War in Ukraine: How we got here — and what may come next
The road to war was long and complicated. The way out may be, too.
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When the war came, its breadth and ferocity stunned Ukrainians, and perhaps many Russians as well. Any idea of a limited invasion ended with the initial bombing raids against several major cities, a ground and air assault that pushed closer to the capital, Kyiv, and reports of heavy casualties on both sides. Ukraine’s president has said that more than 1,300 Ukrainian soldiers have been killed; NATO estimates between 7,000 and 15,000 Russian troops killed; and while the United Nations reports that 1,430 civilians have died in the war, it says the toll is likely far higher.
Meanwhile, the war has produced the largest and fastest-moving flow of European refugees since World War II: More than 4 million refugees have fled Ukraine.
Any suggestion that the global response would be weak has been punctured by a mix of severe economic punishments imposed on Russia and military aid for Ukraine. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war has unified NATO and the European Union and brought the specter of economic disaster to Russia. Dissent inside Russia is growing.
But Putin shows no sign of relenting, and the onslaught against Ukraine continues. The war has confirmed the worst fears of the U.S. and its allies, who had held out hope that diplomacy and threats of damaging sanctions would pull Putin back from the brink. Many global leaders and diplomats — several of whom were huddled in an emergency U.N. Security Council meeting when the war began — appeared stunned as well.
Putin’s decision to declare war in the face of the threats and high stakes may make little sense, but the Russian leader has rarely been motivated by logic alone. As Grid Global Security Reporter Joshua Keating explained earlier this year: “The man who has led Russia since the dawn of the century is animated by a desire to restore Moscow’s sphere of influence over the areas once controlled by the Soviet Union, a determination to reduce U.S. and Western European influence in the region, and a desire to stay in power.”
The result of Putin’s decisions is a war that endangers the lives of millions of Ukrainians, has sparked a colossal refugee crisis, threatens the global economy and even raises the specter of nuclear deployment. It will also test old alliances and emerging global rivalries. This is a moment of tectonic shifts — a moment when geopolitics and history are colliding with issues ranging from the future of energy to misinformation, from cybersecurity to the rise of China.
What the war is about
From an outside perspective, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine looks illogical, even wildly irrational: the ultimate high-risk, low-reward proposition for Putin. The Russians are facing a determined adversary that has had ample time to prepare and be hit hard by the raft of economic sanctions.
And for what? Putin is punishing a smaller, weaker neighbor that poses no real threat to Russia’s security or sovereignty. His principal case for war — to stop a “genocide” against Russians in eastern Ukraine — has no basis in reality. Meanwhile, there was ample evidence, even before the troops rolled in and bombs began to fall, that Putin’s aggressive stance had been counterproductive, uniting NATO in opposition and pushing Ukraine closer to Putin’s adversaries.
And yet this was no bluff. And clearly not a small operation to take those “people’s republics” in the east. Putin has gone all-in, a full-fledged assault on a sovereign nation in Europe.
How did we get here?
A long, “low-boil” conflict
The Russia-Ukraine crisis began in 2014. That’s when a Kremlin-backed Ukrainian president was forced from power amid protests by Ukrainians supporting closer ties to Europe. In the West, this “Revolution of Dignity” was seen as a democratic triumph over a corrupt leader; for Putin, it was a double offense — a blow to his regional ambitions and to his wish to drive the West from his neighborhood. In Russia, the events were portrayed as a Western-backed coup, akin to U.S.-led regime-change wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In the chaotic days following the revolution, Russian special forces — with almost no opposition — seized and annexed Crimea, a largely Russian-speaking peninsula that belonged to Ukraine. Sanctions and statements of outrage from the Obama administration and other Western governments did nothing to stop them.
Russian troops then entered Ukraine to support pro-Russian separatists in the country’s east, helping to create two separatist enclaves — the Donetsk and Luhansk “people’s republics.” Though a series of peace deals known as the Minsk agreements were signed in 2014 and 2015, neither Russian nor Ukraine abided by their key terms. The on-off conflict took nearly 14,000 lives.
Between Crimea and these two regions, before the bombs fell at the end of February, 7 percent of Ukraine’s territory was already under de facto Russian control.
Putin once served the Soviet state as a KGB agent, and he has described the breakup of the Soviet Union as a “geopolitical catastrophe.” Time and again he has returned to this theme — the idea that 1991 was a moment of shame and humiliation for Russia, and that every effort had to be made to repair the damage. In his two decades in power, he has intervened not only in Ukraine but also in the former Soviet republics of Belarus, Armenia and Georgia. In January, when violent protests roiled the ex-Soviet republic of Kazakhstan, Putin quickly answered a call from the Kazakh president to send troops.
But for Putin, the post-Soviet separation of Ukraine and Russia was a particular tragedy.
He once told President George W. Bush, on the sidelines of a NATO summit, “Ukraine is not a country.” Over the years, he has blamed the idea of Ukrainian independence on the nefarious designs of Polish elites, Austro-Hungarian colonialists and the Bolsheviks. In his Feb. 21 Kremlin address that laid out the case for war, Putin said Ukraine had been a creation of Vladimir Lenin.
For Putin, any expansion of Western influence and military power into Ukraine has always been seen as a clear threat to Russia, a continuation of NATO’s spread into post-communist Eastern Europe which — according to the Russian narrative — has gone against assurances given to Moscow at the end of the Cold War. While there had never been serious consideration given to NATO membership for Ukraine, NATO members have trained Ukrainian forces and held military exercises in the country. Indeed, Ukraine was the fourth-largest recipient of U.S. military aid last year and the largest outside the Middle East.
“From the perspective of the paranoid old men in the Kremlin, they do feel that the West is fairly implacably hostile,” Mark Galeotti, a Russia analyst at Britain’s Royal United Services Institute, told Grid. “This fear that Ukraine could become some kind of NATO advanced base, it’s easy to dismiss using logic, but logic doesn’t necessarily apply.”
What war may look like
In his Feb. 24 declaration, Putin announced a “special military operation” aimed at the “demilitarization and denazification” of Ukraine. The strong implication, in this and his address that laid out his reasons for war, was that he wants to overthrow the government of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. At the same time, Putin said Russia did not plan to “occupy” Ukrainian territory. It’s hard to see how he does the first of those things without the second.
Russia may have wished for a short, sharp strike to decimate the Ukrainian military, humiliate its government, force Zelenskyy to make painful concessions, and perhaps expand the territory held by the now well-known breakaway regions of Donetsk and Luhansk. A precedent might have been Russia’s five-day invasion of Georgia in 2008.
But the operation in Ukraine almost immediately eclipsed the scope of that conflict, which killed roughly 850 people, including Georgian civilians and troops from both sides. Russian forces have attacked several Ukrainian cities — including Kyiv in the north, Kharkiv in the northeast and Kherson in the south — and met heavy resistance at every turn from Ukrainian soldiers and armed civilians. Western intelligence assessments released prior to the war suggested the Russian military would attempt to seize and hold large parts of Ukrainian territory outside the eastern Donbas region, if the aim really is to overthrow the Ukrainian government. In the latter scenario, a U.S. official quoted by NBC News estimated that between 25,000 and 50,000 civilians could be killed or wounded in the first two weeks of war. These same intelligence assessments were mostly correct in the lead-up to the invasion.
Few give Ukraine’s military (around 200,000 active personnel to Russia’s 850,000) much chance of defeating Russia in a conventional war, but it’s far stronger than it was when fighting first broke out in eastern Ukraine in 2014 and has received substantial military aid, including pledges from Germany and Sweden, countries with long-standing policies against such assistance. This time, the Russians certainly haven’t had the element of surprise on their side, and its troops are fighting on unforgiving (in some places even radioactive) terrain. It has proved to be a bloody fight.
There’s also the possibility that the war could turn into a long-running insurgency against the occupiers, with more ordinary citizens — many of whom now have combat experience after eight years of conflict — taking up arms, and the U.S. and European countries providing support. If Russia ends up waging a full-on counterinsurgency in Ukraine, including urban warfare and airstrikes on populated areas, a better guide to what it might look like are Russia’s two wars in Chechnya in the 1990s, where estimates suggest more than 100,000 people were killed.
From the beginning of the crisis, President Joe Biden has ruled out sending U.S. troops to defend Ukraine, a pledge he repeated after the war began; instead, the U.S. has stepped up its military assistance to the country and sent additional forces to NATO nations in Europe. Meanwhile, NATO members are drawing on military stockpiles to supply the Ukrainians with rifles, weaponized drones, Stinger anti-aircraft missiles and Javelin missiles capable of destroying armored vehicles.
Global Economy Lens
Energy crises: $100 oil and beyond
There is of course no comparing what Ukrainians are experiencing to the effects war will have outside the country, but global disruptions are likely. The war is already creating havoc in global energy markets — the price of oil has spiked north of $100 — and the trend may continue, particularly if Russia plays the strongest economic card it has to counter Western sanctions: slowing or entirely cutting off energy supplies to Europe.
Russia is a major player in the world energy markets, especially in shipping natural gas to Europe, where the hydrocarbons flowing from east to west make up about a third of the continent’s natural gas usage. While these pipelines are still in operation, the status of “energy as a weapon” remains one of the biggest unknowns of the crisis.
The knock-on effects of a disrupted or completely cutoff gas supply would be tremendous. It would likely reduce the supply of natural gas available for world consumption, potentially creating even more of an inflation crunch here at home.
Americans may think this is all happening “over there,” but disruptions in world energy prices could quickly be felt at home. Even though the United States is largely self-sufficient when it comes to oil production (and even exports oil), prices for oil are set globally and feed into consumer prices paid for gasoline, food and airfares, as well as natural gas price fluctuations affecting electricity costs.
Past episodes of high inflation, most notably the 1970s “Great Inflation,” have been associated with big run-ups in the price of oil. Also, for any given consumer, gasoline is likely the product they buy that exhibits the most volatility in its pricing, making it a key factor in changes in the overall landscape of consumer prices. And a substantial portion of the change in consumer prices over the past 18 months can be attributed to a rise in oil and gasoline prices.
If the Russian gas supply were to be cut off, “The volumes you’re talking about are so large that it’s unlikely Europe would get the gas it needs. It’s more than enough to cause the mother of all gas spikes but in the global natural gas market. Not just in Europe, but in Asia as well,” said Pierre Noël, a scholar at Columbia’s Center on Global Energy Policy.
Beyond oil and gas
Energy isn’t the only commodity to watch. The White House recently advised the U.S. semiconductor chip industry to diversify its supplies, anticipating Russian retaliation if the U.S. slaps severe export control sanctions on the country’s electronics industry. In particular, the war may threaten global supplies of key minerals used in chip production. Thirty-five percent of the palladium used by the industry is sourced from Russia, and 90 percent of the United States’ semiconductor-grade neon supplies come from Ukraine.
Ukraine is also one of the world’s largest wheat exporters and one of the top wheat suppliers to countries in North Africa and the Middle East. Egypt gets around 15 percent of its wheat from Ukraine. Wheat prices have already been driven higher by war fears, and wheat futures surged to a nine-year high on Feb. 24.
The first true cyberwar?
The crisis in Ukraine could mark a dubious global milestone: the first major military campaign bolstered by a large-scale cyber offensive.
Russia is waging war against Ukraine online as well as on the ground. Over the last few months, Russian cyberattacks have spread malware and taken down the websites of key Ukrainian agencies and the country’s leading banks.
The latest cyber barrage began Feb. 23, disrupting the websites of Ukraine’s Cabinet of Ministers, along with the country’s ministries of foreign affairs, infrastructure and many others. Also that day, cybersecurity researchers said they had discovered destructive malware on “hundreds of computers” in Ukraine that is capable of wiping data from infected machines. The source of the malware has not yet been identified.
In February, the country faced what Ukrainian officials said was the largest cyberattack of its kind in the country’s history, which Ukrainian and U.S. officials alike attributed to Russia. That attack took offline the websites of the country’s army, defense and foreign ministries, along with major banks. And in mid-January, Ukrainian government websites were targeted by malware designed to render infected computers inoperable.
Several experts said that Russia has far greater cyber capabilities than it has displayed in the Ukraine fight so far. None of the incidents has amounted to a cataclysmic cyberattack, said Andrei Soldatov, a senior fellow with the Center for European Policy Analysis and an investigative journalist who has covered Russia’s security services for more than two decades.
The U.S., EU and other Ukraine allies have said they are aiding Ukraine in hardening its cyberdefenses, and Biden has made clear that the U.S. will defend itself against any retaliatory attacks. But it’s not clear how far those allies are prepared to go to prevent a full-on cyber war.
“The last thing that the Biden administration wants to do is get into a tit-for-tat with Russia in cyberspace,” said Dmitri Alperovitch, founder of the Alperovitch Institute for Cybersecurity Studies at Johns Hopkins University and chairman of the Silverado Policy Accelerator, a D.C. think tank. “One of the advantages that the Russians have in cyberspace is that they don’t have any limits.”
Walking a geopolitical tightrope
As the bombs exploded across Ukraine and global leaders condemned Putin for the invasion, China stood almost alone.
Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Hua Chunying refused to call it an “invasion.” The history of the conflict was “complicated.” Asked about Putin’s false claim of genocide, Hua said, “we don’t go rushing to conclusions.” Later, in a call between Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov, Wang reiterated China’s respect for “sovereignty and territorial integrity” — a veiled word of support for Ukraine — while also saying that Russia had “legitimate concerns” regarding security issues.
China’s response reflects the strong and growing partnership that Presidents Xi Jinping and Putin have forged. The two leaders met at the Beijing Winter Olympics in February and said the friendship between their countries had “no limits.” They also signed a series of economic and trade deals that Putin wanted as part of a safeguard against the sanctions that loomed. These included $117.5 billion in new energy contracts with China, including a 30-year agreement between Russia’s Gazprom and the China National Petroleum Corporation to supply 10 billion cubic meters of gas per year via a new pipeline from Russia’s Far East region to northeast China.
Russia-China experts told Grid that those deals, and the general support Xi offered Putin at their Olympic summit, likely emboldened Putin as he considered war.
“I think China’s potential economic support for Russia plays a very important role in Russia’s decision-making. It was not a coincidence that Russia just signed multiple megadeals with China,” said Cheng Chen, a political scientist at the State University of New York at Albany. “Russia has been trying to ‘sanction-proof’ its economy in the past years, but these measures wouldn’t be effective without the support of an economic powerhouse like China.”
China’s leaders may not have condemned Russia’s attack, but they didn’t full back the invasion either. That diplomatic tightrope reflects China’s twin priorities: maintaining a bond with Russia against Western democracies while also demonstrating its commitment to upholding sovereignty and national borders — all while trying to maintain a relationship with the West.
There may be a Taiwan connection as well. China may be hoping Russia will reciprocate when it comes to China’s interests surrounding the island, which China has long sought to “reunify” with the mainland. “China wants Russian support on the Taiwan issue, especially in case of a possible future crisis,” Joseph Torigian, an assistant professor of international service at American University, told Grid. “For that purpose, it wouldn’t be useful if Moscow believes China did not provide support on Ukraine.”
Supporting Russia, supporting the sanctity of national borders and keeping some semblance of a relationship with the West — China’s balancing act was already precarious before the invasion. It may just have gotten a lot harder.
The information war
In the run-up to war, Russian-backed separatists were caught staging false flag attack videos that were then distributed in Russian state news sources to justify a Russian invasion.
One particularly grisly example involved an alleged improvised explosive device attack in eastern Ukraine. The video was analyzed by Grid and Victor Weedn, a renowned career forensic pathologist with experience examining victims of IED blasts and former chief of the Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory. The evidence, Weedn said, suggested a very different sequence of events: The person in the image had died sometime before, an autopsy had been performed on the body, the body was subsequently placed in the car, and the car was then torched.
It was one of many alleged false flag operations that circulated in pro-Russian media in the weeks before the war began. Reporters have also discovered falsified accounts posting divisive content about Western countries and Ukrainian leadership.
These incidents were only the latest chapter in Putin’s long-running elaborate campaign of disinformation — a mix of staged events, lies spread on social media and revisions of history spread by Putin himself. The culmination was Putin’s Feb. 21 Kremlin address, in which he promoted a pro-Russian view of history and falsely accused Ukraine of waging genocide against ethnic Russians inside its borders.
It’s a playbook similar to the one Putin employed in the buildup to the 2008 war in Georgia and the 2014 annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula. In both cases, the Kremlin claimed to be coming to aid beleaguered Russian residents. It also had echoes of the Soviet era, when press manipulation and official lies were commonplace.
“It seemed that there was a lot of continuity in the types of strategies, that you can really classify pro-Kremlin disinformation in ways that were very similar to ways that analysts 30 years ago, 40 years ago, had classified that disinformation,” said Aaron Erlich, a political scientist at McGill University who has researched disinformation in Ukraine.
“You distort and distract and give so many different versions and possibilities of things that it could have been,” Erlich said, “that people just give up trying to figure out anything that’s true or false.”
Can Putin win at this game? Can he be stopped?
It is too early to answer either question. And it remains entirely possible that Russia will manage to take the territories in eastern Ukraine. Installing a pro-Russian regime in Kyiv appears less likely now — given the retreat from the towns and cities that ring the capital.
But as the war continues, casualties are mounting, and Putin and his country are being battered by sanctions. The invasion has already brought several results likely to infuriate the Russian leader: the almost unprecedented unity within NATO, the Ukrainian resistance and its ability to slow or stall Russian military operations, and the beginnings of dissent within Russia itself.
Weeks before the first bombs fell, Serhii Plokhy, professor of Ukrainian history at Harvard University, told Grid that “Ukraine is much more pro-European and much more unified today than it ever was before the events of 2014. And Russia’s aggression is the sole, the most important factor in that development.”
In 2013, roughly 43 percent of Ukrainians approved of the Russian government; in 2018, the figure was 7 percent. In polls taken well before the war, some 64 percent of Ukrainians favor NATO membership, a number almost certain to rise. The figure hovered between 15-25 percent before the 2014 conflict.
“Russia’s capacity to misunderstand Ukraine is hard to overstate,” said Olga Oliker, program director for Europe and Central Asia at Crisis Group, speaking to Grid before the war. “When they look at what’s happening in Ukraine, they don’t see it as Ukraine making choices. They see it as Western influence. They see it as Western pressure. There’s this belief that there’s a silent majority in Ukraine that actually loves Russia, and that the Ukrainian government is acting against their interests.”
This story was originally published Feb. 24. It has since been updated.