“When Putin launched his invasion nearly one year ago, he thought Ukraine was weak and the West was divided. He thought he could outlast us. But he was dead wrong.”
— Joe Biden, President of the United States of America
The shrinking sphere of influence of Russia in the former Soviet Union republics was among the main concerns of Russian President Vladimir Putin when he announced the invasion of Ukraine last year. The West was pushing eastward and Ukraine was the last buffer that Moscow could not have afforded to lose, according to Putin’s worldview.
Numerically superior Russian forces were supposed to be in Kyiv within weeks if not days of the beginning of the invasion and the government of Volodymyr Zelenskyy was to be replaced by a regime loyal to Moscow. A year later, Zelenskyy still runs the country from Kyiv and has emerged as a wartime leader —comparable to Winston Churchill who led the United Kingdom during World War II— and Ukraine is closer than ever to the West.
If there was any doubt about the Ukrainian affinity with the West or questions over Western support for Ukraine, US President Joe Biden gave a definitive answer on Monday when he arrived in Kyiv to meet Zelenskyy and Ukrainian brass. In a daring visit to an active war zone unprecedented in at least 150 years of US presidential history, Biden undertook a 10-hour train journey from neighbouring Poland to Kyiv with a skeletal group of officials and security detail to deliver one message — the United States stands with Ukraine.
While the visit itself was symbolic of how a key objective of Putin failed, Biden made it clear in his words too. He said the visit reaffirms “unwavering and unflagging commitment to Ukraine’s democracy, sovereignty, and territorial integrity”.
In the past year, people across the world have seen the devastation in Ukraine on their screens — from the ruined city of Mariupol to mass graves in Bucha and people lying lifelessly on the streets across the country. Seeing such scenes, people have often asked —some rhetorically and some actually— why someone would do this. There is no one answer to the question.
The long road of Russian invasion of Ukraine
“Whoever does not miss the Soviet Union has no heart. Whoever wants it back has no brain.”
— Vladimir Putin, President of Russia
Ukraine is one of the former republics that made up the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) and became independent countries with the disintegration of the USSR in 1991.
However, the Russia-Ukraine relationship predates the USSR —commonly called the Soviet Union— and is central to Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. For most of its history, Ukraine was part of the larger Russian state or super-state of sorts. During the time of the Soviet Union, many ethnic Russians settled in Ukraine and in other constituent republics which means that these countries today have large ethnic Russian minorities. This is the case in Ukraine too, particularly in its eastern region named Donbas. This contributes to Putin’s worldview which does not see Ukraine as an independent country.
Putin’s invasion is very much part of his belief in the mission to restore the Soviet Union, says Ksenia Kirillova, an analyst at the Washington DC-based think tank Jamestown Foundation.
She tells Outlook, “It seems that Vladimir Putin really believes in his historic mission of restoring the Soviet Union. His numerous essays about Russians and Ukrainians being ‘one people’ and his remarks that Ukraine —in his opinion— illegally received Russian territories perfectly illustrate the real reason for Russian aggression — his inability to come to terms with the independence of Ukraine, his personal ambitions, and complete denial of the subjectivity of the post-Soviet states and peoples.”
Putin was not an expansionist since the beginning but there was a shift in his perception as the Western influence moved eastward with the enlargement of the European Union (EU) in 2004 and NATO that he perceived as a threat to the Russian sphere of influence, says Ummu Salma Bava, Professor at the Centre for European Studies in School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU).
She tells Outlook, “In the first few years after the end of the Cold War under Boris Yeltsin, there was a lot of cooperation between Russia and the EU and America and there were positive developments. There was also a hope of democracy in Russia. Putin initially wanted to work in the same framework.”
However, the EU’s enlargement marked a shift in Putin’s worldview. Bava says the fact that NATO had moved east particularly irked Putin as he questioned why the NATO expansion didn’t stop with the end of the Cold War and it was intruding into the Russian sphere of influence. She says two things happened with this shift.
She says, “Firstly, Putin strengthened his internal position by sidelining the Opposition and had a power-sharing arrangement with Dmitry Medvedev as the President for four years as he was debarred from going for a third term. In 2008, the Constitution was amended to increase the term of the President from four to six years. More recently in 2020, another amendment to the Constitution has extended Putin‘s presidency till 2036. Secondly, he felt the Russian sphere of influence in the shared neighbourhood of EU and Russia, especially in Belarus and Ukraine, was curtailed due to the policies of the West. He believed if the buffer with the West —Belarus and Ukraine— moved Westward, then Russia would be in direct confrontation with the West and have no protection.”
While the scale of fighting in Ukraine and extent of devastation is unseen in the recent past, this is not the first invasion Putin has mounted. Within four years of transformation of his worldview, he invaded Georgia in 2008 and then annexed Ukraine’s Crimea region in 2014. This way, the invasion of Ukraine was at least eight years in the making and had two precedents — both of which attracted meek responses from the West that bolstered Putin.
Bava highlights that the Russian war with Georgia in 2008 was the first time a nation in Europe violated another’s borders since the end of Cold War and the West did not respond in any significant manner. One can say it was like testing the waters to ascertain the global or Western reaction in case Russia adopts an expansionist foreign policy.
She tells Outlook, “One can even say the West accommodated Russia at the time of invasion of Georgia and allowed it to rewrite the rules of engagement in that region. That must have definitely given an indication to Putin that if the West is not going to do anything about it, then he can plan something else as well.”
Six years after the Georgia War that went unpunished internationally, Putin moved into the Crimea region of Ukraine. While the United States and EU condemned it and slapped sanctions, nothing much happened, notes Bava. Within 10 years after the EU and NATO enlargement, the Russian flag flew over Crimea, clearly signalling the shifting geopolitics of the region.
Bava tells Outlook, “By 2014, Putin was increasing his power and position by invoking traditional instruments foreign policy – war to enhance Russia’s political claims in the region.”
A year later in 2015, Russia formally entered the Syrian Civil War in support of President Bashar al-Assad and a refugee crisis hit Europe — also fuelled by Putin.
Jamestown analyst Kirillova also says Putin has a Chekist mentality —a Soviet way of life in which secret police control all spheres of society— that rules out free will of people.
She tells Outlook, “In Putin’s Chekist mentality, people and nations are not considered actors but rather targets to be manipulated who do not possess their own will. He does not perceive Ukrainians as living people with their own will, desires, and natural reactions to Moscow’s behaviour. Therefore, in his mind, when he is at war with Ukraine, he is at war with the West — not in order to win, but in order to force the United States to recognise him as an equal rival and agree to divide the world with Russia into zones of influence.”
How Ukraine fought Russia, foiled its plans
“Our weapons are our truth, and our truth lies in the fact that this is our land, this is our country, our children, and we are going to defend all of this. So this is what I want to tell you. Glory to Ukraine!”
— Volodymyr Zelenskyy, President of Ukraine
In the run-up to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, media organisations and strategic experts compared the military capabilities of Russia and Ukraine. They charted how many tanks and fighter planes the countries had and how the militaries of the two countries compared. In every domain, the Russians outnumbered Ukraine.
It was expected —including in Moscow— that the Russian military would sweep through Ukraine and capture capital Kyiv within weeks. The invasion, formally dubbed “special military operation”, was never supposed to be a prolonged war of attrition that it has become a year later.
The signs of Russian failure were visible in the invasion’s first month itself. Within weeks, the Russian forces that had reached the outskirts of Kyiv —but were stuck there— were redirected to “liberate” the country’s eastern Donbas region comprising Donetsk and Luhansk provinces. In September, the Ukrainian forces mounted a counter-offensive in eastern and south-eastern Ukraine and pushed Russian forces back and recovered large swathes of territories that were under Russian control for months.
Though the war is not over and Russians are causing casualties on the Ukrainian side every day, and have had some successes lately, the performance is far from ideal. An estimate published this month said that Russian casualties are around at least 2,00,000 compared to Ukraine’s 1,30,000 dead.
The Russian setbacks and Ukrainian successes are rooted in a number of reasons such as Putin underestimating Ukrainian and Western resolve and overestimating the Russian support inside Ukraine, and Russian military’s poor war strategy and battle tactics.
In the initial phase of the Russian invasion, there was a lack of synergy between the ground forces and the Air Force. There were logistical issues which were most starkly visible when a miles-long Russian military convoy was stuck near Kyiv for days — a sitting duck to aerial attacks. Russian armoured units also suffered heavy damage as they moved in closely-packed formations in the open and were frequently targeted by artillery and drones. The Ukrainians also continued the trend set in the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh War of using drones to take out armour and infantry of Russia with little cost.
One key reason for the Ukrainian defence of the country is that they were preparing for such a moment since 2014 when Crimea was annexed by Russia. Last year, a senior US official said in a briefing, “It’s their own skill and bravery and courage and their willingness and ability to adapt in real-time to Russian tactics. I mean, they are skilled and courageous fighters, and you just can't take that away from them.”
There is also the unprecedented Western support to Ukraine that not just includes weapons, ammunition, and advanced war-waging systems, but also civilian support, such as the support extended by Elon Musk’s Starlink internet service. Since the beginning of the invasion, Russian air strikes have targeted critical communication and energy infrastructure in Ukraine. Starlink is a satellite-based internet service which removes the requirement of ground-based infrastructure. It has emerged as a lifeline to Ukrainians who have used it to stay connected and to fight the Russians.
Portable Starlink internet terminals have helped Ukrainians in setting up bases for their drone operations in rural areas from where they target the Russian military from the air. Ukraine’s most sophisticated drones are connected using Starlink, according to The Times of London.
"If we use a drone with thermal vision at night, the drone must connect through Starlink to the artillery guy and create target acquisition," a Ukrainian officer was quoted as saying in The Times.
Despite such setbacks and casualties, there are no signs that the support for Putin domestically has waned to the extent that the war-waging capabilities would be affected, says Jamestown analyst Kirillova.
She tells Outlook, “Unfortunately, at the moment, the support of soldiers and fighters is preserved in Russian society. Propaganda works very strongly and the level of losses in Russian society is not yet so great that this would be a serious blow. In addition, at the moment, support by the authorities of the army coincides with a long-standing and deep national demand for social justice.”
Putin has also packaged the Ukraine War as a necessary way to protect ethnic Russians in Ukraine, notes Bava of JNU. Kirillova further notes that the Russian war efforts in such a propaganda-fuelled framework has led to the perceptions that Putin’s actions are just.
Kirillova says, “The officials’ support for the war creates the illusion of a rapprochement between the authorities and the population and the creation of a new formation of ‘people’s leaders’ who are ready to go to the front instead of vacationing in Courchevel. In combination with an abundance of benefits and social lifts for the mobilised, it is really capable of creating a feeling of a ‘social and just state’ that ‘takes care of a simple Russian soldier defending his homeland’. Of course, this illusion will be destroyed in the future with an increase in the number of losses, but at the moment it is strong.”
What’s the road ahead for the Ukraine War?
“I know that today's era is not of war and we have spoken to you many times on the phone that democracy, diplomacy, and dialogue are such things that touch the world.”
— Narendra Modi, Prime Minister of India, to Russian President Vladimir Putin
Conventional wisdom would say that the pursuit of peace should be the first priority but both Putin and Zelenskyy prioritise victory over peace. While Zelenskyy says the victory is the return of the status quo ante, Putin has not spelled it. Jamestown analyst Kirillova says there is no clear Russian vision of victory and it suits Putin.
She tells Outlook, “The problem is that there is no image of victory in Russia. Moreover, the creation of such an image is unprofitable for the Russian authorities. Firstly, things are not going well for Russia on the battlefield, so the lack of an image allows it to hide defeats. If the aims of the war are not known, the Kremlin can use propaganda to declare a victory for any outcome — or, conversely, to justify a long war by saying that victory has not yet been achieved.
“Secondly, as hostilities dragged on, the Kremlin began to realise its own benefits from a protracted war. The war caused unusually high level of support for the authorities and Vladimir Putin personally by the Russian public, while in recent years before the invasion, this rating has been steadily declining.”
International interventions have so far failed to bring Ukraine and Russia to the negotiating table. Both Zelenskyy and Putin have expressed openness to talks but the conditions are too rigid. With Biden making an unabashed show of support in Kyiv, the perceived Western fatigue is out of the picture. When the foremost military power of the world backs Ukraine, one can be certain the Ukraine would not lose for now.
“The war is going to go on for much longer. Zelenskyy is also portraying it as an assault on the values of the West and Biden’s support shows that Ukraine’s strongest military supporter stands with it. While the EU military capability is limited, it is offering financial and other assistance, while member states supply weapons. However, it is NATO which has emerged as the undisputed military actor in the region, thus leading Finland and Sweden to forsake neutrality for its membership. Nevertheless, moving from war to the negotiating table will depend on many factors including when the cost of conflict becomes untenable for one side,” says Bava of JNU
For now, Ukrainians are not willing to concede land, says Jamestown analyst Kirillova.
She tells Outlook, “As for Ukraine, after all the suffering, Ukrainian society is not ready for territorial concessions for the sake of peace. At the moment, the idea of victory for Ukraine is the liberation of all territories, including Crimea, but it is quite possible that it will be adjusted depending on the duration of the war.”
Experts have also suggested that multilateral intervention could help in the ongoing situation. Ajay Bisaria and Ankita Dutta in their report The Ukraine Conflict: Pathways to Peace write that such intervention would have to involve countries that can be trusted by both the warring parties. India has the potential to be one such country, particularly as the Chair of G-20 this year.
Together with Israel and Turkey, which have mediated in the Ukraine War earlier, India and Prime Minister Narendra Modi can make meaningful contributions, note Bisaria and Dutta in their report for Observer Research Foundation (ORF).
“The choice of Turkey and Israel [by India in a trilateral mediating framework] would acknowledge their early efforts towards resolution of the crisis…What would work in favour of this grouping is that it might be more acceptable to both Ukraine and Russia, given their respective ties with the countries and the exclusion of the European countries and the US,” notes the ORF report.
The report further notes the wide acceptability and access of Modi to world leaders.
“Modi is perhaps one of the few global leaders who can reach out to many of his contemporaries (whether Putin and Zelenskyy, or US President Joe Biden and French President Emmanuel Macron) in a single day. Moreover, India could harness bilateral synergies with Ukraine, Russia, US, and the European Union to bring these vectors together and push an agenda for peace,” notes the report.