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Russia’s Goals in Ukraine: Debunking the ‘Special Military Operation’

Almost two years after its full-scale invasion, Paul Niland examines what Russia claims is the purpose of waging war on Ukraine

A patriotic banner outside Moscow’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs reads “the time of heroes has chosen us”. Photo: Nikolay Vinokurov/Alamy

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As the new year begins and Ukraine has endured almost two years of full-scale aggression from Russia, it’s a good time to look at what, according to Russian sources, the purpose of the “special military operation” actually is.

A common line repeated by key Russian figures is that the this “operation” will continue “until all of the stated goals have been met”. This line has been uttered by everyone from Vladimir Putin himself, to his Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, the Russian Ambassador to the United Nations Vasily Nebenzya, and Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov.

Usually, these proclamations are absent of any clarity on what those goals are – presumably so they can be changed at the whim of Putin, should he one day decide that they have been achieved and he has ‘won’ something.

But the two main goals of the war have been stated as the “demilitarisation” and “deNazification” of Ukraine. Both of those goals are problematic. To say the least.

‘Demilitarisation’ Decoded

In Russian propaganda, to create a casus belli for the invasion, Ukraine presented a threat to Russia. In that light, the invasion was necessary for the security of Russia. That proposition, though, is absurd.

While it is true, as I argued in Byline Times a month before the full-scale war began, that as a model of a former Soviet state that has a genuine democracy and is also working to root out corrupt practices, Ukraine presents a threat to the corrupt and authoritarian Putin regime, but not to Russia as a country.

Ukraine was never going to invade Russia. The build-up to this phase of the war involved the stationing of 200,000 Russian troops on Ukraine’s borders and in the parts of Ukraine occupied since 2014. A Ukrainian invasion of Russia against that standing army would have been unthinkable. But, on top of that, why would Ukraine want to occupy any part of Russia and then shoulder the burden of maintaining that territory?

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The logic behind the call for Ukraine to be demilitarised is simple – to leave Ukraine defenceless and at the mercy of Russia. Left without a military, Ukraine would be rapidly gobbled up by Russia.

Not only will Ukraine not unilaterally disarm, as it is fully entitled under international law to defend itself, but the first stated goal of Putin’s invasion is being openly rejected by Ukraine’s allies.

In fact, since February 2022, Ukraine’s military capabilities have been enhanced time and time again by allies (not to the degree that Ukraine would like) with the provision of HIMARS rocket systems, Patriot Air Defence Systems, Leopard tanks and Bradly Infantry fighting vehicles, and more. In the very near future, Ukraine’s air forces will be strengthened by the long-awaited arrival of F-16 fighter jets.

So, Putin is getting the exact opposite of what he demands.

DeNazification’ Explained

There are a host of reasons why Russia continues to insist that Ukraine is infested with Nazism. But the fact is that Ukraine does not have an extremism problem.

While Russia itself supports every proto-fascist movement in Europe and beyond, Ukrainian voters simply do not embrace any political party with hard-right ideology.

The roots of these claims go back at least to 2013, when Ukraine’s ‘Revolution of Dignity’ began. According to Russian propaganda that was designed to denigrate that movement, Ukraine’s capital had been taken over by dangerous and violent extremists. In reality, that revolution, which I observed, was the work of ordinary men and women, young and old, who were sick of the corruption of President Viktor Yanukovych, which itself was largely a creation of the Kremlin.

During the attempted justification for the Russian invasion of Crimea, this narrative of Ukrainian Nazism was also very prominent. A campaign of outdoor advertising appeared all over the Russian-occupied peninsula depicting the “choice” that residents faced with Crimea sporting the Russian tricolour or being covered in barbed wire, with a Nazi Swastika in the centre of the image.

There are two main purposes for this depiction of Ukrainians as Nazis.

The first is that it is intended to invoke in the Russian people the sense of pride that they feel for their victory over Nazi Germany in 1945. There is a deeply-held belief that this victory belonged to Russia and so repeating this trope invokes memories of past glories. That belief is based on decades of conditioning that overlooks the fact that, in the period from 1939 to 1941, Hitler and Stalin were allies. It also overlooks the fact that it was not Russia that fought against the Nazi invasion but the Soviet Union. And don’t expect any Russian to acknowledge that fact that other allies contributed to the eventual defeat of Nazism.

The other main goal of this narrative is to dehumanise the people of Ukraine, making it easier for Russian armed forces to kill Ukrainians. Many Russian war crimes committed over the past 22 months can be simply distilled to that. They torture and execute, not only prisoners of war but civilians too, because they do not see Ukrainians as human – they are Nazis, thus any brutality towards them is fully justified.


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Why a ‘Special Military Operation’?

Though it is now common to hear Russians calling this conflict what it is, a war, at the outset it was actually illegal in Russia to call it that – with the Kremlin instructing everyone to refer instead to a “Special Military Operation” for a number of reasons.

Most likely Putin had fooled himself into believing his own propaganda about the greatness of Russia’s military might, and the notion that many in Ukraine would welcome their Russian ‘brothers’, and that the capture of the Ukrainian state would be swift. All three of those notions lie in ruins.

The Russian military is not, in fact, great. Ironically one of the reasons why Russia’s army turned out to be weaker on the battlefield than it looked on paper is the very corruption that is the hallmark of Putin’s two-and-a-half decades of rule.

Ukrainians did not welcome the invading Russians for a combination of reasons. One is that the people of Ukraine have very different values. While Russians will go to the polls in a few months to go through the motions of giving Putin a new ‘democratic’ mandate, the result will be fixed. In late November 2004, a rigged election was the catalyst for what became the ‘Orange Revolution’, denying Viktor Yanukovych his first attempt at assuming the office of president. Ukrainians take their democracy seriously; Russians will meekly accept that Putin has won another six years.

No war was declared because Putin believed – alongside many in the Western press – that Kyiv would fall within 72 hours of the attack beginning. On 24 February 2022, helicopters flew Russian special forces into Kyiv with the aim of securing the airstrip of the Antonov Company, home to the largest cargo plane ever to fly. The capture of that strategic facility, located just miles from the centre of Kyiv, would have facilitated the airborne influx of more and more Russian forces that would have been ordered to reach the capital and overthrow the legitimate Government. They failed.

There have been many phases to this war, but Ukraine’s counteroffensive has shown success right since that takeover of the Antonov airfield was thwarted.

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