20 years under Putin: a timeline

On February 24, the Russian army crossed the Ukrainian border in several directions simultaneously, thus beginning a full-scale invasion of Ukraine. The Kremlin employed most of its armed forces—around 130,000 people, according to various estimates—that had accumulated along the Ukrainian border over the past four months.


March 15, 2022: a destroyed apartment building in Kyiv’s residential area after a bombing by the Russian military. Photo: Vadim Ghirda | AP.


According to the Pentagon, as of March 14, Russia had deployed 100 percent of the forces and equipment that it had been accumulating at the Ukrainian border before the beginning of the invasion. In the words of lieutenant general Scott Berrier, the head of the Pentagon’s Defense Intelligence Agency, Russia’s losses at the present moment stand at 2,000 to 4,000 people killed and around 10 percent of combat equipment lost. On March 15, the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense estimated the Russian military’s irretrievable losses as the following: 13,000 military personnel, 404 tanks, 1,279 armored vehicles, 80 planes, 95 helicopters and other military equipment. The Russian Ministry of Defense only admitted losses on March 2, estimating them at 498 people. 

It is clear that Moscow’s decision-makers did not prepare for a lengthy confrontation, in the hopes of solving the “Ukrainian question” in two or three weeks. However, as of today, the main task of the so-called “blitzkrieg”—a lightning-speed war with maximum employment of Russian armed forces to attack and seize large cities such as Kyiv, Kharkiv, Odessa, Nikolaev, Mariupol and Chernigov—remains uncompleted.

In the Kremlin’s understanding, the main political goals behind the invasion are the “denazification” and demilitarization of Ukraine, as well as maintaining its neutral status in regard to NATO and the European Union. In this sense, the Kremlin’s rhetoric hasn’t changed much over the past eight years. As before, Moscow is accusing Kyiv of oppressing Ukraine’s Russian-speaking population, refusing to directly negotiate with the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk people’s republics, failing to officially recognize them, and creating conditions for integration into the EU and military collaboration with Western countries.

After the events of Euromaidan in 2014, and Russia’s annexation of Crimea and invasion of Donbass, Putin’s priority has turned into, if not complete destruction of Ukrainian state sovereignty, then at least inclusion of Ukraine in the Russian Federation’s sphere of interest. With the beginning of the “Russian spring” and the escalation in Donbass, the Kremlin aimed to create a quasi-state under the provisional name “Novorossiya,” which was supposed to unite most of the southeastern regions of Ukraine, whose residents are mostly Russian-speaking. It is possible that, prior to the military invasion on February 24, Moscow’s decision-makers theorized that the residents of those regions would not show resistance, and, in the best-case scenario, would greet the Russian army as their liberators. In this best-case scenario, an advance on Kyiv and seizure of the capital seemed like quite a realistic plan. 

These expectations are evident in the testimonies of captured Russian officers—over the course of the war, the Ukrainian army has captured officers of the OMON’s special division and Rosgvardia, as well as regular employees of the Ministry of Internal Affairs whose duties do not include direct participation in military actions. Another significant fact is that troops carried dress uniforms, and some Russian tanks were painted in ceremonial colors. After some time, Moscow acknowledged that Russian army conscripts participated in the military actions, many of whom (around 2,000) also ended up being captured and have already testified on their actions in Ukraine. 

During the first hours of Russian aggression, the Ukrainian parliament enacted martial law throughout the entire country and announced mobilization of all reservists and persons bound to military service. Divisions of territorial defense began to form in the country on the basis of the previously passed law “On the foundations of national resistance.” These groups were mostly formed by local residents, many of whom had acquired military experience in Donbass. 

The Ukrainian army’s numbers, as of February 24, amounted to 261,000 troops, 60,000 officers of the National Guard, and 50,000 reservists, many of whom joined the territorial defense forces during the first days of the invasion. After two weeks of military actions, the territorial defense forces grew to 100,000 people. Over that same period, 167,000 citizens returned to Ukraine; 80 percent of them were men ready to fight for their country. The Ukrainian army has another important advantage: the fact that the West effectively organized a “lend-lease” for Ukraine and supplies high-precision military weapons, such as Javelin and Stinger (the U.S.) and Panzerfaust (Germany) anti-tank systems, Bayraktar combat drones (Turkey), as well as firearms and large amounts of ammunition and other supplies.

Moscow, however, seems to want to raise the stakes, threatening to use chemical and nuclear weapons against Ukraine under the guise of a preventive strike.

After the failure of its initial plan to capture Kyiv and install a puppet government in the capital following the examples of the self-proclaimed DPR and LPR, Moscow decided to change its tactic and began a siege on large cities—Chernihiv, Kharkiv, Odessa, Mariupol. It is possible that the Kremlin’s goal is to manufacture a humanitarian disaster in these regions, since that will create more opportunities for bargaining during de-escalation negotiations. The possibility of Russia’s use of chemical warfare and potential provocations at the nuclear power stations in Chernobyl and Enerhodar also cannot be dismissed. If this happens, environmental catastrophe will encompass not just Ukraine, but all of Europe.

After two weeks, Moscow has also changed its rhetoric, having removed the term “denazification” from its list of demands. The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs also emphasized that there were no plans to overthrow the existing government in Kyiv, despite the fact that a day before the invasion began, former president of Ukraine Victor Yanukovich, who has been hiding in Russia since 2014, delivered an address to Ukrainians. Most likely, he was the Kremlin’s intended candidate for the position of the new head of Ukraine, once Kyiv is victoriously seized and “Novorossiya” is proclaimed.

Even though the negotiations between Kyiv and Moscow have been continuing for two weeks, no significant results—especially regarding a ceasefire—have been achieved. Moscow keeps denying that the events in Ukraine constitute a war and instead opts to call it “a special operation” and a measure to protect Russian national security, which is supposedly threatened by NATO. The Kremlin’s decision-makers understand that any kind of acquiescence to Kyiv or the West could cost them not just power, but also future physical survival. This is the reason why, most likely, the war in Ukraine will continue in one way or another—from the “hot” phase of combat actions to positional confrontations. In places where ground operations have failed, Moscow will continue using aviation strikes and artillery shootings of residential neighborhoods to demoralize civilians as much as possible. In the meantime, active pro-Russia campaigning continues in the occupied Ukrainian territories. Representatives of the local authorities who disagree with the Russian administration are kidnapped and subjected to torture, as happened to Ivan Fyodorov, the mayor of Melitopol, which was seized by the Russian army, as well as to many others. 

Today it is already clear that the invasion in Ukraine is Vladimir Putin’s personal colossal political miscalculation, as he continues to believe that he is dealing with a “separated single nation”—Russians who live on Ukrainian territory and wholeheartedly long to be reunited with Russia. However, by waging war against Ukraine, the Kremlin has achieved the opposite effect—the all-encompassing mobilization of Ukrainians, including the southeastern parts of the country, whose residents suffer the most from Russian air strikes today. Moreover, the war has helped Ukrainians to unite in the face of a common threat: according to March surveys, 91 percent of Ukrainian residents feel hopeful, and only 6 percent report feelings of despair. 

Moscow, however, seems to want to raise the stakes, threatening to use chemical and nuclear weapons against Ukraine under the guise of a preventive strike. The fact that the Russian mass media seriously discuss the idea of Kyiv’s alleged developments of bacteriological and nuclear weapons confirms this could be an option. Such rhetoric on the part of the Kremlin only heightens tensions, shifting the status of the conflict from local to global, as happened during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. With his actions in Ukraine, Putin opened a Pandora’s box—he destroyed the rules and foundations of the Yalta-Potsdam system of international relations and thus plunged the world into even more intense turbulence than that of the Cold War period. Events in Ukraine today will not only define the development of the parties to the military conflict, but also the positioning of forces on the world chessboard.


* Mykola Vorobiov is a Ukrainian journalist and visiting scholar at Johns Hopkins University (SAIS).  

Text translation: Elizaveta Agarkova.