Update 7: Russia’s invasion of Ukraine

27 March 2022

NATO, the G7 and the European Council held unprecedented emergency meetings in Brussels on 24 March as the Russian invasion of Ukraine entered its second month. NATO announced plans to send more troops to Eastern Europe, where its troop presence doubled from last month to 40,000. The purpose of the summits was to cement Western unity against Russia and to impose or at least threaten Russia with additional sanctions if the war continues. NATO is also seeking to resupply Ukraine with anti-armour and anti-air weapons.

Meanwhile, the humanitarian crisis inside Ukraine continued to grow. The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights confirmed at least 1,035 civilians, including 90 children, have died in the four weeks since the start of the war. Another 1,650 civilians have been wounded. Those numbers are almost certainly an underestimate. Russian forces continued to relentlessly bombard the besieged port city of Mariupol where over 200,000 residents remain isolated with no access to essential services or food.

Ten million people - more than a quarter of the population - have now fled their homes; over 6.5 million are displaced inside Ukraine and 3.7 million people have been forced to flee the country. UNICEF said half of Ukraine’s seven-and-a-half million children have been displaced in one of the largest displacements of children since World War II. The United States officially declared Russian forces have committed war crimes in Ukraine. Deliberate attacks on hospitals will likely be a top priority for war crimes prosecutors. The Institute of Mass Media in Ukraine has documented 148 crimes against journalists and the media since the start of the Russian invasion. As the war heads towards a prolonged stalemate, there were few signs of diplomacy bringing an end to the fighting. Official talks between Russia and Ukraine are due to resume in Turkey on 28-30 March.

Further reading:

Evan Dyer, How NATO — and Canada — could do a lot more to defend Ukraine, CBC News, 26 March 2022

Andrew Roth, Russian activists sign open letter calling for end to war in Ukraine, The Guardian, 25 March 2022

Brian Finucane and Olga Oliker, Zelensky Wants a No-Fly Zone. NATO Is Right to Say No, New York Times, 25 March 2022

Alexandra Marksteiner, The proposed hike in German military spending, SIPRI Explainer, 25 March 2022

Richard Gowan, A Tentative First Look at Options for Peace Operations in Ukraine, International Crisis Group Commentary, 24 March 2022

Malcolm Chalmers, NATO’s Moment, RUSI Commentary, 24 March 2022

Diana Francis and Andrew Rigby, To the victor go the spoils… a heap of ashes, Rethinking Security, 23 March 2022.

Michael J. Glennon, The NATO Treaty Does Not Give Congress a Bye on World War III, Lawfare, 23 March 2022

John Feffer, Ending the War in Ukraine, Foreign Policy in Focus, 23 March 2022

Ed Arnold, Slava Ukraini: Assessing the Ukrainian Will to Fight, RUSI Commentary, 23 March 2022

Ukraine war: Why is Russia encouraging foreign fighters to join? Al Jazeera, 23 March 2022

Robert Lawless, Are Mercenaries in Ukraine? Lieber Institute, 21 March 2022

Anatol Lieven, Ukraine has already won the war, Responsible Statecraft, 18 March 2022

Anatol Lieven, The History Behind Putin’s War in Ukraine, Jacobin, 17 March 2022


Is Russia trying to divide Ukraine? (27 March)

According to the head of Ukrainian military intelligence, Russia is trying to split Ukraine in two to create a Moscow-controlled region after failing to take over the whole country. “In fact, it is an attempt to create North and South Korea in Ukraine,” Kyrylo Budanov said in a statement, adding that Ukraine would soon launch guerrilla warfare in Russian-occupied territory. The Russian-backed self-proclaimed Luhansk People’s Republic in eastern Ukraine could hold a referendum soon on joining Russia, the rebel region’s news outlet cited local leader Leonid Pasechnik as saying.

The US has no strategy of regime change for Russia, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken told reporters after President Joe Biden previously said Russian Vladimir Putin “cannot remain in power” (see below).

Joe Biden attacks Vladimir Putin in a speech in Warsaw (26 March)

During a speech in Poland, US President Joe Biden said his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin “cannot remain in power”. The White House later walked back the comments, saying Biden had been talking about the need for Putin to lose power over Ukrainian territory and in the wider region. In a tweet the former US diplomat Richard Haass, president of the US Council on Foreign Relations, said Biden had “made a difficult situation more difficult and a dangerous situation more dangerous”.

Russian missiles struck the western Ukrainian city of Lviv, while a new Russian attack on the nuclear research reactor in Kharkiv was reported. Unconfirmed reports also claimed that Russian forces were using white phosphorus against them near the eastern city of Avdiivka. Because of its incendiary effects, the use of phosphorus in war is supposed to be tightly regulated under international law — but it is not banned (i.e. it is not classed as a chemical weapon under the Chemical Weapons Convention). However, when used as a weapon, it can cause fire to rain down on targets, inflicting indiscriminate damage. It is illegal, therefore, for phosphorus to be used near civilians, because international law requires that combatants distinguish between civilian and military elements. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy had earlier told NATO leaders that Russia had used phosphorus bombs that had killed adults and children.

Russian forces temporarily seized Slavutych, a northern town close to the Chernobyl nuclear site, and took prisoner its mayor, Yuri Fomichev. After failing to disperse the numerous protesters in the main square – despite using stun grenades and firing in the air – the Russian troops released the mayor and agreed to leave.

Dmitry Medvedev, the previous president of Russia and deputy chairman of its security council, raised the spectre of the use of nuclear weapons in the war with Ukraine. He said Moscow could use them to strike an enemy that only used conventional weapons. The comments prompted Volodymyr Zelenskiy, appearing by video link at Qatar’s Doha Forum, to warn that Moscow was a direct threat to the world.

Tens of thousands of people gathered in central London to express solidarity with the people of Ukraine.

Russia appears to downgrade war aims (25 March)

Russia’s defence ministry said that the first phase of its military operation was “generally” complete, and it would focus on the “liberation” of Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region. US officials were cautious about whether this meant that Russia was scaling back its overall objectives. It came after Ukrainian forces went on the offensive to recapture towns outside the capital Kyiv, and Russia’s defence ministry admitted 1,351 Russian soldiers have died since the start of its so-called “special military operation” in Ukraine. US intelligence estimates the real figure is likely over 7,000, out of an invasion force of about 150,000. The Mayor of Borispyl said 20,000 civilians had evacuated from the city near to the international airport on the outskirts of Kyiv.

France announced it was working with Turkey and Greece on a humanitarian operation to evacuate civilians from Mariupol. Authorities in Mariupol said as many as 300 people were killed in a Russian bombing of a theatre last week, putting a death toll for the first time on the deadliest single attack since Moscow launched its invasion. The head of the UN human rights team in Ukraine said monitors had received increasing information on mass graves in the city, including one that appeared to hold 200 bodies.

Joint US-EU task force to reduce European energy dependency

The United States and the European Commission announced a joint task force intended to reduce Europe’s reliance on Russian energy. President Biden announced that the United States and other nations will work to increase liquefied natural gas exports to Europe by at least 15 billion cubic meters by the end of this year. The European Commission president said that the exports “will replace the [liquefied natural gas] supply we receive from Russia”. She also said of the joint task force, “Our partnership aims to sustain us through this war, to work on our independence. It also focuses on building a greener future with climate neutrality”.

Western officials said they believed a Russian commander was run over by mutinous forces during the fighting in Ukraine, in a sign of what they described as the “morale challenges” faced by the invading forces. A group of veteran Russian human rights activists plans to publish an open letter calling on Russia to end its war in Ukraine, declaring it “our common duty” to “stop the war [and] protect the lives, rights and freedoms of all people, both Ukrainians and Russians”, the Guardian reported. Vladimir Putin accused the West of discriminating against Russian culture, comparing the treatment of Russian cultural figures to that of the “cancelled” Harry Potter author JK Rowling.

Spotify became the latest company to announce it will fully suspend services in Russia, citing new legislation that could ‘risk’ the ‘safety’ of employees or listeners. Finland’s national railway operator announced that it would be suspending services between Helsinki and Saint Petersburg in Russia, closing one of the last public transport routes to the EU for Russians.

Some 20,100 visas had been issued under the UK’s new ‘Ukraine family scheme’ according to the UK’s Home Office. However, the UK’s resettlement scheme for Ukrainian refugees was called a “disgrace” by a Briton in Lviv, who said few in the country knew about its existence. Separately, Scotland announced that Ukrainian refugees will be able to access healthcare and some benefits as soon as they arrive in the country. Health Secretary Humza Yousaf explained the move was part of efforts to ensure that those fleeing the Russian invasion receive the “warmest welcome possible”.

NATO prepares Ukraine for possible WMD attack (24 March)

Exactly one month after Russia invaded Ukraine, President Zelenskiy called for citizens around the world to unite in global rallies in protest against the war. “Come to your squares, your streets. Make yourselves visible and heard. Say that people matter. Freedom matters. Peace matters. Ukraine matters”. Western and global leaders gathered in Europe for an extraordinary NATO summit and meetings of EU leaders and the G-7. President Biden said that Russia should be expelled from the G20, adding that if the member nations did not agree to expel Russia, Ukraine should be allowed to participate. At the NATO summit leaders discussed whether and how to provide stronger, more powerful weapons to Ukraine and also how to bolster defences along NATO borders in Poland. The G7 met to discuss the Ukrainian refugee crisis and how to further punish Putin for his military aggression. In a statement they condemned Vladimir Putin’s “war of choice” and his “unjustifiable, unprovoked and illegal” aggression in Ukraine. The European Council summit discussed how to expand and enforce sanctions imposed on Russia.

  • Statement from President Biden on the Extraordinary NATO Summit
  • Statement by NATO Heads of State and Government, Brussels 24 March 2022
  • G7 Leaders’ Statement - Brussels, 24 March 2022
  • European Council conclusions, 24-25 March 2022
  • Joint readout by the European Council and the United States, European Council Press Release, 24 March 2022

NATO decisions

NATO agreed to provide further support to Ukraine with significant military supplies, including anti-tank and air defence systems and drones, as well as strengthening its defences in the east of the alliance. In a joint statement NATO said “we have activated NATO’s defence plans, deployed elements of the NATO Response Force, and placed 40,000 troops on our eastern flank, along with significant air and naval assets, under direct NATO command supported by Allies’ national deployments”. It also said that NATO’s actions remain “preventive, proportionate, and non-escalatory” in preparation for “a more dangerous strategic reality”. “We will also significantly strengthen our longer term deterrence and defence posture and will further develop the full range of ready forces and capabilities necessary to maintain credible deterrence and defence”. The alliance will also enhance its readiness for chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear threats, the statement said, with further decisions to be discussed at the Madrid summit on 29-30 June 2022. Finally, the statement also called on China to abstain from supporting Russia’s war effort.

NATO also announced it will provide Ukraine with equipment and training to address fallout from a possible chemical, biological or nuclear Russian attack. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said that the decision was largely based on concerns that Russia is trying to create a pretext for these types of attacks because in recent weeks they have been falsely accusing Ukraine of using biological and chemical weapons. Stoltenberg said, “we have seen before that this way of accusing others is actually a way to create a pretext to do the same themselves”. Joe Biden warned that NATO would be forced to respond if the Kremlin resorted to using chemical weapons.

US President Joe Biden said NATO had agreed to establish four new battle groups in Slovakia, Romania, Bulgaria, and Hungary. In a statement following the NATO summit, Biden said the establishment of new battle groups is “a strong signal that we will collectively defend and protect every inch of NATO territory”.

The US has established an expert Tiger Team to establish contingency plans in the event that Russia opts to use chemical, biological or nuclear weapons. This group of national security officials will  flesh out different possible scenarios for how the US should respond if Russia should choose to deploy its most dangerous weapons. The team reportedly meets three times a week in classified sessions and also discusses how to respond appropriately to the growing refugee crisis and how to address the possible scenario of Russia attacking other neighbouring NATO countries in addition to Ukraine.

Ukraine accused Moscow of forcibly taking hundreds of thousands of civilians from besieged Ukrainian cities to Russia, where some may be used as “hostages” to pressure Kyiv to give up. Lyudmyla Denisova, Ukraine’s ombudsperson, said 402,000 people, including 84,000 children, have been taken against their will. The United Nations told the BBC that Ukrainians were being arbitrarily detained and subjected to enforced disappearances in Russian-controlled areas. Russia and Ukraine conducted their first prisoner exchange of the war, with 10 captured soldiers released by each side.

UN General Assembly calls for a halt in the war

The UN General Assembly voted overwhelmingly to call on Russia to stop its war on Ukraine immediately and to provide more aid access and civilian protection in Ukraine. The resolution, drafted by Ukraine and allies, received 140 votes in favour and five votes against – Belarus, Eritrea, North Korea, Russia and Syria - while 38 countries abstained. It follows a resolution on 2 March condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, backed by 141 countries. The chief prosecutor of the international criminal court (ICC), Karim Khan, asked a coalition of countries to back his war crimes investigation in Ukraine. “Things can get worse” if the international community fails to act now, Khan warned.

The US and UK applied new sanctions on Russian entities. The US administration announced fresh Russia-related sanctions against dozens of defence companies, 328 members of the Duma legislative body and the chief executive of Sberbank, Russia’s largest financial institution, as well as support for Ukrainian refugees. As regards the latter, President Biden announced that the US will accept 100,000 refugees fleeing the war in Ukraine. The Biden administration reported that the refugees will be brought to the United States via a number of legal pathways such as the US refugee programme and “humanitarian parole”, which offers temporary work authorization with no pathway to citizenship. The UK applied 65 new sanctions on Russia in a move the Foreign Office said was designed to target “key strategic industries and individuals”. Among those targeted were six banks and a defence company that produces drones, as well as the Wagner Group. After the G7 meeting, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson said that the UK and allies will “ramp up” lethal aid to Ukraine. The UK will send an additional 6,000 missiles and provide £25m in funding for Ukraine’s armed forces, he said.

Pope Francis levelled strong criticism against countries for increasing defence spending following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, describing it as “madness”. Francis said the conflict in Ukraine was a product of “the old logic of power that still dominates so-called geopolitics” and the real answer was not more weapons and more sanctions. Belgium became the latest European country to commit to further funding of its armed forces – it will spend an extra €1bn on top of a previously agreed €10bn boost. The Belgian army is currently looking to recruit 2,500 soldiers in 2022 to reinforce its military, currently standing at around 25,000. The new Belgian investments were aimed at developing a cybersecurity unit in the army, replenishing stocks of fuel and munitions, equipment and supplies and improving intelligence and communication systems.

US intelligence analysts reportedly determined that Russian military hackers executed a cyberattack on a Ukrainian satellite broadband service that disrupted the country’s military communications during the start of Russia’s invasion. Although the US government has not yet announced the information publicly, a spokesperson for the National Security Council reported that analysts are “looking at this closely”.

US says war crimes have been committed in Ukraine (23 March)

The US government said it believes war crimes have been committed in Ukraine based on its assessment of evidence that civilians have been deliberately targeted. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said that Russian forces seized a humanitarian convoy on its way to assist 100,000 civilians trapped in the besieged city of Mariupol. Civilians in Mariupol are living in worsening, inhuman conditions. Russian forces were also accused of taking hostage the people of the besieged Ukrainian city of Chernihiv, as local officials imposed drinking water rationing on trapped civilians. About 150,000 people are stuck in the northern city with little hope of aid after Russia cut them off from the capital, Kyiv.

Russia warned NATO of dire consequences if it were to agree to send some peacekeeping forces into Ukraine. The assessment of the UK’s MoD is that the battlefield across northern Ukraine remains largely static with Russian forces likely conducting a period of reorganisation before resuming large-scale offensive operations.

The Russian climate envoy Anatoly Chubais stepped down and left the country in protest against Putin’s war in Ukraine. He is the highest-level official to break with Moscow over the invasion. President Putin said Russia plans to demand payment in roubles for its gas sales to “unfriendly” countries. The announcement sent European futures soaring over concerns the switch would exacerbate a looming energy crisis by clogging up deals that run to hundreds of millions of dollars every day.

Ahead of the NATO Summit on 24 March, Estonia called on NATO to abandon its “tripwire” posture in eastern Europe and build up a permanent force in the region capable of stopping a Russian offensive. Poland deported 45 Russian citizens suspected of espionage. According to the Polish Interior Ministry, those expelled included individuals who worked directly for Russia’s secret services or aided the work of Russian secret services while benefiting from their diplomatic status in Poland.

Israel allegedly rejected requests from Ukraine and Estonia to buy and use the powerful Pegasus spyware tool in fear of angering Russia. Israeli officials believed the two countries would use the spyware to hack Russian mobile phone numbers and Israeli did not want to damage its relationship with Russia.

Reports indicated that Ukrainian President Vlodomyr Zelenskyy plans to hold talks with Chinese President Xi Jinping. According to a spokesperson for the Ukrainian president, “Kyiv is hopeful Beijing will play a more prominent role in bringing this war to an end”. China is a key factor in negotiations with Moscow because of its previously established ‘strategic partnership’ with Russia, and Xi Jinping’s potential sway over Russian President Vladimir Putin. Meanwhile, China backed Russia over suggestions that G20 expulsion could follow their invasion of Ukraine. Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said: “The G20 is the main forum for international economic cooperation. Russia is an important member, and no member has the right to expel another country”.

10 hospitals destroyed in the war so far (22 March)

The Ukrainian health minister, Viktor Lyashko, said 10 hospitals had been completely destroyed since Russia invaded. Other hospitals could not be restocked with medicines and supplies because of nearby fighting, the minister added. The UN secretary general, Antonio Guterres, said it is time for Russia to end its “absurd” and “unwinnable” war in Ukraine, as the EU prepared to set up a “trust fund” aimed at helping post-war reconstruction in the country.

Russian spokesman Dmitry Peskov refused to rule out the use of nuclear weapons during an interview with CNN. Peskov said that such arms could be used if Russia faced an “existential threat”. Russian forces have “kidnapped” 2,389 children from the Russian-controlled territories of Luhansk and Donetsk, the US embassy in Kyiv said, citing figures by Ukraine’s foreign ministry. A Russian court sentenced jailed Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny to nine years in prison after convicting him of fraud and contempt of court. Navalny is already serving a two-and-a-half-year sentence at a prison camp east of Moscow for parole violations related to charges he says were trumped up.

The United States will send Ukraine Soviet-made air defence equipment it secretly acquired years ago to help strengthen efforts to ward off Russian air and missile attacks, according to reports in the Wall Street Journal. The decades-old equipment is familiar to the Ukrainian military, so personnel should be able to use the systems effectively and efficiently. The arsenal of Soviet-made air-defence systems is said to include the S-300, SA-10 and SA-8.

The FBI issued a warning to the US energy sector about potential Russian cyberattacks on critical infrastructure. The FBI reportedly detected “abnormal network scanning activity” connected to Russian IP addresses of at least five US energy companies and at least 18 companies linked to sectors such as the defence industrial base, financial services and information technology. According to the FBI, intelligence suggests that the suspicious activity is associated with cyber actors “who previously conducted destructive cyber activity against foreign critical infrastructure".

EU to develop military instrument (but not an army) (21 March)

Josep Borrell, the EU’s foreign affairs chief, has heralded new plans to develop an “EU Rapid Deployment Capacity” that could allow the bloc to “swiftly deploy up to 5,000 troops” for different types of crises. He insisted a “European army” will not be created.

Russia threatened to cut ties with the US after Joe Biden called Vladimir Putin a war criminal, claiming his comments “put Russian-American relations on the verge of a breach”.

A 96-year-old man who survived a string of Nazi concentration camps including Buchenwald and Bergen-Belsen was killed by an explosion during the Russian assault on the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv. Russian forces shelled a chemical plant in Sumy, Ukraine, and caused an ammonia leak, according to BBC News. Russian troops used stun grenades and gunfire to disperse a rally of anti-occupation protesters in the southern city of Kherson. Airstrikes were reported against Odessa, the first such attack on the Black Sea port.

President Biden released a statement warning of “evolving intelligence” that suggests the “Russian Government is exploring options for potential cyberattacks” against the United States. The statement urges US companies to “harden [their] cyber defences immediately” and provides a fact sheet with more detailed guidance.

Peace deal “close”? (20 March)

Turkey’s foreign minister, Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, claimed a peace deal between Russia and Ukraine is “close”, despite the scepticism of western governments. But the US ambassador to the United Nations warned there was little immediate hope of a negotiated end to the war. Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelenskiy warned that a failure to negotiate the end of Russia’s invasion will mean “a third world war”. He told CNN that he is “ready for negotiations” with Russian president Vladimir Putin and that “we have to use any format, any chance in order to have a possibility of negotiating”. Zelenskiy earlier called Putin’s strategy a “final solution” for Ukraine. In an uncompromising address to the Israeli parliament, Ukraine’s president challenged Israel over its failure to impose sanctions on Russia.

At least eight people were killed after Russian forces bombed a shopping centre in Kyiv, according to Ukrainian officials.Mariupol’s city council says Russia bombed an art school where 400 civilians including children were sheltering.

Eleven Ukrainian political parties were suspended because of their links with Russia, according to Zelenskiy. The country’s national security and defence council took the decision to ban the parties from any political activity. Most of the parties affected were small, but one of them, the Opposition Platform for Life, has 44 seats in the 450-seat Ukrainian parliament.