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At the centre of a global conflict: a view from Kyiv

Ukraine is under attack and there is little sign of a resolution. Nevertheless, Ukrainians continue to fight. For the first time in many years, we are now faced with the reality of a potential world war. It is high time to start thinking about how to prevent such a fate.

March 8, 2022 - Yegor Vasylyev - Articles and CommentaryUkraineAtWar

Ukrainian soldiers during a military parade. Photo: Bumble Dee / Shutterstock

In the early hours of February 24th, Europe was faced with a new reality as Russian President Vladimir Putin unleashed an assault on Ukraine.

Tensions have been building for months and anticipation of war has been widespread in Ukraine, Russia and Europe. Talks regarding the progress of the Minsk agreements had reached an impasse after seven years. Analysts first discarded the possibility of an all out war as negotiations started between Russia and the US. However, in February the situation got even more tense.

When Russia and Ukraine began to trade similar accusations, it became clear that war was looming. Diplomats increasingly looked helpless to stop such an outcome. Russia insisted that Ukraine must talk with the separatists in Donbas, as well as implement constitutional and legislative changes. Ukraine replied with its own interpretation of the agreements that ran completely contrary to Russia’s outlook. When Ukrainian President Zelenskyy called the accords “pathetic” and poorly formulated, it was obvious that the Russians would soon react in a ‘technical military’ way, as Putin had previously warned .

On February 21st Putin addressed Russians with a long speech. Essentially, he claimed that Ukraine is a failed state that does not deserve its borders, as they were artificially created by Lenin. He blamed nationalism for all Ukraine’s pains as he sees them, from corruption to oligarchs, and threatened to find and punish those responsible. He also said that there was an ongoing genocide in Donbas. In the end, he announced that he would recognise the breakaway Donetsk and Luhansk republics as sovereign states.

All signs are that Russia has been preparing for this course of events. For instance, the Kremlin has amassed a cushion of 630 billion US dollars in cash reserves in case of more western sanctions. Moscow also set up an alternative payment system in case of being frozen out of SWIFT. Furthermore, Putin signed many contracts with China to offset Germany’s potential abandonment of Nord Stream 2. Overall, the country has been getting ready for war.

Kyiv: the loyal and not so loyal

Since Thursday, for a man from Kyiv it was most important to both stay in the city and stay calm. However, not too many coped with this new reality. By Thursday’s midday, many of those who had bought guns and posed as would-be guerrillas in case of an invasion on Facebook had fled the city in a mostly western direction.

Both children and the elderly were naturally frightened about the situation. There was no certainty and little care for them during peace time, so they expected things to get even worse during a war. As air raid sirens wailed throughout Kyiv, many headed to underground car parks and metro stations to find shelter. In many places, people had little access to water, warmth or toilets.

Others grabbed as much as they could in the supermarkets, leaving shelves empty. The roads leading away from the city were long jammed and those who just joined the queues were getting desperate. It took some up to fifteen hours to get to Zhytomyr, a city located 140 kilometres to the west of Kyiv.

Some of the public transport, including metro lines, buses and trams, has been operational. Despite this, Kyiv residents still in the city are advised not to leave their homes. A regular curfew now starts at eight in the evening. The streets are predominantly empty and most shops are closed. In some districts, it is truly difficult to find food.

Skirmishes regularly break out during the night. The sounds of Kalashnikovs and explosions can be heard even in the city’s downtown area. Whilst the streets are patrolled by the national guard and territorial defence, citizens are asked to watch out for saboteurs and marauders.

The state of play

Russia calls the war a “special military operation”. Their military officials, including Defence Minister Shoigu, claim that they are only targeting military installations and equipment with precision weapons. Moscow’s official aims are the “demilitarisation” and “denazification” of Ukraine.

Ukraine alleges that Russian troops approached Chernihiv, Kharkiv, Sumy and Kyiv and shelled residential blocks. Of course, Russia denies these allegations. It is also reported that the Russian military and separatist forces are advancing in Donbas. Their aim is to reach the administrative borders of the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts and especially the city of Mariupol.

The Russian military now allegedly occupies Kherson, Melitopol, Kupyansk, Berdyansk, Nova Kakhovka and the Chernobyl and Zaporizhya Nuclear Power Plants. The latter has narrowly avoided an explosion. Melitopol’s mayor refused to cooperate and left his office, while the mayor of Kupyansk has now officially been accused of treason by the Ukrainian authorities. Videos have come to light that show citizens in Kherson, Nova Kahovka, Kupyansk and Berdyansk gathering around city councils to protest the Russians’ presence as there are more protests and more cities fall under occupation.

The Ukrainian army and territorial defence forces are apparently set to continue the fight. Kyiv’s mayor Vitali Klitschko gave a statement claiming that the Russian military is getting close to the capital.. Indeed, the battle is raging in the Western suburbs of Kyiv, namely, in Irpin, Hostomel, Bucha and Borodyanka. They are under constant shelling and there is a humanitarian disaster there, as it is quite difficult for their citizens to leave them. The web is flooded with fakes and false information and it is often difficult to work out the facts.

Russia has been hit by a large number of western sanctions. It is now a pariah in the West, with European operas even cancelling contracts with Russian singers. The country has also been thrown out of international sports such as football and ice hockey. Its national teams and clubs are now banned from participation in international tournaments.

China reacted in a predictably calm manner, denouncing western sanctions and calling for peace. Countries like Brazil, Venezuela and Syria supported Russia, as did Armenia. India is sitting on the fence, exercising its doctrine of “strategic autonomy”. Georgia and Moldova remain quite cautious and have not joined western sanctions. With regards to the Central Asian states, Kazakhstan has offered its capital as a venue for negotiations and its President Tokayev talked over the phone both with Putin and Zelenskyy.

Around 13.000 participants have been arrested in Russia during anti-war protests. This display of anger is, of course, disregarded by the Russian authorities. The siloviki in the Kremlin enjoy tight control over the police, national guard,special services and army. They are convinced that this influence will be enough to keep the situation under control for as long as it is needed.

More than 1,6 million of Ukrainians have become refugees. At the same time, Alyaksandr Lukashenka, Belarus’s authoritarian leader, called Zelenskyy and reached an agreement to hold talks between Russian and Ukrainian delegations on the Ukraine-Belarus border Three sessions of these talks between officials from the presidential administrations and foreign and defence ministries did not achieve any breakthroughs. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Ukraine’s Dmytro Kuleba are to meet in Turkey on March 10th. Russia has demanded that Ukraine recognise its annexation of Crimea and the separatist governments, whereas Ukraine has spoken of its desire for the withdrawal of all Russian forces from these areas.

Meanwhile, the international situation is spiralling out of control. Putin ordered Russian nuclear forces on high alert following statements made by British Foreign Minister Liz Truss. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov even demanded that US nuclear forces be removed from Europe. Russia will not back down and neither will the West.

It is beyond any doubt that we are now on the brink of a new world war. Democratic and authoritarian states now entertain competing visions of the future. Is Putin prepared to go so far as risk a global conflict? Unfortunately, it looks like he is.

Needless to say, such an outcome should be avoided at all costs. Diplomacy and talks are always the way to step out of the conflict. In this new era, however, they are becoming increasingly futile. If the third world war erupts, there will be no winners.

Yegor Vasylyev is an analyst and political consultant specialising in politics and governance of post-Soviet states. He is the Board Chair at ‘The New Bridge’ Analytical Centre. He holds an LLM in European Law from the London School of Economics, where he was a British Chevening Scholar, following five years with the Ukrainian civil service.

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