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”.
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”.
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”.