It is too early to know what Putin will do beyond the so-called peacekeeping forces. With 215,000 active-duty soldiers and another 250,000 reservists, Ukraine’s military is much larger and better prepared than it was when Russia first invaded in 2014. But it is still outnumbered and outmatched by the Russian army, which boasts more than 1 million soldiers and state-of-the-art weaponry.
Biden said in February that if Russia attacked Ukraine it would be the “largest invasion since World War 2” and would “change the world.”
“World War 2 was a war of necessity, but if Russia attacks Ukraine, it would be a war of choice — a war without cause or reason,” Biden said on Feb. 15.
Putin had kept the world guessing and waiting for nearly a year as Russia built up a strike force of more than 150,000 troops, tanks, attack aircraft, and other military equipment around three sides of Ukraine’s border. The buildup began in April 2021, with a series of exercises that ended with forces sent back to their bases but much of the equipment remaining in place near Ukraine. Then, in November, Putin moved his forces back, sending with them even more troops and military materiel.
Russia’s moves were followed closely by the US government and Western intelligence agencies. And they were observed in almost real-time through videos posted on social media and satellite imagery analyzed by open-source investigators.
Putin had issued several demands to the US and NATO in the past month ahead of the announcement. Those included NATO pulling its forces out of Eastern Europe and withdrawing them to their 1997 positions, and a guarantee that Ukraine will never join the western military alliance itself, among other security guarantees.
The war’s recent history
Russia’s announcement of Ukraine comes eight years after it forcibly annexed Crimea and fomented a devastating shooting war in the eastern industrial region known as the Donbas. Those moves happened in response to the pro-democracy revolution in Kyiv that toppled the Kremlin-friendly president Viktor Yanukovych and forced him to flee to Russia.
In Crimea, the Kremlin used regular troops without insignia posing as local “self-defense forces” to take control of the Black Sea peninsula, Ukrainian army bases, and Ukraine’s naval fleet. The surprise attack allowed Russian forces to do so almost without firing a single shot.
Russian special forces operatives, along with intelligence services, regular troops, and local anti-Kyiv fighters, then covertly moved across Ukraine’s south and east, capturing government buildings and sparking the bloody war in the Donbas that would kill more than 14,000 people. More than 3,300 were civilians. Some 4,500 were Ukrainian military service members — about double the number of US soldiers killed during 20 years of fighting in Afghanistan. The remaining deaths are mostly local fighters.
Ukrainians have been living under the threat of renewed, full-scale hostilities for the better part of a decade. The government refers to Russia’s military aggression as “hybrid warfare” — conventional military attacks conducted in conjunction with economic warfare, information warfare, cyberattacks, and political pressure.
Moscow has weaponized just about every facet of business, society, politics, and culture in its fight against Ukraine.
Putin sees Russia and Ukraine as part of one “historical and spiritual space” and Russians and Ukrainians as “one people,” assertions that Ukrainians and historians focused on Eastern Europe dismiss. He views Western support for Ukraine, including the US brandishing it with more than $2.5 billion of military assistance in the past eight years, as “deliberate efforts by [NATO] forces that have always sought to undermine our unity.”
But in employing force to try to control Ukraine and persuade Ukrainians that their future is with Russia, Putin’s efforts have backfired spectacularly. Ukrainians are more united than ever, more European-focused and democratic-minded, and a vast majority of them view themselves as a separate people with their own identity and culture, as well as the right to determine their own future.
Ukrainian troops say they are ready to fight back. Besides a large cache of Soviet-era weapons and artillery, they are armed with US Javelin anti-tank missiles and “bunker buster” rockets. The UK recently delivered similar shoulder-fired rockets to the country. This month, Canada provided lethal weapons, as well, and Lithuania sent American-made Stinger anti-aircraft systems.
As Putin’ massed forces around Ukraine, some of the country’s 400,000 veterans began training tens of thousands of civilians to fight and shoot and to wage guerrilla warfare against Russian troops should they enter their cities.