By Bridie Golding
Weeks of rising global tensions and drastic developments in Eastern Europe culminated in a night of frantic diplomacy in New York. The United Nations Security Council, meeting after 9pm in NY, resumed at a normal pace, with a tense atmosphere. Within an hour of UN Secretary General Antonio Guerres urging Russian president Vladimir Putin to “Give peace a chance,” Putin declared war on Ukraine, carrying out a “special military operation.” To the date of writing, 352 civilians have been killed including 14 children, according to Ukraine’s health ministry.
Since the Russian annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula in 2014, tensions have existed between the two former Soviet states, with a frozen conflict in the Donbas region. In the last year, Russia began moving troops into the area, with a significant buildup near the Russia-Ukraine border, thus leading to intelligence warning of an imminent invasion. On February 21st, the separatist-controlled provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk were recognized as independent by Vladimir Putin, with a request for military assistance on the 23rd leading to the declaration of war. Late on the 27th, Putin ordered Russian nuclear forces to be on high alert in response to allegedly “aggressive” statements by NATO.
The situation in the country has rapidly deteriorated, with reports of Russian forces taking Kharkiv and Mariupol in northeastern Ukraine. There is a general lack of information in the region, with social media providing the basis for many news reports, such as those stating there is a gas pipeline on fire in Kharkiv and leading residents to be instructed to tightly close their windows. The Ukrainian government has taken drastic action in declaring martial law and banning men aged from 18 to 60 from leaving the country, as well as removing visa requirements for anyone wishing to join and fight with Ukrainian forces.
US sources have suggested that Russia has fired over 250 missiles in Ukrainian territory, with some of those hitting civilian infrastructure. Late on Monday (local time) the International Criminal Court announced an investigation into an alleged tactic change by Moscow of targeting civilian infrastructure, supported by the UK and 37 other countries. This has included flattening residential buildings in Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second largest city.
On Sunday morning, a Kremlin spokesperson said Russian officials were in Belarus prepared for talks with Ukraine; however, Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy rejected these claims, instead saying Ukraine was open for discussion in a country not showing hostility. On Sunday night, Ukraine agreed to talks on the border of Ukraine and Belarus, which started late on Monday but reached no conclusion.
The UN has estimated 500,000 people have fled Ukraine, with over 160,000 people internally displaced. Neighbouring countries have taken varying approaches—Belarus has supported Russia in their efforts to invade Ukraine and is housing Russian troops, while Moldova has thrown open its borders to Ukrainians. President Maia Sandu of Moldova tweeted, “Our borders are open for [Ukrainian] citizens who need safe transit or stay.” The presidents of Romania and Georgia have also reaffirmed their support for Ukraine and its sovereignty. According to the UNHCR Filippo Grandi, most of those who fled Ukraine went to Moldova or Poland. The UN also said the number of Ukrainians seeking to leave the country could reach 5 million. In addition, for the first time in 40 years, the UN Security Council has called an emergency meeting of the General Assembly, which voted to strongly condemn Russia’s actions and called for an immediate withdrawal.
On the 22nd, Western countries including the UK, US and EU launched a relatively light set of sanctions intended to prevent the launching of a Russian invasion. Their prevention attempts were futile, however further sanctions have since been implemented in a swifter manner. The US, Canada and other European states including Germany have agreed to block “selected Russian banks’” access to the SWIFT international banking system, which most banks use for international transfers of funds. In 2020, SWIFT processed ~38m payments each day. Further, UK Foreign Secretary Liz Truss said the government was compiling a “hit list” of Russian oligarchs to be sanctioned. Visa and Mastercard have announced they will stop trading in Russia.
Ukraine has also placed a request to join the European Union, with a number of eastern European states including Lithuania, the Czech Republic and Poland issuing an open letter calling for Ukraine’s “immediate” acceptance. Numerous countries have pledged to provide financial and military aid to Ukraine, including Canada and Australia, both of whom switched from providing non-lethal to lethal aid. Turkey has exercised its power to limit Russian access to the Black Sea, a significant step after initial indecision by the country. Switzerland has set aside its long-standing policy of neutrality to adhere to EU sanctions against Russia and freeze Russian assets.
The vast majority of the European Union has banned Russian aircrafts from entering its airspace. This has caused logistical difficulties for Russia accessing Kaliningrad, which is a small parcel of Russian land across Lithuania with no physical connection to the Russian state. More fuel is necessary and thus costs more for airlines, in addition to rising prices due to Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine. The EU also plans to ban Russian state media and has commenced sending arms to Ukraine. According to the New York Times, the European Commission will ask states to bypass the usual asylum process in order to accept Ukrainian refugees for the next three years, expecting 7 million Ukrainians to be displaced.
Correspondents around the world are reporting various aspects of life in Ukraine on social media and in the news, including reports of air raid sirens in the Ukrainian capital Kyiv, under a curfew from Saturday to Monday. Ukrainian defiance in the face of war has been continuously documented and highlighted by President Zelenskyy. According to Guardian journalist Luke Harding, Ukrainians around the country have picked up arms in attempts to prepare cities like Kyiv for conflict. There have been anti-war and solidarity protests around the world as well, including in London, New York City, Munich, Sydney and Russian cities including Moscow, St Petersburg and Novosibirsk.
At the last-resort UNSC meeting, the Ukrainian representative, Sergiy Kyslytsya, summed up Ukraine’s perspective on Russia’s invasion. “There is no purgatory for war criminals – they go straight to hell.”