Ukraine’s decade of war

  • Themes: Ukraine, War

The Ukrainian people have suffered a decade of conflict - when will the world wake up to the price to be paid for failing to deter Russian aggression?

Memorial to the Maidan protestors who died by sniper fire.
Memorial to the Maidan protestors who died by sniper fire. Credit: Stephen Foote / Alamy Stock Photo

Why is the world not marking the 10th anniversary of the Russian aggression, preferring to talk about the second anniversary of the start of a full-scale conflict? This war actually began on 20 February 2014, after the assassination of Maidan demonstrators, with the annexation of Crimea and the emergence of two separatist entities on Ukrainian territory: the so-called Lugansk and Donetsk ‘republics’. For some reason, journalists are not asking why nobody is talking about our decade-long war. The answer, however, seems clear. For much of the world, including the UK, Europe and the US, the events of 2014-2015 were considered an ‘internal’ matter for Russia and Ukraine to sort out – something like the Russian aggression against Georgia in 2008, to which the Western world paid little attention. Until recently, in the understanding of many European and US politicians, with the exception of Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia, countries that were previously part of the Soviet Union were seen as belonging to ‘one family’. It was thought that misunderstandings and scandals occur in all families, and sometimes disputes turn violent.

Only after the full-scale invasion, and especially with revelations about the massacres of civilians in Bucha, Vorzel, Irpin and Borodyanka, the world decided to stop considering this war an ‘internal conflict’ and finally took the side of the victim of Russian aggression – Ukraine.

This anniversary is not, therefore, the second or tenth anniversary of Russian aggression, but the second anniversary of the moment when the democratic world saw the light, when Europe, the US and other countries realised that global disaster could only be averted if Putin is stopped and Russian aggression is halted because it is directed not only against Ukraine but against democratic values as a whole and the countries that defend those values.

Ukrainians no longer focus on dates, but, of course, there was a memorial event on the Maidan in Kyiv, on Sunday, 18 February. The protesters killed by snipers 10 years ago were remembered. The annexation of Crimea was remembered, too, but events in Avdiivka formed the main topic of conversation. Russian troops had carried out Putin’s orders to achieve some kind of victory in time for the presidential elections in March. The capture of Avdiivka came as a direct result of Ukraine’s lack of artillery shells and effective air defence systems in the combat area. The city of Avdiivka, already destroyed by thousands of half-ton Russian bombs dropped from aircraft and hundreds of thousands of Russian artillery shells, fell under the control of the Russian army.

Since the city was able to resist the separatists and the Russian army for almost 10 years, its fall will not be considered enough of a victory for Putin. The Russian army will put pressure on other sectors of the front, searching for places where it can break through the lines of defense and fill the Russian media with photographs of ‘heroic Russian soldiers’ going into battle and dying ‘for the Motherland, for Putin.’ The president needs all these messages for his internal Russian consumers, who need to be fed reasons to be proud of the campaign at regular intervals.

Putin has other messages for Europe and the US. One was delivered right before the start of the Munich Security Conference: news of Navalny’s death in one of Russia’s harshest prisons.

There are no more ‘Navalnys’ left in Russia. He was one of a kind. Those who know Putin’s Russia understood full well that he would never leave prison alive. In Russia, it is quite common for prisoners to die in detention. Usually, their bodies are simply taken to the cemetery, but if a death can be used as a message, it must be used to maximum effect.

It would seem that someone in the Kremlin came up with a plan to change the agenda of the Munich Security Conference – to force the participants to talk less about Ukraine and more about Russia. This plan would require an event of great significance in the eyes of the world’s democratic community, but one that would mean very little inside Russia. And the plan worked. Russia – ogre-like and terrifying –  and Navalny – so easily done away with – became the focus of the conference.

The shock of the news of Navalny’s death in a Russian prison did, however, lead the conference participants to the only reasonable conclusion: in the face of this kind of neighbour, much more must be done to help Ukraine.

While Navalny was alive, his fate was a trump card that Russia could have used for any negotiations and trades. In exchange for his release, the West would probably have been ready to give up a good many Russian spies and murderers, who are sitting in European and US prisons. Recently, the German newspaper Bild reported that Navalny was about to be exchanged for the Russian agent Vadim Krasikov, who killed a political emigrant from Chechnya in Berlin. But releasing Navalny from prison, and letting him go abroad, would mean greatly strengthening the anti-Putin opposition movement among émigrés. And that was not on the Kremlin’s wish list.

Now Russia will exchange its spies and murderers for Wall Street Journal correspondent Evan Gershkovich and other foreign citizens who had the imprudence to end up in that dangerous country at such a terrible time for the entire world.


Andrei Kurkov