Update 8: Russia’s invasion of Ukraine

3 April 2022

Russia appeared to narrow the objectives of its military campaign in Ukraine as peace talks resumed in Istanbul. In the face of stiff Ukrainian resistance, instead of regime change in Kyiv, recent Russian statements suggest that Moscow could be willing to accept Ukrainian neutrality as well as recognition of Russian control of Crimea and the independence of the self-declared republics in Donetsk and Luhansk in the eastern Donbas region. However, these last two Russian negotiating items remain unacceptable to Ukraine: Kyiv may be willing to park the sovereignty issue over Crimea for later negotiations and may also be willing to negotiate over the Donbas, but only if Russia returns to the pre-invasion boundaries that the separatist republics occupied before the Russian invasion. Since then, of course, Russia has occupied more areas of the Donbas, including taking partial control of the Donbas city of Mariupol.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said he is open to Ukraine becoming a neutral country but said such a decision needed to be accompanied by firm security guarantees and could only be made by a nationwide referendum after Russian troops withdraw. Zelensky warned on 30 March that Russia was preparing a major offensive in the Donbas. This came just two days after Russian officials announced plans to cut back military operations near Kyiv and the city of Chernihiv, although attacks on both cities continued.

The nature of any security guarantees remains an open question. These would probably need to be similar to NATO’s Article 5 guarantees, namely, that a number of countries would step up to defend Ukraine in the event of any threat to its security. However, the US and its allies appear reluctant to offer Ukraine the kinds of legally binding protection it is requesting. The UK deputy prime minister Dominic Raab, for example, after weeks of stressing Britain’s unconditional solidarity with Ukraine, said that Britain would not give any security guarantees to Ukraine as part of a peace settlement.

With no peace agreement in sight, fighting on multiple fronts continued and the growing humanitarian crisis has seen a quarter of the Ukrainian population displaced. More than 4 million refugees have now fled Ukraine. The retreat of Russian forces around Kyiv left evidence of atrocities against civilians across the region’s suburbs and towns. In Russia itself, the increasing repression of dissent is likely to lead to a huge brain drain, with leading Russian figures either quitting or being expelled, adding to the growing economic damage to Russia.

Further reading:

Ukraine: Apparent War Crimes in Russia-Controlled Areas: Summary Executions, Other Grave Abuses by Russian Forces, Human Rights Watch, 3 April 2022

Caroline Delgado, War in the breadbasket: The ripple effects on food insecurity and conflict risk beyond Ukraine, SIPRI Commentary, 1 April 2022

Keir Giles, Only total military failure will curb Putin’s ambitions in Ukraine, The Guardian, 31 March 2022

Maintaining a Coalition in Support of Ukraine at the UN, International Crisis Group Commentary, 31 March 2022

Sam Wolfson, It’s a slam dunk’: Philippe Sands on the case against Putin for the crime of aggression, The Guardian, 31 March 2022

Ukraine has offered neutrality in talks with Russia – what would that mean? The Guardian, 30 March 2022

Laura Thornton, How Democracies Can Respond to the Invasion of Ukraine, Lawfare, 30 March 2022

Helen Clark, Dan Smith, Margot Wallström, Replace Russian Oil and Gas with Renewables, Project Syndicate, 29 March 2022

Pavel Podvig , Why—and how—the world should condemn Putin for waving the nuclear saber, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 29  March  2022

Michael Crowley, Would Putin Strike NATO Supply Lines to Ukraine? History Suggests No, New York Times, 28 March 2022

Anatol Lieven, Why the Russians are losing their military gambit in Ukraine, Responsible Statecraft, 28 March 2022

Mikhail Shishkin, Neither Nato nor Ukraine can de-Putinise Russia. We Russians must do it ourselves, The Guardian, 28 March 2022

Walter Haynes, Oft Forgotten but Critical Elements of Ukrainian Resistance, War on the Rocks, 28 March 2022

Inga Kristina Trauthig, Chat and Encrypted Messaging Apps Are the New Battlefields in the Propaganda War, Lawfare, 27 March 2022

Liana Fix and Michael Kimmage, What If Russia Makes a Deal? How to End a War That No One Is Likely to Win, Foreign Affairs, 23 March 2022

Anatol Lieven, Sarang Shidore and Marcus Stanley, Avoiding the Dangers of a Protracted Conflict in Ukraine, Quincy Brief No. 23, March 2022 

 

Mounting evidence of war crimes as Russian troops withdraw from Kyiv region (2 April)

Ukrainian troops have retaken the entire Kyiv region, but they have discovered widespread evidence of what the Kyiv government says are war crimes committed by Russian forces. This included bodies found in the streets, evidence of killings of civilians, mass graves and murdered children and the use of children as ‘human shields’. (A Human Rights Watch statement said it had found “several cases of Russian military forces committing laws-of-war violations” in Russian-controlled regions such as Chernihiv, Kharkiv, and Kyiv). President Volodymyr Zelenskiy and a number of other Ukrainian authorities accused Russian troops of leaving behind mines and other explosives in their retreat of the Kyiv region. In Irpin, 643 explosive objects were found.

Former war crimes prosecutor Carla Del Ponte called for the International Criminal Court to issue an arrest warrant for the Russian president, Vladimir Putin. “Putin is a war criminal,” Del Ponte, 75, who investigated war crimes in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia, said in an interview with Le Temps.

The Baltic states have halted all Russian oil imports, and are encouraging the rest of the EU to do the same. Pope Francis implicitly criticised Vladimir Putin over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, by saying a “potentate” was fomenting conflicts for nationalist interests.

Russian forces withdraw from Chernobyl (1 April)

Russian troops ended their occupation of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine and returned control of the plant to Ukrainian authorities. The Ukrainian-state nuclear company known as Energoatam reported in a statement that “[i]t was confirmed that the occupiers, who seized the Chernobyl nuclear power plant and other facilities in the Exclusion Zone, marched in two columns towards the Ukrainian border with the Republic of Belarus”. Energoatam also confirmed during the time that Russian forces controlled the plant, troops—likely unknowingly—dug trenches in the most contaminated, radioactive area in the Chernobyl exclusion zone which caused them to receive “significant doses” of radiation. The head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Rafael Grossi, said he aims to lead a mission to Chernobyl as soon as possible.

President Volodymyr Zelenskiy repeated his warning that Russia was preparing for “powerful strikes” in the Donbas region after appearing to withdraw from an assault on Kyiv. The Pentagon agreed Russia may be repositioning some of its forces to send them to the Donbas. Zelenskiy also said more than 3,000 people had been rescued from the besieged city of Mariupol. More than 6,000 in total were rescued from Mariupol, Donetsk, Luhansk and Zaporizhzhia. The International Committee of the Red Cross said it had been unable to reach the city but would try again to evacuate civilians the next day. The mayor of Kyiv, Vitaliy Klitschko, said “huge” battles were being fought to the north and east of Ukraine’s capital.

Russia said Ukrainian helicopters attacked an oil storage facility in Belgorod, Russia, about 16 miles from the border and close to Kharkiv, destroying fuel tanks. It would be the first raid on Russian soil since the outbreak of the war, if confirmed, although Ukrainian officials denied their forces were involved. Ukraine exchanged 86 members of their armed forces with Russia in a prisoner exchange in the Zaporizhzhia region.

EU leaders called on China to help end the war in Ukraine, after having what they called “frank” exchanges with their Chinese counterparts. During the first virtual EU-China summit since 2020, the president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen warned Chinese leaders, prime minister Li Keqiang and President Xi Jinping, not to help Russia evade western sanctions. The Indian prime minister, Narendra Modi, met Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, who during his visit to Delhi, praised India’s refusal to condemn the Ukraine invasion and predicted Moscow and Delhi would find ways to circumvent “illegal” western sanctions and continue to trade.

The US announced an additional $300 million in security assistance to Ukraine, to include laser-guided rocket systems, drones, and commercial satellite imagery services. The US military cancelled plans to test an intercontinental ballistic missile in an effort to reduce tensions with Russia. The Hollywood actor Sean Penn called for a billionaire to come forward and buy two squadrons of F-15 or F-16 aircraft for Ukraine in an unlikely attempt to tip the scales against the Russian invasion

Syrian mercenaries to be deployed by Russia (31 March)

More than 300 Syrian soldiers were deployed to Russia to prepare to join Russian forces fighting in Ukraine, according to reports. Analysts suspect that over time, more Syrian mercenaries will be deployed to fight in Ukraine because recruiters in Syria have been reportedly creating lists of thousands of potential candidates to be recruited by Syrian security services to help the Russian military. Russia is redeploying some of its forces from Georgia to reinforce its invasion, British military intelligence said.

Russia threatened to halt contracts supplying Europe with a third of its gas unless they are paid in Russian currency. Putin signed a decree saying foreign buyers must pay in roubles for Russian gas from the 1 April, or contracts would be halted. Germany and France rejected the demands, calling them “blackmail”. Russian hackers recently attempted to penetrate the networks of NATO and the militaries of some eastern European countries, according to a report by Google’s threat analysis group. Putin’s approval ratings surged in March to levels not seen in five years, according to an independent survey. According to the Levada Center, Putin’s approval grew to 83% in March from 71% in February. The last time Putin reached similar approval ratings was in 2017.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said Russian forces were not withdrawing, but regrouping. He also said the alliance had yet to be convinced Russia was negotiating in good faith in peace talks in Istanbul, because Moscow’s military objective since launching its invasion of Ukraine had not changed. The US president, Joe Biden, said the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, “seems to be self-isolated” and that “there’s some indication that he has fired or put under house arrest some of his advisers”. He did not provide evidence. During a press briefing, White House director of communications, Kate Bedingfield, said the US had evidence that the war against Ukraine had been “a strategic disaster” for Russia, adding that Russia was “working to redefine the initial aims of their invasion”.

Russian forces struck a Red Cross facility in the besieged southern Ukraine port city of Mariupol. Vladimir Putin told Emmanuel Macron, that Russian shelling of Mariupol will end only when Ukrainian troops surrender. The deputy chief of staff of Ukraine’s ground forces, Oleksandr Hruzevych, said Russian forces around Kyiv had lost their offensive capacity and were changing tactics to favour long-range attacks more than direct fighting. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenksyy revealed that he dismissed two Ukrainian senior security officials because they were “traitors”.

Britain and its allies agreed to send more military aid to Ukraine, the UK defence secretary said, including armoured vehicles and long-range artillery. Australia will supply armoured Bushmaster vehicles to Ukraine after Zelenskiy asked for them during a video appeal to Australian parliamentarians. NATO requested Denmark send a battalion of 800 soldiers to Latvia to bolster the alliance's eastern flank, the Danish defence ministry said. A retired UK army general, General Sir Nick Parker, who served as commander of British land forces, said in a radio interview that Russia had "defeated" NATO through the ongoing invasion of Ukraine, and urged countries to develop "a defensive counter-strategy". "Slightly controversially I suppose, NATO's been defeated, NATO's bluff was called," Parker said, adding "We were unable to stop the Russians trampling all over Ukraine and now NATO is holding the line of the 2004 expansion, along the line of the Baltic states and Poland and Hungary and Romania.

Russia intensifies attacks on Chernihiv and Kyiv (30 March)

Russia was accused of intensifying its bombardment of the besieged Ukrainian city of Chernihiv despite Russian claims its forces would drawback out of respect for ongoing peace talks. There were also continued attacks on Kyiv’s suburbs. An estimated 200-300 civilians were killed in the Ukrainian town of Irpin near Kyiv before the town was taken back from Russian forces, the local mayor said. With some signs of troop movements away from Chernihiv and Kyiv, Russia’s defence ministry said its forces were regrouping in order to focus on other key areas and complete the “liberation” of the breakaway Donbas region. The Ukrainian military said Russian troops were also intensifying their attacks around the eastern city of Izyum and the eastern Donetsk region.

Russian officials played down hopes of an early breakthrough a day after peace talks in Turkey between Russia and Ukraine (see below). “We cannot state that there was anything too promising or any breakthroughs”, Russia’s spokesperson, Dmitry Peskov, said. He said it was “positive” that Kyiv had outlined its demands but there was “a lot of work to be done”. Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, hailed China as part of a new “just, democratic world order” ahead of a meeting with his Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi. In his first visit to China since Russia invaded Ukraine last month, Lavrov said the world was “living through a very serious stage in the history of international relations”. Wang said Beijing and Moscow are “more determined” to develop bilateral ties and boost cooperation and reaffirmed China’s support for continued peace talks between Russia and Ukraine.

Reports on military activity in Ukraine indicate that Russian military forces have used cluster munitions in populated areas of the country at least 24 times since the beginning of the invasion. Cluster munitions are forms of air-dropped ground-launched explosives that eject smaller submunitions. These submunitions are often scattered over a wide area which pose a great threat to the safety of civilians who often stumble upon the explosive devices on the ground and inadvertently detonate them. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet, the former Chilean president, accused Russia of committing possible war crimes by targeting civilian areas and using cluster munitions.

According to the head of Britain’s GCHQ spy service, Jeremy Fleming, President Putin has been receiving misinformation about how well Russia is doing and how much the sanctions have affected the country because some of those closest to him are afraid to tell him the truth Fleming also said that some Russian soldiers were refusing to carry out orders, and that they are poorly equipped and have low morale. Slovakia expelled 35 Russian diplomats based on information provided by intelligence services. Belgium, the Netherlands, Ireland and the Czech Republic have all announced the expulsion of Russian diplomats suspected of spying.

The United States agreed to provide $500m in further budgetary assistance to Ukraine, President Joe Biden told Volodymyr Zelenskiy during a phone call, according to a White House readout. The UK announced new laws targeting the access of Russian oligarchs to “UK aviation and maritime technical services”, according to the Foreign Office. However, the UK government also admitted that eight Russian oligarchs on the UK sanctions list over their links to Vladimir Putin were granted “golden visas” to live in Britain. The individuals were granted the right to live in the UK after promising to invest at least £2m under the controversial tier 1 investor visa scheme.

Positive signs from Istanbul peace talks “do not drown out the explosions of Russian shells” (29 March)

Ukrainian and Russian negotiators met in Turkey for the first face-to-face talks in nearly three weeks, with Ukraine seeking a ceasefire without compromising on territory or sovereignty. Ukraine proposed adopting neutral status in exchange for security guarantees at talks with Russia in Turkey, meaning it would not join military alliances or host military bases, Ukrainian negotiators said. The proposals would also include a 15-year consultation period on the status of annexed Crimea and could come into force only in the event of a complete ceasefire, the negotiators told reporters in Istanbul. The proposals are the most detailed and concrete that Ukraine has aired publicly. They also envisage security guarantees along the lines of the NATO military alliance's Article 5, its collective defence clause. The senior Ukrainian presidential adviser, Mykhailo Podolyak, said the guarantee would involve countries such as the US, UK, Turkey, France and Germany being “legally actively involved in protecting [Ukraine] from any aggression”.

Western and Ukrainian officials reacted warily to Russia’s claim that it would significantly cut back its military activity in northern Ukraine after “meaningful” progress at the peace talks in Istanbul. Russia’s deputy defence minister, Alexander Fomin, said Moscow would “radically reduce military activity in the direction of Kyiv and Chernihiv”. Volodymyr Zelenskiy said the talks had been “positive but they do not drown out the explosions of Russian shells”, adding that Ukraine had no intention of reducing its military efforts. The US suspected that Russia’s claims to scale back military operations in Kyiv and Chernihiv was really just Moscow “repositioning” troops to other parts of Ukraine rather than a withdrawal of forces.  Joe Biden said: “I don’t read anything into it until I see what their actions are”. The US secretary of state, Antony Blinken, said he had not seen anything indicating that talks were progressing in a “constructive way” and suggested Russian indications of a pullback could be an attempt by Moscow to “deceive people and deflect attention”. “What Russia says, and what Russia does, and we’re focused on the latter”.

Moscow’s lead negotiator, Vladimir Medinsky, said Russia’s promise to “drastically reduce” military operations does not represent a ceasefire. In an interview with the Russian state-owned Tass news agency, Medinsky said there is still “a long way to go” to reach a mutual agreement with Ukraine. Russian defence minister Sergei Shoigu said Moscow’s “main goal” in Ukraine was now the “liberation” of the Donbas region. In a sign that Moscow may be switching to more limited objectives, Shoigu claimed the “main tasks of the first stage of the operation have been completed”.

A Russian airstrike hit a government building in the southern Ukrainian port city of Mykolaiv, destroying a large portion of the structure and killed at least 35 people. Almost 5,000 people, including about 210 children, have been killed in the devastated city of Mariupol since Russia invaded Ukraine last month, a spokesperson for the mayor said. Mariupol is on the verge of a humanitarian catastrophe with about 160,000 civilians were trapped in the city without power. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) called on Russia and Ukraine to reach a clear agreement for the safe evacuation of civilians from Mariupol and other frontline places as vital supplies run out. “Time is running out” for people in Mariupol, it warned, adding that there was still a lack of “concrete agreements” for the safe passage and evacuations of civilians in the southern Ukrainian city.

US President expresses “moral outrage” (28 March)

US president Joe Biden said he would “make no apologies” after appearing to call for Putin’s removal last week. When asked by a reporter if he regretted saying that Putin should not remain in power, Biden said: “I wasn’t then, nor am I now, articulating a policy change. I was expressing moral outrage that I felt”.

Humanitarian evacuation corridors meant for refugees in and around the besieged city of Mariupol, Ukraine came under the control of Russian forces, according to reports. The humanitarian corridors were established under agreements between Ukrainian and Russian negotiators, however for weeks Russian forces did not abide by ceasefire laws around the corridors which made it nearly impossible for the corridors to be utilized safely and efficiently. Volodymyr Zelenskiy accused Russian authorities of disrespect towards the families of their own dead soldiers for not agreeing on a scheme to have the remains of those killed in action returned to Russia. Video footage purporting to show the torture of three Russian prisoners of war was being investigated by the Ukrainian government. 

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Russia feels it is “amongst war” with the west after an array of sanctions were imposed on Russian businesses and individuals. Referencing Russia’s ongoing tension with NATO, Peskov told broadcaster PBS, “Don’t push us into the corner. No”. Novaya Gazeta, one of Russia’s last remaining independent news outlets, said it would suspend operations after it received a second warning from the state censor for allegedly violating the country’s “foreign agent” law. The warning came a day after its editor-in-chief, Dmitry Muratov, spoke with Zelenskiy in a group interview with Russian journalists that was quickly banned by the Russian state media watchdog, Roskomnadzor.

Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich and a Ukrainian peace negotiator suffered symptoms consistent with poisoning earlier this month, according to reports.

UK military intelligence said that Russia was expected to send more than 1,000 mercenaries into eastern Ukraine as they continued to suffer heavy losses. Russia’s private military company, the Wagner group, has already deployed to eastern Ukraine and is expected to send more than 1,000 mercenaries.

Ukraine’s economy minister, Yulia Svyrydenko, said the war has so far cost the country $564.9bn (£429.3bn) in terms of damage to infrastructure, lost economic growth and other factors. Ukraine experienced a large cyberattack against telecom provider Ukrtelecom.