From frontlines to diplomatic quagmire: two years of war in Ukraine
A protest sign featuring pictures of Joseph Stalin, Vladimir Putin and Adolph Hitler. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

From frontlines to diplomatic quagmire: two years of war in Ukraine

Feb. 26 will mark year two of Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine, a war that has been worth small territorial gains for Russian President Vladimir Putin. Russia Matters, a project launched in 2016 by Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, reported that as of Feb. 6 they can confirm 130,000 Ukrainian soldiers and 10,191 civilians have been killed and 200,000 Russian soldiers and 124 civilians. Exact numbers are difficult to report as both countries have been secretive of their respective death tolls, most notably Russia, where Putin has unleashed a wave of increasing repression. 

As Russia and Ukraine continue to suffer casualties, fighting has taken an ominous turn since Russian forces took control of Avdiivka on Feb. 17, Russia’s most significant battlefield achievement since taking Bakhmut in May 2023. Avdiivka has already endured a decade of conflict. It holds particular symbolism for Russia, as it was briefly taken in 2014 by Moscow-backed separatists who seized a swathe of eastern Ukraine but was then recaptured by Ukrainian troops who built extensive fortifications. Russian troops have also seized control of a Soviet-era Coke Plant that Ukrainian forces were believed to be using as a base and weapons storage facility. Before the war, the coke plant was one of Europe’s biggest. Capturing Avdiivka is the final key for Russia to secure full control of Ukraine’s Donetsk and Luhansk provinces that make up the Industrial Donbas region, often described as an industrial heartland

Graph of different aid sent to Ukraine by countries around the world. Graph courtesy of the Kiev Institute for the World Economy. 

The Ukrainian Support Tracker by the Kiev Institute for World Economy shows the United States as Ukraine’s largest military financial supporter in the war, having committed a total of $47.2- billion. “Every day I’m watching what’s unfolding in Congress, and if the U.S. cuts off military support for Ukraine, it’s going to end badly for Ukraine,” said Michael P. Scharf, J.D. who is Managing Director of the Public International Law and Policy Group and Professor of Law at Case Western Reserve University. “But if they keep the support going then I think you will see a negotiated settlement between Russia and Ukraine. But that doesn’t happen if we cut off our assistance right now.” Sharf shared this prediction at his seminar “The International Criminal Court and the Indictment of Vladimir Putin” hosted by the Sarasota World Affairs Council at the Sainer Auditorium on Feb. 7, where he discussed Ukraine and Russia with a public audience.  

President Joe Biden has advocated for supporting Ukraine, although any funding he wishes to allocate for the country must be approved by Congress. Currently, aid to Ukraine rests on a precarious Senate. Scharf quoted Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who favors approving funding despite opposition from other Republican Party members and former President Donald Trump. 

In a private meeting on Jan. 25, McConnell supported a bid to link stricter immigration policy to Ukraine aid, though further assessment resulted in the deal falling through. “Trump doesn’t like it because he thinks it’ll make it harder for him to argue the Biden administration can’t get anything done,” Scharf said, referencing McConnell’s words. “Which would mean no funding to Ukraine. The following week now they’re [Congress] talking about letting it go forward. It’s every day the winds are changing on this issue, and it’s such an incredibly important issue.”

On Feb. 13 the Senate approved $95-billion in funding for Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan in a bipartisan vote—$60-billion of it would have gone towards Ukraine. House Speaker Mike Johnson shut the bill down on Feb. 15, claiming the proposals failed to address his demands for new funding for the U.S. Southern border. Johnson pulled votes with a day’s notice and announced a two week recess

Map of Ukraine with red areas indicating where Russian forces have seized control. Map courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.

When asked by an audience member how he believes the war will end, Scharf speculated that Ukraine will lose Crimea but regain the territories on its eastern flank. “But in the end there will be some negotiated peace for either Ukraine to join North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) or to have protections from NATO.” Ukraine has been seeking protections from NATO since Russia attacked Crimea in 2014, after the Olympic Games. 

“Not only is Putin’s attack against international law, it’s specifically against the Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances, a pledge Russia, Ukraine, the United Kingdom and the U.S. signed,” Professor of Political Science and Division of Social Sciences Chair Barbara Hicks told the Catalyst

“The expectation was that we all would guarantee Ukraine’s territorial sovereignty,” she continued. “Now the problem is what’s enforceable in international law. You can’t take it [the broken treaty] anywhere; the only thing is the obligation of the parties.”

The pledge, signed in 1994, assured security to Ukraine in connection with its entry into the Treaty on the Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) as a non-nuclear-weapons state. Negotiations resulted in Ukraine’s agreement to relinquish the world’s third-largest nuclear arsenal, which the country inherited from the collapsed Soviet Union, and transfer all nuclear warheads to Russia for dismantlement. Russia, the United States and the United Kingdom pledged to respect Ukraine’s territorial integrity and to refrain from the use or threat of military force—a commitment Russia breached with its annexation of Crimea in 2014 and aggression in eastern Ukraine. 

“It’s a specific treaty, and when you say Ukraine and Russia should negotiate, you say we should let a tyrant run amuck,” Hicks said. 

Putin also uses the excuse that Ukraine threatened to join NATO as reasoning for the invasion, despite NATO never accepting Ukraine’s bid, Hicks noted. “Before the war, NATO used the exact same phrasing they had used in referring to Ukraine years before. Russia raised the threat of Ukraine joining NATO, but there hadn’t been a change in Ukraine’s NATO status,” she explained. “There was a big divide in Ukraine before the invasion about whether they should or shouldn’t join NATO. It was the invasion that caused more interest.

One question being discussed is how the United States’ fast commitment of resources is in part shaped by feelings of obligation. According to Hicks, one problem is that the West acted very mutedly with the taking of Crimea, which gave Putin the idea that ’the West doesn’t want to deal with this, this is my sphere of influence.’ 

“Then you have this half-secret war in the East and you’re not getting much support for Ukraine, but the invasion was the line,” Hicks elaborated. “The question is how much of that line is related to the Budapest Memorandum and how much of it is the basic interest of NATO and national obligation.”

On Mar. 17, 2023 The International Criminal Court (ICC) issued an arrest warrant for Putin for multiple war crime allegations, including accusations that Russia has forcibly taken Ukrainian children—but the chances of arresting Putin are slim. 

“The ICC can only prosecute war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity, but it can’t prosecute the crime of aggression against Russia unless Russia agrees to it, which they won’t do,” Scharf said. 

Scharf pointed out that the worst crime Russia has seemingly committed against Ukraine is the crime of aggression when they overwhelmingly invaded Ukraine without any provocation. “That’s the crime the Nazis were successfully prosecuted for at Nuremberg,” he continued. “You can’t let people get away with the crime of aggression, but that’s in fact what’s going to happen with Putin.”

Scharf further explained that Putin cannot be prosecuted in a national court because he has Head of State immunity and the ICC has no jurisdiction over the crime of aggression. There are proposals to either create a new tribunal or an internationalized domestic tribunal for the crime of aggression. 

“Putin is now a prisoner in his own country. He can travel to North Korea, or Iran or Venezuela, but there are now 124 countries that are parties to the ICC,” Sharf said. “So he’s really hindered in being a foreign President. Plus it’s slowly eroding his popular support. Whenever you think of Putin you have to think of ‘Vladimir Putin, indicted war criminal’ and that’s not good for your politics.”

The presidential election in Russia is set to take place next month, something Putin has controlled since his second term in office. 

“There’s no real opponent, and sometimes his strategy is actually sponsoring a competing opponent,” Hicks explained. If there were to be an individual that stood up as a candidate, that person is not likely to get anywhere near the vote, in part because it takes a long time for people to get to know somebody else and because Putin maintains strict control over the media. 

Since Putin’s presidency began he has built United Russia, a conservative party of connections that holds a seat majority in the State Duma. “If you want to get anything done you have to belong to United Russia, if you don’t belong to United Russia you have to support Putin and what he does,” Hicks said. 

Even with objections to the war, Putin likely will be elected again because Russia’s Central Election Commission has not allowed anti-war candidate Boris Nadezhdin to register for candidacy, claiming a high percentage of the signatures he collected for the ballot weren’t accurate. Hicks noted that there’s a history of Russian elections having very preposterous results, such as more votes than there are voters. 

The biggest resistance tolerated in Russia has been from the families of Russian Reservists; those appointed in particular military units who are involved in operational, mobilization and combat activities. “They sent reserve units to the Ukrainian front, most of which have been pretty well decimated because of Russian war tactics,” Hicks explained. Because of the harsh conditions Russian soldiers are enduring and in an effort to have them sent home, mothers and wives have taken to wearing white head scarves and placing flowers at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. “And that’s about as much public criticism they’re getting,” Hicks said, referring to Putin’s administration. 

Hicks elaborated that repression in Russia pre-dates the invasion of Ukraine, but it has accelerated since. Putin has reinstated state control over broadcast and print media. State resources have also been used to go after people who protest or disagree with Putin’s regime. 

Putin’s reign over the Russian political climate took a deadly turn Feb. 16 with the reported death of Alexei Navalny, a prominent Russian opposition figure and anti-corruption activist. According to Russian authorities, Navalny fell unconscious and died after a walk at the “Polar Wolf” Arctic penal colony where he was serving a three-decade sentence. Hicks noted that Navalny was a danger to Putin because people knew who he was from one part of Russia to the next.

“That’s why he had to be eliminated,” Hicks said. “So there’s no chance Putin won’t be re-elected. Even if Russians were to not go to the polls or to cross his name off, he will be declared the winner.”

Russia’s taking of Avdiivka came to fruition through extreme means. Russian war tactics consist of sending masses of poorly trained soldiers right into the battlefield without proper equipment, and apparently without proper training and preparation.

“Ukrainian soldiers are making meat out of other human beings and it’s taking a psychological toll having to kill so many Russian soldiers,” Hicks said. “But they send them and send them, there’s all kinds of accounts of some of them being drunk or drugged, or of soldiers being taken back and treated but not being fully recovered before they’re sent back out. The Russian army has always been extremely brutal.” 

Hicks also noted there is speculation Putin would like a land bridge all the way to Russian forces left behind in Moldova. As the war enters its third year Putin is biding his time waiting for Western support for Ukraine to wither while Moscow maintains steady military pressure along the front line. The most recent seizure has set the stage for a potential Russian push deeper into Ukraine-held territory, according to AP News

“I think if Ukraine loses this, the appetite of Putin will be insatiable,” Scharf said. “A lot of NATO countries and former Soviet Republics are scared to death that he’ll get away with this in Ukraine.”

Leave a Reply