On February 24, 2022, Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, triggering the bloodiest battles since the end of World War II. It was perhaps one of the biggest miscalculations made by the Russian President Vladimir Putin in his more than two decades as Russia’s leader. Putin expected Ukraine to give in quickly, and the West, frightened by the prospect of a gas crisis, divided and unable to make firm decisions, would react rather rhetorically, as happened with the war in Georgia in 2008, or the initial attack on Ukraine in 2014.
Ukraine, however, resisted, dispelling, at the same time, the myth of the mighty Russian army, which Moscow's propaganda has been promoting for years. The West – with the exception of just a few states friendly towards Russia – has rallied to support Ukraine, providing it with tens of billions of dollars worth of military equipment while, in parallel, adopting successive waves of sanctions against Russia to reduce its the ability to wage war. This capability remains significant, however, so Russia is able continue the war for a while. Ukraine, for its part, still has resources and rules out the option of ceding some of its territories to Russia: it wants to fight until the Russians are pushed to the borders that existed in early 2014.
Nine years of war for Kyiv and one year of “special military operation” for Moscow.
Russian losses in the year since the outbreak of the full-scale invasion are estimated to be nearing 200,000 dead and wounded. Russia, however, still does not admit that it is waging a war against Ukraine and insists on calling its aggression a “special military operation”. The police state established by Putin makes sure that those who use the term “war” - journalists, politicians, activists, etc.- are sanctioned.
Ukraine, on the other hand, claims that this is just an intense phase of the war, and the conflict has actually entered its ninth year, as it was really launched by Russia in 2014 by annexing Crimea and supporting separatist movements in Donbas. The Parliament of Ukraine declared Russia an aggressor state in 2015. Since then Moscow has been seen as an enemy of Kyiv.
If Russia now at least admits that it is facing the Ukrainian forces, until February 24 it wouldn’t even admit that it was fighting against Ukraine. Crimea voted for voluntary accession to Russia , and the Donbas separatists were never supported by regular Russian military troops, according to official Kremlin narratives.
Russian propaganda accepts the idea of a Russian war against NATO, the EU, the US, the West, but not against Ukraine. After Russia declared that it had expanded its territory with another four Ukrainian regions (Luhansk, Donetsk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia), Russian politicians stated that in Ukraine Russia was at war with the NATO troops , not with the Ukrainian army, for which the hybrid concept of “special military operation” kept being used. Moscow allegedly shows restraint in bombing Ukraine because it knows that the population does not support the neo-Nazi government, the Russian propaganda claims. That is why, from the point of view of the Kremlin's ideology, Russia has not started any war against the Ukrainians, because it has an affinity for this people, which is not equally true for the West.
The battle for Kyiv, the key moment that showed the Ukrainians that they can be resilient
The military actions of the last year are divided in Ukraine into two asymmetrical periods: the battles for Kyiv and the liberation of the other territories. The capital plays an important role in the Ukrainian political culture, and its capitulation would have had serious consequences both in terms of the impact on the administrative and political system and also symbolically, in a war where symbols play an important role. The fact that the offensive on the city of Kyiv in the spring of 2022 was repelled strengthened significantly the trust of the population in the army and the president. A series of fierce battles followed for Kharkov, Mariupol, Kherson and Bakhmut, but all these are seen as a whole; even if each of them was important, none had the symbolic significance of the victories in the Kyiv region.
Kyivans remember the great celebrations organized during the Soviet period and in the first years of Ukraine's independence, when November 6 marked the Day of Kyiv's liberation from the Nazi invaders during the Second World War. The collective mind perceived the repelling of the Russian offensive on Kyiv in the same symbolic context as the Victory Day in the post-socialist states, and Zelensky's comparisons between Kyiv bombed by Russia and London attacked by the Nazi lifted the morale of the population.
The withdrawal of the Russian troops from the northeast of the country was the first major victory since the start of the invasion, and the other military actions were presented as a continuation of this success: the offensive in the Kharkiv region, the liberation of the city of Kherson, the sinking of the cruiser Moskva, etc.
During the fighting for Kyiv, the Zelensky administration emphasized the idea of resistance, but later, Kyiv began to talk more and more about victory, and even about deputinizing and disarming Russia” .The victory narrative is a dominant one in Ukrainian society even now. After the meeting with Joseph Biden on February 20, when the American leader made an unannounced visit to Kyiv, the Ukrainian president said that “there was a discussion about how to make victory possible this very year”.
Russia presents its defeats as “regrouping” and blames the West for its own aggression
After the Ukrainian victory in the battle of Kyiv and the failure to “demilitarize” and “denazify” Ukraine in just a few days, the Kremlin started justifying its military failures by the need to organize regroupings. The withdrawal from the Kyiv region was presented to the Russian public as a “regrouping” and a signal to the Zelensky administration that Russia wants peace. This was followed by the “regrouping” and repositioning of Russian troops in the Kharkiv region, which was in fact another withdrawal prompted by a Ukrainian counter-offensive.
The most recent such regrouping took place in Kherson, in southern Ukraine.
Russian media and officials in Moscow presented these withdrawals as necessary steps to prepare the decisive blow to come. For example, the withdrawal from Kherson was described in the Russian press as “a well-thought and well-organized military operation” carried out to save civilian lives. After withdrawing from Kherson, Russia suddenly forgot about the safety of civilians: it bombards the city on a daily basis, and the number of victims goes up every day.
After the signing of the “union act” between Russia and the four Ukrainian regions partially occupied by the Russian troops and the decree on partial mobilization, the anti-Western rhetoric became more and more accentuated in the statements made by the Russian politicians.
In a two-hour speech before the Russian Parliament on February 21, Vladimir Putin stressed the importance of the “special military operation” in Ukraine, accusing the West of “playing a rigged game”, and claiming that Russia was open to dialogue, but received “dishonest answers” in return. He said the West would collaborate with terrorists, Nazis and “even the devil himself” in order to fight Russia.
Another Kind of War: Strategic Communication vs. Propaganda
Vladimir Putin's speech was laden with disinformation and unsubstantiated accusations, but these have been part of Moscow's arsenal for years, and their use intensified with the February 24 invasion. There are three big targets: their own audience, the Ukrainians, to discourage them, and the international public, to undermine support for Ukraine.
Beyond the actual fighting, the war in Ukraine is also marked by a clash of messages used by the two camps to encourage their population, discredit the opponent and win the support of the international community. Propaganda, counter-propaganda, fake news, disinformation, crisis communication, diplomacy, lobbying, etc. they have all been used in this war. Russia imposed a much stricter censorship than Ukraine, which, however, has also been also extremely careful with the information it published.
For example, Zelensky's post on Twitter, Facebook and Telegram on February 24, 2022 when he compared Putin’s Russia with Hitler’s Germany, using for the first time the narrative about Nazism, until then only mentioned by the Kremlin, made history: “Russia treacherously attacked our state in the morning, as Nazi Germany did in World War II years. As of today, our countries are on different sides of world history”.
Some of Zelensky's accusations against the Kremlin have been presented by the Russian media as messages of capitulation and desperation on the Ukrainian authorities’ side, while in the opposite camp, threats by Kremlin propagandists were interpreted as the first signs of the disintegration of the Russian Federation into several republics. In the Parliament of Ukraine, for example, various bills were registered on recognizing the independence of the Republic of Tatarstan , as well as of other subjects of the Russian Federation, such as Bashkiria, Kalmykia, Ingria, Buryatia, Yakutia, and Moscow accused Kyiv of “informational-psychological attacks”.
Peace, a distant prospect when the parties are not willing to really negotiate
For all the Kremlin's anti-Western rhetoric and despite vague explanations of the need to defend “the people of Donbas” or “denazify” Ukraine, it is not at all clear what Russia's goals are. The scale and direction of the initial attack show that Moscow wanted to at least impose a puppet regime in Kyiv, if not capture much or all of Ukraine. The Russians appear to have abandoned that goal, at least for now, after losing Kyiv, and their efforts have since focused on the four oblasts that Vladimir Putin announced they would annex in late September.
But beyond the rhetoric and some actions executed rather chaotically, Russia does not seem to have, after a year of war, a fixed plan, clearly defined objectives, some indicators of success or some conditions for de-escalation. Putin doesn't want to give up Ukraine, but his forces seem incapable of giving him the crushing victory he wants, so the Russians keep sending men and equipment to the front and throwing it at the Ukrainians, hoping that eventually they will be overwhelmed or run out of ammo. Losses do not matter, as long as their volume does not cause any social upheaval.
Ukraine, on the other hand, already has a peace plan, proposed by Zelensky at various international meetings, which provides for the liberation of all territories, including the Crimean Peninsula. Zelensky’s peace plan is based on the norms of international law and a set of guarantees for Ukraine after hostilities end. Russia's uncertain goals make it increasingly less credible in the international arena compared to Ukraine, which argues that it is waging a war of liberation and has the right to defend itself under the UN Charter.
However, the parties seem too unwilling to really discuss and make any compromise. Ukraine, because there can be no question of ceding part of the territory after so many sacrifices to defend it. Russia, because the war in Ukraine may be a matter of survival for the Putin regime: a defeat would mean the collapse of the image of a strong and victorious man (who, however, for a year has kept himself as far as possible from the front, unlike Volodymyr Zelensky ) that the propaganda has so painstakingly created for the Kremlin leader.
So, for now, the war continues brutally and everyone is waiting for the outcome of the big offensives planned by both Russia and Ukraine.