Russian invasion of Ukraine, one year on and what happens next
Russia should not be underestimated says security expert
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The world could barely believe it when the first Russian soldiers crossed over into Ukraine. Missiles were fired at Kyiv, and within days, Russian troops were moving to encircle the capital. Yet all the warning signs were there. Vladimir Putin had been amassing his troops along Ukraine’s eastern border for a whole year before February 24, 2022. At one point, there were at least 100,000 troops lined up. They were waiting for the green light. Europe dismissed this. Putin won’t invade Ukraine, they said. Why would anyone want to start a war in the 21st century — in Europe of all places? And then it happened.
But where are we now? And what direction are we going in? Express.co.uk takes a look at the longest year in European history for more than half a century.
What has happened so far?
It was early morning when missile strikes were reported to have hit parts of Kyiv in late February 2022. Ukraine, it was thought, was wholly unprepared for the invasion.
Experts and commentators put President Volodymyr Zelensky’s chances of fending off the Russian Armed Forces at slim odds. But that’s exactly what happened.
While Russian forces and saboteurs managed to make their way into Kyiv, it wasn’t enough to take over the city. Ukrainian citizens refused to leave, thousands of them agreeing to take up arms.
During this time, several attempts were made on Zelensky’s life. He hunkered down in a bunker beneath Bankova, Ukraine’s equivalent of Downing Street.
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When Russian propagandists told Ukrainians that Zelensky had fled the country, it risked throwing the country into despair.
But, within hours, there he was: Zelensky, in Kyiv, above ground with his senior advisers. It was the second night of fighting, and many have argued that that 40-second video put Ukraine on its current course.
The war has been marked by key events. March has been the bloodiest month of the war. According to the United Nations (UN), more civilians died then— 3,326 — than in any other month since.
It was in March that the Bucha massacre occurred, where hundreds of Ukrainian civilians were found piled in the streets of the Kyiv suburb, some showing signs of rape and torture by Russian soldiers and hired mercenaries like the Wagner Group. Ukrainian authorities found evidence of some civilians being decapitated.
Where are we now?
Throughout 2022 Putin said he was ready to negotiate with Ukraine, that it was Zelensky who was the one preventing the war from ending. His annual state address on February 21 contradicted this claim.
Natia Seskuria, founder and Director of the Georgia-based Regional Institute for Security Studies (RISS) said the speech solidified his position: that Russia will not stop until it gets what it wants.
“I don’t see any signs at all that he’s willing to back down or he’s willing to negotiate now,” she said.
Perhaps it is because of the vast amount of support Zelensky has attracted. He has toured Europe and the US, taking with him a shopping list including fighter jets and tanks. For a long time, the West refused to budge on tanks. Then they conceded.
They are now refusing to hand over what Zelensky describes as “wings for freedom”. If recent history is anything to go by, Zelensky may well get his wish.
Just hours after Putin gave his speech to a Moscow crowd, in a European city not that far away, US President Joe Biden was defiant in his support for Ukraine. He vowed that Russia would “never” win the war and that his and the West’s support for the country “will not waver”.
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Russia is up against it. It continues to lose men — a figure that some estimates claim is as high as 60,000 — and is fighting with subpar weaponry.
Ukraine has some of the best military technology on the market: Leopard 2 tanks, Bradley Fighting Vehicles, S-300 air defence systems, HIMARS systems, Nlaw anti-tank weapons, Bayraktar TB2 drones. The list goes on.
But what Russia lacks in firepower it makes up for in men. It is thought as many as 100,000 soldiers have died on the Ukrainian side.
Putin is preparing 300,000 soldiers to enter eastern Ukraine for Russia’s spring offensive alone.
What happens next?
The potential scenarios are tenfold. Looking at Russia’s military performance in the last 12 months, Dr Neil Melvin, Director of International Security Studies at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) describes it as having gone through an “arc”.
In the beginning, Russia stood 10 feet tall. It then shrank and waned, and the Ukrainians took the world by surprise, winning key battles and gaining ground. Things plateaued over the winter. Dr Melvin told Express.co.uk: “But I think what we’re seeing now is that the Russians are improving.”
Putin’s military is rapidly mobilising in eastern Ukraine. Hundreds of thousands of fresh recruits are preparing to be sent into the country. New equipment is being rolled out and made.
“They’re strengthening their command and control, and they’ve been bringing in mercenary groups like Wagner,” Dr Melvin said. “These groups have begun operating into a single command structure.
“The Russians are still performing badly, but they are getting better. This is something we have to watch quite carefully.”
Much has been said of Russia’s spring offensive. Military officials say it will arrive unannounced, from several directions, and with tactics that haven’t yet been seen, deploying its airforce, for example.
Dr Melvin explained: “What the main plan now looks to be is to try to take as much of the Donbas as is possible. And this is the minimum victory condition Putin wants, to take these territories.
“If he can take the Luhansk and Donetsk regions — and these have already been formally, though not recognised, annexed into Russia – that is a minimum basis for declaring some kind of victory based on the original invasion or invasion of last year.”
What about nuclear warfare? In his state address, Putin issued a new threat to the West after he suspended a landmark nuclear arms control treaty. He said strategic systems had been put on combat duty — threatening to re-start nuclear tests.
But Putin hasn’t pulled out of the treaty, he’s suspended Russia’s participation. “Although there is no clause in the treaty to allow you to suspend your participation,” said Dr Melvin. “So we’re in no man’s land.”
He continued: “What it shows is two things: that the whole relationship between Russia and the West is now basically poisoned, and that there is now an arms race going on which is starting to extend even to the nuclear side. Clearly, we have a convention to arms build up on both sides now.”
NATO may well be forced to step up its nuclear activities, he said, adding that the situation now risks spiralling to an international level, “not only with the US and Russia but also China starting to look at possibly rebuilding their nuclear-armed forces which have been in decline since the Cold War.”
Often overlooked and forgotten about is the position of countries bordering Ukraine and Russia, places like the Caucasus and Central Asia.
In this sense, Ms Seskuria from the RISS, said the main issue is growing uncertainty in the near regions, because “it seems like this war is becoming a long-term military engagement from the Russians”.
Even if Russia is defeated in Ukraine, she said, its regional ambitions will remain. It will still have its eye on the likes of Georgia, the Central Asian countries, and Moldova. “Certainly, the South Caucasus is the area where Russia sees itself as being a dominant power,” she said.
“There are many questions we need to ask ourselves, but most importantly: what kind of capabilities will Russia have post-war to exert its influence in the region?”
Even in the multiple outcomes that face a Putin defeat — Putin and his regime are deposed from power; Putin remains in power; Putin transfers power to a confidante — Russia, Ms Seskuria said, will still remain a great player in the game of politics.
She said: “At this point, we need to think about a more realistic scenario of Russian defeat.
“But others, too: circumstances in which Putin’s regime is not totally destroyed. Under those outcomes, I think it is quite plausible that Russia may even become a more proactive actor in the region.”
Georgia has seen an influx of Russians fleeing the war, most of them young men of fighting age. No visa rules for Russians in the country mean that many may relocate there for extended periods of time.
Concerns are growing that portions of these young men may come to pose a security threat to Georgia and the wider region.
Ms Seskuria said: “It is very hard to differentiate between what kind of intentions these Russian citizens have coming to Georgia: whether they are really against the regime and under pressure, or whether they are agents of influence.”
In other countries, pro-Russian protests are sending alarm bells ringing. Ms Seskuria expects more disinformation campaigns in former Soviet Union countries, like Moldova.
The country has recently pleaded with the EU for help to protect itself from an invasion, Russian Armed Forces are already present in the breakaway state of Transnistria which is inside its own borders.
Ms Seskuria said more “subversive” methods will be taken by Moscow in regard to Moldova. She explained: “The primary goal would be to discredit the government within the population to deepen the polarisation, and to make sure they capitalise on some of the vulnerable issues that have concerned the population.”
The war has crept into all parts of both Europe and international life. Even when it comes to an end, the social, economic, and political transformations it has set into motion will remain for decades to come. What those effects may be are yet to be seen.
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