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Russia bombards the outskirts of Kharkiv, a city in northeast Ukraine, on 1 March 2022
by Rose Maramba
On 22 February, after months of protests and violent clashes (the Maidan/Euromaidan Revolution/Revolution of Dignity), Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych was ousted by members of the parliament. Yanukovych fled to Russia. Instead of recognizing the legitimacy of the interim government in Kyiv, Russian President Vladimir Putin prepared to annex Crimea, a Ukrainian autonomous republic with a predominantly ethnic Russian population. On 27 February, Putin’s soldiers invaded Crimea ostensibly to protect Russian interests.
By early March 2014 Russian troops and pro-Russian paramilitary groups exercised effective control of Crimea.
16 March: 95% of the residents of Crimea, according to official Russian and Crimean sources, voted in a referendum” to reunite with Russia”. The international community questioned the legitimacy of the referendum on legal and procedural grounds. Western governments led by the U.S. and the EU implemented travel bans. Also economic sanctions against a widening circle of Putin’s closest political allies.
17 March: Vladimir Putin declared that Crimea had always been part of Russia; he signed a treaty incorporating the peninsula into the Russian Federation.
21 March: Putin signed the legislation that formalized Russia’s annexation of Crimea. He referred to the region as New Russia (Novorossiya), a claim that was reminiscent of the Russian imperial era.
Groups of unidentified gunmen equipped with Russian arms seized government buildings in southeastern Ukraine. An armed conflict with Kyiv ensued.
On 17 July Malaysia Airlines flight MH17, with nearly 300 people aboard, was shot down by a Russian-made surface-to-air missile. The plane crashed in eastern Ukraine. Western countries responded by tightening the sanctions against Russia. That, and the oil prices that had nose-dived, brought the Russian economy into a rapid decline.
On 12 February world leaders met in Minsk, Belarus, for peace talks to end the fighting in Ukraine. In attendance, apart from Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, were Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and French President François Hollande.
On 27 February, just days after he had spoken out against Russian intervention in Ukraine, opposition leader Boris Nemtsov was shot to death near the Kremlin. Nemtsov was the latest of Putin’s critics to be put away.
Although fighting slowed down momentarily in the wake of the ceasefire talks, the conflict revived in the spring so that by September of that year the United Nations estimated that some 8,000 people had been killed and 1.5 million had been displaced as a result of the fighting.
The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) estimated that more than 1,000 Russian troops were actively fighting inside Ukraine during the ceasefire talks. Violence continued. In the next several months pro-Russian rebels engaged Ukrainian government forces in continuous fight that did not seem to auger well for the Ukrainians.
When on 28 September Putin addressed the UN General Assembly, he upbraided the West’s expansionism through NATO, blaming the Atlantic alliance for what he called “a civil war in the Ukraine.”
He said: “The bloc thinking of the times of the Cold War and the desire to explore new geopolitical areas is still present among our colleagues [in the United Nations]. They continue their policy of expanding NATO. . .This logic of confrontation was bound to spark off a grave geopolitical crisis.”
Putin was of course referring to the crisis in Ukraine.
Putin was set on waging a multipronged war. By 2016 he had embarked on undermining the power and legitimacy of Western democracies. On one hand, he conducted cyberwarfare. On the other hand, he engaged in the good old-fashioned provocation of sending Russian fighter jets over the Baltic in constant violation of NATO airspace.
According to Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, his country had suffered more than 6,000 cyber interferences in two months, with virtually every sector of Ukrainian society targeted by Russian security services.
In the months leading to the 2016 U.S. presidential election, the Democratic Party and its presidential nominee Hillary Clinton were hacked. The U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation suspected Russia’s hand in an attempt to tamper with the presidential election.
U.S. intelligence agencies concluded that Putin had ordered a campaign not only to influence the election but also to undermine faith in American democracy.
It seemed that Putin’s foreign moves had much to do with his consistent +80% approval rating at home. The Western economic sanctions, the chronic domestic corruption, the shy foreign investors giving Russia a wide berth, the low oil prices – none of these seemed, or all of the above combined didn’t seem, to hurt Putin’s popularity with the majority of the Russians.
Fancy Bear, a Russian cyberespionage group known to have links with GRU, the Russian military intelligence agency, hacked America’s Democratic Party in order to influence the result of the presidential election in 2016. The following year, Fancy Bear tried a repeat in France. The far-right National Front candidate Marine Le Pen. Le Pen, who earlier had received financial support from a bank that had ties to the Kremlin, vowed to push for the ending of the sanctions against Russia following its annexation of Crimea. But the “MacronLeaks” that inundated the Internet on the eve of the second round of the presidential election failed to give Le Pen her victory. Emmanuel Macron, the centrist finalist, won almost twice the votes as Le Pen. Macron became President of France.
The Russians went to the polls on 18 March, on the fourth anniversary of Russia’s forcible annexation of Crimea, an event that sent Putin’s domestic popularity skyrocketing. It came as no surprise that he was proclaimed the winner of an overwhelming majority of the vote in the March 2018 election. However, independent monitoring agencies attested to the irregularities committed in the balloting.
Some two weeks earlier, on 4 March, Putin grabbed international headlines; Sergei Skripal, a former Russian intelligence officer convicted of spying for Britain but was turned over to the UK in exchange for the release of some Russian spies, was found unconscious on a park bench in Salisbury, England, together with his daughter Yulia, for exposure to Novichok,” a Soviet-developed nerve agent. It was found out later that the poison was placed on Skripal’s doorknob. Putin, per British officials, was behind the attack.
16 July: Putin held a summit meeting in Helsinki with Trump who took office in January 2017 and who Putin left cooling his heels. Trump shocked the world during the press conference that followed the meeting when he said he believed Putin’s denial of any interference in the 2016 US presidential election. In so doing, Trump disregarded the conclusions of U.S. intelligence agencies on which the U.S. Department of Justice based its indictment of 13 Russian spies for their meddling in the said election. Trump went on to lay the blame on the United States for its strained relationship with Russia.
Asked if Putin had any hold on Trump, the Russian leader refused to give a direct answer.
Russia may have become a global pariah – its athletes barred from international competition on account of massive state-sponsored doping scheme, the Russian Federation not only suspended indefinitely from the G8 but it was also unable to shake off the continuing economic sanctions – but nothing seemed to mar Putin’s power at home.
Russia had it made in 2019. The UK and the EU were mired in Brexit. Perceived as the de facto leader of the European Union, German Chancellor Angela Merkel was on her way out of German politics. Poland and Hungary were showing signs of authoritarianism, going against the democratic founding principles of the EU. Despite some cutbacks in Russia’s massive military budget due to adverse economic situation, Putin proceeded with Russia’s rearmament and modernization program.
There were strong indications that a quarter of the entire military budget was going into equipping the ground and airborne forces. The focus on ground forces, according to some observers, was due in part to Russia’s recent experience in Ukraine. It seemed Putin had future conflict in mind.
In 2019 the medium-range Iskander missiles were deployed. Produced by the Russian military, the Iskander has different conventional warheads though it can also carry nuclear warheads. Its conventional warheads include cluster munitions warhead, fuel-air explosive enhanced-blast warhead, high explosive-fragmentation warhead, an earth penetrator for bunker-busting and for anti-radar missions.
In January Putin proposed that the Russian constitution allow unlimited presidential term. The Russian legislature gave its approval without much ado. But to make it look even better, Putin scheduled a referendum on the matter.
The referendum resulted in an overwhelming affirmative vote on indefinite presidency which set Putin up for life as president if he so wished. As usual, no independent agency was around to monitor the election process.
While Kremlin demanded guarantee from the U.S. that Ukraine would not join NATO and that the Atlantic alliance refrain from military activities in and around Ukrainian territory, Putin had been moving troops toward Russia’s border with Ukraine. Putin’s multi-front offensive involved a buildup of up to 175,000 troops, according to U.S. intelligence.
“The Russian plans call for a military offensive against Ukraine as early as 2022 with a scale of forces twice what we saw this past spring during Russia’s snap exercise near Ukraine’s borders,” said an official of the Biden administration.
Not only was there a massive buildup of Russian forces along the Ukrainian border in late 2021; additional units were dispatched to Belarus, ostensibly to engage in joint exercises with the Belarusian military. Western governments raised concerns about what appeared to be an imminent Russian invasion, but Putin dismissed their worries.
By February as many as 190,000 Russian troops were poised to strike into Ukraine from forward bases in Russia, Crimea, Belarus, and the Russian-backed separatist enclave of Transdniestria in Moldova. Amphibious units were deployed to the Black Sea.
On 21 February Putin recognized the independence of the self-proclaimed people’s republics of Donetsk and Luhansk established in 2014 by pro-Russian separatists. From the time of their self-proclamation to 2022 14,000 had died in these areas and 1.5 million have been displaced. Russia’s recognition of their independence was a violation of the 2015 Minsk peace agreement.
Then in the early morning hours of 24 February Putin announced the beginning of a “special military operation,” his cynical euphemism for full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the largest conventional military attack on a sovereign state in Europe since World War II. It was an escalation of the Russo-Ukrainian War that began in 2014.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky vowed that the people of Ukraine would defend their country. Swift and severe sanctions against Russia were put in place by Western leaders.
> Putin and Yanukovych meeting in Kyiv/Kremlin.ru, CC BY4.0 via Wikipedia
> Russian troops in Perevalne/AntonHoloborodko, CC BY-SA3.0 via Wikimedia Commons
> Signing of treaty of Crimean annexation/Kremlin.ru, CC BY4.0 via Wikipedia
> Peace talks among world leaders in Minsk/Kremli.ru, CC BY4.0 via Wikipedia
> Slovak anti-NATO sentiment/Sean MacEntee, May 2015, CC BY2.0 via Flickr
> Screenshot of hacked Ukrainian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Uploaded by the Ministry: https://web.archive.org/web/20220114032142/https://mfa.gov.ua/. Fair use according to Wikipedia.
>Trump-Putin summit/Kremlin.ru, CC BY4.0 via Wikipedia
> Iskander missile launched at Kapustin Yar/Mil.ru, CC BY4.0 via Wikipedia
>State Duma/Bernt Rostad (www.flickr.com/people/brostad), CC BY2.0 via Wikimedia Commons
>Artillery Brigade live-fire exercises/mil.ru, CC BY4.0 via Wikimedia Commons
>Animated map of Russian invasion/Maitrea Varuna, 1 March 2022, CC BY-SA4.0 via Wikipedia
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