Getting to grips with . . .

How the war in Ukraine began and how it might end

From a battlefield stalemate to the descent of a ‘new Iron Curtain’

For Vladimir Putin, the decision to launch an invasion of Ukraine could be his crowning legacy – or the nail in the coffin of his two-decade domination of Russia.

On 24 February, after weeks of warnings from Western intelligence officials, the Russian president ordered a full-scale invasion of his eastern European neighbour. The decision triggered what could become the biggest conflict in Europe since the 1940s.

Here is our guide to how the conflict began, and how the war could eventually end.

Justifying the conflict

Putin has long made clear his belief that Ukraine is an illegitimate state, claiming in an essay published last year that Russians and Ukrainians, along with Belarusians, are one people, belonging to what was historically known as the “All-Russian Nation”.

In the essay, titled On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians, Putin explicitly laid out his argument that Ukraine has no right to call itself an independent nation. “The formation of an ethnically pure Ukrainian state, aggressive towards Russia”, Putin argued, is equivalent to the use of weapons of mass destruction against Russians.

It was based on this logic that Putin justified the 2014 annexation of Crimea, as well as the long-running conflict between Kremlin-backed proxies in the Donbas region. That conflict, fought on Ukrainian soil, claimed 14,000 lives between 2014 and 2022. 

In a speech delivered days before he gave the order for a full-invasion, Putin was internationally condemned for attacking the notion of Ukrainian statehood in an “angry” and “dismissive” speech delivered from the Kremlin.

Putin outlined a “version of Ukraine’s history” in which the territory now controlled by Kyiv “was always part of Russia”, said Associated Press editor-at-large John Daniszewski. Instead, he argued that the land that now comprises Ukraine was stolen from mainland Russia by the Bolsheviks following the formation of the Soviet Union.

But “while that serves his purpose, it is also a fiction” that denies Ukraine’s “own 1,000-year history”, Daniszewski said. World leaders dismissed Putin’s history lesson, but it nonetheless laid the “groundwork for war”, he added.

How the war started

On 21 February, Putin signed a decree recognising the Donetsk People’s Republic and Luhansk People’s Republics, the two self-proclaimed states controlled by pro-Russian separatist forces in Donbas. No other country recognises their independence.

He then deployed Russian troops to the area, arguing that they were “peacekeepers” seeking to avoid a “genocide” of Russias living in the region. 

Ukraine has since “taken Russia to the International Court of Justice for having launched an invasion on the pretext of false claims of genocide perpetrated against the country’s Russian speakers”, The Guardian reported.

What followed was an assault on three fronts, with Russian troops flooding over into Ukrainian territory from annexed Crimea, the separatist-controlled regions in the east and Belarus which shares a border to the north of Ukraine.

Putin justified this attack by arguing that Nato expansion to the east threatened Russian national security, even though Ukraine is not a Nato member and was not likely to join the alliance in the near future. He also claimed to be “demilitarising” and “denazifying” the country, which is led by a democratically elected Jewish president. 

He had intended the invasion to be swift, with troops quickly storming into the capital Kyiv and deposing President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s government. But his troops were met with stiff resistance from Ukraine’s armed forces, laying the groundwork for the ongoing fighting in several major cities. 

How will the war end? 

Putin’s invasion has not gone to plan, with reports emerging of low morale among soldiers and shortages of basic supplies such as food and fuel. But Russia has seized one major city and appears to be encircling Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital city.

According to the Atlantic Council, there are four likely outcomes at this point in the conflict:

1. Victory for Ukraine

The least likely result, said the think tank, is a “miracle on the Dnipro” in which “Ukraine’s military and civilian resistance overcome the odds and grind Moscow’s advance to a halt”.

Should this happen, it may quickly become “obvious to the Kremlin that Russia will pay an exorbitant price for its adventurism”, meaning Putin could withdraw his troops and Ukraine “remain a sovereign democracy”.

2. Partial victory for Russia

Alternatively, it is possible that the conflict will descend into a “quagmire”, the think tank said.

After weeks or months of fighting, Russia may well “topple Ukraine’s government and install a puppet regime”. But if neither “Ukraine’s armed forces nor its population are ready to surrender”, the battle could evolve into “a broad-based, well-armed, and well-coordinated insurgency against the invaders” that could then drag on for years or even decades.

The Telegraph describes this result as a “pyrrhic victory” for the Kremlin, because “such a development might lead to domestic turmoil in Russia”. It would also create “a vast zone of destabilisation and insecurity”, while “states in the neighbourhood will perceive Russian political control over Ukraine as illegitimate and as a national threat”.

3. Division

The third possible outcome, according to the Atlantic Council, is “a new Iron Curtain”. This would be created if Ukraine “eventually collapses under the weight of the Russian invasion”, creating a divide “running along the borders of the Baltic states in the north through those of Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, and Romania in the south”.

In this scenario, “the new schism through the heart of Europe brings with it a familiar list of dangers and uncertainties”. The most pressing is that a Russian-held Ukraine will border a host of Nato member states, “raising the prospects of direct conflict”.

4. Escalation

That is the final potential outcome: an extension of the conflict into a war between Nato and Russia. This is described by the Atlantic Council as “the most dangerous scenario for the future of Europe and the global order”.

Western leaders have confirmed that they will not put boots on the ground in Ukraine or impose a Nato-enforced no-fly zone due to fears of direct engagement with Russia that could trigger a global conflict

But should Nato “decide to escalate its involvement in Ukraine”, the think tank warned, “Russia would be forced to decide whether to back down or directly engage alliance military forces”.

UK Foreign Secretary Liz Truss has warned that if Russia is not stopped in Ukraine, “we are going to see others under threat – the Baltics, Poland, Moldova, and it could end up in a conflict with Nato”.

This would mean a conflict between atomic powers. And “it goes without saying”, said The Telegraph, “that any actual use of nuclear weapons would be disastrous beyond description”. 

Recommended

Nato’s renaissance: how the world’s most powerful military alliance has taken centre stage
Long table of men at Nato summit
In Depth

Nato’s renaissance: how the world’s most powerful military alliance has taken centre stage

Will Russia’s ‘Terminator’ tanks break Ukraine’s resistance?
A BMPT ‘Terminator’ tank on display during last year’s Victory Day parade in Red Square
Today’s big question

Will Russia’s ‘Terminator’ tanks break Ukraine’s resistance?

‘Secrecy over Tory MP accused of rape is damaging to democracy’
Prime Minister’s Questions in the House of Commons on Wednesday
Instant Opinion

‘Secrecy over Tory MP accused of rape is damaging to democracy’

Will Ukraine invasion trigger a global food security crisis?
Harvest in Ukraine
In Focus

Will Ukraine invasion trigger a global food security crisis?

More on Ukraine

How dangerous is Putin’s new nuclear weapon?
Russian President Vladimir Putin
Fact file
28 Apr 2022

How dangerous is Putin’s new nuclear weapon?

Russian state TV claims ‘Satan II’ atomic missile could wipe UK off map
Liz Truss lays out Britain’s aims for Ukraine war
Liz Truss delivers a speech at Mansion House
In Brief
28 Apr 2022

Liz Truss lays out Britain’s aims for Ukraine war

Foreign secretary reportedly fears that the conflict could continue for up to ten years
Has World War Three started?
Ukrainian soldiers patrol on the frontline in Zolote, Ukraine
In Depth
27 Apr 2022

Has World War Three started?

Russian foreign minister warns that escalation of Ukraine conflict is a ‘real’ danger
Is Moldova next on Russia’s hit list?
The Russian and Transnistrian flags fly next to each other
Why we’re talking about . . .
27 Apr 2022

Is Moldova next on Russia’s hit list?

Explosions in pro-Russian separatist region fuels fears that Ukraine invasion may bleed into neighbouring nation
Does the US believe Ukraine can beat Russia?
Antony Blinken meets Volodymyr Zelenskyy in Kyiv
Today’s big question
27 Apr 2022

Does the US believe Ukraine can beat Russia?

Visit to Kyiv by senior Biden officials hints at ‘new mindset’ in Washington
Gerhard Schröder: the ex-German chancellor turned Putin’s man
Gerhard Schröder addresses journalists in 2020
Profile
26 Apr 2022

Gerhard Schröder: the ex-German chancellor turned Putin’s man

Former leader refuses to quit roles with Russian energy companies
Why is Russia so reliant on mercenaries?
Russian-speaking troops without insignia stationed outside a Ukrainian military base in Crimea in 2014
Behind the scenes
26 Apr 2022

Why is Russia so reliant on mercenaries?

Wagner Group fighter reportedly captured by jihadists in Mali
Russia-Ukraine war: what are fléchettes?
Ukrainian servicemen on the streets of Bucha
Getting to grips with . . .
26 Apr 2022

Russia-Ukraine war: what are fléchettes?

Metal darts discovered by forensic doctors in bodies in Bucha mass graves
Russia can still ‘win’ Ukraine war
Ukrainian soldiers guard a checkpoint outside Kyiv
In Brief
22 Apr 2022

Russia can still ‘win’ Ukraine war

Vladimir Putin adjusts tactics after ‘humiliation’ for second phase of invasion
Graham Phillips: the civil servant-turned-Putin propagandist
Graham Phillips during a visit to Croatia in 2021
Profile
21 Apr 2022

Graham Phillips: the civil servant-turned-Putin propagandist

Former bureaucrat interviews British PoW in Ukraine
Where does Germany now stand on Ukraine war?
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz
In Depth
20 Apr 2022

Where does Germany now stand on Ukraine war?

Berlin again isolated as West sends heavy arms to defend Donbas
From fertiliser to famine: the global food shortage explained
Field in Ukraine
In Depth
15 Apr 2022

From fertiliser to famine: the global food shortage explained

War on Ukraine has sent food prices rocketing and the effects are being felt around the world
What is the evidence of Russian crimes in Ukraine?
Ukraine’s prosecutor general Iryna Venediktova
In Depth
15 Apr 2022

What is the evidence of Russian crimes in Ukraine?

Officials say they have retrieved more than 1,200 bodies from the region surrounding Kyiv
The evidence for Russia’s use of chemical weapons in Ukraine
The aftermath of Russian shelling in the city of Mariupol
Getting to grips with . . .
14 Apr 2022

The evidence for Russia’s use of chemical weapons in Ukraine

UK working ‘urgently’ to confirm reports Moscow deployed ‘poisonous substance’
Will more countries join Nato?
Sweden’s Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson (left) addresses reporters alongside her Finnish counterpart Sanna Marin
Behind the scenes
14 Apr 2022

Will more countries join Nato?

Finland and Sweden mulling over plans to abandon neutrality and join military alliance
The darker side to Homes for Ukraine
The painted blue and yellow flag of Ukraine, in Leeds
Why we’re talking about . . .
13 Apr 2022

The darker side to Homes for Ukraine

Hosts have made sexual advances to refugees and relationships have ‘fallen apart’
Vladimir Putin’s ‘right-hand man’ captured in Ukraine
Viktor Medvedchuk after his arrest by the Security Service of Ukraine
Profile
13 Apr 2022

Vladimir Putin’s ‘right-hand man’ captured in Ukraine

Oligarch known as ‘Grey Cardinal’ pulled strings of pro-Russian forces for decades
‘Tax avoidance violates British notions of fairness’
Rishi Sunak, the chancellor of the exchequer, holding the red budget box
Instant Opinion
12 Apr 2022

‘Tax avoidance violates British notions of fairness’

Your digest of analysis from the British and international press
How the world reported Boris Johnson’s trip to Ukraine
Boris Johnson and Volodymyr Zelenskyy
Global lens
11 Apr 2022

How the world reported Boris Johnson’s trip to Ukraine

Images of Zelenskyy and Johnson on the streets of Kyiv praised as a photo-op ‘that matters’
‘We are in danger of inflicting a humanitarian calamity’
Coins being counted by dirty hands
Instant Opinion
8 Apr 2022

‘We are in danger of inflicting a humanitarian calamity’

Your digest of analysis from the British and international press
What counts as a war crime?
President Volodymyr Zelenskyy addresses the UN Security Council
Fact file
8 Apr 2022

What counts as a war crime?

Atrocities in Borodyanka ‘more horrific’ than Bucha, says President Zelenskyy
Quiz of The Week: 4 April - 8 April
A Ukrainian woman cries after returning to her destroyed neighbourhood in Bucha
Quizzes and puzzles
8 Apr 2022

Quiz of The Week: 4 April - 8 April

Have you been paying attention to The Week’s news?
Arguments for and against nuclear power
Nuclear power plant
Pros and cons
7 Apr 2022

Arguments for and against nuclear power

Nuclear energy forms the ‘centrepiece’ of Boris Johnson’s new energy strategy
Hungary sides with Russia on gas payments
Vladimir Putin
The latest on . . .
7 Apr 2022

Hungary sides with Russia on gas payments

Vladimir Putin has gambled on a threat to cut energy supplies in response to sanctions
The Week Footer Banner