As the crisis over Russia’s massive buildup of military forces threatening Ukraine rolls on, events have begun to develop with startling speed.
While one supposed Russian invasion date has come and gone, the crisis now appears to be reaching its most tense moment yet, as a quiet Wednesday gave way to a spate of potential pretexts for war by Friday afternoon.
February 16 was the first flashpoint. That date, according to US President Joe Biden and other top intelligence officials, was the most likely time for a Russian invasion of Ukraine to occur.
In the event, nothing came to pass. The most exciting event on Wednesday in Kyiv, slated to be a primary target of any mass Russian offensive, was the gathering of perhaps 50 people at the city’s downtown Maidan Square to mark the newly created ‘Day of Unity’ holiday.
As Russian officials announced that some of their exercises in Belarus were ending, the mood seemed to be easing following weeks of building drama.
But it was not to last. Russia continued to move its forces closer to Ukraine’s borders over the following day, in contravention of its withdrawal announcement. Concern was also building over a resolution the Russian Duma (parliament) had passed on Tuesday, calling on Russian President Vladimir Putin to recognize the independence of the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics (DNR/LNR), the two Russian-backed breakaway states formed in 2014.
For those in Kyiv, the idea that Moscow might recognize the puppet republics was simply the latest in a long list of Kremlin manoeuvres.
“Let them,” said Anna Kozlova, a 28-year old writer originally from Donetsk, when asked what she thought about the potential Russian recognition. “[I don’t think] these people will be able to reintegrate into Ukrainian society [anyways]. It might sound harsh, but we [Ukraine] are doing just fine without these people and territories,” Kozlova said.
Others echoed her sentiments.
“My emotional answer: f*** Russia, their president, their parliament, and every single one of those who keep voting for and supporting those who are currently in power there,” said Dmytro Shevtsov, a 28-year old IT worker in Kyiv. “More rationally, I don’t care if [Russia] recognizes DNR and LNR as independent. The vast majority of the civilized world recognises these territories as Ukrainian. I hope if [Russia] does recognise them, the West will finally at least put in place those devastating sanctions we’ve been hearing about,” Shevtsov said.
On a higher level, any DNR/LNR recognition would torpedo any remaining chance of salvaging the 2014 Minsk agreement, whose implementation – especially the veto it would grant for a reintegrated Donetsk and Luhansk over Ukrainian foreign policy – Moscow has been pushing for in recent months.
“Any DNR or LNR recognition would have serious implications for how Russia is seen [by the international community,” said Vasyl Myroshnychenko, co-founder of the Kyiv-based Ukrainian Crisis Media Center. “Recognition means the end of the Minsk deal, and one step closer to war. Its only purpose would be to put Ukraine in a corner and have us surrender and implement changes to the constitution, which is totally unpalatable and the Ukrainian people would not allow [Ukrainian President Volodymyr] Zelensky to do if he tried,” Myroshnychenko said.
Meanwhile, much of the focus now is on the various pretexts Russia and its puppet republics in eastern Ukraine have been rolling out in apparent justification of their forthcoming assault, with one potential casus belli after another appearing on Friday alone.
At mid-afternoon on Friday, DNR and Russian news agencies suddenly announced that they had foiled a “Ukrainian chemical weapons attack”, in which Ukrainian commandos had supposedly attempted to detonate a chlorine gas tank in DNR territory.
Shortly thereafter, DNR leader Denis Pushilin announced that the DNR was conducting a full-scale evacuation of its population to Russia ahead of an alleged imminent Ukrainian invasion. The LNR followed suit shortly thereafter, including a call to all military-age men in the territory to “take up arms” to combat Ukrainian troops.
At a joint press conference with Putin, Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko blamed Ukraine and the West for putting Europe “on the brink of the largest war” on the continent in 30 years.
Events further escalated into Friday evening. As civilian evacuations from the DNR and LNR got underway, Donetsk authorities announced another apparent provocation. A major bomb blast near the DNR government building in downtown Donetsk had occurred, reportedly targeting the car of DNR army chief Denis Sinenkov. The explosion was immediately breathlessly covered by Russian media, including Semyon Pegov (aka WarGonzo), forming one of the clearest pretexts for upcoming violence to date.
The events form a series of expected pretexts to present Russian military action as defensive in nature, said Myroshnychenko.
“We will surely see more of such provocations in the leadup [to any assault],” Myroshnychenko said. “False flag operations especially will be the grounds for any further invasion,” he added.
Meanwhile, reports suggest that the Russian army is in position to break their Ukrainian adversaries in the field in a matter of just days once the order is given.
A new report released on February 16 by the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), a UK defence think-tank, outlined in stark terms what a Russian offensive would likely entail. The report found, based on interviews with Western and Ukrainian defence and intelligence sources, that Russia’s first moves “could involve a push west from Rostov Oblast, reinforcing the DPR and LPR and assaulting the line of contact”. The second and third axes of attack would come from Russia’s Belgorod region (pushing southwest into northeast Ukraine) and into southern Ukraine from Crimea. Two further thrusts could also appear from Gomel in Belarus (“to encircle or overrun Kyiv”) and from Belarus’s Brest (“to physically block Ukraine from receiving assistance overland from Nato countries”). In any event, RUSI concludes that the Ukrainian capital would be the “main target” of any mass Russian operation.
At the time of writing, the descent towards war was picking up ever-greater speed. DNR leader Pushilin claimed that Ukraine could “launch its assault at any time”. Separatist media had begun to report Russian military vehicles entering the DNR and LNR.
For average Ukrainians, meanwhile, the only thing left to do was sit and wait for whatever may come.
“I do hope this is just Putin's desperate attempt to turn the attention and the time of the world leaders to himself,” said Kozlova. “But I’m not so sure – Russia has no limits to its aggression and stupidity,” she added.
“I hope diplomacy prevails,” said Shevtsov. “And to quote [a friend], 'Ukraine was, is, and will be.’”