Nine years ago, Putin’s forces seized Crimea and aided in separatist uprisings in Donbas. Today, those who remember those days wonder how they could have ended differently, or even averted the current war.
Ask a Ukrainian where they were on Feb. 24 of last year and they’ll likely tell you they were awakened just before dawn by the first sirens and explosions of Vladimir Putin’s invasion. But ask them where they were when Russia’s war against Ukraine began and they’ll give you a very different answer.
For Nataliya and Eduard Kulinych, the suggestion that this Friday marks the first anniversary of the start of the Russo-Ukrainian War evokes bitter laughter. It’s been nine years since their hometown, Kramatorsk – along with much of the surrounding Donbas region – was first attacked by armed men fighting under the Russian flag.
Many of the fighters who seized Kramatorsk for four months in 2014 were locals, people the couple recognized as living “marginal” lives and who apparently hoped their situations would somehow improve if the region were ruled from Moscow instead of Kyiv. But they were commanded by Russian special forces.
Mr. Kulinych knows this because he spent 22 days in a basement prison, accused of being a “collaborator” because he had delivered food and supplies to Ukrainian troops trying to reassert control over the region.
The interrogations were violent – Mr. Kulinych, 56, says he had ribs broken and teeth knocked out and was beaten so hard on the throat that he couldn’t drink.
“The people in charge of our torture and captivity were locals but they were commanded by Russians,” he said in an interview at his home in Kramatorsk as he and his wife ignored the now-familiar sounds of air-raid sirens. “One of the Russians told us how he had participated in the annexation of Crimea.”
Almost everyone in Ukraine agrees their country has been at war since February, 2014, when pro-Western protesters in Kyiv overthrew the Russian-backed government of Viktor Yanukovych. Almost simultaneously, Mr. Putin sent masked soldiers into the strategic Crimean Peninsula, in the south. The troops seized government buildings and military sites in a stealth operation that culminated with Mr. Putin declaring a month later that he had annexed Crimea to the Russian Federation.
It rattled global politics, leading Canada, the United States and the European Union to impose sanctions on Russian individuals and entities linked to the takeover of the peninsula.
Additional sanctions followed as evidence emerged that Moscow was directly involved in the hostilities in Donbas, even though the Kremlin tried to portray it as a “separatist” uprising. More economic punishment came after Russian-backed fighters shot down Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over eastern Ukraine in July, 2014, killing 298 people.
But then the conflict seemed to be put on pause. Ukrainian troops pushed the pro-Russian forces out of Kramatorsk and the nearby city of Slovyansk but failed to retake the regional capitals of Donetsk and Luhansk. The front line stabilized, and relations between Russia and the West settled into a chilly new normal. Crimea was increasingly integrated into Mr. Putin’s Russia, and even many Ukrainians appeared willing to forget about the lost territory and accept peace on Moscow’s terms.
Volodymyr Zelensky was elected President in 2019 largely on a promise to negotiate an end to the fighting in Donbas within a year. But peace talks with Mr. Putin later that year went nowhere. To keep the pressure on Kyiv, the guns never stopped firing in the eastern region. More than 14,000 people were killed during the eight years that preceded the wider invasion. Kramatorsk always seemed to be on the front line. Seventeen people were killed in 2015 when the city was hit by a volley of 32 rockets.
“The Russian border moved 300 kilometres closer to us in 2014,” said Ms. Kulinych, a social worker who assigns benefit payments to the tens of thousands of internally displaced people who fled to Kramatorsk from other parts of Donbas. “Every grandmother knows, if they hear the whistle of a mortar, how to calculate the distance that it was shot from and how quickly they need to take cover. You are always on alert.”
Despite the fact that Russian proxy forces had been supplied with weapons such as the Buk anti-aircraft missile that shot down Flight MH17 and the Smerch multiple-launch rocket system that hit the centre of Kramatorsk in 2015, international bodies struggled with what to call the war in Donbas.
A week after MH17 was shot down, the International Committee for the Red Cross described the fighting as a “non-international armed conflict” – wording that seemed to align with Moscow’s false contention that it had no role in what it characterized as a Ukrainian civil war. Earlier in 2014, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called on “all sides” – naming none of them – to help resolve “the crisis in Ukraine.”
It’s now much plainer that the illegal invasion and annexation of Crimea and the war for Donbas were just early phases in Mr. Putin’s campaign to capture as much of Ukraine – a country he views as lost Russian land – as possible.
“Let me put it bluntly: The war hasn’t started in 2022 – the war started in 2014,” former Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk – who was sworn in just as Russian troops were spreading across Crimea – said in an interview this week. The world’s reluctance to confront Russia over its actions nine years ago emboldened Mr. Putin to go further. “We need to draw the lessons. The reason why it happened in 2022 is very clear – the very weak response of the Western world and of the entire world to the illegal annexation of Crimea … because it wasn’t just an annexation. It was Russian troops that occupied and conquered a part of Ukraine.”
Refat Chubarov says the war for Ukraine began on Feb. 27, 2014. That was the day the Russian military began to tighten its grip on his native Crimea, setting in motion the first land grab in Europe since the Second World War.
A day earlier, Mr. Chubarov – the leader of the Crimean Tatar community, the peninsula’s native people, who have a long history of suffering at the hands of authorities in Moscow – thought he and his people had managed to beat back the annexation threat. Thousands of Crimean Tatars rallied outside the regional parliament that day, waving blue-and-yellow Ukrainian flags and physically preventing the region’s pro-Russian lawmakers from holding a session at which they planned to call on Mr. Putin to intervene and “protect” Crimea from the supposedly far-right revolutionaries in Kyiv.
Hours later, Mr. Putin made it clear that the demonstration hadn’t changed anything. Masked Russian troops fanned out across the peninsula.
The new, post-revolutionary government in Kyiv – headed by the inexperienced tandem of interim president Oleksandr Turchynov and Mr. Yatsenyuk as acting prime minister – was overwhelmed by the crisis Mr. Putin had thrust on them in their first days in office. Mr. Chubarov said two Ukrainian commanders came to his office in the Crimean capital, Simferopol, and asked if he could order their troops to defend themselves, since they had no instructions from Kyiv.
He told them he didn’t have the authority. “To be honest, Ukraine had only a window of opportunity of 36 hours to give a hard response with tanks and APCs – it was all day on the 27th and half of the day on the 28th. Because after that, Russia was on full military deployment, sending planes with paratroops and deploying ships. Nobody could stop it.”
He believes the West also fumbled an opportunity then to force Mr. Putin to step back from his plans to seize Ukrainian territory. Mr. Churbarov spoke with many Western ambassadors, pleading with them to help his people. “To simplify their answers, it was ‘do not provoke the situation, we don’t want to see bloodshed, we will find a way to resolve this crisis.’”
While the West did impose some sanctions, Mr. Chubarov said his appeals for much tougher measures – such as cutting Russia off from the SWIFT international banking system – were dismissed as an overreaction. “When we were proposing embargoes and to cut Russia off SWIFT, people were smiling at us and saying: ‘It’s a global economy and it doesn’t work like this.’”
That weak response weighed on his mind in the early hours of last Feb. 24, when he was awakened by the first sounds of the wider war. He and his staff quickly left Kyiv, relocating to the relative safety of western Ukraine. Crimean Tatar women and children – already driven from their homes once by Mr. Putin – were advised to flee the country entirely.
After the events of 2014, Mr. Chubarov was worried that Ukraine and the West would again back down and give the Kremlin strongman what he wanted. “After Crimea, I wasn’t sure,” he said. “When rockets started falling on Kyiv, I wasn’t sure.”
Mr. Yatsenyuk still sounds overwhelmed when he talks about the situation he inherited as acting prime minister.
“In the Treasury account, I had only €10,000 for the entire country – 108,000 hryvnia to be precise. And no military. No police. Everyone fled. The former minister of defence was a Russian operative. The former head of the SBU National Security Service was a Russian operative. Both of them were Russian citizens,” he recalled in an interview in his Kyiv office this week, shaking his head at the memory. “No cash, no military, no gas, no oil, and Russian tanks rolling into Ukraine in Donetsk, Luhansk and in Crimea.”
Asked why Ukrainian troops in Crimea told Mr. Chubarov they had no orders to fight back, Mr. Yatsenyuk said Mr. Turchynov, as commander-in-chief, did in fact direct troops to defend their positions – but he says the order was ignored. “Around 90 per cent of the Ukrainian military deployed in Crimea committed treason.”
The truth is, Ukraine wasn’t ready for full-scale war in 2014. Mr. Yatsenyuk said only 5,000 of the country’s 140,000 uniformed soldiers could be considered combat-ready at the time. At one point during the crisis, he was informed that a formation of Russian military helicopters appeared to be headed toward Kyiv. “I said, ‘Okay, folks, what is the plan? Do we have any kind of air-defence system?’” The answer wasn’t encouraging. “In the end, you know what they did? They went to the roof with Kalashnikovs waiting for these helicopters.”
The helicopters proved to be a feint, likely a test of Ukraine’s defences, and left Ukrainian airspace a few minutes after entering it.
Mr. Yatsenyuk said Ukraine would have collapsed if Mr. Putin had launched a full-scale invasion then. “We were dead. There was no single chance for Ukraine to survive if Putin did what he did in 2022 in 2014. But he wasn’t prepared either.”
Sevgil Musaieva, the editor-in-chief of the famed Ukrainska Pravda newspaper, sees the full-scale invasion as just the latest and most violent episode in a struggle for Ukraine. Ms. Musaieva believes that Ukraine and Russia, which had remained closely connected during the first decade after the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, chose fundamentally different paths at the turn of the century.
Jan. 1, 2000, saw Russia’s first post-Soviet president, Boris Yeltsin, resign and hand power to his hand-picked successor, Mr. Putin. The former KGB agent quickly began to strangle Russia’s young democracy, including the independent media that had haltingly begun to assert themselves during Mr. Yeltsin’s chaotic rule.
The most shocking turn in the campaign of media intimidation came in 2006, when Anna Politkovskaya, Russia’s most famous investigative journalist, was murdered on Mr. Putin’s birthday. No one has ever been charged with ordering her killing.
While Mr. Putin’s media crackdown successfully restored Kremlin control over the information that most Russians consume, Ukrainians resisted when their own authorities tried to apply similar tactics here.
The most brutal example was the September, 2000, murder of Georgiy Gongadze, the co-founder and first editor-in-chief of Ukrainska Pravda, which had been launched in Kyiv four months after Mr. Putin began his long reign in Moscow. But where Ms. Politkovskaya’s death saw only a brief display of public mourning in Russia, the assassination of Mr. Gongadze – and audiotapes suggesting then-President Leonid Kuchma had encouraged the killing – sparked widespread public anger that grew into the “Ukraine Without Kuchma” movement and street protests that set the stage for the 2004 Orange Revolution.
“It started in 2004, this modern war, with the democratic development of Ukraine. Russia didn’t forgive us for this,” said Ms. Musaieva, who was a 17-year-old student activist at the time and now keeps a backgammon set in her office that belonged to Mr. Gongadze.
On the surface, the battle in 2004 was between Ukraine’s idealistic young activists and a corrupt and violent government. But the core issue during the Orange Revolution – when crowds forced a rerun of that year’s flawed presidential election – was the same as it would be when crowds returned to the centre of Kyiv 10 years later to oust Mr. Yanukovych: Did Ukraine want to align itself with the democracies of the West or an increasingly authoritarian Kremlin?
Ukraine’s desire to join the West, and Mr. Putin’s refusal to accept that Russia’s former colony could make that choice, put Ukraine in the crosshairs. Ms. Musaieva calls the past 23 years – which have seen two revolutions, the annexation of Crimea, the proxy war in Donbas and now the full-scale Russian invasion – “the very painful process of the decolonization of Ukraine.”
The Crimean-born Ms. Musaieva believes her country could have been spared a lot of suffering if the international community had seen the annexation of her homeland for what it was: the start of an invasion.
“It was a big mistake of the Western countries and Ukraine as well, because the response to that misconduct was so small. It gave Russia a sense of impunity, and this impunity helped Russia to occupy Donbas and to start this war on Feb. 24.”
That impunity seemed to echo across time. Hours after the first explosions that day, Ms. Musaieva received several calls warning her to leave Kyiv. The invading Russians, she was told, had drawn up a list of Ukrainians targeted for arrest, or worse, and her name was on it.
The first call came from Myroslava Gongadze, the widow of Ukrainska Pravda’s founder.
Nine years into Russia’s war against Ukraine, and one year into the full-scale invasion, Donbas is again the most dangerous front line in the fighting, with Russian troops laying siege to the city of Bakhmut, 60 kilometres east of Kramatorsk. Things could rapidly get worse if Russia, as expected, launches a major new offensive in the days and weeks ahead.
Mr. Kulinych is now a soldier in the Ukrainian military, fighting on the front line, while his wife is in charge of managing reparation payments to people whose homes and businesses have been damaged by the Russian shells that regularly fall on Kramatorsk.
Mr. Chubarov, meanwhile, is back at his office in Kyiv, leading his Crimean Tatar community from exile. Ms. Musaieva has also returned to the capital to direct the Ukrainska Pravda team as it covers the war while simultaneously trying to guard against what she sees as the country’s democratic backslide during a year of living under martial law.
The Ukrainian military, meanwhile, has surprised Russia and the world by fighting harder than anyone imagined back in 2014. What initially looked all too familiar – with Western embassies fleeing Kyiv as Russia massed troops ahead of the invasion and analysts predicting that the capital would fall within a matter of days – played out entirely differently this time.
An armada of Russian helicopters was met by a hail of gunfire as they approached Kyiv in the first hours of the war. Mr. Zelensky refused to leave the capital and instead asked the West to send Ukraine the weapons it needed. Eventually, more and more sophisticated Western equipment started to arrive, enabling the Ukrainian military to launch counterattacks that drove Russian forces back.
When U.S. President Joe Biden visited Kyiv on Monday and promised Mr. Zelensky that his country would support Ukraine “for as long as it takes,” it was music to the ears of Mr. Yatsenyuk, who couldn’t dream of such help nine years ago.
“The price for this kind of wake-up call for the entire Western world is very high. We are paying the price, Ukrainians, for this wake-up call. But at least it happened.”