Russia Ukraine war One year on Motherland statue

Russia-Ukraine War One Year On

Leigh Turner
Leigh Turner

The Russia-Ukraine war one year on. Three lessons. 1. The war is not over. 2. The war is neo-colonialist. 3. Putin’s position is vulnerable. What you can do.

Russia-Ukraine War Explainer

On 24 February 2022, I published my Russia-Ukraine war explainer. It explained the history to the war and how Russian President Putin’s goal was to protect his personal position. Like any autocrat, Putin fears democracy. If he cannot walk away with a “win” from the war he started, he is finished.

If you haven’t read the explainer yet, you can click on the link above.

Russia-Ukraine war one year on: the Donbass Arena in Donetsk, 2012
A game at the Donbass Arena in Donetsk region in 2012. In 1991, Donetsk voted by 83.9% to become part of an independent Ukraine. The idea that people in Crimea or Donetsk were oppressed before Russia invaded in 2014 is a Kremlin fabrication

Russia-Ukraine War One Year On

On 24 February 2022, no-one expected that war between Russia and Ukraine would still be raging 365 days later. Many thought Russia would win easily. Others expected a rapid peace deal based on something like Ukraine proposed in March 2022. That would have seen Ukraine become neutral and Russia withdrawing to pre-24 February positions.

What did happen is set out in my update posts of the past twelve months:

Looking back, it is striking how little has gone right for President Putin. Back in June, I wrote: “Russian forces are now focusing on trying to smash their way west from positions they occupied in 2014 in the east of Ukraine. They have not achieved a breakthrough.”

Eight months later, they still haven’t achieved a breakthrough. On the contrary, the amount of Ukrainian territory held by Russia, including Crimea, has shrunk from around 27% in March 2022 to around 18% now.

Russia-Ukraine War One Year On: Three Thoughts

Countless commentaries will be written to mark the one-year anniversary of Putin’s attack on Ukraine, including this one. Much of what I wrote in my earlier posts remains accurate. Do have a browse. Here are three other thoughts.

1. The war is far from over – and that suits Putin

The fact Ukraine has done far, far better than anyone expected does not mean they have won the war or are on the verge of doing so. Russia retains strong forces. The situation is finely balanced – as I wrote back in June, either side might suddenly collapse. Some people expect a new Russian offensive; others, a Ukrainian one.

But the likeliest outcome remains a grinding war of attrition and months or even years more fighting.

This is why President Zelensky has been drumming up political and military support from countries that support Ukraine. That is why President Biden’s visit to Ukraine on 20 February was so important. Ukraine is desperate to stop “war fatigue” or “compassion fatigue” setting in amongst countries supporting Kyiv. Without new supplies of weapons to match those that Russia is pouring onto the front, Ukraine will lose the war.

President Putin thinks that if the war continues long enough, those supporting Ukraine will lose interest. Even a stalemate, where Russian forces occupy and have years to integrate into Russia what they hold now – an area of Ukraine around the size of Tennessee, or slightly smaller than England – would suit him fine.

Russia-Ukraine war one year on: a redundant tank in Kyiv, 2008
How tanks should be: a climbing frame in Kyiv, 2008

2. The war is neo-colonialist

Russia has mounted a successful campaign to persuade some countries of the “Global South”, sometimes known as developing countries or the G-77, not to support Ukraine in the conflict. Like it or not, this is impressive diplomacy. The result has been that many nations have abstained in UN votes to condemn Russia’s invasion; or to condemn Russia’s “referenda” in illegally occupied regions of Ukraine. In the latter vote, in October 2022, 143 countries voted in favour of condemning Russia; 35 abstained; and four voted against (Nicaragua, Belarus, North Korea and Syria).

This matters. First, it leaves Russia looking less isolated than it would if more countries condemned its invasion. Second, some of the abstaining countries have not supported sanctions designed to constrain Russia’s economy in response to the war. Rather, they have continued to import Russian oil and gas at a discount – helping their own economies. These purchases help pay for Russia’s war against Ukraine.

This hesitancy to condemn Russia has many roots. One, noted in my post of 20 August about calls for a ceasefire, is that some people in these countries feel “The West” is taking them for granted. Another is that the Soviet Union – itself an imperial power – often supported anti-colonial movements elsewhere in the world.

In response, countries supporting Ukraine should try to win round the countries who have so far sat on the fence. That should include economic support to compensate for them moving to support sanctions against Russia. It should also mean high-level diplomatic attention. When I was ambassador in Vienna, we could not persuade any British Minister to meet the Vienna-based head of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organisation – Lassina Zerbo from Burkina Faso – when he visited London. President Putin, by contrast, found time in his diary to see Zerbo in Moscow.

Countries supporting Ukraine should also underline that Russia’s authoritarian 2023 leadership has nothing to do with the Communist regimes of the Soviet Union; and that Russia’s invasion and attempted occupation of Ukraine is itself pure neo-colonialism. Moscow has launched a war to seize another country’s territory and erase its ethnic identity. Russia is not a friend of oppressed or suffering peoples. Ask the Ukrainians – or the Georgians, Estonians, Poles, Lithuanians, Latvians, Afghans, Kazakhs or many others.

Leigh Turner at the United Nations 2019
At the United Nations in Vienna, 2019

3. Putin’s position is vulnerable

There is one simple reason why Russian and Ukrainian soldiers continue to die in their thousands in Ukraine, while countless Russian and Ukrainian families mourn the loss of their loved ones. This is that the invasion of Ukraine is very much President Putin’s personal project. He cannot afford any outcome to the war that cannot be sold to the long-suffering Russian people as “Russia winning”.

Any peace that does not leave Russia in control of much more of Ukraine than it held before 24 February 2022 will be the end of Putin’s 20-year reign. His disastrous decisions, causing the deaths of tens or hundreds of thousands of Russians and Ukrainians to keep himself in power, will be exposed.

President Putin is an expert at staying in power. Since he became President in 2000 he has comprehensively dismantled the fledgling democracy that developed after Russia emerged from the remains of the Soviet Union in 1991. No political opposition exists. No deputies threaten him. He controls the media. Since launching the war in February 2022 he has led an unprecedented crackdown on freedom of speech.

Russia-Ukraine war one year on: Soviet War Memorial in Moscow
A Soviet war memorial in Moscow, 2005

But every new Russian casualty or decline in Russia’s economic performance increases the likelihood that others in positions of influence in Russia will conclude that the costs of Putin’s war outweigh the benefits. Some polls suggest ordinary Russians support the war. But all-pervasive censorship, and the fact that any criticism of the war can earn you a 15-year jail sentence, mean these figures are dubious.

It is impossible to know if, or when, President Putin might be overthrown. But listen to the words of Russian journalist Maria Ponomarenko. She was jailed in February 2023 for six years for posting on social media about a deadly Russian attack on a theatre in Mariupol crammed with civilians, including children.

“No totalitarian regime,” she said, “has ever been as strong as before its collapse.”

What to do next

Support Ukraine. Wherever you live, it is both right, and in your interests, to support a peaceful, democratic nation against an an unprovoked neo-colonialist war by its aggressive neighbour. If the global community allows such aggression to succeed, what lessons will neighbours of your country draw?

Small gestures of support, like turning down your heating (cutting demand will reduce gas prices) or – I am hugely impressed by people who do this – helping Ukrainian refugees, all make a difference.

You may also find interesting the following posts about Russia/Ukraine:

Finally

Before Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine last year, this website contained nothing about foreign policy. It was mostly about my fiction writing. If you’d like to know more about my books, including “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Diplomacy”, click here. If you want to read one, a good place to start is my Berlin thriller Blood Summit.

Blood Summit cover

P.S. In case you are wondering, the image of snow-covered figures is from a Soviet-era war memorial in Kyiv. It shows Ukrainians, exhausted but unbowed, resisting a neo-colonialist invader.

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6 Responses

  1. HE amb. Turner,
    Thank for putting us in perspective of the current situation of Russia-Ukraine war.I too think that many Russians and Ukrainians find themselves at odd and troubled with the war and would like a way out it.I personally condemned the invasion of Ukraine and it is a violation of the norms of international law and the charter of the United Nations.Those countries or their leaders for that matter who are failing to condemn President Putin’s invasion of Ukraine are making mistakes.
    We pray peace and for God’s help and interventionfor the suffering people of Ukraine and for international help and support to reach them.

    1. Thanks very much for this comment. I agree that those countries or their leaders who fail to condemn President Putin’s invasion of Ukraine are making a mistake.

  2. Hello Leigh,
    Thank you for sharing some very insightful comments. Having read “..Putin…expert at staying in power..”, I wonder as I have done for many months : based on Russia’s history and governing structure how he might be overthrown. Best to you.

    1. Thanks Rui. This is the big question. I suspect Putin’s position is fairly secure; but that everything depends on 1) how things are going for ordinary Russians, for whom the war is making life worse; and 2) how things are going for the elites around Putin, who worry that the war is making life worse for themselves and their families. Let’s see.

  3. Good post, Leigh (and I liked the photos and how you used them). I was interested in the statement you quote from Maria Ponomarenko: “No totalitarian regime has ever been as strong as before its collapse”. What is the reasoning behind this, do you think?

    1. Good question. I think part of it may be that the longer things go on, the worse they usually get, so that pressure builds up; and the regimes try harder to show strength, and to make everything seem OK. Example: the Argentine junta invading the Falklands. Part of it may be a “darkness before the dawn” bit of basic trust that things can only get better.

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