On 24 February, shortly before dawn broke in Moscow, Vladimir Putin made the latest in a series of televised addresses. His previous appearances had contained increasingly ominous tirades about Ukraine. Now here was the culmination: the declaration of what the Russian president euphemistically called a “special military operation”.
The goal, said Putin, was the “demilitarisation and denazification” of Ukraine.
Minutes later, missiles were launched towards Kyiv, Kharkiv and many other Ukrainian cities. For the Ukrainians who woke up to sound of the impacts, and then for millions across the world who woke up to the news of Putin’s decision, the first reaction was shock.
Even those Ukrainians in government who had spent the past weeks rehearsing what to do in the event of a Russian attack were stunned when the invasion became reality.
“I had 10 minutes of panic when I was running around the house and I had no idea what to do. Then I pulled myself together and went to work,” said Natalia Balasynovych, the mayor of Vasylkiv, a town outside Kyiv hosting an airbase that was hit in the first hours of the war.
Before long, makeshift checkpoints were being put up across the country, volunteers flocked to sign up for territorial defence units, and even some pensioners got to work making molotov cocktails. At the same time, millions of people, mostly women and children, fled to the west of Ukraine, or crossed borders into neighbouring countries.
During the first days of the war there was a sense that something terrible and momentous had occurred that would change the contours of global affairs irrevocably, but also confusion about exactly how it might look, and what it meant for the future of Ukraine, Russia, Europe and the world.As Putin’s invasion reaches the month mark on Thursday, some of those questions have been answered but much still hangs in the balance.
Among the international community there are ongoing debates about how firm a line to take with Russia, and where the divide is between a moral obligation to support Ukraine and potentially provoking Moscow into further escalation, as for the first time since the early 1980s Putin has floated the possibility of using nuclear weapons.
The initial Russian plan, it seems, was that its operation would be a kind of slightly bloodier version of its 2014 Crimea annexation, with pockets of resistance mopped up and then a Russian puppet regime taking control. The plan, which could only have been based on shockingly flawed intelligence about the mood in Ukraine and the state of its army, was quickly shown to be hopeless.
An apartment building explodes after a Russian army tank fires in Mariupol – Photograph: Evgeniy Maloletka/AP. A Ukrainian firefighter sprays water inside a house destroyed by shelling in Kyiv – Photograph: Vadim Ghirdă/AP
A speedy advance on Kyiv faltered and devolved into grim fighting in the western suburbs. Attempts to take Kharkiv and other cities in the east were repelled, with heavy Russian losses.
Even in the few cities where the Russians have established control bloodlessly, in the south of the country, their forces face angry crowds and have had few successes in co-opting local politicians.
“For years they have been lying to themselves that people in Ukraine were supposedly waiting for Russia to come,” said the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, in one of his frequent video addresses. “They did not find collaborators who would hand over the city and the power to the invaders.”
The lack of success has led to a grimmer phase of the war. The idea that the tactics Russia used in Syria would be morally and politically unpalatable for Russia’s leadership, given the family ties between millions of Russians and Ukrainians, quickly proved naive. Russia showed itself willing to submit Mariupol, Kharkiv and other Russian-speaking cities to ruthless artillery and air bombardment.
For Ukraine, amid the heartache and the bloodshed, there is the feeling of a new sense of national identity being born, even as the threat of the eradication of the state by the Russian military has far from subsided.
A country where many different ideas of what it means to be Ukrainian have lived in sometimes uneasy coexistence has now found a common idea around which to unite.
“I suppose they hoped it would not be like this, when ordinary people come out without weapons to stop tanks and tell them to leave,” said Gennady Trukhanov, the Russian-speaking mayor of Odesa, who had once been considered a Russian stooge. He added that only “a bastard, idiot or scumbag” would drop bombs on Odesa.
The horrific stories emerging from those residents of Mariupol who have been able to escape in recent days make Putin’s claim a month ago that his attack was meant to defend Russian speakers from Kyiv’s “genocide” seem even more twisted than it sounded back then.
In 2014 Mariupol was split between pro-Russian and pro-Ukrainian elements and saw violent street clashes, but since then it had been renovated and spruced up by Ukrainian authorities. The terror in which its residents have been living as hostages over the past weeks is a tragedy that is likely to be remembered for decades to come.
For Russia’s stalled, bloody military campaign, there appears to be no imminent possibility for a dignified retreat or a peace deal that could be sold as victory, but also no clear route to a military victory either, except perhaps through an intensification of aerial bombardment to destroy Ukraine rather than subdue it.
Whether this would be palatable for the elite around Putin is a key question, and one which has had Kremlinologists trying to understand the increasingly opaque world of Putin’s inner circle.
What is clear is that Putin’s decision has irrevocably changed Russia as well as Ukraine. The Russian president built a large part of his political appeal on providing stability and economic progress, and even recently he liked to compare his rule with that of the turbulent 1990s. Now he has gone some way to recreating that instability in a matter of weeks, as planes stop flying, western brands head for the exit and the rouble tanks.
Unlike in 2014, when part of international public opinion was amenable to Russian narratives on the annexation of Crimea, this time the Russian actions have been so heinous that the Kremlin finds itself with few international defenders. Russian officials have been taken aback by the strength and scope of the western response, as well as by the speed with which the political climate at home has darkened.
It is hard to tell if the Ukraine war marks the beginning of the end for Putin and his system, or simply the beginning of a long period that is much darker than what went before.
Some in the Russian elite – such as the head of Russia Today, Margarita Simonyan, or the foreign ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova – have revelled in the new, darker climate. Zakharova, who just a week before the war was taunting western journalists for reporting US claims that a Russian invasion was possible, has now embraced it. At a flag-waving rally at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow last week, she said Russia was “fighting evil”.
Many others in the elite are horrified by Putin’s war, and the decision appears to have come as a surprise to all but a very few close confidants. But this unease so far remains muted, while domestic repression increases and increasingly sinister public warmongering fills the airwaves.
For Ukraine’s president, too, the past month has seen a transformation of his behaviour and reputation. Zelenskiy, on the eve of the war, often appeared to be a man struggling to play the admittedly awful hand he had been dealt. He spoke in confused and rambling sentences, at once talking up and diminishing the Russian threat, clearly alarmed by the warnings from Washington and London but keen to save the Ukrainian economy in the event Putin did not invade.
Now, while Putin broods in his bunker, Zelenskiy has been speaking with presidents, prime ministers and the pope, addressing parliaments across the world, and releasing a series of snappy, passionate video addresses to his people.
Despite the rather half-hearted attempts by Russian bloggers to claim Zelenskiy has in fact long since fled Ukraine and all the videos are fakes, it is clear that the president and his inner circle have stayed in the capital, ignoring western evacuation offers and suggestions to move the centre of government to Lviv in the west, even as there were credible intelligence reports of hit squads sent to kill him.
In the process, Zelenskiy has gained overwhelming support from many Ukrainians, even those who were previously his political opponents. “Free people of a free nation,” he began one of the latest of these addresses on Tuesday. “Each day of this war makes it increasingly clear what their ‘denazification’ is.”
With exhausted eyes but plenty of passion in his voice, Zelenskiy listed the latest civilian casualties of the Russian attack, and the latest Ukrainians to be awarded bravery medals.
“It was a day of difficult events … but it was another day that brought us all closer to our victory and to peace for our state,” said Zelenskiy, ending his address.
Ukraine has suffered terrible losses over the past month, but few expected that in four weeks Russia’s campaign against its neighbour would have achieved so few results for Putin on the ground.
There is a long way to go towards any outcome that could be considered a victory for Ukraine, but with each day that passes, more Ukrainians believe Zelenskiy, and that a victory of some sort is possible.
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