The foundations of the Russian invasion of Ukraine were laid eight years ago, during the Revolution of Dignity of 2013-14. Who can forget the images of hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians standing in Kiev’s central square, the Maidan, through that bleak, cold winter, and their nightly stand-offs with black-clad riot police firing tear gas and stun grenades?
The events of Euromaidan, as it is better known in the West, began when students demonstrated against then-president Viktor Yanukovych’s decision – under heavy pressure from Vladimir Putin – to abandon an agreement with the European Union in favour of closer ties with Russia. But on that occasion, Putin’s strong-arm tactics failed. Yanukovych was forced to flee, Ukrainians elected a pro-European government and the EU agreement was eventually signed. Faced with a choice between Europe and Russia, Ukraine overwhelmingly chose Europe.
Putin’s obsession with winning back Ukraine began as soon as Euromaidan ended. He immediately began preparations to take Crimea and supply guns and heavy weaponry to eastern Ukraine to whip up insurgency in the traditionally pro-Russian former industrial heartlands of the Donbas region. The conflict led to the downing of a Malaysia Airlines flight in July 2014 by pro-Russian separatist fighters, killing all 298 people on board. The war has continued to rumble on inconclusively ever since, with sporadic outbreaks of violence. Over a million residents of eastern Ukraine were forced to leave their homes, many resettling in Kiev, now itself under fire.
Putin always denied Russian military involvement in Crimea and the Donbas. Just as he denied Russian state involvement in the assassinations and attempted poisonings of his critics. And just as he denied, until a few short days ago, that he was planning military intervention in Ukraine. We long ago learned not to trust Putin, and we know from experience that his actions are unpredictable.
One thing now seems clear: that Putin’s immediate intention is regime change in Ukraine – to install a puppet regime loyal to Russia in a country that he considers has no right to statehood. His justifications for doing so make little sense to most in the West. But since 2014 he has woven a narrative for domestic consumption in Russia in an attempt to rationalise intervention.
Putin always couched Euromaidan in terms of a far-right coup by Ukrainian nationalists. Is this a true reflection of events? Absolutely not. But there is a tiny kernel of truth to it that Putin can exploit to his own ends. Although Euromaidan began as a pro-European student demonstration and attracted Ukrainians of all strata of society, right-wing nationalist parties did play a role in the fighting and the post-Maidan government did follow a policy of glorifying past nationalist leaders, many of whom collaborated with the Nazis. Hence, as Putin’s narrative goes, Ukraine is a country led by far-right extremists in need of ‘denazification’. His focus on Nazi ideology is supremely ironic, given that Ukraine until recently was the only country other than Israel to have both a Jewish president and prime minister.
Another of Putin’s claims, that Ukraine is perpetrating genocide against its own citizens by targeting Russian speakers, is utter nonsense. Ukraine has always been a bilingual country, with Ukrainian widely spoken in the west and Russian elsewhere. But use of Ukrainian has become more prevalent since 2014 amid a heightened sense of national identity. A series of laws in recent years has designated Ukrainian the country’s official language and attempted to cement its use in most aspects of public life, including education and the media. The language laws provide grist to Putin’s rumour mill, information to manipulate into claims of genocide.
Putin’s ultimate aims are not clear. We don’t yet know if he is planning for a permanent Russian occupation of Ukraine. Nor is Russian success a foregone conclusion. Ukrainians have become used to war in the last eight years and civilians are willing to fight to the death, as they did during Euromaidan.
Many are wondering whether Putin will stop at Ukraine or push on with incursions into the Baltic States of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. My own sense is that the latter is unlikely, and if the war in Ukraine drags on inconclusively for months or years, impossible. Ukraine has been Russia’s bugbear since the events of 2014, and besides, an invasion of the Baltics – EU member states – would unleash a war with Nato on an unimaginable scale.
The West’s attempts to persuade Putin against war have been derisory. Putin has no fear of sanctions, especially of the magnitude agreed so far. The West’s most powerful weapon against Russia is energy sanctions, such as those imposed on Iran: oil and gas exports provide more than a third of Russia’s national budget. But the US, EU and UK are unwilling to take measures that will harm their own economies and their own consumers, hence US restrictions on currency clearing will include carve-outs for energy payments.
Around 70% of Russian gas exports and half its oil exports go to Europe. So far, Germany’s decision to halt the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline from Russia is the most significant of the measures taken by the West, but this is as far as Europe has been willing to go. The UK government is reluctant to force BP to abandon its 20% stake in Russian oil giant Rosneft, which is run by Putin ally Igor Sechin. BP's chief executive Bernard Looney sits on the Rosneft board alongside Sechin, a position that would surely be untenable if the UK took this war seriously.
Amid insufficient coercion from the West, pressure to stop the war must come from inside Russia. Kremlin watchers are clear that this is Putin’s war, not Russia’s war. Protestors have come out onto the streets in many Russian cities – a rare and dangerous move under Putin’s authoritarian regime – evidence that the war does not have broad support among the Russian people. The defection of Russian soldiers combined with dissent among Putin’s inner circle could be the best hope of stifling the war in Ukraine and minimising bloodshed.
Keeping stories alive
This blog aims to discuss historical events relating to the Jewish communities of Ukraine, and of Eastern Europe more widely. As a storyteller, I hope to keep alive stories of the past and remember those who told or experienced them. Like so many others, I am deeply troubled by the war in Ukraine and for the foreseeable future, most articles published here will focus on the war, with an emphasis on parallels with other tumultuous periods in Ukraine's tragic history.