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Brutality and Hope: Two Years of Russia’s Full-Scale Invasion of Ukraine

On the eve of the second anniversary of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Paul Niland argues that, despite exhaustion, Ukraine has learned to fight smarter – and that is reason for hope

Odessa, Ukraine, 22 February 2024. A Gepard anti-aircraft gun tank and its crew stand in a position east of Odessa. Photo: Kay Nietfeld/dpa/Alamy

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It was before dawn, the phone rang. “It’s started”, the voice on the other end of the line said. As my brain turned itself on from the state of slumber it was enjoying just moments before, I realised the noises I could hear were explosions from rockets and missiles. That was 24 February 2022.

Sometime shortly before that date, I was talking with a newspaper reporter writing about the anticipated hostilities. “What if Putin just takes the Russian-speaking parts of the country?” was his opening question. I refrained from asking why someone with such limited knowledge of Ukraine was writing about Ukraine.

However, even today, after two years of fighting against the Russian invasion, the mindset that there are ‘two Ukraines’ – and one of them is in, one way or another, Russian – is still prevalent.

Matthew Parish recently wrote from Odesa in The Times that something had been explained to him that he “had not realised: most Russian speakers in Ukraine are not Russians. They are Ukrainians from times or places where Russian was the boss language”.

A recent survey of the EU found that 37% of respondents believed that the war in Ukraine would end with some kind of negotiated settlement. Is the myth of the two mindsets to blame?

Ukraine is not Russia. If two years of outright war has taught us anything, it is that one undeniable truth.

For two full years, Ukrainians have fought, and many have died, for the independence and sovereignty of their country. In the areas that Russia has occupied any signs of Ukrainian identity are erased. A recent interview with a Russian-appointed quisling in southern Ukraine spelled out in black and white that anyone rejecting the notion that they were suddenly now Russian had been met with three options: forced ‘re-education’, expulsion from the place that had been their home, or death.

In the Kharkiv region alone, 25 places of torture were discovered after it was liberated. Not only do the Russian occupation forces believe that they are entitled to rape whomever they want as spoils of war, they cruelly enjoy doing so. There can be no compromise with such evil.

While the fight to end this war is bloody, there is no doubt in the minds of the vast majority of the Ukrainian population that the end to it is singularly defined as the total defeat of Russia – anything less cannot be contemplated by Ukrainians. Nor should it be considered for a single second by anyone elsewhere in the world either.

Ukrainians are exhausted. They are physically and emotionally exhausted. The country’s supplies of ammunition and artillery shells are exhausted. But the fight goes on – because it must.

But not all of the news from Ukraine is grim.

While commentators, and especially detractors, like to point out that not much has changed in terms of territorial control in the past year, there are other more important developments that are crucial factors on the path towards victory – in the skies and at sea.

With its very different mentalities, Russia and Ukraine have very different approaches to how war is fought.

For Vladimir Putin, with his indifference to the value of human life, sending tens of thousands of men to their death to eventually take the ruins of a small point on the map is something it counts as a “victory”. For Ukraine, the realisation last year that assaults against entrenched defensive forces and structures would result in huge losses of men and material is what forced a rethink on the counteroffensive. Ukraine fights a much more intelligent war.

In the week leading up to the second anniversary of the full invasion, Ukraine shot down seven Russian military jets. This was made possible by a combination of factors, the existence of Patriot missile systems, and the lack of Russian eyes in the sky. Last month, Ukraine destroyed a Russian A-50 long range radar detection aircraft and an Il-22 control centre plane. Without those aircraft the Russian air force is less able to see incoming threats to its fighter jets. The balance of air superiority will further be shifted in the coming months when the promised F-16s arrive. Alongside the F-16s there is talk of further aircraft coming to Ukraine from Sweden, France, and Turkey.

Perhaps the battle that is of most significance has been shaping up over many months. It is the battle for control of the Black Sea. And Russia is very clearly losing it. The reason why this is so significant is because the Black Sea surrounds Crimea. Crimea is where the war began. And Crimea is where the war will end.

When Putin annexed Crimea a decade ago he did so for several reasons. What was decidedly not a feature among those reasons was that the local population asked him to or that they were under some kind of threat. Those are fabrications.

Putin took Crimea because the Kremlin-controlled media had just spent three months obsessing over the Revolution of Dignity in Ukraine – and a distraction from the victorious people power outcome of those events was required. He also did so because of the military significance of the Black Sea base for future wars (which always feature heavily in Putin’s thinking). However, he failed to plan for how Russia would maintain a peninsula that it was not physically connected to.

In order to temporarily maintain the occupation of Crimea, a bridge was (illegally) built over the Kerch Strait. The Kerch Bridge was not going to be enough in the long-term due to the fact that it is literally, as well as figuratively, built on shaky foundations. Hence the primary objective of the phase of war that began two years ago: the capture of land physically connecting Russia to occupied Crimea, regardless of the wishes of those who lived on the lands that would make up that land bridge.

What is to come is a continuation of Ukrainian operations to blind the Russians on the Black Sea and in Crimea, and strikes on Russian military assets there, such as naval bases and airfields. Those military assets will be gradually diminished until they are completely destroyed, and Russia’s occupation of Crimea will hopefully end.

And with it the rule of Vladimir Putin.

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