On February 21, 2022, Russian President Vladimir Putin recognized the Moscow-backed, breakaway Donbas statelets of the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) and the Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR) as independent sovereign countries, establishing bilateral diplomatic relations and signing defense and friendship treaties with both (see EDM, February 22). The Russian State Duma and Federation Council (lower and upper chambers of parliament, respectively) ratified the treaties without delay. The DPR/LPR promptly asked Moscow to provide military assistance against alleged “Ukrainian aggression”; and in the early hours of February 24, the Kremlin broadcast Putin’s televised address, effectively declaring war on Ukraine. In an angry rant, Putin explicitly decried the United States (“the Empire of lies”) and its allies for ignoring his “red lines” and security demands. Putin denounced Ukraine as a “fascist” state ruled by a “junta” that has been “genocidally” killing and abusing the people of Donbas. The Russian leader stressed his quarrel was not with the Ukrainian people or Ukrainian soldiers (who may lay down arms and freely go home), but the purportedly nationalist and fascist rulers in Kyiv will pay the price. Ukraine must undergo a process of “denazification.” Putin promised to arrest and indict nationalists and “Nazis” who allegedly attacked Russians and Russian-speakers (Interfax, February 24).
Putin’s war-declaration address was apparently pre-recorded. In fact, Putin shared the main points of his long speech with journalists before it was actually released (Kremlin.ru, February 22). Officially, the Russian “special operation” in Ukraine was launched to support DPR/LPR separatists. But its scope is much wider. Putin has demanded that Kyiv, together with Washington and its allies, recognize Crimea as Russian territory and Ukraine must forever renounce aspirations to membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Putin has been in office since 2000 and has interacted with five different Ukrainian presidents. A new administration, Putin complained, may again decide to seek NATO membership. So the central Russian demand and objective of the “special operation” is the full demilitarization of Ukraine: the defeat, destruction, disarmament and permanent demobilization of the Ukrainian military. A future Ukraine may not have any armed forces that, according to Putin, would pose a threat to Russia. Putin insisted, “Russia has no desire to occupy Ukraine.” However, the Kremlin ruler asserted, the border separating both nations is superficial, and eventually Ukrainians and Russians will be one. Putin insisted Russian soldiers must treat Ukrainians well, especially troops laying down their arms (Interfax, February 24).
In addition, Putin promised to allow different Ukrainian “peoples” or narodi (in the plural) the same right of full self-determination as the DPR/LPR. Apparently, Putin wants to break up Ukraine into an array of statelets—an easy-to-control, balkanized buffer zone between Russia and NATO, without its own effective military. Even Finland, which between 1945 and 1991 was a de facto Soviet vassal, received a better “Finlandization” deal. Only Nazi Germany after 1945 was treated in a similarly punitive manner: broken up and demilitarized. Putin is insisting modern-day Ukraine is also ruled by “Nazis,” and according to the Russian narrative, they are similarly guilty of “genocide”—an accusation rebuffed by practically everyone outside of the Kremlin (Interfax, February 24).
To perform this demilitarization, balkanization (“pro-self-determination”) and “denazification” of Ukraine, Russian troops would need to successfully occupy the entire country and keep it under control for a long time, no matter what the Kremlin public relations machine articulates. The “denazification” objective naturally lends itself to self-declared permissions to exile, incarcerate or outright kill the Ukrainian political elite, thus ensuring Ukraine will never rise again as an independent state. To achieve Putin’s political goals, Russian forces will have to vigorously advance on multiple fronts, deep into Ukraine, and totally defeat the Ukrainian military. On the first day of war, the Russian military launched a wave of attacks using precision-guided ballistic, cruise and anti-radar missiles to hit airfields, radar facilities, munitions depots and other fixed land targets. Many radar stations were hit and destroyed. Airfields are much harder to raze using conventionally-tipped cruise missiles, but the Russian Military of Defense claimed victory (Interfax, February 24).
DPR/LPR and Russian forces simultaneously began an offensive in Donbas, which has not been particularly successful so far. Russian armor of the 1st Guards Tank Army attacked Ukraine’s second-largest city, the predominantly Russian-speaking Kharkiv, close to the border. But the city continues to resist. Russian armor and motorized rifle infantry successfully broke out of Crimea, occupying towns and territory up to the Dnepr River. In a bold move, a group of Russian commandos landed, by helicopter, north of Kyiv and captured the Antonov Airport (a.k.a. Hostomel Airport)—an international cargo airfield and testing facility with a large runway. This airport can be used to establish a bridgehead to bring in paratrooper reinforcements and weapons by air. Finally, an armored column has been advancing from Belarus through the Chernobyl radioactive zone to link up with the commandos (Focus.ua, February 24).
The results of the first day of fighting are mixed. Russia failed to generate enough “shock and awe” right away to convince the Ukrainians of the futility to resist further. Possibly, Putin and his generals actually believed their own propaganda about Ukrainians greeting Russians as liberators and the defending soldiers putting down their arms; as such, the Russian side failed to employ the full force of the bombing sledgehammer they had used so effectively in Syria. The Ukrainian resistance seems to be picking up; volunteers are joining the fight; and the Russian advance was not as robust or swift as could be expected with its air and long-range weapons superiority. But the Russian offensive north of Crimea in Kherson Oblast is surely troubling for the defenders, as is the fast-moving situation around Antonov Airport, which could threaten to bring the war directly into Kyiv’s city limits (the latest reports claim the Ukrainians have reestablished full control of Hostomel, at least for now—Twitter.com/KyivPost, February 24). Whereas, fighting using high explosives and heavy weapons inside the Chernobyl exclusion zone could send clouds of radioactive dust (presently under a thin layer of soil) high into the atmosphere, from where it could travel on the wind to reach much of the rest of the continent.
Russia has closed its embassy in Kyiv and evacuated its diplomats. Kyiv, in turn, has severed diplomatic relations with Moscow (Interfax, February 24). The time for diplomacy is over. The future of the region and maybe Europe more generally will be decided on the battlefield.