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Andrew Guarino / Gavel Media

As President Biden Visits Ukraine, War in Europe Reaches One Year Mark

The morning of February 24, Kyiv time, marks one year since war erupted on the European continent, shattering the almost eight decades of peace that largely characterized the region in the wake of the Second World War. 

What was intended by Vladimir Putin’s Russia to be a lightning-fast incursion into Ukraine to dissuade the nation’s aspirations to join the European Union (EU), as well as to prevent the expansion of the United States-aligned North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), has been characterized by analysts as a catastrophic failure; EU unity and support behind the US are at an all-time high, and Ukraine has resisted Russian offensives and maintained control over their capital, Kyiv. Additionally, NATO may soon see further expansion into Scandinavia as Sweden and Finland seek ascension to the bloc, though not without resistance from Türkiye. US President Joe Biden’s surprise visit to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in Kyiv on February 20 best characterizes this, as Western unity in rhetoric and the delivery of military assets as well as capital continue to strengthen Ukrainian resolve and as Ukraine and NATO consistently demonstrate their willingness to continue their fruitful partnership in defiance of Putin’s expressed goals.

As a number of Boston College’s departments in the Morrissey School of Arts and Sciences prepare to present a panel on the war’s developments this coming Thursday, the following will attempt to lay out the major developments, both international and domestic, in the ongoing Russo-Ukrainian War.

 

The War on the Ground

 

Russian forces had intended their invasion of Ukraine to be quick, efficient, and surprising. Additionally, Putin’s Russia looked to solidify its position as a major world power in the wake of numerous logistical and hierarchical issues in their armed forces; these institutional setbacks have plagued the Russian military since the collapse of the USSR. It accomplished none of these goals.

Logistical hurdles have plagued Russian ground and air forces since the very beginning of the war. With the majority of supplies needing to reach Russian troops either by rail or by air, much of the early hours of the war looked to seize major logistical hubs and airports, especially those surrounding Kyiv, to support their operations spearheaded by tanks, mechanized troop transports, and paratroopers. Russian missile barrages looked to eliminate the threat of anti-air equipment, while attacks on major civilian centers far from Russian strategic interests were performed to demoralize the population and curb resistance. Three separate axes of invasion were opened: one, in the north from Belarus, looked to encircle Kyiv and eliminate Ukraine’s government; in the south, Russian forces looked to cut off Ukraine’s access to crucial trade routes and ports in the Black Sea; and in the east, a third axis focused on Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city and a major industrial center as well as being a major rail hub.

Calling Ukraine’s resistance and show of force in the early hours of the war heroic would not do it justice. Armed with Western-supplied equipment such as Javelin anti-tank missiles and Stinger anti-air missiles, small groups of mobile light infantry and local militias were able to mount a successful defense of Kyiv. They were able to keep Russian forces no closer than the suburbs of the capital, and eventually, drive them out of the north of the country entirely and strain Russian supply lines. Fighting around Kharkiv was more intense, but by mid-May, the city and region surrounding it remained under Ukrainian control.

Fighting in the south and southeast of Ukraine has been reminiscent of the slow-moving lines of trenches last seen during the First World War. The Donbas region is characterized by vast swaths of flat terrain, mostly used for agriculture, with no major geographic barriers except the River Dnipro. Russian ground forces quickly gained control of the region, though not without significant resistance from major urban centers like Mariupol and Kherson. With Russian naval superiority, even ports in the west of the country, like Odesa, were threatened. Since last summer, the majority of the fighting has taken place in the south and east of the country. Counter-offensives that began in late summer and early fall saw Ukrainian forces retake the regional capital of Kherson, push Russian forces to the east bank of the Dnipro and beyond, and retake the majority of lands in the east that were under Kyiv’s control prior to the Russian invasion. On September 30, 2022, Russia held referendums in four of the partially-occupied regions of Ukraine, namely Donetsk, Kherson, Luhansk, and Zaporizhzhia Oblasts, and despite lack of international recognition, declared the regions to have been annexed by Russia and incorporated fully into the Russian state. Despite not defining where these newly annexed regions began or ended, if limited to the current area of control, the lands illegally seized by Russia account for 15% of Ukraine’s landmass.

As a result of the combat, it is estimated that around 40,000 civilians have been either killed or wounded. Estimates for casualties on each side of the conflict differ greatly depending on the origin of the source: Ukrainian sources estimate that Russia has lost just shy of 150,000 soldiers, whereas some Western sources place casualties closer to 200,000; Ukraine is estimated to have lost at least over 100,000 combatants, with some estimates placing the number over 120,000. Russian media sources tend to underestimate their casualties and overestimate the number of Ukrainian casualties, which has drawn great amounts of skepticism from the West.

 

Revival of the Lend-Lease and Western Aid

 

Despite some hesitation from selective members of the NATO and EU blocs to provide lethal aid, the Kiel Institute estimates that Ukraine has received over $130 billion in humanitarian, financial, and lethal aid from the West over this past year. 

The US has spearheaded this push to provide Ukraine with aid; its contributions total over $75 billion this year alone, representing almost 0.4% of the nation’s GDP. The majority of this aid has been in the form of military equipment through the Ukraine Democracy Defense Lend-Lease Act of 2022, which was unanimously passed through the US Senate and overwhelmingly supported in the House. The goal of the legislation was to allow the direct sale of lethal aid to Ukraine, eliminating red tape and allowing for the swift delivery of the equipment. 

Much of this equipment has included military assets from former Soviet Union states in NATO; Ukrainian forces are trained to use this equipment already, and NATO members are quick to exchange their aging models for brand-new American equipment. However, President Biden has also approved supplying Ukraine with the sharpest new tools the US can muster, as well as funding the training of Ukrainian forces in their use; these include at least 20 M142 HIMARS systems valued at $4 million each, 31 M1A2 Abrams main battle tanks valued at over $6 million each, and one Patriot surface-to-air missile system valued at $1 billion.

“Ukraine will never be a victory for Russia,” President Biden stated during a speech in Warsaw, Poland, one day after visiting President Zelenskyy in Kyiv: “Kyiv stands proud, it stands tall, and most important, it stands free.” President Zelenskyy, meanwhile, has not shied away from expressing how crucial Western aid, especially from the US, has been in protecting Ukrainian democracy and helping the underdog nation defy the odds. In a speech to a joint session of Congress this past December, President Zelenskyy described the aid not as charity but as “an investment in the global security and democracy that we handled in the most responsible way.”

EU members have provided Ukraine with a substantial amount of aid, including the equivalent of over $37 billion in primarily financial aid and a significant amount of lethal aid, primarily in the form of equipment left over following the collapse of the USSR. The United Kingdom, meanwhile, has contributed the equivalent of over $8.5 billion, which has been principally military equipment and the training of Ukrainian service personnel at bases in the UK.

 

New Horizons for NATO and the EU

 

The reignition of war in Europe, as well as fears that Putin’s Russia may look to aggressively dissuade other nations from strengthening ties with the West, has had the opposite effect of its intention. Four days after the Russian invasion began, Ukraine applied for EU membership, with the nation being granted official candidate status in late June. Meanwhile, on September 30, 2022, Ukraine filed a formal application to become a member of NATO. Though the bloc has widely publicized its cooperation with and generous support of Ukraine, NATO is hesitant to accept Ukraine as a full member, both due to a lack of formal integration of its armed forces with those of NATO member nations – a requirement to join NATO – and because doing so would likely escalate the conflict.

Rather than preventing the expansion of NATO and the EU, the Russo-Ukrainian War has encouraged traditionally neutral nations to reevaluate their relationships with both blocs and seek cooperation in defense. Finland and Sweden submitted a joint application to NATO on May 18, 2022, with all members of NATO supporting their accession with the notable exceptions of Türkiye and Hungary; Hungary is expected to ratify the accession of the two nations in March. Though the two Scandinavian countries have cooperated with NATO in the past, their decision to apply to the bloc demonstrated a significant change in Finland and Sweden’s defense calculations; Sweden had even provided nonlethal support to North Vietnam during America’s war in the region, flying in the face of US demands to cease all support for the communist government there. 

Türkiye, led by President Tayyip Erdogan, is an important geostrategic ally within NATO due to its position on the Black Sea and control over the crucial Bosphorus and Dardanelles Straits, as well as its hosting of a number of US military bases. The nation has condemned Sweden’s support of the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK), claiming that the Scandinavian nation is harboring militants and refusing to extradite them for trials in Türkiye. The PKK is blamed for an attempted coup in 2016, though many ethnic Kurds have described Turkish policies aimed at eliminating the influence of the PKK in the country as constituting ethnic cleansing. Despite Finland and Sweden agreeing to take a stricter stance on members of the PKK, protests in Sweden against the measures have upset Türkiye, prompting President Erdogan to indefinitely suspend any conversations regarding Sweden’s accession to NATO, and even prompting Finland to consider breaking away from their joint application with Sweden to pursue a unilateral accession. Many have argued that President Erdogan’s true intentions with blocking Swedish accession are not to clamp down on the PKK but rather to convince the US to provide the nation with more military equipment; the fact that Ankara changed its tune and opened up to Swedish accession after US Secretary of State Antony Blinken floated the possibility of selling F-16 fighter jets to Türkiye grants this viewpoint at least some credibility.

Moldova, a tiny Eastern European nation that is located just west of Ukraine, has also been startled by the development of the Russo-Ukrainian War. Unrest by ethnic Russians in the nation following Moldova’s independence from the USSR prompted Russian forces to occupy a small sliver of land in the east of the nation, a region that styles itself as its own independent nation, clinging to the memory of Soviet dominance in the region. On February 9, 2023, President Zelenskyy informed Moldovan President Maia Sandu that Russia was planning to potentially use its forces in Transnistria to stage a coup in Moldova and announced Ukraine’s willingness to work with Moldova to secure its protection. Moldova was already granted candidate status by the EU in June of 2022, and President Sandu stated on January 20, 2023, that the nation is looking to join a “larger alliance” in order to secure its protection. 

This decision has drawn ire from Russia, and on February 21, 2023, Putin revoked a 2012 decree that in part recognized Moldovan sovereignty with regard to the Transnistrian conflict. The Moldovan chairperson of the joint control commission overseeing the security zone around Transnistria, Alexandru Flanchea, highlighted that this does not constitute Russia no longer viewing Moldova as a sovereign nation and highlighted Russia and Moldova’s “mutual respect for the territorial integrity of our nations.” The decree had emphasized Russian commitment to “find a solution to the Transnistrian conflict that would respect the territorial integrity and neutrality of the Republic of Moldova in setting up a special status for Transnistria.” Despite denying claims of plans to stage a coup in Moldova, Russia has continually expressed that one of the goals of its invasion of Ukraine has been to establish a land connection with Transnistria.

 

Russian Retaliation and the End of the START Treaty

 

Russia’s attitude towards what it has continuously called a “special military operation” can best be described in the words of its President.  In a speech given on December 21, 2022, Putin described the conflict – in which Russian forces have threatened and continue to threaten the sovereignty of Ukraine – as “the result of the policy of third countries,” and not Russia’s own fault. 

Russia has long characterized NATO expansion into the former Soviet sphere as an existential threat. In all fairness, NATO was originally intended to provide a shared defense for Western nations from the perceived threat of the USSR, and following the collapse of the USSR, many newly independent states sought to join the bloc to prevent themselves from falling back into Russia’s sphere of influence, as Eastern Europe had historically done. However, NATO was not actively seeking these nations out for membership, instead solely maintaining an open-door policy to provide Europe with an umbrella of security while shifting its focus to intervention in the Middle East. Putin capitalized on Russian anxiety about NATO encroachment as justification for intervention in Ukraine, a nation that, like many other former Soviet republics, had aspirations of unity with the West.

“There is nothing to accuse us of,” Putin argued, adding that Russia had always viewed Ukrainians as a “brotherly people” and pinning the blame for the conflict firmly on the West. In September of 2022, Putin issued a partial mobilization, drafting a large number of young men between the ages of 18 and 27 in Russia to be sent to fight on the front lines in Ukraine following immense casualties taken during the first months of the war. 

Despite threatening NATO with dire consequences for their efforts to provide Ukraine with financial support and firepower, Russia has not sought direct conflict with the bloc. Instead, it has made an effort to leave treaties it had made with the US and the West. On February 21, 2023, Putin suspended Russian cooperation with the New START Treaty, originally signed in 2010 and the last major nuclear weapons treaty between Russia and the US. While promising only to test new nuclear weapons if the US does first, Russia’s moves to distance itself from treaties with the US are reminiscent of a Cold War attitude.

At the end of August, Russian state-owned energy company Gazprom announced that it would shut down shipments of natural gas through its Nord Stream pipelines indefinitely. Almost a full month later, the pipelines were rocked by a series of explosions making them permanently inoperable. Russia has accused the US and UK of staging the attack on their infrastructure to force European nations to rely on other sources of natural gas for heating, while NATO is consistent in its accusation that Russia is responsible for the sabotage. Denmark, Sweden, and Germany are each leading separate investigations to determine the result of the explosions.

Russian saber-rattling against NATO has consistently implied the dire consequences of involvement in Ukraine. In particular, former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has maintained a hawkish stance in online posts, each growing more aggressive and containing more veiled threats as the war progresses. Recently, Medvedev warned that “Nuclear powers have not lost conflicts on which their fate depended,” adding that the “defeat of a nuclear power in a conventional war can trigger a nuclear war.” Nuclear weapons have only been used once in combat, by the US at the end of the Second World War, and no evidence suggests that Russia plans to use any form of a nuclear weapon in Ukraine, despite their consistency in such rhetoric.

 

Who’s in Russia’s Corner?

 

Despite the large number of nations imposing sanctions on Russia in the wake of its invasion, a handful of nations have provided varying amounts of support for Putin’s war effort. Iran has provided Russia with drone technology and missile equipment – as well as officers to oversee their deployment. North Korea, meanwhile, has promised Russia ammunition in order to ease the strain on Russian industry. Belarus’s involvement has been present since the early days of the war; though it is not providing men and equipment at the moment for the conflict, the dictatorship under Alexander Lukashenko has given Putin access to its land to stage ground forces, particularly for the early days of the invasion. Lukashenko’s position as a staunch supporter of Putin has been a cause for concern among NATO’s eastern partners, particularly Poland and Lithuania, who share a border with both Belarus and the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad. 

The only nation that has sent ground forces to support Russia is Syria; years of urban combat in the Syrian Civil War have made these soldiers attractive to Russia’s military, particularly for defending urban installations. Chechnya, a republic within Russia led by Ramzan Kadyrov, has also provided its soldiers to act as a vanguard in many of the large operations conducted by Russian forces, especially in the early days of the war. Meanwhile, the self-declared republics in Donetsk and Luhansk, which Russia annexed on September 30, have recently integrated their armed forces with those of Russia.

China’s rhetoric on the war in Ukraine has kept a careful middle ground, in order to avoid upsetting one of their largest trading partners by condemning the war outright but also not openly condoning it and earning the ire of the US and EU. However, Secretary of State Blinken stated on February 19, 2023, that China was now considering sending lethal aid, which could take the form of weapons or just ammunition. This ran contrary to a statement given by Wang Yi, a top Chinese foreign policy official, who spoke at a conference in Munich regarding China’s attempts to reach a peace deal between Ukraine and Russia. Chinese businesses had already provided Russia with non-lethal aid, according to Blinken, who highlighted that China’s economic policy forces companies and the state to work closely together, with companies often being owned by the state. Since the start of the conflict, many in the West have warned that without strict punishment for Russia’s aggression, China may seize the opportunity – and take advantage of perceived weak punishments – to launch an invasion of the island of Taiwan; the government of Taiwan broke away from Mainland China during the Chinese Civil War, and maintains its identity as the Republic of China, whereas Mainland China views the region as a renegade province.

 

A Bipartisan Consensus?

 

The early days of the war saw largely bipartisan support for the defense of Ukraine. As time has gone on, however, many members of the far-right element within the Republican Party, including some prominent members of the House of Representatives, have taken an anti-war stance and are prepared to grant Russia concessions in order to end US involvement in the region.

Criticizing what he called a “blank check,” Florida Governor Ron DeSantis disagreed with President Biden’s decision to visit Ukraine and Poland on the eve of the war’s one-year anniversary. This came at the same time that the US officially declared Russian actions in Ukraine as constituting crimes against humanity, which included official war crimes and violent acts against non-combatants, including children. Governor DeSantis suggested that President Biden’s time would be better spent visiting the nation’s southern border, saying that President Biden has “not done anything to secure our own border here at home,” instead of paying closer attention to borders halfway around the world. Governor DeSantis is currently the favorite to achieve the presidential nomination for the Republican Party in the upcoming election cycle. 

Other Republicans, such as Representative David Kustoff of Tennessee, have not criticized American involvement in the war outright. Instead, some argue that the amount spent on aid to Ukraine should be decreased and that Biden has larger priorities at home at the current moment, including a train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, which has become the start of an ecological disaster.

 

“The War in Ukraine: One Year After Russia’s Invasion” will be held Thursday, February 23 from 7:00 PM to 9:00 PM in Fulton 511. It is sponsored by the Office of the Dean, Morrissey College of Arts and Sciences; the Department of Eastern, Slavic, and German Studies; the History Department; the Political Science Department; and the Jewish Studies Program. The discussion will feature four panelists from the History, Political Science, and Eastern, Slavic, and German Studies Departments.

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Long Island born and raised. Probably somewhere waiting on line for coffee or working on an essay I put off for far too long.

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