Its leaders are issuing increasingly stark warnings that it faces defeat. 
  • Defeat could take many forms, including the loss of key territories. 

Insider Today

With a $60 billion US aid bill blocked, Ukraine's battle against the Russian invasion is becoming increasingly desperate.

Its military is running critically short of artillery and ammunition, and it is being outgunned 10 to one is some places as it struggles to hold off intensifying Russian attacks .

There is a glimmer of hope for Ukraine, with a congressional vote that could release the aid package expected this weekend.

But if it fails, and Ukraine's European allies don't step up, Ukraine's defeat looks increasingly likely and could take a number of forms, say analysts.

Total defeat

Experts at US think tank The Institute for the Study of War, believe that Russia's President Vladimir Putin is pursuing "maximalist" objectives in Ukraine that amount to a "full Ukrainian and Western capitulation."

This might entail eventually seeking to seize control of the whole of the country.

Putin has repeatedly denied Ukraine's existence in speeches . Last year, he cited a 17th-century map of Europe to back his discredited thesis that Ukraine isn't a real country, despite the document clearly marking part of the territory as being "Ukraine."

In a blog post for the Royal United Services Institute, Oleksandr Danylyuk, a former chief advisor to Ukraine's Minister of Defense, noted that total destruction of Ukraine is Russia's main goal.

"Putin does not hide his genocidal intentions to destroy Ukraine as an independent state and Ukrainians as a separate people," he said.

"It is obvious that if Ukraine loses support from the West, Putin may well achieve his goal of destroying Ukrainians as a people and erasing the largest country from the map of Europe," he continued.

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"Despite the obvious tragedy of this situation for Ukraine, the consequences of its defeat for the West and especially for the US as the leader of the free world would be no less catastrophic."

The loss of territories

Others believe that Russia's ambitions are more limited, and it has its sights set on launching a massive attack this summer to break through Ukraine's defensive lines and seize a key city or region.

A problem for Ukraine, Bryden Spurling, an analyst at the RAND Corporation, told Business Insider, is that it's unclear where the attack could come from.

"The difficulty with Ukraine being short of supplies and personnel is that it gives Russia more of an opportunity to pick the time and place of its offensive along a long battlefront," he said.

While it was apparent that Ukraine would focus its counteroffensive last year in the south, allowing Russia to build extensive fortifications to defend its positions, Russia's attack could come at any point along the 620-mile-long front line.

Russia could seek to seize control of Kharkiv, Ukraine's second biggest city, which is only around 18 miles from the Russian border, the city of Zaporizhzhia in south Ukraine, or secure control of the Donetsk region in east Ukraine, which has been the site of some of the war's bloodiest battles.

George Beebe, a former director of Russian analysis at the CIA, recently told BI that Russia was seeking to add to and consolidate its territorial gains.

"Russian 'victory' over Ukraine would probably consist of seizing territory east of the Dnieper River that Moscow regards as culturally and historically Russian, creating a strip of 'no man's land' separating Russian-controlled territory from the rest of Ukraine, and building extensively defensive fortifications to ensure that the division of Ukraine will be difficult to reverse through new Ukrainian assaults," he said.

But the question of when and on what terms negotiations to end the war might take place remains unclear.

Spurling, the RAND analyst, said that a Russian victory would most likely take the form of Ukraine ceding large amounts of conquered territory to Russia. But there is no sign that Ukraine would agree to such a deal.

"Despite the challenges they are currently facing, Ukraine shows little appetite for such a settlement – and many of Ukraine's supporters acknowledge that Russia can't be trusted to keep its side of any settlement anyway," he said.

A campaign against NATO

Some analysts, such as those at the ISW, have warned that Russia would likely use a settlement with a weakened and defeated Ukraine to rebuild and launch a renewed attack on Ukraine and then its allies in the West.

Other analysts are skeptical and believe that Russia's military has suffered such damage in the conflict that it would be in no position to launch a massive new campaign after the war against a strengthened NATO alliance.

But for Beebe, even if US aid is released, there won't be enough of it to turn the tide in the war and enable Ukraine to drive Russian forces out.

This implies that Ukraine, in any scenario, will have to cede territory, either formally or informally.

Watch: What's next for the war in Ukraine?

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