Why is Russia at war with Ukraine and what does Putin want?

Russia’s “special military operation” has been raging for more than six months as the conflict records devastating casualties as well as the displacement of millions of Ukrainians.

President Vladimir Putin began the conflict by claiming Ukraine needed to be “demilitarised and de-Nazified.”

Ukraine has defied odds throughout the conflict and defended against Russian attacks with the help of western military aid. In recent weeks president Volodymyr Zelensky’s forces launched a major counter-offensive to retrieve the besieged city of Kharkiv but as Ukraine’s resistance grows, Mr Putin’s threats of escalating the conflict grow also causing concern globally of whether nuclear warfare will be unleashed.

Mr Zelensky said Russian officials had begun to “prepare their society” for the possible use of nuclear weapons, but added he does not believe Russia is ready to use them. President Zelensky said action was needed now, as Russia’s threats were a “risk for the whole planet”. Moscow, he claimed, had “made a step already” by occupying the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, Europe’s largest nuclear station which president Putin is trying to turn into Russian property.

In response to the growing sense that his invasion was backfiring, Mr Putin staged a televised address in which he ordered a partial military mobilisation of 300,000 reservists and threatened to use nuclear weapons against the West, a major escalation of his rhetoric in which he assured the world: “It’s not a bluff.”

Russia’s faltering troops have employed brutal siege warfare tactics throughout the war, surrounding Ukraine’s cities and subjecting them to intense shelling campaigns, a strategy previously seen in Chechnya and Syria.

The likes of Lviv and Mariupol have been battered by Russian missiles in pursuit of gradual territorial gains in the east and south of Ukraine while the targeting of residential buildings, hospitals and nurseries have led to outraged accusations of civilians being intentionally targeted and of war crimes being committed.

Mr Zelensky’s initial appeals for Nato to implement a no-fly zone remain unanswered as the West fears such an act would be interpreted as a provocation by Russia and draw the alliance into a much larger war over Eastern Europe.

However, US president Joe Biden, UK prime minister Liz Truss, their European counterparts and UN secretary general Antonio Guterres have all condemned Moscow’s “unprovoked and unjustified” attack and promised to hold it “accountable”, with the West introducing several rounds of tough economic sanctions against Russian banks, businesses and oligarchs while supplying Ukraine with additional weapons, hardware and defence funding.

That said, the allies have also faced criticism for not doing enough to support the millions of refugees from the conflict, who have fled their homeland for neighbouring states like Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, Romania and Moldova.

Rumbling tensions in in the region, which began in December 2021 when Russian troops amassed at its border with Ukraine, really escalated in the final week of February 2022 when Mr Putin moved to officially recognise the pro-Russian breakaway regions of the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) and Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR) as independent states.

This enabled him to move military resources into those areas, in anticipation of the coming assault, under the guise of extending protection to allies.

That development meant months of frantic diplomatic negotiations pursued by the likes of US secretary of state Antony Blinken, French president Emmanuel Macron, German chancellor Olaf Scholz and Ms Truss, then UK foreign secretary, in the hope of averting calamity had ultimately come to nothing.

But what are the key issues behind the conflict, where did it all begin and how might the crisis unfold?

How did the crisis start?

Going back to 2014 gives the current situation more context.

Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula that year in retaliation after the country’s Moscow-friendly president Viktor Yanukovych was driven from power by mass protests.

Weeks later, Russia threw its weight behind two separatist insurgency movements in Ukraine’s eastern industrial heartland, the Donbas, which eventually saw pro-Russian rebels in Donetsk and Luhansk declare the DPR and LPR independent states, although they went entirely unacknowledged by the international community.

More than 14,000 people died in the fighting that was ongoing throughout the intervening years, which devastated the region.

Both Ukraine and the West have accused Russia of sending troops and weapons to back the rebels but Moscow has denied the allegations, stating that Russians who joined the separatists did so voluntarily.

A man walks past homes damaged by a rocket attack in Kramatorsk, Ukraine, in August 2022

(David Goldman/AP)

A 2015 peace accord – the Minsk II agreement – was brokered by France and Germany to help end the large-scale battles. The 13-point agreement obliged Ukraine to offer autonomy to separatist regions and amnesty for the rebels while Ukraine would regain full control of its border with Russia in the rebel-held territories.

The agreement is highly complex, however, because Moscow continues to insist it has not been a party in the conflict and is therefore not bound by its terms.

In point 10 of the agreement, there is a call for the withdrawal of all foreign armed formations and military equipment from the disputed DPR and LPR. Ukraine says this refers to forces from Russia but Moscow has previously denied it has any of its own troops in those states.

In 2021, a spike in ceasefire violations in the east and a Russian troop concentration near Ukraine fuelled fears that a new war was about to erupt but tensions abated when Moscow pulled back the bulk of its forces after manoeuvres in April.

How is the situation at present?

At present, it is believed that Russians are beginning to see Mr Putin’s misjudgment of the war as the country suffers devastating losses and economic consequences in the course of the conflict which will reach the one year mark at the start of 2023.

Sir Jeremy Fleming – director of the intelligence, cyber and security agency GCHQ – said Russians are feeling the consequences of the Kremlin leaders “war choice.”

Russia responded to strikes on a major bridge connecting Crimea to Russia by launching a widespread bombardment of missiles into Ukraine, some killing civilians in Kyiv. Mr Putin called the destruction of the bridge along the Kerch strait, “an act of terrorism aimed at destroying critically important civilian infrastructure”.

In response to these attacks, Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky accused Russia of trying to wipe his country “off the face of the earth.” Ukrainian foreign minister Dmytro Kuleba added that the missile strikes across Ukraine on Monday showed Mr Putin “is a terrorist who talks with missiles.”

People look at their destroyed cars that stand amid damage caused by a missile strike in a residential area near Tower 101 not far from Kyiv’s main train station


Meanwhile, the West continues to assess the risk of nuclear warfare as a result of escalating fighting in Ukraine. President Joe Biden warned that the conflict could lead to “nuclear armageddon.” However, the White House has insisted that it has no reason to believe there is an “imminent” threat of Vladimir Putin using nuclear weapons.

Mr Putin made clear in September that Russia would consider use of nuclear weapons against Nato if its territory were to be threatened as a result of its invasion of Ukraine.

At the time, he warned: “To those who allow themselves to make such statements about Russia, I would like to remind you that our country also has various means of destruction, and for some components more modern than those of the Nato countries.”

The threat was the most significant suggestion of the use of nuclear weapons by a leader with access to those weapons in decades and threatened to return Washington and Moscow to the height of tensions not seen since the Cold War.

What might happen next?

Western leaders condemned Mr Putin’s “utter brutality” after Russian missile strikes killed civilians in Ukraine. The UN’s secretary general, Antonio Guterres, said he was “deeply shocked” by the Russian air strikes. This morning’s attacks “constitute another unacceptable escalation of the war and, as always, civilians are paying the highest price,” UN spokesperson Stephane Dujarric said.

Nato’s secretary general, Jens Stoltenberg, condemned the “horrific and indiscriminate” attacks while the president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, said she was “shocked and appalled” by it. Her European Council counterpart, Charles Michel, unequivocally labelled today’s actions by Russia as war crimes.

Belarus leader Alexander Lukashenko has ordered troops to deploy with Russian forces near Ukraine


Several emergency meetings have been arranged to discuss these developments including G7 leaders with Volodymyr Zelensky and the UN general assembley.

The president of the United Arab Emirates, Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, will visit Moscow tomorrow to meet Vladimir Putin, UAE state media reported. Mohamed “will discuss with president Putin the friendly relations between the UAE and Russia along with a number of regional and international issues and developments of common interest.”

In an ominous development, Belarus leader Alexander Lukashenko has ordered troops to deploy with Russian forces near Ukraine in response to what he claimed was a threat from Kyiv and its Western backers. The two countries had started pulling forces together after the explosion on Russia’s bridge to Crimea, Mr Lukashenko was quoted as saying. Poland has released guidance advising its citizens in Belarus to leave the country.

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