Ukraine is a historically and geographically important country to Russia. It is important historically because old Russian state “Rus” started in Kiev and two countries are bound with indispensable cultural ties. Ukraine is important to Russia geographically because it is in its Western border and the “westernization” of the country is seen as an existential threat to Russia.
Brief History of the Conflict
The Russian-Ukrainian relationship worsened after 2013 autumn revolutionary events which came to be known as Euromaidan. However, the revolution was not supported by all parts of Ukraine: pro-Russian protests began in the eastern and southern part of Ukraine. In response to the change of government and the shift in foreign policy, the Ukraine’s aspiration to be part of EU and NATO, Russia invaded and annexed Crimea in 2014. Using the big Russian diaspora in Eastern part of Ukraine, Russia also managed to militarize the conflict between new Ukrainian government and separatist forces in Donbas region in a sense that the average protests transformed into armed clashed with the delivery of weaponry to the separatist region by Russia.
The Normandy format was created to be the forum for the negotiation which included the leaders of Ukraine, Russia, France and Germany. With the help of the Normandy format there were two ceasefire agreements in 2014 September (Minsk I) and 2015 February (Minsk II) so far and both of them were breached by both sides. Apart from ceasefire provisions dealing with the withdrawal of weaponry and the exchange of prisoners of war, the Minsk II agreement also encompassed provisions giving certain authority to Donbas region republics through elections, at the same time maintaining Ukraine’s sovereignty “restore control of the state border to the Ukrainian government in the whole conflict zone.” In addition to that the agreement was demanding a constitutional reform in Ukraine to be able to give the authority and election opportunity to Donbas region, which was itself a big hit at Ukraine’s sovereignty. However, taking into account heavy losses of Ukrainian army, it wouldn’t have been welcomed by the public as it would mean surrendering to Moscow.
Although it was announced in 2008 that Ukraine’s candidacy will be considered for the membership in NATO, the talks over joining it stopped after Russian invasion of the Crimea and the start of military support to the separatist forces in Donbas region. Since the war broke out in 2014, the USA with its NATO allies became reluctant about being dragged into an armed confrontation with Moscow. In contrast, given the fact of constant worries in Russia about NATO enlargement towards its borders not once has the Kremlin shown its readiness to use military forces to console their national security concerns. Moreover, there would be much more public support in Russia for militarization than in the US: the vivid example is the increase in the reputation of Putin after the annexation of the Crimea.
Escalation of the Crisis in 2021-2022
The dense concentration of forces in both sides started in the spring of 2021. The negotiation process with the mediation of France and Germany, only led to publishing confidential diplomatic correspondence by Russia. The diplomatic letters concerned the meeting which was supposed to be on 21st of November 2021 in the framework of Normandy format, where the foreign minister of Russia Lavrov couldn’t be present. The absence of Lavrov was interpreted by Western partners as an unwillingness to negotiate while the official letters showed that it was announced beforehand from Russian side that Lavrov wouldn’t be available at that time. The aim of this act, which obviously was not approved by all sides, was to demonstrate that European officials fully sided with Ukraine. Shortly after this incident speaking at the Foreign Ministry in November 2021, Putin called for “serious, long-term guarantees that ensure Russia’s security in this area, because Russia cannot constantly be thinking about what could happen there tomorrow”. The statement demanding long term guarantees had two interpretations. First scenario was Moscow’s awareness that Kyiv was preparing for the military resolution of the conflict, and the second one that Moscow itself was preparing for the invasion and warning about the upcoming events. The problem was that even if Ukraine had started conducting military operations and Russia only responded, it would still have been seen as an invasion, because Ukraine would have been acting in its internationally recognized territory. Taking into account some events on a larger geopolitical scale it appeared to Russia that Ukraine may consider seizing back the disputed territories by force. The first geopolitical event was the shift of power from Republican to Democratic in the White House and the victory of Biden, which meant a major shift in the foreign policy of the US in a sense that the US will be more engaged in the world politics.
In addition, inspired by the example of Karabakh war, where Turkey backed Azerbaijani forces seizing back the disputed territories, Ukraine deepened its relations with Turkey which got to even buying Bayraktar drones. However, Turkey has so far stuck to neutrality concerning this conflict. During his visit to Ukraine in February 2022 Erdogan recalled 2015 Minsk agreement and even suggested his role of mediator to organize talks between the countries. On the one hand, given the history of geopolitical rivalry between Turkey and Russia in the regional conflicts such as Syria, Libya and South Caucasus, it is not ruled out that the two countries will find themselves in opposing positions in this conflict too. On the other hand, taking into consideration the constructive relationship of the recent years between two presidents the new confrontation between them is becoming less probable. The recent and vivid example was Nagorno Karabakh war where Russia succeeded to stop the war when Azerbaijani forces’ victory became evident due to Turkey’s substantial support. In the meeting which took place on March 16, 2022 in Moscow between Russian foreign minister Lavrov and Turkish foreign minister Cavusoglu, Turkey once more offered its role of mediator in the conflict basing its proposal on the fact that they have constructive relationship with both countries and share a border with them. Turkey’s position in the conflict has been ambivalent as it has shown its support to Ukrainian side but has also opposed to the sanctions against Russia.
The discourse of “Finlandization” of Ukraine was brought back to the negotiation table in Autumn by Macron. This kind of settlement of the conflict was first offered by Kissinger back in 2014 when Russian-Ukrainian tensions reached their peak. It implies that Ukraine will maintain neutrality in its foreign policy (as Finland did during Cold war period): that is to say it will not join or strive to join the NATO, but will get freedom in its economic and political affiliations based on the will of Ukrainian people. However, this will require a major shift from a long term goal of Ukraine to join NATO on the one side and will open a ground to extend the influence for Russia on the other side. With the growing animosity within society in Ukraine and rejection of “anything Russian,” it might be reasonable for Ukraine to follow this path of “Finlandization.” The question remains who will implement it. Obviously, the imposition from Russia wouldn’t be the reasonable method as it will meet the expectable hostile resistance. Moreover, Russia itself needs to make concessions, because as Lavrov stated Russia’s position, “Russia’s core demands of its safety stipulated in draft treaties shouldn’t be taken as a menu for the West to pick the favorable ones, but they should be negotiated as a package.” To what extent West is ready to do that is still an open question taking into account the policy of Biden’s administration.
Talking about Biden’s administration, it needs to be mentioned that constant comments and evaluation on the probability of war were mostly coming from the US. It is not usual in history when a third country is announcing a date of invasion of two hostile states. This could have the goal of presenting any other result than inevitable war as a “small” victory of West over Russia. In case of invasion the US would have proven to be right and the image of Russia as aggressor would have been demonstrated to the international community while in case of absence of an invasion it would have been proven that the West managed to put pressure on Russia and prevent the war. The subsequent events showed that the US was right about invasion.
The West’s response along with discourse was going with preparations of unprecedented sanctions. It is a fact that Russian economy largely depends on the export of gas to the EU and even more it needs western technologies to expand its industrial capacities. The sanctions were expected to have a social influence, too: to aggravate the social attitudes that exist towards the current authorities and become a ground for a new wave of mass discontent and demonstrations. However, Kremlin has a rich and effective experience in silencing the protests. Nevertheless, the opposite view also exists. Those who believe that sanctions could have prevented Russia from invading Ukraine or punished it for doing so need to understand that the most aggressive part of the Russian leadership is not opposed to Western sanctions against oligarchs, banks, companies, national debt, and so on. In this case, the ideal scenario would be a sovereign socioeconomic autarky, the end of ties with the West, the complete sovereignization of the elite, and the substitution of everything possible, even if that requires assistance from friendly China. There is already to some extent similar situation in Iran, which may be taken as a role model in this case.
Speaking about Russian preparations in 2021 half a million Ukrainians held Russian passports which was supposed to be a rough million at the end of the year. This mass distribution of the passports had two obvious purposes. First one that in case of military operation by Ukrainian forces Russia would have had the excuse “to protect its citizens at risk”, a principle which is stipulated in Medvedev doctrine far back in 2010. And in the second case, which was less probable, if Ukraine seized the power back on disputed territories it would be difficult to integrate those citizens, they would serve a sort of Trojan horse to Russia’ interests. The war that broke out on February 23 showed that there was no need of Ukrainian initiative to start the “special operation.”
Russia lost the Cold War to the West and it continues losing political and economic influence and territories on which it had influence as USSR’s locomotive and was hoping to keep it in post-Soviet period, too. The West in its turn thinks that it can keep on extending its influence to Russia’s borders. There were 5 waves of enlargement of NATO after agreement with Russia to stop on inclusion of East Germany: in 1999 Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland joined NATO, in 2004 Bulgaria, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia, in 2009 Albania and Croatia, in 2017 Montenegro and in 2020 North Macedonia. This point was clearly mentioned also in the speech of the president of Russia to the nation. These underlying forces are making the tensions more severe taking into account the fact that Russia is more powerful today than in 90s and the West is weaker.
Recognition of Donestk People’s Republic and Luhansk People’s Republic prepared preconditions to transform the invasion into a peacekeeping mission. With this move Russia buried Minsk agreements, something that Kremlin was accusing Ukraine of doing. The recognition opened a new question, the question of borders of self-claimed regions. Before the start of the war the two self-claimed republics occupied only part of the Luhansk and Donetsk region, and some part of these regions still remained under control of Kyiv. By recognizing their independence Russia recognized their constitutional territories which includes also the parts under Kyiv rule. Taking into account the huge amount of disinformation it wouldn’t be reasonable to elaborate on the position of forces at the moment. However, it is a fact that war goes on not only on the territory of disputed regions, but it reached to Kyiv, which brings the question what Russia actually wants by starting a war. The theory of building a grey zone on its Western borders doesn’t make sense here, because in that case it would have stopped on the territories of Luhansk and Donetsk. The aim of this “special operation” goes further and as Putin mentioned in his speech “they will show to Ukraine what decommunization means”. The whole speech of Putin shows that for Russia the war is not a war for disputed territories. It also showed that Putin is not trying to build a Soviet Union as the biggest part of the speech was directed to the criticism towards it, but it also doesn’t rule out Russia’s imperialistic intentions. A possible option may be that the “westernization” of Ukraine in the framework of rejection of the cultural and historical background, but also constant military support and trainings from NATO hurt Russia in the very “Heartland”. If in Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Transnistria Russia was building a buffer zone, in Nagorno Karabakh trying to keep the two countries dependent on it to a certain extent, in Ukraine Putin made its intention clear in the phone conference with Macron: those are the so called “demilitarization and denazification of Ukraine, recognition of the sovereignty of Russia over the Crimea and ensuring of its neutral condition.” On the one hand, Russia’s strong partnership with China, economic ties with Europe and powerful military arsenal gives all the prerequisites to succeed in its “special operation”. On the other hand, persistent resistance of Ukraine, military support from NATO and economic- humanitarian support from the West makes the events more intense. In any case the current situation only leaves to hope for the best.
Propaganda of War in Russia
As it was mentioned earlier Russia has an advantage over the West in a sense that in case of war there would be an influential support from the public. This is a result of state propaganda in which a lot of resources and money have been put in. To understand how it works with the society in Russia a better look needs to be given to the sociological data collected.
Propaganda is not a lie. It is a specifically chosen, specifically delivered information to the specifically chosen groups. Propaganda mainly works for the people who want to believe in it or in more scientific terms it triggers people’s motivated reasoning. Motivated reasoning is always present because people usually treat the information selectively and they choose to believe the fact that match up with their preferences. Thus, in this sense propaganda is influential because it provides justifications that the focus group is willing to believe on the first place. Since the propaganda is working with the motivated reasoning it is best used while aligned with the national identity, especially if the certain group is in conflict with another group. The national consciousness of Russians is built upon the memory of World War II and the Great Patriotic War, and it is impossible to overestimate the importance of it. Besides providing the ground for the national unity, the romanticized and mythologized interpretations of the war are serving as a tool for legitimization of the Russian government. The parades and marches which are being organized every year in Russia for the commemoration of the victory of the Great Patriotic War are serving a constant reminder in society’s consciousness of the grandness of Russia.
The military operations in the Crimea, Donbas, Syria, no matter how bloody they were, weren’t seen as real wars by Russians, moreover the symbolic success of these operations and the fact of being hegemony delivered by the government through propaganda was perceived as a compensation for the ever worsening economic difficulties. However, there were some minor differences. The Crimea was annexed without a bloody and destructive war and it was accepted by the society very positively. Still under the influence of the annexation the society also welcomed the militarization of the conflict in Donbas in 2014, however when there turned out to be more weaponry and casualties, the public opinion became more reserved in a way that it was still thinking there was no war but a provocation from the West and Ukraine.
Another tool that the Russian government succeeded in utilizing was the transfer of war to the virtual dimension. In other words, the vast majority of Russians were experiencing war only through the mass media, which also means the “absence” of losses, hence the appeal of modern war was perceived in this way.
The Kremlin’s mythmaking regarding war relies on three key elements, some of which have clear antecedents in the Soviet-era discourse about war:
- Moscow’s wars are just, defensive, triumphant, and preventive.
- Nearly all of Moscow’s modern wars are linked, thematically or otherwise, to the Great Patriotic War. By blurring realities on the ground, government propaganda is able to portray any domestic opposition to war as inherently immoral.
- War is now part of a so-called marketplace of threats from which the Kremlin can choose on a whim, helping mobilize popular support for the regime.
To put it in another terms denial, minimization and justification are the indispensable elements in the war with Ukraine. Denial in a sense that it is not a war it is just a military operation, in the level of minimization where the factual evidence becomes more obvious and denial is not yet working the propaganda works in a way that there is a war but it is very limited to certain area and it only includes the military objects. Finally, in the stage of justification when the scale of the war can’t already be neglected, the war is seen as something which is needed, otherwise the consequences of inaction would have been much more disastrous for the both sides.
Sociological data collected by an independent research center proves the points mentioned above. The studies made in November of 2021 showed that the 50 % of Russians think that it is the USA and NATO are the initiators of the worsening of the situation in Ukraine, 16% thinks that it is Ukraine, 3% DNR and LNR, and only 4% thought that it is Russia to blame for the situation. Another survey in 2020 showed that the army is on the first place of the trust among Russians. The authorization of the government has also been drastically noticed among the surveys. Another survey which shows the attitude of Russians to Ukraine in February 2021 displays the fact that 66% of people aged 18-24 has mostly positive or very positive attitude towards Ukraine, while it is 49% and 43% among 55 y. o. and older. The fact that the senior citizens are the consumers of the state propaganda through TV is obvious itself, but when a war breaks out the vast majority in the frontline are young people of 18-24 years old which means that the propaganda is useless in mobilizing the army.
In spite of the success of war propaganda in domestic level, it’s already two months the war is going on and Russia is so far underperforming both in the propaganda and in mobilizing the people the way that Ukraine has mobilized. Ukrainian propaganda is mainly based on the comparison between the two presidents. The Ukrainian president does not hold himself back from media appearance, including videos made beforehand in case of Russian advancement, while the Russian president only appears with pre-recorded videos as a “message to the nation”. Through the help of mass appearance, the Ukrainian president also addressed to Russia in Russian, which was a strategic move given the exaggerated claims of oppression of Russian speakers in Ukraine. The Russian state propaganda seemed to have overexploited its power in a sense that instead of the unifying people it has brought a fear of the world war.
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