Tensions along Russia’s border with Ukraine finally erupted into open warfare on 24 February as Vladimir Putin announced a “special military operation” in the eastern regions of the neighbouring state, confirming fears that had lingered since December that he was amassing troops intent on an invasion.
The Kremlin leader said he believed that Russia had to take decisive action to extinguish a threat to its national security and that Moscow planned to carry out the “demilitarisation and de-Nazification” of Ukraine by toppling its leadership, also promising to put an end to eight years of war in which government forces have been battling pro-Russian separatists.
In the months of fighting that has followed, the Russian military has bombarded cities like Kharkiv and Mariupol with intense shelling campaigns in tactics reminiscent of those previously deployed in Chechnya and Syria, while 5m people have fled for neighbouring Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, Romania and Moldova, creating a major humanitarian crisis.
Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelensky meanwhile continues to lead by example from the streets of Kyiv, tirelessly rallying the international community for support, as his people stage a courageous street-level fightback against Russia’s armed forces as best they can.
US president Joe Biden, UK prime minister Boris Johnson and UN secretary general Antonio Guterres have joined other global powers in condemning Moscow’s “unprovoked and unjustified” attack and promised to hold it “accountable”.
Mr Putin had previously continued to deny having any intention of invading the neighbouring state and had presented the West with a series of demands, including an end to the eastern expansion of North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato) membership to ex-Soviet states and the curtailment of US and alliance military activity on Russia’s doorstep.
Regional tensions were drastically ramped up on Monday 21 February when the Russian president and his security council moved to formally recognise two eastern Ukrainian breakaway regions, held by rebel groups, as independent states, giving his own country a pretext to send troops across the border while arguing that it was only doing so to protect its allies.
The decision to recognise the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) and Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR), which first declared independence in May 2014 and have been engaged in bloody conflict ever since, came after a direct appeal for military and financial aid from their respective leaders, Denis Pushilin and Leonid Pasechnik.
Russia has previously denied accusations from Ukraine and Nato that it had been helping to arm and fund the rebels in a fight that has cost more than 14,000 lives.
The international community immediately hit out at Russia’s latest chess move, with the United Nations Security Council expressing “great concern”.
Vassily Nebenzia, the Russian ambassador to the UN, had insisted there would be no “new bloodbath” in eastern Ukraine but warned the West to “think twice” before making matters worse.
That promise has already been savagely broken, with war crimes alleged as civilian targets like hospitals, residential buildings, nurseries and memorials have all been blasted by Russian bombs.
The UK, EU and US have all announced tough sanctions against Russian banks, businesses and oligarchs while German chancellor Olaf Scholz has said regulatory approval for the recently-completely Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline from Russia to Germany will be “reassessed” in light of the situation.
The escalation means that the frantic diplomatic efforts of the Western allies to find a peaceful solution to the tensions since the New Year came to nothing.
US secretary of state Antony Blinken, in particular, had worked hard to defuse the situation, urging Russia to avoid a return to Cold War-era hostilities as he held numerous talks with his Russian counterparts, Mr Zelensky and other European leaders.
UK foreign secretary Liz Truss, French president Emmanuel Macron and Mr Scholz had all in turn visited Moscow on the same mission but to no avail.
The issue of Ukraine’s exclusion from Nato has been a long-standing obsession for Mr Putin, who bitterly remembers the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union under his predecessor Boris Yeltsin in the 1990s as “a decade of humiliation” in which Bill Clinton’s US “imposed its vision of order on Europe (including in Kosovo in 1999) while the Russians could do nothing but stand by and watch”, according to diplomatic relations expert James Goldgeier.
Mr Yeltsin did write to Mr Clinton in September 1993 expressing similar concerns, however, saying: “We understand, of course, that any possible integration of East European countries into Nato will not automatically lead to the alliance somehow turning against Russia but it is important to take into account how our public opinion might react to that step.”
To address those anxieties, the Nato-Russia Founding Act was signed in 1997, a political agreement explicitly stating that: “Nato and Russia do not consider each other as adversaries.”
The formation of the Nato-Russia Council followed in 2002.
But Mr Putin is nevertheless said to begrudge what he regards as the alliance’s gradual extension eastwards, which saw ex-Soviet satellites Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland join in 1999, followed by Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia in 2004.
He chooses to interpret the recruitment of these nations as the US breaking a promise allegedly made by its then-secretary of state James Baker to Mikhail Gorbachev during a visit to Moscow in February 1990 to discuss German reunification following the fall of the Berlin Wall.
“There would be no extension of Nato’s jurisdiction for forces of Nato one inch to the east,” Mr Baker is supposed to have pledged to Mr Gorbachev, according to Russian officials, although the quote is heavily disputed and the latter denied the topic was ever discussed in an October 2014 interview with the Kommersant newspaper.
Mr Putin has nurtured his grievance ever since regardless, no doubt keen to foster anti-Western sentiment at home and consolidate his powerbase, and has strongly opposed both Georgia and Ukraine joining the alliance.
“It is obvious that Nato expansion does not have any relation with the modernisation of the alliance itself or with ensuring security in Europe,” he said at the Munich Security Conference in 2007. “On the contrary, it represents a serious provocation that reduces the level of mutual trust.”
The following April, attending a Nato summit in Bucharest, he was even more emphatic: “No Russian leader could stand idly by in the face of steps toward Nato membership for Ukraine. That would be a hostile act toward Russia.”
Four months later, Mr Putin invaded Georgia, destroying the country’s armed forces, occupying two autonomous regions and humiliating a president, Mikheil Saakashvili, who had openly courted Nato membership, actions that brought fresh international condemnation.
For its part, Nato’s official stance remains that “a sovereign, independent and stable Ukraine, firmly committed to democracy and the rule of law, is key to Euro-Atlantic security”.
It points out that its associations with the country date back to the disintegration of the USSR and that cooperation has had to be intensified in light of Russian regional aggression in 2014, when it annexed the Crimea Peninsula and supported the separatist insurgencies in DPR and LPR.
For the US, Ukraine’s path to Nato membership is less clear cut.
Mr Blinken told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee as recently as 8 June 2021 that “we support Ukraine membership in Nato” but his deputy, Wendy Sherman, was cagier when she addressed the issue in January, saying only: “Together, the United States and our Nato allies made clear we will not slam the door shut on Nato’s open door policy – a policy that has always been central to the Nato alliance.”
Mr Biden, the former top Democrat and later chair of that same committee, had previously believed that turning former Soviet republics into Nato allies marked “the beginning of another 50 years of peace” but has since pivoted to scepticism about US involvement in far-flung “Forever Wars”, hence the hurried withdrawal from Afghanistan last summer after 20 years of peace-keeping occupation.
He is also known to be determined to see political and judicial corruption stamped out in Ukraine and reluctant to further provoke the Russian bear, having lived most of his life through the era of mutually-assured destruction, especially given that the security threat posed by China is a current priority that cannot be ignored.
Without Ukraine being part of the alliance, the US and Nato are under no treaty obligation to come to its aid if Russia attacks, whereas those security assurances are extended to nearby Baltic states like Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania since they signed up with the 2004 induction.
All three could become potential future targets for Russian annexation, incidentally, if the current situation leaves Mr Putin feeling emboldened.
That said, Mr Biden’s sabre-rattling rhetoric strongly suggests he is prepared to intervene in some form, even if that does not mean American boots on the ground.
The US provided Ukraine with $200m in defensive military aid in January (and has given $2.5bn since 2014) while the Pentagon has said it already has 200 National Guard troops stationed in the country already.
If it were to offer more direct defensive resources, the US would be in a position to provide Ukraine with a broad range of assistance free of charge, from air defence, anti-tank and anti-ship systems, electronic warfare and cyber defence systems to supplies of small arms and artillery ammunition.
“The key to thwarting Russian ambitions is to prevent Moscow from having a quick victory and to raise the economic, political, and military costs by imposing economic sanctions, ensuring political isolation from the West, and raising the prospect of a prolonged insurgency that grinds away the Russian military,” Seth Jones and Philip Wasielewski have written in an analysis of the situation for the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
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