Another night of airstrikes in Kyiv has started. Russian soldiers are reportedly advancing on the capital, as the Ukrainian government is urging its citizens to fight and warning that Russia was seeking to take Kyiv overnight.
“This night they will launch an assault,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said. “The enemy will use all of their power on all fronts to break our defense.”
“This night we have to stand [our] ground,” he continued. “The fate of Ukraine is being decided now.”
This is Russia’s war against Ukraine, as it enters its third day.
In the early morning hours Thursday local time, Russian President Vladimir Putin launched what he called a “special military operation” into the country of about 40 million, with attacks coming from multiple fronts (from the north, east, and south), and targeted toward multiple cities. As of Friday, Russian troops had reportedly closed in on Kyiv. The Biden administration had warned Congress that the capital could fall quickly, but, according to the Washington Post, a senior Biden administration official said Friday that Russia had “not achieved the progress that we believe they thought they would.”
In 48 hours of fighting, the Russian military has not subdued Ukraine, though that could change at any moment. As experts have noted, Russia has only committed about a third to half of the tens of thousands of forces amassed at the border so far, and battles are continuing across Ukraine Friday into Saturday morning. Experts warned that the possibility of a severe escalation was possible in the coming days.
Putin’s attempt to redraw the map of Europe may still lead to the most devastating conflict on the continent since World War II. It could cost thousands of civilian lives and create hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing the violence in Ukraine.
The United States imposed the toughest financial sanctions ever on Russia, and other allies joined them in putting harsh penalties on Russia. On Friday, the United States and the European Union announced sanctions on Vladimir Putin himself.
But this is all unlikely to stop Russia from waging its campaign in Ukraine, leaving Ukraine — and the world — in a perilous and unpredictable moment.
Ukraine is under siege
After months of building up troops on Ukraine’s borders and failed diplomatic talks, Russia is now waging a full-out war on Ukraine.
Tensions escalated quickly this week when, on Monday, Putin delivered an hour-long combative speech that essentially denied Ukrainian statehood. He recognized the independence of two breakaway regions in eastern Ukraine where Moscow has backed a separatist rebellion since 2014 and sent so-called peacekeeping forces into the region. As experts said, that was likely just the beginning, setting the stage for a much larger conflict.
Days later, that larger conflict materialized. Putin on Thursday announced he was launching an assault “to defend people who for eight years are suffering persecution and genocide by the Kyiv regime,” a reference to a false claim about the government in Ukraine. Putin claimed that the Russian military seeks “demilitarization and denazification” but not occupation. He demanded Ukraine lay down its weapons or be “responsible for bloodshed.”
Soon after Putin’s speech, reports emerged of explosions around cities, including Kharkiv in eastern Ukraine and the capital Kyiv. The Ukrainian foreign minister called it “a full-scale invasion of Ukraine.”
Putin has just launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Peaceful Ukrainian cities are under strikes. This is a war of aggression. Ukraine will defend itself and will win. The world can and must stop Putin. The time to act is now.
— Dmytro Kuleba (@DmytroKuleba) February 24, 2022
By the afternoon in Ukraine, Russian troops and tanks had entered the country on three fronts. According to the Pentagon, Russia launched more than 100 missiles into Ukraine, an opening salvo that defense officials said may be leading up to a full-on effort to take the capital of Kyiv.
Russians have targeted critical infrastructure, like airports, with airstrikes, and have launched ground operations from different directions, including from Belarus, from the north, from the east of Ukraine, and from the south. On Thursday, Russia seized the decommissioned Chernobyl nuclear plant 80 miles north of the Ukrainian capital, the site of the 1986 nuclear disaster. The International Atomic Energy Agency is monitoring developments there “with grave concern.”
Fighting continued across Ukraine into Saturday morning. Kyiv looks to be the target, and there are continued reports of explosions and gunfire in the capital. “They had maximal war aims,” Michael Kofman, research director in the Russia studies program at CNA, said in an interview posted on Twitter. “They had a military operation that’s now in progress, first to try to achieve regime change, encircle the capital, and try to overthrow the Ukrainian government, and then a much larger set of pincer movements to encircle and envelope Ukrainian forces. Try to do this quickly and force surrender of isolated pockets.”
The Russian army, however, has not been able to completely roll over Ukrainian forces, and some analysts have suggested Moscow may have been surprised at the resistance. “It’s not apparent to us that Russians have been able to execute their plans as they deemed that they would,” Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby said Friday during a briefing. “But it’s a dynamic, fluid situation.”
Margarita Konaev, associate director of analysis and research fellow at Georgetown’s Center for Security and Emerging Technology (CSET), said she agreed with the assessment that Russia has been surprised by the early successes of the Ukrainian forces — but added that nobody chooses to start a war thinking they’ll face overwhelming resistance.
Putin himself has called on the Ukrainian army to “take power into their own hands and overthrow” Zelensky, a sign that Putin remains focused on regime change. “According to the available intelligence, the enemy marked me as a target No. 1 and my family as the target No. 2,” said Zelensky, speaking in a T-shirt on Thursday night.
Russia has gone back-and-forth as to whether they are willing to negotiate, but Zelensky indicated on Friday that they are in the process of figuring out where possible negotiations could take place. But, across conflicts, there is usually a severe escalation in fighting before ceasefires, as everyone attempts to maximize their leverage. “I think that they want to inflict maximum damage to pressure the Ukrainian government to seek some sort of ceasefire that is effectively a surrender,” Konaev said.
At least 137 Ukrainians have been killed so far, Zelensky said Friday. He also said that more than 1,000 Russian troops were killed in one day. That would be an unprecedented number, though experts said all these statistics should be treated with extreme caution because of the fog of war and the incentives both Russia and Ukraine have to push a particular narrative.
Ukrainian officials have also accused Russia of war crimes after reports of a shelling of an orphanage and kindergarten outside of Kyiv. Across Ukraine, thousands of civilians, of all ages, are enlisting to fight. Ukrainian officials called on residents to “make Molotov cocktails” to defend against the invasion. About 18,000 weapons have been distributed across the country, according to Ukrainian officials. Meanwhile, more than 50,000 Ukrainians have fled in the past 48 hours, mostly to neighboring Moldova and Poland, according to the United Nations. Huge crowds have rushed to board trains in Kyiv to cities in the west, such as Lviv, while some of those staying put have sought shelter in subway stations.
The roots of the current crisis grew from the breakup of the Soviet Union
Over the last few months, Putin had amassed close to 190,000 troops near the Ukrainian border, a force that military analysts said was clearly prepared and ready to launch an invasion.
Such an invasion would — and does — contravene security agreements the Soviet Union made upon its breakup in the early ’90s. At the time, Ukraine, a former Soviet republic, had the third-largest atomic arsenal in the world. The US and Russia worked with Ukraine to denuclearize the country, and in a series of diplomatic agreements, Kyiv gave its hundreds of nuclear warheads back to Russia in exchange for security assurances that protected it from a potential Russian attack.
But the very premise of a post-Soviet Europe is also helping to fuel today’s conflict. Putin has been fixated on reclaiming some semblance of empire, lost with the fall of the Soviet Union. Ukraine is central to this vision. Putin has said Ukrainians and Russians “were one people — a single whole,” or at least would be if not for the meddling from outside forces (as in, the West) that has created a “wall” between the two.
Last year, Russia presented the US with a list of demands, some of which were nonstarters for the United States and its allies in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Putin demanded that NATO stop its eastward expansion and deny membership to Ukraine, and also made other demands for “security guarantees” around NATO.
The prospect of Ukraine and Georgia joining NATO has antagonized Putin at least since President George W. Bush expressed support for the idea in 2008. “That was a real mistake,” Steven Pifer, who from 1998 to 2000 was ambassador to Ukraine under President Bill Clinton, told Vox in January. “It drove the Russians nuts. It created expectations in Ukraine and Georgia, which then were never met. And so that just made that whole issue of enlargement a complicated one.”
Ukraine is the fourth-largest recipient of military funding from the US, and the intelligence cooperation between the two countries has deepened in response to threats from Russia. But Ukraine isn’t joining NATO in the near future, and Biden has said as much. Still, Moscow’s demand was largely seen as a nonstarter by the West, as NATO’s open-door policy says sovereign countries can choose their own security alliances.
Though Putin has continued to tout the threat of NATO, his speech on Monday showed that his obsession with Ukraine goes far beyond that. He does not see the government in Ukraine as legitimate.
“Ukraine is not just a neighboring country for us. It is an inalienable part of our own history, culture and spiritual space,” he said, per the Kremlin’s official translation. “Since time immemorial, the people living in the south-west of what has historically been Russian land have called themselves Russians.”
The two countries do have historical and cultural ties, but as Vox’s Zack Beauchamp explained, Putin’s “basic claim — that there is no historical Ukrainian nation worthy of present-day sovereignty — is demonstrably false.”
As experts noted, it is difficult to square Putin’s speech — plus a 2021 essay he penned and other statements he’s made — with any sort of realistic diplomatic outcome to avert conflict. It was, essentially, a confession that this wasn’t really about NATO, said Dan Baer, the acting director of the Europe Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a former ambassador to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. “It was about that he doesn’t think Ukraine has a right to exist as a free country,” he said before Putin’s escalation Wednesday night.
This is the culmination of eight years of tensions
This isn’t the first time Russia has attacked Ukraine. In 2014, Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula and invaded eastern Ukraine and backed Russian separatists in the eastern Donbas region. That conflict has killed more than 14,000 people to date.
Russia’s assault grew out of mass protests in Ukraine that toppled the country’s pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych, which began over his abandonment of a trade agreement with the European Union. US diplomats visited the demonstrations, in symbolic gestures that further agitated Putin.
President Barack Obama, hesitant to escalate tensions with Russia any further, was slow to mobilize a diplomatic response in Europe and did not immediately provide Ukrainians with offensive weapons.
“A lot of us were really appalled that not more was done for the violation of that [post-Soviet] agreement,” said Ian Kelly, a career diplomat who served as ambassador to Georgia from 2015 to 2018. “It just basically showed that if you have nuclear weapons” — as Russia does — “you’re inoculated against strong measures by the international community.”
Since then, corruption has persisted in the Ukrainian government, and the country ranks in the bottom third of the watchdog group Transparency International’s index.
Ukraine’s far-right presence has grown and become somewhat normalized, and there are government-aligned fascist militias in the country. But Moscow has drawn out those issues to advance false claims about genocide and other attacks on civilians as a way to legitimize the separatist movement in eastern Ukraine and to create a pretext for invasion. In his prerecorded speech shared on the eve of the bombardment of Ukraine, Putin said he sought the “denazification” of Ukraine.
To be clear: The Ukrainian government is not a Nazi regime and has not been co-opted by the far right. Zelensky is Jewish; he speaks proudly of how his Jewish grandfather fought against Hitler’s army.
Yet, days earlier, Putin used these sorts of claims as part of his explanation for recognizing as independent the so-called Luhansk People’s Republic and the Donetsk People’s Republic, the two territories in eastern Ukraine where he has backed separatists since 2014. “Announcing the decisions taken today, I am confident in the support of the citizens of Russia. Of all the patriotic forces of the country,” Putin said before moving troops into the regions for “peacekeeping” purposes.
At the time, most experts Vox spoke to said that looked like the beginning, not the end, of Russia’s incursion into Ukraine.
“In Russia, [it] provides the political-legal basis for the formal introduction of Russian forces, which they’ve already decided to do,” Kofman, of CNA, told Vox earlier this week. “Secondarily, it provides the legal local basis for Russian use force in defense of these independent Republic’s Russians citizens there. It’s basically political theater.”
It set “the stage for the next steps,” he added. Those next steps are now clear.
How the rest of the world is responding
The United States and its allies around the world have condemned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Germany’s Chancellor Olaf Scholz called it a “dark day for Europe.”
“The events of last night mark a turning point in the history of Europe,” French President Emmanuel Macron said after Russia launched its attack.
Biden announced Thursday afternoon that the United States will impose sanctions on Russian financial institutions, including cutting off Russia’s largest banks from the US financial system, and on Russian elites in President Vladimir Putin’s inner circle. America will also implement export controls on certain technologies. Along with penalties from the United Kingdom and Europe, these are the “massive” penalties the West had been warning Putin about. On Friday, the EU and US imposed sanctions on Putin himself.
The United States has said it will not involve troops in any Ukrainian conflict, though the US has shored up its presence on NATO’s eastern flank. On Thursday, the Pentagon said it would send 7,000 additional troops to Germany. Biden had previously said that the US will continue to provide defensive support for Ukraine, and some are calling for the US and its partners to provide more lethal aid to the largely outmatched Ukrainian army.
Russia knows that the US and its partners do not want to commit themselves militarily, and, early Thursday as Putin launched his invasion, he offered an ominous warning as he touted Russia’s nuclear arsenal: “There should be no doubt that any potential aggressor will face defeat and ominous consequences should it directly attack our country.”
NATO has vowed to protect its members from any Russian aggression. On Friday, NATO announced that it was activating part of its NATO Response Force — a 40,000-troop unit modernized after the 2014 Crimea invasion — to protect allies on NATO’s eastern flank. “We are now deploying the NATO Response Force for the first time in a collective defense context. We speak about thousands of troops. We speak about air and maritime capabilities,” NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said.
Yet these are largely defensive measures, which means most of the punishment against Russia will come in the form of sanctions. Thursday’s announcements didn’t include some of the most dramatic options, like cutting Russia off from Swift, the electronic messaging service that allows entities to communicate about global financial transactions, and targeting Russia’s energy sector. But the penalties are still some of the harshest sanctions ever directed at Russia or a major power like it. That will come with potential costs to the global economy, and especially to Europe and the United States. The price of oil spiked to more than $100 per barrel on Thursday before coming back down.
“This is going to impose severe cost on the Russian economy, both immediately and over time,” Biden said while announcing the sanctions. “We have purposefully designed these sanctions to maximize a long-term impact on Russia and to minimize the impact on the United States and our allies.”
The prospects of a settlement with Russia are impossible to contemplate as bombs are falling on Ukraine, but the US and its allies are going to have to do careful diplomacy to isolate and put pressure on Russia in the long term. The US and its allies are also likely going to have to decide how much they want, or can, support Ukraine as it tries to battle Russia.
“The real question, I think, is going to come down to what extent the West can and will try to support and supply a long-term insurgency against Russia,” said Paul D’Anieri, an expert on Eastern European and post-Soviet politics at the University of California Riverside. “And what level of success does Russia have in fighting back against? Unfortunately, it seems like the best strategy for peace right now is when enough Russians die, that the Russians decide it’s not worth it anymore.”