By ALEXANDER J. MOTYL
We all know that Russia’s full-scale assault against Ukraine began on Feb. 24, 2022, but when did the Russo-Ukrainian War actually begin? Most Ukrainians will tell you the war began in February 2014, when Russian forces occupied Crimea and invaded eastern Ukraine. The war then went on hold from 2015 to 2022, when Russian forces staged periodic attacks against Ukrainian positions along the line of demarcation, without fundamentally altering the balance of forces. Seen in this light, the Feb. 24 assault was not a new war but an intensification of the ongoing war.
Why does such periodization — to use a term beloved of historians — matter? For four reasons:
First, and most obviously, Ukraine has been resisting an armed Russian invasion for nine years, not 11 months. Clearly, Ukraine is as committed not to surrender its sovereignty as Russia is committed to destroy it. Moreover, both sides are just as clearly committed to a long-term conflict. Russian strongman Vladimir Putin is not considering an extended war; he’s already involved in one. By the same token, the West, insofar as it generally has supported Ukraine’s defense of itself, has been involved in an anti-Russian undertaking for far longer than it is wont to admit. This is all the more reason not to extend the war for more years, but to end it as quickly as possible by supplying Ukraine with all the weapons it needs to win — quickly.
Second, this periodization has much to say about the quality of Ukraine’s and Russia’s respective armed forces. Back in 2014, Ukraine had several thousand battle-ready troops. Unsurprisingly, they were soundly defeated, especially in two crucial battles, in Ilovaisk and Debaltseve. In contrast, the Russian forces resembled a juggernaut. Nine years later, the tables have turned. Ukraine’s army has performed well and the Russian army has proven to be a paper tiger. Western weapons have made a large difference, of course, but the quality of the Ukrainian armed forces improved as a result of their eight-year defense of their homeland and Ukraine’s Westernizing military reforms. In contrast, Russia’s armed forces either remained as bad as they were or got worse. Given the Russians’ poor track record, there is little reason to think that their military prowess will suddenly do an about-turn and result in a magnificent fighting force.
Third, the nine-year war produced important positive changes in the identity and self-organization of Ukrainians, while only deepening Russians’ passivity and tolerance of brutality. That almost all Ukrainians now consider themselves to be patriots, that they believe they need to fight to the finish, and that they realize their ability to organize themselves in an active civil society has been one of the keys to their success, are all due to the protracted amount of time that they’ve had to ward off Russian aggression. In contrast, the war has only solidified Russians’ passivity in the face of fascism and increased their willingness to applaud atrocities committed in
the name of a great Russia. It’s highly likely that the longer the war continues, the stronger will Ukrainian identity and civil society get, and the more inured Russians will become to mass violence. The Russian descent into brutality, therefore, can be ended only with Russia’s defeat in the war and Putin’s departure into oblivion.
Fourth, and last, shifting the start of the war to 2014 has loads to say about the reasons for Russia’s aggression. Back then, the West in general and NATO in particular felt little more than “Ukraine fatigue.” Ukraine’s potential membership in the alliance was on nobody’s mind, including that of Kyiv. Since Ukraine’s armed forces were minuscule and the country was in chaos after Ukrainian dictator Viktor Yanukovych’s flight from Kyiv on Feb. 22, 2014, it was manifestly clear to everyone — and especially Putin — that Ukraine posed no security threat to Russia.
And still Russia invaded. Why? Because the democratic Maidan Revolution had forced Putin’s puppet, Yanukovych, out of office and Putin realized that tolerating such a manifestation of successful people power could lead to other such attempts among Russia’s neighbors — and within Russia itself. Moreover, given Ukraine’s chaotic politics after Maidan, the country was ripe for the taking. Then, as now, NATO was completely irrelevant to Putin’s calculations. All that mattered was striking a blow against the Maidan democrats by lopping off a big chunk of Ukraine.
Back in 2014-2015, genocide wasn’t yet on Putin’s mind. He hoped to be able to defeat Ukraine on the cheap. Hence the “special military operation” launched on Feb. 24, 2022, and the expectation that Ukrainians would greet the Russian army with bread, salt and song. When that strategy failed — as anyone following Ukraine’s war with Russia could have told him it would — Putin decided that the only way to deal with the pesky Ukrainians, once and for all, was extermination. And, once again, NATO was irrelevant.
Alexander J. Motyl is a professor of political science at Rutgers University-Newark. A specialist on Ukraine, Russia and the USSR, and on nationalism, revolutions, empires and theory, he is the author of 10 books of nonfiction, as well as “Imperial Ends: The Decay, Collapse, and Revival of Empires” and “Why Empires Reemerge: Imperial Collapse and Imperial Revival in Comparative Perspective.”