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'Why the war began' - translation and commentary
This is a translation of part of an article published on the Ukrainian website ‘strana.ua’, a publication banned in Ukraine since 2021. The full title is ‘False target. Why Putin started the invasion, and Zelensky didn’t believe in it. A reconstruction of events’.
I only translated the first part, which is about the short-term trigger for the Russian invasion - Ukraine’s US-supported 2021 sanctioning of pro-Russian political parties, which at that time were the most popular in the country according to polls.
I didn’t translate the last part of the article, which speculates on the psychological motivation for Russia to invade.
What I liked about this article:
Emphasis on the undemocratic sanctioning of popular ‘pro-Russian’ political parties in Ukraine as the cause for war. War is not the only political instrument, and it is sometimes possible to avoid it through political strategies (Russia’s political strategy was to hope for a less pro-western political party to take power democratically in Ukraine). However, Russia’s political strategy was inadequate, since it over-estimated the amount of political democracy in Ukraine.
The fact that the USA supported this dangerous move by the Ukrainian government
The idea that Russia could have become a more appealing model to Ukraine had Russia invested more of its export earnings in increasing the Russian standard of living.
The fact that a year into the war, Russia has made many strange deals with Ukraine through Russian oligarchs like Abramovich, and retains a largely liberal capitalist economy, goes to show the strength of the comprador bourgeois in the Russian government.
This means that strength of the bourgeois in the Russian government made war the only way to solve the problem of the NATO bridgehead being created in Ukraine.
This ‘victory through economic success’ strategy could have had real chances on survival, given the growth in ‘pro-Russian’ and anti-western sentiment in Ukraine in the post-maidan years, and especially in 2021.
The Ukrainian government, ever short-sighted, assumed that the recognition of independence of the Lugansk and Donetsk People’s Republics (L/DPR) by Russia on 19 February 2022 was a good sign, since it meant that Russia would simply annex the territories and thereby free the Ukrainian government from the politically destabilizing effects of implementing the minsk agreements.
This article doesn’t mention this, but I wrote at the time on my telegram about how Arestovich openly said this on February 18. He said he wanted to ‘send a bottle of cognac to Putin’ for allowing Ukraine to ‘get rid of the noose of the minsk agreements’.
The war that began a year ago in Ukraine still leaves a huge number of questions about its causes.
Why did Vladimir Putin decide to launch an invasion of Ukraine, which ultimately dragged Russia into the most difficult war it has not known since 1945, and the course of which for the Russian Federation is very far from a victorious march?
There is a lot of mystery in the actions of the Ukrainian authorities before February 24th.
Since November 2021, the Western media and representatives of the American leadership had been warning about the coming big war . And in such conditions, Volodymyr Zelensky and his team had two options for a logical reaction.
First: try to resolve the issue politically. For example, to declare the neutral status of the country and declare a refusal to join NATO (which Russia demanded and, as the media wrote, some Western leaders offered Zelensky ). Or get going on the Minsk agreements (another demand of the Russian Federation).
Second, if the path of compromises on these issues was unacceptable for the Ukrainian authorities, then it would be logical to start preparing for war urgently, calling on reservists and strengthening the defense.
But Kyiv did neither. And it called all the reports about the approach of the war "psychological special operations" and urged everyone not to believe them, but to prepare for barbecues for the May holidays.
After the start of the war, Zelensky and representatives of his team gave their explanation for such paradoxical behavior, claiming that they knew about the war, they were preparing for it, but they did not tell the population about it so as not to inflate panic.
But, firstly, such an explanation is suicidal for the authorities, because in this case they actually claim that they deliberately did not evacuate civilians from Mariupol, knowing about the mortal danger that threatened them.
And secondly, in reality, there were no signs of large-scale preparations for war. The most obvious step was not taken - the call-up of hundreds of thousands of reservists. It was announced only two days before the invasion, and then in a limited number - 35 thousand people. Moreover, the first week of fighting, when Russian troops reached the suburbs of Kyiv and captured vast areas in the south of the country, showed that defenses were not prepared there.
"Strana" spoke with representatives of the Ukrainian authorities and sources in the political circles of the Russian Federation, carrying out a reconstruction of the events, how and why on February 24, 2022, the largest and bloodiest war in Europe since World War II began.
The origins of the current war can be sought and found in various events of the past. In the Minsk agreements of 2015, in the war in the Donbass and the annexation of Crimea, in the events on the Maidan, in the collapse of the Soviet Union, in the revolution of 1917, or even in the Pereyaslav Rada of 1654. But there is an event that was the immediate trigger for what happened on February 24th.
It happened on February 2, 2021. On this day, President Volodymyr Zelensky put into effect the decision of the National Security and Defense Council on sanctions against three TV channels associated with the head of the political council of the Opposition Platform for Life Party, Viktor Medvedchuk. And this decision was supported by the American embassy.
The imposition of sanctions meant the scrapping of the Kremlin’s strategy, which it had been trying to implement in Ukraine since 2015.
After the end of the active phase of the fighting in the Donbass and the conclusion of the Minsk agreements, three approaches to Ukrainian affairs fought amongst each other within the Russian government.
The first strategy can be conditionally called "forget about Ukraine." It proceeded from the fact that Ukraine, after Donbass and the annexation of Crimea, can hardly become a friendly state to Russia, and therefore it makes no sense to pay much attention to it, but it is necessary to minimize the dependence of the Russian Federation on Ukraine to zero - for example, build bypassing gas pipelines (North Stream II). The supporters of this strategy, of course, were not going to give up Crimea (fortunately, according to the Minsk agreements, it was put out of brackets in the negotiation process), and they had different opinions about the fate of the "LDNR". Some offered to return these territories to Ukraine even without the implementation of the political part of the Minsk agreements in exchange for the lifting of Western sanctions (Vladislav Surkov mentioned such sentiments in an interview in 2019). Others suggested annexing "LDNR" to Russia, like Crimea. Still others wanted to leave the "republics" in an unrecognized status, but de facto integrate them into Russia.
The second strategy could be summed up in one word: war. Its adherents argued that it would not be possible to “forget” about Ukraine, it would be an extremely hostile state to Russia, which NATO could then use to attack against the Russian Federation. And therefore, Ukraine in the form in which it existed after the events of 2014 must be put an end to - either through internal destabilization and collapse, or by military means.
The alternative to military strategy was political strategy. Which actually became the official course of the Kremlin.
Its essence was to change the course of Ukraine internally from hostile towards the Russian Federation to neutral, and possibly, in the future, friendly. Part of this strategy was the Minsk agreements, which implied the reintegration of the uncontrolled part of the Donbass into Ukraine with a very wide autonomy, which would change the electoral balance in the country (this is also why the Ukrainian authorities did not want to implement them in this form). Another part of the strategy was to support those political forces in Ukraine that advocated a change in the post-Maidan course.
This strategy was initially criticized by many in Moscow as absolutely fantastic and unpromising.
Therefore, in reality, the Kremlin implemented all three approaches at the same time: it built bypassing gas pipelines, created large groupings of troops near the Ukrainian borders, but at the same time, the political line remained the main line.
And, oddly enough, in 2019 it was close to success.
By that time, public opinion in Ukraine had changed significantly. Against the backdrop of corruption in power and the difficult socio-economic situation in society, disillusionment with the results of Maidan 2014 grew. The topic of normalizing relations with Russia and ending the war in Donbass began to be raised more actively.
And the Ukrainian elite showed dissatisfaction with "external management" from the West and there were voices (for example, from top oligarch Igor Kolomoisky) that it would be nice to somehow negotiate with Russia.
Given such sentiments, Zelensky won the presidential election by a huge margin, and the central point of his election campaign was peace in the Donbass, for which he was ready to "talk even with the devil" (that is, with Putin). And in the parliamentary elections, the Opposition Platform for Life party took second place.
There were many people around Zelensky who supported the course towards normalizing relations with Russia, and certain steps in this direction began: exchanges of prisoners were resumed, a gas contract was signed, and a permanent communication channel began existing between Zelensky’s closest ally Yermak and Moscow’s chief negotiator on the Donbass, Kozak.
However, Zelensky did not want to fulfill the political part of the Minsk agreements, due in part to fear of mass protests against it, which by that time were already beginning to take place (the 2020 ‘no capitulation’ protests). For the same reasons, the Ukrainian authorities did not dare to resume water supply to the Crimea. The idea, already signed by Yermak and Kozak, of creating a coordinating council, which would include representatives of Ukraine and the LDNR, was not realized. The President’s office made concessions to the nationalists after the protests. In addition, Zelensky did not want to strain relations with the West, which might not like steps to interact with Moscow.
The Kremlin had two options in such a situation. The first was to put the problematic issues (Minsk, water to Crimea, etc.) out of the picture and agree on one basis or another to neutral coexistence in the format of Russia's current relations with Georgia and its de facto ruler Ivanishvili. At least for the near future. And then, perhaps, against the background of the fading of the conflict rhetoric on both sides and the change in public sentiment, one could return to more complex issues.
It is not known for certain whether such an option was offered to Zelensky and how he reacted to it.
But in the end, Moscow took a different path - building up the confrontation with Zelensky, betting on undermining his power.
The situation for the President of Ukraine was really difficult. By the beginning of 2021, the ratings of Zelensky and the "servants of the people" had collapsed. The Constitutional Court got out of his control, the mono-majority of the "servants of the people" in the Rada actually collapsed, and the Opposition Platform for Life (OPFL) in all polls came out on top in the ratings. And, theoretically, if this trend had continued, in the parliamentary elections, the Opposition Platform for Life, together with some party that broke away from the "servants" and other close political forces, could have formed a majority.
The probability of this was, of course, not 100%. And even less than 50%. And even if the Opposition Platform for Life had formed a majority, it is far from certain that it would have been pro-Russian (just as Kuchma and Yanukovych, who were considered such before coming to power, did not become pro-Russian, and reneged on many of their ‘pro-Russian’ electoral promises).
However, the possibility itself was perceived by Zelensky and the West as a serious threat, and on February 2, 2021, the blow was struck. Sanctions were imposed by the National Security and Defense Council (NSDC) against Medvedchuk's TV channels. Then against Medvedchuk himself. Then criminal cases were initiated against him and he was placed under house arrest.
But the main thing was not even that.
The Kremlin took the NSDC sanctions as a signal from the Ukrainian authorities and the West that they are ready to use any methods, including extremely harsh ones, to prevent forces that are considered pro-Russian from coming to power through elections.
And this meant the scrapping of Moscow's strategy, which it had followed since 2015.
And the choice was before two other alternatives: forget (or, as psychologists say, "let go of the problem", which at the moment can’t be solved) or fight.
Everyone thought they would forget
The first sign that the matter was taking a serious turn came in the spring of 2021, when another escalation took place in the Donbass, and Russia began a demonstrative transfer of military equipment to the Ukrainian borders.
True, then the situation returned to normal after Biden's call to Putin. The troops were withdrawn from the borders. And between the Americans and the Russians the negotiation process began. The presidents met with the delegations in Geneva, and it seems that some progress had begun to warm relations. Biden, for example, refused to impose sanctions on Nord Stream 2 (a key part of the "forget Ukraine" strategy), effectively giving the green light for its completion.
And by the fall of 2021, it seemed to many that the peak of the crisis had been passed and Russia had decided to really "let go of the problem." Moreover, the affairs of the Russian Federation and Putin personally were going very well. The excellent situation on the world markets for Russian exports guaranteed a very large and stable income.
The geopolitical situation was also developing more than favorably: the United States and the West were increasingly switching to fighting China, forgetting about Russia, the annexation of Crimea and other events of the tumultuous 2014.
In such conditions, Moscow could feel quite confident, keeping a little distance from the fray and benefiting from interaction with both sides. While maintaining a large sales market in Europe, increase the supply of goods to the huge Chinese market.
Domestically, the opposition was completely suppressed, and no one doubted that Putin would easily be re-elected for another term in 2024.
In Russia, of course, there were many problems, but they were mainly of a socio-economic nature. First of all, a low (in comparison with European countries) level of income of the population. But the Russian Federation had all the resources to solve them through a more socially equitable distribution of national income and budgetary flows.
A sharp increase in the minimum wage, bringing the average salary to 100-120 thousand rubles and more would hardly require the Russian state to spend more money than the war in Ukraine is now devouring.
And these indicators could be achieved quite quickly, coming close to European standards in terms of quality and standard of living.
By the way, this would have had a great effect for Ukraine as well. The most important "soft power" of Russia in relations with Ukraine is the average level of wages in the Russian Federation itself. And if it approached the European level, then it would make a hundred times stronger impression on Ukrainians than Putin's articles on the unity of the Ukrainian and Russian peoples. And it would cause a significant part of the population to want to somehow join this prosperity.
As for Ukraine, events also developed for Russia in a no way menacing direction.
The country plunged into a state of political strife. A powerful coalition of influential forces formed against Zelensky, including the largest oligarch, Rinat Akhmetov (and other figures including long-time interior minister and creator of the Azov Batallion Arsen Avakov and popular journalist Dmitry Gordon). Bankova also had rather difficult relations with the West, where the topic of corruption in the Ukrainian government was raised more and more actively.
The president's rating accelerated its fall and re-election for a second term looked extremely problematic. And Zelensky’s party would have lost control over the Rada for sure. The previous trends in public sentiment also strengthened: a drop in trust in the government, disappointment in the outcome of Ukraine's path after 2014, and a craving for stability. Indicative was a survey conducted in the summer of 2021 by the Rating agency, in which 41% of respondents (a very large number) agreed with Putin's thesis about the unity of the Russian and Ukrainian peoples. That is, there were no tendencies that increased negative attitudes towards the Russian Federation among Ukrainians until the fall of 2021 (when everyone started talking about the upcoming invasion). The process was in fact going in the opposite direction.
Under such conditions, Russia, in principle, could do nothing at all, but simply observe the process and, closer to the parliamentary and presidential elections, decide on its game strategy for them. Or not to play at all, but simply to agree on "Ivanishvili's terms" with their winners, which, taking into account the financial resources of the Russian Federation, was a completely solvable task.
Finally, there was another important point that many perceived as an indirect sign that Russia was on the path of "forgetting." Since the summer of 2021, changes began taking place in the L/DNR. Prior to that, the territories of Donbass that were not controlled by Ukraine were not a showcase, but rather a shame of the "Russian world", stuck in an unrecognized status "between heaven and earth", with a degrading industry and social sphere.
But in 2021, there were signs that Russia had decided to come to grips with the L/DNR. The industrial enterprises were merged into a new structure, they paid their wage arrears and promised investments. The government of the Russian Federation approved a plan for financial support for the L/DNR that involved bringing social standards there to Russian levels. That is, everything pointed to the conclusion that Russia no longer counted on the implementation of the Minsk agreements and the reintegration of territories into Ukraine, and therefore decided to develop them.
In general, the Russian Federation did not have any huge, deadly problems with Ukraine or with other countries that could only be solved by war. And, in principle, everything was plus or minus quite well for it. And wars, as you know, do not start from a good life.
Therefore, when since November 2021 the Western press began to write almost daily about Putin’s preparations for the invasion, this information was received extremely skeptically both in Ukraine and in Russia.
Why Zelensky did not believe in war
In fact, there were a lot of warnings to the Ukrainian authorities about the preparation for war. Both Western representatives and Ukrainian intelligence spoke about this.
But on Bankova (the president’s office) they were treated with mixed feelings. On the one hand, the concentration of troops was evident. On the other hand, the very suggestion that Putin might start a war looked crazy from the point of view of the Ukrainian elite.
"If we had as much money as Putin had then, then we would simply enjoy life, and the last thing we would think about is conquest. Especially about the conquest of Ukraine. Well, how could the Russians profit big from us - grain and ore only. So what, they themselves have this stuff in bulk. Therefore, the very possibility that Putin would run into a pole for some reason, starting an invasion of Ukraine, looked like a complete fantasy to us," one of the representatives of the Ukrainian government told Strana.
There were hints from the government that the appearance of publications in the Western media is some kind of game to force Ukraine to make concessions to Russia on the Minsk agreements and other issues that were discussed during the negotiations between Russians and Americans.
True, it soon became clear that Russia was planning something. In December, Moscow issued a virtual ultimatum to NATO, demanding that the Alliance guarantee the non-acceptance of Ukraine. NATO refused, and the question was how Putin would respond to this.
And the answer, in theory, should have followed.
Then events began to accelerate. Western leaders, representatives of special services and military structures of NATO countries constantly communicated with Zelensky. Someone advised immediately to begin preparing for war. Someone hinted that we needed to think about moving forward with the Minsk agreements or to refuse to join NATO (where Ukraine was not going to be taken in the near future anyway) in order to prevent a war through a compromise (a number of experts called for compromises).
But Zelensky did neither. And he publicly made it clear many times that he did not believe in the invasion. It looked very strange even then. And even more so after the start of the war.
But this line of behavior had its own explanation.
The fact is that not only the Ukrainian authorities did not believe in the invasion, but also the majority of the Russian elite. And we are not talking about public statements by officials denying the intention to attack.
Western media wrote after the start of the war that even Lavrov and many other close associates of Putin, until the very last day, were not aware that there would be an invasion.
A significant part of the Russian elite also believed that something completely different was being prepared and that everything that was happening (with the concentration of troops, the ultimatum on NATO) was only preparation for it.
They thought that this was a plan for Russia to recognize the "LDNR" with the subsequent annexation of the "republics" to Russia. This seemed like a perfectly logical step in light of the "forget Ukraine" strategy. Why fight with Ukraine, few people in Moscow understood, especially after the invasion was repeatedly announced by all Western media, which was perceived by many in the Russian Federation as a clumsy attempt by the West to provoke an attack.
“After all, we are not characters from “The Italian Job,” a political scientist close to the Kremlin joked in a conversation with Strana in early February 2022.
And when in February the plan to recognize the "LDNR" began to be implemented, it turned out to be a kind of confirmation of this, as it turned out later, false theory.
It is not known for sure whether Lavrov really did not know about the invasion until the morning of February 24, or is it a myth, but far from the lead important person in Russia - the oligarch Oleg Deripaska - wrote a facebook post that now the war definitely wouldn’t happen after Putin's decision to recognize the "LDNR" .
We saw the situation in Bankovaya in a similar way. Several sources in the Ukrainian government told Strana at the time that, based on the totality of incoming information (including from Russia), they came to the conclusion that all movements are the preparation of the Russian Federation for the recognition of the "LDNR" with the subsequent annexation of the territory. There was also absolute skepticism about the possibility of a full-scale invasion.
Is it true, one of our sources then admitted that there could be "serious consequences" if the Ukrainian side did not compromise on NATO and the Minsk agreements.
"When Biden spoke about a chance for diplomacy, he turned not only to Putin, but also to Zelensky. His general message was that you need to make compromises, otherwise it will be bad for everyone. But this is my point of view. The leadership of Ukraine and the Office of the President does not share it" , the source said on February 19, 2022.
History, as you know, does not know the subjunctive mood. But the chance that the war would not have happened if Zelensky had made it clear at the beginning of 2022 that he was ready to at least declare the neutrality of Ukraine was far from zero.
But the President's Office believed that the invasion, in principle, was extremely unrealistic and considered the recognition of the L/DPR by Russia as the most likely outcome. And on this, as the Ukrainian authorities assumed, everything would end.
Proceeding from this logic, Bankovaya acted: no sudden movements and statements should be made so as not to provoke an aggravation at the front and panic among the population.
Moreover, to some extent, the authorities were even satisfied with the fact that Russia would recognize the L/DPR, since this meant the collapse of the Minsk agreements, which Kyiv did not want to fulfill anyway.
There were fears that this could cause an escalation at the front, but most believed that the fighting would not go beyond the Donbass. In addition, there were suggestions that now the war could end totally and the situation would be the same as on the border with Crimea, where no one fired any shots after the annexation.
Thus, Zelensky acted on the basis of a misunderstanding of Putin's ultimate goal. Only literally a couple of days before the invasion, according to sources at Bankovaya, the authorities began to come to the conclusion that everything would not be limited to Donbass.
However, Zelensky was not alone. Few could believe that Putin would dare to invade.
It seemed so senseless from Russia's point of view.