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Factors of the War in Ukraine

Instead of a ‘police operation’ to capture the former colony, Russia got a full-scale protracted war for which it was simply not prepared.”

I first heard of the possibility of a war between Russia and Ukraine in the fall of 2007, at a conference. At that time, the likelihood seemed like pure fantasy. Only seven years later, however, what seemed fantastical began to turn into reality.

Ukraine as a state, and Ukrainians as a people, have existed for hundreds of years. The Ukrainian language is significantly closer to the Old Russian language, common to all Eastern Slavs, than the modern Russian language. Notably, Kyiv—now the capital of Ukraine—was once the main city of Kyivan Rus’.

Kyivan Rus’ was almost completely destroyed by the Mongols in the 13th century. Only the Pskov Republic survived intact, though the Novgorod Republic, Polotsk, and Smolensk were not completely devastated. The rest of the lands were thoroughly plundered by the Mongols. The population was partially destroyed and partially taken into slavery. Rus’ itself fell under the Mongol yoke, a system of dependency of the Russian principalities on the Mongol Empire, and later on the Golden Horde, from 1242 until the end of the 15th century. These events defined the modern geopolitical map of Eastern Europe.

The remnants of the former Kyivan Rus’ were gradually destroyed by a new entity: Muscovy, which then absorbed the territories of both the former Old Russian state and the Golden Horde. During the reign of Ivan the Terrible, the population of Novgorod was decimated, and residents of Pskov were forcibly resettled to Moscow and other cities. Meanwhile, starting from the time of Ivan III, the Russo-Lithuanian wars began. The Lithuanian Rus’ was the last vestige of Old Rus’, and the events of the 16th century, when Vilnius actively resisted Moscow, resemble today’s events. 

The history of modern Ukraine also begins with the Grand Duchy of Lithuania or Lithuanian Rus’, into which the Mongol-devastated Kyivan principality was incorporated in the 14th century. In the 15th century, the Kyivan principality was transformed into the Kyiv voivodeship, and, in the 16th century, it was transferred under the administration of the united Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. In the 17th century, another political force appeared, known as the Hetmanateor the Cossack state. The Cossacks mostly were an alliance of serfs who had fled from the Commonwealth and Muscovy. They established their independent state in Zaporizhzhia—the Zaporozhian Sich—and regularly fought both the Crimean Khanate and the Ottoman Empire, as well as the Commonwealth. The Hetmanate, as a political entity, emerged in 1648 as a result of the large-scale uprising led by Hetman Bohdan Khmelnytsky against the Commonwealth. As a result, Khmelnytsky accepted the suzerainty of the Russian Tsar at the Pereyaslav Council, after which the Russo-Polish War of 1654-1667 began. The outcome was the political division of then Hetmanate across the Dnieper into Left-Bank Ukraine (east of the Dnieper River), which was an ally of Moscow, and Right-Bank Ukraine (west of the Dnieper), which leaned more toward the Commonwealth. As a result of the military defeats of Poland in the 17th and 18th centuries, a series of its partitions followed, and the Kyiv Governorate of the Russian Empire was formed from the Hetmanate.

Modern Ukraine territorially formed in the 20th century, and its composition includes territories that historically had never been part of Ukraine before, such as the Lviv region and Crimea. Also, the historical division into Left-Bank and Right-Bank Ukraine did not disappear. Therefore, after gaining independence at the end of 1991, Ukraine represented a complex political entity that included a variety of different cultures. Russia, whose current leadership openly implements the project of creating the Soviet Union 2.0, took advantage of these factors. The current situation has arisen because, despite the collapse of the Soviet Union, the repressive institutions of power of this state did not disappear. On the contrary, their representatives managed to seize power in Russia and Belarus and then began an expansion, with Ukraine being the first target.

The plan to annex Ukraine to Russia appeared not in 2014 or 2022, but earlier. As early as 2008, my Ukrainian acquaintances who served in the Russian army began to complain that those who had Ukrainian citizenship were being dismissed from the ranks. I linked this to the events of the Maidan in Kyiv in 2004-2005, during which President Viktor Yushchenko came to power. In 2010, Yushchenko lost the elections disastrously and conceded the presidency to the Kremlin-backed politician Viktor Yanukovych, but the trend of removing people with Ukrainian citizenship from all Russian departments continued and—if anything—intensified. At the same time, in Ukraine itself, Russian special services began to openly form a network of supporters of the so-called “Russian world.”

Russian military intelligence and the Service for the Protection of the Constitutional Order and Combating Terrorism of the Federal Security Service, together with a powerful oligarch named Konstantin Malofeyev, began a project in 2013 to train militants for Russian private military companies (PMCs). The Slavonic Corps underwent “testing” in 2013 in Syria. Then, from the ranks of the militants of this PMC, terrorist squads were formed, which in 2014 would operate in Crimea and Donbas, and also created the now world-famous PMC the Wagner Group. Thus, militants for actions in Ukraine were prepared even before the events of the Maidan in Kyiv in 2013-2014. 

I can name the key individuals involved in these events. These include:

  • Colonel Igor Girkin (Creative pseudonym Igor Strelkov), who served until 2013 in the Service for the Protection of the Constitutional Order of the Federal Security Service (FSB). It was Girkin who initiated the war in Donbas in April of 2014, as he personally admitted. The Hague Court sentenced him in absentia to life imprisonment. Currently, Girkin has been sentenced by the Moscow City Court to four years in a penal colony for publicly inciting extremist activities on the Internet and is serving his sentence.
  • Major General Gennady Tendetnik, former deputy chief of “Department K” (now the Service for the Protection of the Constitutional Order of the FSB). Tendetnik (Creative pseudonym Gennady Kazantsev) was the one who hired Igor Girkin at the Service for the Protection of the Constitutional Order of the FSB and subsequently supported him through the intelligence services.
  • Anatoly Nesmiyan, Girkin’s former press secretary and provocateur. Nesmiyan (Creative pseudonym El-Murid) is listed in the “Myrotvorets” website’s wanted database, which specializes in identifying accomplices of Russia’s aggression against Ukraine. He is also known for his provocative posts and dissemination of false information. In this material, it is mentioned that Nesmiyan allegedly announced the death of Turkmenistan’s President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov. This information turned out to be false.
  • Konstantin Malofeyev, “Orthodox oligarch” and owner of Marshall Capital Partners. The main sponsor of the propaganda media outlets “Tsargrad.” Former leader of Girkin and Alexander Borodai. An active lobbyist for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. 
  • Alexander Borodai, consultant at Marshall Capital Partners. Along with Girkin, he is one of the leaders of the terrorist units that invaded Ukraine in April 2014.
  • Alexander Dugin, fascist and ideologist of the “Russian world” concept.
  • Lieutenant Colonel Dmitry Utkin of Russian military intelligence, one of the leaders of the Slavonic Corps and co-founder of the Wagner Group.
  • Metropolitan Tikhon (Shevkunov), one of the potentials “spiritual fathers” of the Russian President Vladimir Putin. 

It was these individuals who lit the match that sparked a large war. Now let us analyze how this happened.

As described, Ukraine, as a state, historically had many political and socio-cultural contradictions. Left-Bank Ukraine has gravitated toward Russia and Right-Bank toward Europe. To this should be added Crimea, which was de facto controlled by Russia and was the base of the Black Sea Fleet, as well as the historical region of Galicia (in what is now western Ukraine and southeast Poland), whose population associates itself with Europe, primarily with Poland.

In 2013, the pro-Russian President Yanukovych was in power in Ukraine and, in turn, was a puppet of the Ukrainian oligarch Rinat Akhmetov. In turn, Akhmetov controlled all of Eastern Ukraine.

That November, as Ukraine and the European Union planned to sign an Association Agreement,  President Yanukovych suspended preparation for the signing . It was hardly a secret that he did so under pressure from the Kremlin. In the end, President Yanukovych’s action sparked mass protests in Kyiv—another Ukrainian Maidan, this time known as Euromaidan.

If the Ukrainian police had dispersed this Maidan, no further events would have followed. But here begins the most interesting part. President Putin, supposedly by agreements with the United States, did not allow President Yanukovych to sanction the dispersal of the protestors. Subsequently, the protests in Kyiv began to intensify. Unknown snipers shot people on Khreshchatyk, and, in response, police officers were attacked with Molotov cocktails. In Galicia, local administrations and police switched to the side of the protesters. Similar events occurred in Eastern Ukraine, but there the administrations were captured by supporters of the “Russian world,” and the police, controlled by Akhmetov, did not intervene. On February 22, 2014, Yanukovych was removed from power by the Verkhovna Rada (parliament) and fled to Russia. As this was happening, Russia began its invasion and annexation of Crimea.

Logically, things could have calmed down at that point. In Kyiv, power was seized by “professional revolutionaries” led by Alexander Turchinov, Vitali Klitschko, Petro Poroshenko, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, and Dmitry Yarosh. In Eastern Ukraine, Akhmetov began to form a controlled autonomous territory consisting of the Kharkiv, Luhansk, and Donetsk regions, and local administrations and police fully supported this process. As a result, within a few months, everything would have completely calmed down. Akhmetov would have negotiated with the “revolutionaries,” and Russia would have been slightly scolded for the annexation of Crimea, which it de facto already controlled. But everything went not at all according to this path.

On April 11, 2014, squads of trained militants crossed the border of Ukraine with Girkin and Borodai, who were consultants of Marshall Capital Partners. The following day, these fighters, declaring themselves supporters of the Donetsk People’s Republic, with weapons in their hands, seized administrative buildings in Slavyansk, announcing the transfer of the city under the authority of this self-proclaimed republic. On April 13, the Ukrainian authorities announced the start of an “anti-terrorist operation” in Slavyansk. Formations led by Girkin began blocking Ukrainian military units and carrying out armed provocations against them. This became a reason for the Kyiv authorities to start the “hot” phase of the operation in Donbas, while blaming the Kremlin for everything and completely thwarting the attempt to form autonomous regions in the East as part of Ukraine, which would have led to a peaceful resolution of the issue.

Incidentally, the local population in Eastern Ukraine did not really want to fight; Girkin even recorded a video message in which he expressed dissatisfaction with the passivity of the local population in the current conflict. As a result, he and his band of combatants identified themselves as employees of the Ministry of Defense of Russia and began recruiting volunteers for the war in Donbas from Kaliningrad to Nakhodka. That is, the majority of those fighting for the “Russian world” in Donbas were not residents of Donbas itself.

In the summer of 2014, the Russian army openly intervened in the conflict in Donbas, which led to its direct confrontation with the armed forces of Ukraine and created another hotspot of tension in the world. This conflict was prepared and provoked by the aforementioned individuals, with the direct participation of President Putin. Meanwhile, the conflict in Russia itself acted as a trigger to return the country to the Stalinist repressions of the 1930s. Over ten years in Russia, all independent media was eliminated; legislation made dissent more difficult; the powers of the special services were expanded to the point of handing out “licenses to kill” left and right; and the number of political prisoners is now counted in the thousands while hundreds of thousands have emigrated from the country against the background of ongoing processes.

In Ukraine, the events significantly changed the general mood. If, before 2014, many Ukrainians historically mostly sympathized with Russians, then after seeing the “Russian world” in Crimea and Donbas, pro-Russian sentiments even in the Eastern regions of Ukraine decreased significantly. The Crimean Peninsula was flooded with Russian criminal groups, primarily Chechen. Local residents began regularly to encounter violence and lawlessness. Many lost property, which was simply taken away by criminal elements through raids. In Donbas, the situation was even worse. And all of this was clearly seen by other residents of Ukraine, which certainly did not add sympathy for Russia. The situation of the 16th century was repeated, when the Lithuanian Rus’ constantly waged wars with Muscovy, not wanting to repeat the fate of the Novgorodians slaughtered by Ivan the Terrible and the Pskovians taken away from their native lands.

As of February, 2022, the absolute majority of Ukrainians regarded Russia as an occupier and aggressor. Meanwhile, in the Kremlin, the mood was directly opposite to those Ukrainians uninterested in “Russia world.” Malofeyev and his followers, as well as FSB generals and military intelligence, continued to provoke the escalation of the conflict with Ukraine. Russian propaganda was also fully engaged. “We’ll take Kyiv in three days,” they thought. “We can repeat Berlin 1945.” 

Huge funds were allocated for destructive activities against Ukraine, which were then simply embezzled by the same generals, oligarchs, and propagandists. Meanwhile, reports of “incredible successes” in Ukraine, as well as the inevitability of Kyiv’s fall within three days, went to the Kremlin. In January of 2022, Russia and Belarus practiced joint troop deployments in Kazakhstan, even as a coup was taking place there.

But the aggression against Ukraine, which Russia began on February 24, 2022, ended in complete failure. Russia planned the invasion of Ukraine as a “police operation,” not a war, expecting to capture the country’s major cities by the beginning of March. Thus, all of Left-Bank Ukraine would have been under Russian control, and through Mykolaiv and Odesa, a corridor to Transnistria (a small breakaway region of Moldova, bordering Ukraine) would have opened. And through Transnistria, the Kremlin would have already begun to bring the rest of Moldova under its control, if this plan regarding Ukraine had been realized. Instead, Russia suffered a complete military defeat in Ukraine and became a global pariah, while Ukraine, in turn, received significant Western support to repel Russian aggression.

The main factor in Russia’s defeat is the complete lack of support from Ukrainian people. Instead of a “police operation” to capture the former colony, Russia got a full-scale protracted war for which it was simply not prepared. Meanwhile, Russia’s military and political leadership continue to exacerbate this crisis, making the conflict increasingly large-scale and bloody. Russia has switched to a military model for its economy, and has severely damaged relations with Western countries, while expanding relations with China, Iran, and North Korea. The conflict in Ukraine has divided the world. All this would simply not have happened if certain destructive forces had not created private military companies and carried out a terrorist raid in Ukraine. Most members of this relatively small group of interested individuals have not yet suffered any significant punishment.

Dmitrii Ershov was born in 1986 in Pskov, in Northwestern Russia. He became an investigative journalist in 2006. Throughout his career, he has worked not only in Russia but also in Syria, Lebanon, and Iran. In 2021, he immigrated to the United States and currently resides in Florida.

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