Vladimir Putin has singlehandedly shattered the peace in Europe by his unprovoked invasion of Ukraine. On February 24th Russian forces invaded Ukraine. The Russian military buildup on Ukraine’s borders has been a months long process. It took place for all the world to see. Putin denied his troops were for invasion purposes while he amassed them, saying they were only part of military exercises. He then did exactly what the world was saying he would do, invade Ukraine. As the invasion begun a spokesman for the Pentagon said, “We haven’t seen a conventional move like this, nation-state to nation-state, since World War II, certainly nothing on this size and scope and scale.”
Since mid-2021 Russia has steadily built up its military presence near its border with Ukraine causing immediate concern, not only in the region, but also with the international community. In October, Biden’s national security team presented the president with intelligence that Putin was preparing to invade Ukraine. According to the New York Times, not only did the intelligence community have satellite images documenting the buildup and positioning of Russian military assets, they also had Russia’s military plan. Biden quietly dispatched C.I.A. Director William J. Burns to confront Putin about the buildup.
Despite the meeting, Putin continued his military buildup on the Ukrainian border. Biden approved a plan to share U.S. intelligence far more widely than is normal with allies and the public. The purpose was twofold—to make sure allies and the public had the latest and most accurate information, and to put a wrench in the works of Putin’s disinformation campaign about the military buildup. On December 3rd, Biden declassified photos and information showing the locations of the massing Russian forces along with newly arrived tanks and artillery. The information was shared openly with the press.
Biden told the Washington Post at the time, “What I am doing is putting together what I believe to be, will be the most comprehensive and meaningful set of initiatives to make it very, very difficult for Mr. Putin to go ahead and do what people are worried he may do.”
The publicly released intelligence came on the heals of a meeting Secretary of State Antony Blinken had with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov while attending a European security meeting in Stockholm. Blinken warned Lavrov that there would be severe consequences to a Russian invasion including severe economic sanctions. Direct military intervention against Russia was off the table, but as Russia increased its military presence along Ukraine’s borders, American troops and military equipment began to flow to Europe while NATO repositioned forces to its Eastern edges. Shipments of military equipment, including anti-tank Javelin missiles, began to arrive in Kiev to bolster Ukraine’s military. By the end of January, Russian forces on the border with Ukraine were estimated to be around 100,000.
The U.S. and allies continued to declassify and release intelligence on Russia’s actual intentions. On January 23rd, Britain detailed a Russian plot to install a pro-Moscow regime in Kiev. The Biden administration on February 3rd, announced Russia was planning “a very graphic propaganda video, which would include corpses and actors who would be depicting mourners and images of destroyed locations, as well as military equipment at the hands of Ukraine or the West, even to the point where some of this equipment would be made to look like it was Western-supplied.” More intel was re on the dissension in the ranks in the Russian military about support of an invasion. Warnings of cyberattacks came right before Ukraine experienced the worst cyberattacks in their history.
Meanwhile Russian media became full of unsubstantiated stories of Ukrainians attacking Russian separatists in the Donbas region of Ukraine. It soon became obvious that Putin was going to use fake attacks on Russian separatists as pretext for an invasion. Putin’s version of events played like a very badly written movie script. Michael Weiss, a journalist covering Russia, commented on how stupefying Russian propaganda had become. He wrote, “The Kremlin and its surrogates are asking you to believe that after 8 years of not invading occupied Donbas, Ukraine waited until more than 150,000 Russian troops were stationed at its border to do just that…”
Despite diplomacy, both direct and indirect, by Ukraine, the U.S. and its allies, Putin was ready to invade. President Biden announced on February 18th, based on intelligence reports, that Putin had already given the order to invade Ukraine. On February 21st, Putin recognized the independence of two breakaway republics that form the entire Donbas region. On the 23rd, Putin announced he was sending “peacekeeping” troops to the separatist regions. Widescale bombing over much of the Ukraine began the next day.
The buildup to the invasion and the West’s reaction will be studied for many years to come. Not only the period from when Russia first started placing military equipment and troops on Ukraine’s borders, but the periods of time that were formative in Putin’s thinking of why he believes he can invade Ukraine and it be worthwhile. The West’s reaction to Chechnya, Georgia, and the annexation of Crimea will all be undoubtedly analyzed.
However, Ukraine is currently descending into the brutality and destruction of war. Initial reports estimate that more than 100,000 Ukrainians have left their homes. Many are fleeing to Poland. President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who has been stoic throughout this whole crisis, has declared martial law and been forced to draft all men between 18-60 while banning them from fleeing the country. Undoubtedly, Russian forces are doing their best to hunt Zelenskyy down and remove him from power.
The West, for now, is unified and have coordinated massive sanctions on Russia. Sanctions are targeting Russia’s access to financial markets, state-owned banks, and corrupt Russian oligarchs along with Kremlin officials and their families. Also put in place, are sanctions restricting Russia’s access to mining, transportation, and logistical firms. Access to technologies have been curtailed. Sanctions on this scale have never before been unleashed on a country of Russia’s economic size and financial integration with global markets. The sanctions amount to trillions of dollars in frozen assets and penalties. There has been discussion of removing Russia from SWIFT (Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication) which would completely block Russia from global banking transactions. However, that has not yet been implemented. Biden argues that the current sanctions are more powerful than implementing a SWIFT ban. There is even talk about applying sanctions to Putin directly. Putin’s wealth is estimated to make him one of the richest people on earth.
The ground war is still in its opening salvos, but it promises to be a brutal struggle for Ukrainians as they fight to maintain their independence and sovereignty. Putin will work to decapitate the government and do what he has always tried to do, install a government that bends to his will. With the massive sanctions and the West actively supplying weaponry and intelligence to the Ukrainian military, Putin’s invasion will come with an astronomical price.