Thought Leadership

Ukraine war
The Ukraine War has a long history

A large-scale war was looming, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko warned towards the end of 2018. A few weeks earlier – on 26 November 2018 – he had imposed martial law on Ukraine in response to a massive concentration of Russian troops along the border between the two countries. While the EU made initial statements about possible new sanctions against Russia, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Grushko explicitly warned the West against this approach. At the beginning of 2022, the situation was not much different, certainly not more peaceful. No doubt also distracted by the coronavirus crisis, the international community of states had not taken advantage of the preceding three years to de-escalate the situation in Ukraine. At least there were words of warning to prevent a renewed Cold War at all costs.

Not a day without concern

The threat of war also once again gave UN Secretary-General António Guterres cause to express his concern. In fact, hardly one day went by without him publicly expressing his concern about some global development. Conflicts, wars, drought, famine, refugees, humanitarian disasters – there is nothing that the UN Secretary-General does not either condemn or deplore, or both. It is good that someone in this meaningful position is drawing attention to the misery and warmongering in the world. But apart from regrets and admonishments, the effects are usually negligible. This was also the case when the Ukraine/Russia crisis flared up at the end of 2018, on which Guterres declared in New York that further escalation must be avoided at all costs and that both sides must show restraint and take immediate steps to reduce tensions. By this time, at the end of 2021, the armed conflict in Ukraine had already claimed the lives of more than 10,000 people.

The crisis of 2018, 2019, 2020, 2021 and 2022 had begun with a naval confrontation in the Black Sea on Sunday, 25 November 2018, in remembrance of the deceased. Russian forces had fired on and boarded three Ukrainian naval vessels. Several Ukrainian marines were injured, and others arrested. Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko gave completely different accounts of the events at sea. What exactly had happened remained unclear. But when war breaks out, the question of who started it is secondary to the question of how to contain and end it.

Rapprochement with the EU fails

The war in Ukraine entered 2019 with a headlong escalation and turned out to be even more dramatic in early 2022 but it had begun long before in 2004, when the then Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko declared that his country aspired to early membership in the European Union. On 9 September 2008, Ukraine and the EU did indeed strike far-reaching accord on an Association Agreement.

The European Commission announced: "The EU is committed to an increasingly close partnership with Ukraine, aiming at gradual economic integration and deepening political cooperation. The announcement by the Ukrainian government in November 2013 that it would not sign the Association Agreement with the European Union for the time being was even more surprising. As a result, civil protests broke out in Ukraine, the so-called "Euromaidan," which continued to intensify for months and were fought by the Ukrainian police with excessive violence.

In this situation, the Russian government apparently saw its chance to stop Ukraine's rapprochement with the European Union and to annexe at least parts of the country, especially the eastern Ukrainian areas ("oblasts") of Donetsk and Luhansk. In both areas, pro-Russian forces began to work towards secession. It remained unclear to what extent exactly the Russian government fomented the emerging unrest, but it was clear that Russian-backed militias, regular Russian and Ukrainian troops and volunteer militias participated in the fighting. To all appearances, the military conflict did not start with the inhabitants but with the armed units. In this respect, one cannot speak of a civil war. Russia played a downright deadly farce when state media announced that Russian soldiers had voluntarily travelled to the combat zone – some even as tourists – and died on the spot as "heroes." Several paratroopers had landed in Ukraine by mistake, Russian information policy played straight with the world. The Ukrainian government declared some 4,000 pro-Russian fighters to be terrorists.

But Russia fought back militarily, and diplomatically as well. For example, on 15 April 2014, Russian President Vladimir Putin demanded in a telephone conversation with UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon that the United Nations" condemn the unconstitutional actions of the leaders in Kiev." Ukraine had already appealed to the UN and called for the deployment of Blue Helmets. This was rejected by Ban Ki-moon with the words "We cannot launch an operation without a clear mandate from the Security Council." It had long been clear to the UN Secretary-General that, in view of Russia's veto, the Security Council would never agree to a mandate in Ukraine. The United Nations was – once again – caught in the veto trap.

After all, in June 2014, i.e. a brief time later, the United Nations complained of massive human rights violations in Ukraine.  A month later, the UN declared a total breakdown of law and order and spoke of a reign of terror by armed groups over the population with deprivations of freedom, kidnappings, torture and executions.

UN appeals to the OSCE remain futile

Nevertheless, the UN avoided direct interference beyond observation and comment and escalated the conflict to the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), a permanent peacekeeping conference of states affiliated to it under Chapter VIII of the UN Charter. As the name suggests, the OSCE is primarily responsible for Europe – and thus certainly for the Ukraine conflict – but the fifty-seven participating states, including all European countries and Turkey and all successor states of the Soviet Union, also include the USA and Canada. In this way, the OSCE in a way reflects the battle fronts of the Cold War, and the conflict in Ukraine indeed turned out to be a kind of revival of the Cold War that had probably been long thought forgotten at this time.

The OSCE failed completely to defuse the military conflict. Even in the period of a fragile ceasefire – the so-called "Minsk I Protocol" – starting in September 2014, which the OSCE monitored, 1,300 combatants and civilians died within four months. Even after a renewed ceasefire agreement in February 2015 – Minsk II – the fighting did not stop but continued year after year.

In 2017 alone, the OSCE registered over 400,000 (!) violations of the ceasefire. It is like a Swiss cheese with so many holes that you cannot see any cheese at all. The OSCE had over seven hundred observers on duty, who prepared a report day after day, recording every little detail of the shift. In view of the extremely confusing situation, this was a mammoth bureaucratic task, but it did not bring one iota  of relief to the people in the strife-torn regions.

It was so obvious from the beginning that the infiltration of Ukraine by Russian troops was part of a plan by Russia to regain, at least in small parts, its territory that had shrunk with the end of the Soviet Union. As early as February 2014, a strategy paper circulated that described Russia's possible behaviour towards Ukraine in seven points. Shortly afterwards, the first troops without sovereignty markings invaded the peninsula. They were obviously Russian troops, as Russian President Vladimir Putin admitted on Russian state television about a year later. On 18 March 2014, Crimea was officially annexed by Russia.

Crimea belonged to Russia since Catherine the Great

From the Russian perspective, the state had only appropriated what had always belonged to it. After all, the Crimea had already been declared Russian "henceforth and for all time" on 8 April 1783 by the Russian Empress Catherine II. – also known as "Catherine the Great "– after she had detached the peninsula from the Ottoman Empire in the Russo-Turkish War of 1768-1774. Since the annexation in 2014, Crimea has de facto belonged to Russia again, although the community of states continued to classify Crimea as an autonomous republic within Ukrainian territory. This was also the attitude of the United Nations when it urged the preservation of the territorial integrity of Ukraine within its internationally recognised borders in UN General Assembly Resolution A/RES/68/262 entitled "Territorial Integrity of Ukraine."

In the UN Security Council, a resolution to this effect was initially rejected by Russia, so the General Assembly took up the issue. The resolution had no impact; only the Security Council could have decided to deploy Blue Helmets. But there was no mandate for that, nor would the deployment of UN-troops against the Russian military have been a conceivable option even for a moment. – At worst, this would have turned the looming new Cold War into a real war.

This was also indicated by the New Year's speech of Ukrainian head of state Volodymyr Zelensky at the beginning of 2022, who envisaged the prospect of reconquering the Crimean Peninsula annexed by Russia in 2014 and regaining control over eastern Ukraine occupied by pro-Russian separatists – both military goals that are considered hardly enforceable.

When the newly appointed German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock arrived in Ukraine for her inaugural visit in January 2022, this should have been an occasion for celebration: 30 years of diplomatic relations between the two countries. But the massive presence of Russian troops near the Ukrainian border at that time and the threatening rhetoric from Moscow did not create a mood of celebration; instead, naked fear of an imminent war prevailed. The German Foreign Minister made it clear that Germany was prepared to do everything to guarantee Ukraine's security. But what could this "everything" be? Annalena Baerbock said: "And the most effective lever we have to back Ukraine is the unequivocal and above all the unanimous commitment of the EU, the G7, NATO that any further aggression would come at a high price for the Russian regime. Economically, politically and strategically."  German Chancellor Olaf Scholz described the situation on the Ukrainian-Russian border as "very, very serious." Military aggression against Ukraine would have grave political as well as economic consequences. "Right now, it was important to do everything possible to avoid any such development occurring," he added, "since all parties would ultimately suffer."

How seriously Russia's President Vladimir Putin took these warnings in January 2022 can be gauged from the fact that he seized the opportunity to flex his military muscles in the direction of Europe.

Russia strikes out

After the successful conquest of Crimea from Russia's point of view, there were many indications in 2022 that the Kremlin would by no means leave it at that. Already since spring 2021, there has been a massive build-up of Russian troops along the Ukrainian border with around 100,000 soldiers. Not only Ukraine, the largest country in Europe after Russia, felt massively threatened by this.

Against the backdrop of a feared Russian attack on Ukraine and in contrast to Germany, the UK supplied weapons to the country at the turn of the year 2021/22. "We have taken the decision to supply Ukraine with light, anti-armour, defensive weapon systems," British Defence Secretary Ben Wallace justified in January 2022, stressing: "They are not strategic weapons and pose no threat to Russia. They are for use in self-defence." The answer from Moscow followed directly in every respect: "This is extremely dangerous and does nothing to reduce tensions."

At about the same time, Sweden's Defence Minister Peter Hultqvist declared on television: "A military attack on Sweden can no longer be ruled out." He was referring to an attack by Russia. Sweden redeployed soldiers and armoured vehicles to its Baltic Island of Gotland and made  "visible and invisible emergency preparations for defence," as the Minister put it. This was preceded by the appearance of three heavy landing craft from the Russian Northern Fleet in the Baltic Sea, which joined forces with three landing craft from Kaliningrad and all roamed the southern Baltic Sea.

A few days earlier, in a phone call with Ukrainian leader Volodymyr Zelensky, US President Joe Biden had assured that the USA and its allies would respond decisively to a Russian invasion of Ukraine and reaffirmed US support for "the sovereignty and territorial integrity" of Ukraine. The conversation with Ukraine was preceded by a phone call with Russian President Vladimir Putin, in which Biden had stated that the USA and its allies would "respond decisively should Russia further invade Ukraine". However, he left the world in the dark about the details of such a reaction. Putin stuck to his formulaic threat that Russia would fight back if Ukraine or Western states crossed the "Red Line". Putin understood this to mean the stationing of additional weapons in Ukraine, the relocation of troops on NATO territory to the Russian border, for example in the Baltic States, or even the admission of Ukraine to NATO. In fact, Moscow demanded comprehensive security guarantees, including a commitment from NATO that Ukraine would not be admitted to the military alliance. However, this is precisely what the alliance rejected and conversely demanded a withdrawal of Russian troops from the Ukrainian border area.

US President Joe Biden branded a possible Russian invasion of Ukraine in early 2022 as the "biggest invasion since World War II" that would "change the world". In response, the USA threatened "severe consequences"; however, Biden makes it clear at the same time that he has "no intention of sending US units or NATO units to Ukraine". Rather, economic sanctions were at the forefront of the US threats at that time.

On Februar, 24, 2022, the Russian invasion into Ukraine started and we see the situation getting worse every day on TV.