Ukraine in 2022: Putin, the Great Unifier

February 22, 2022
6 min read
Photo Credit: Jonas Petrovas / Shutterstock
For years, it was a popular narrative: Ukraine is a country deeply divided between its eastern and western regions, between Russia and the European Union/Europe, between its shared history with Moscow and the promise of someday being part of the West.

However, if there is one person who did away with this division, it is Vladimir Putin: the Russian president propelled Ukraine to unity and a patriotism not known before.

Maybe his advisors told Putin exactly this: If Kyiv continues down that path much longer, Ukraine will be lost forever. This reasoning could easily be behind Moscow’s aggression against Ukraine, an aggression that at first glance seems so completely illogical. But deep down, Putin must have realized that his political course toward Kyiv has backfired tremendously. 

Walking along the streets of Ukraine’s capital, the display of patriotism and nationalism is impossible to overlook. In the city center, the fallen are honored. More than 13,000 Ukrainians have been killed since the war in the breakaway eastern region Donbas began in 2014. Banners with patriotic slogans like “Слава Україні”, glory to Ukraine, are painted on walls. Putin himself is both a figure of hate and a patsy whose portrait is featured on rolls of toilet paper sold by vendors on Khreshchatyk, Kyiv’s main street leading to Maidan Square.

Since at least 2014, with the annexation of Crimea and the invasion of eastern Ukraine, Putin and his regime have become an enemy that cobbled together an alliance of unlikely partners reaching from the political far left to the far right. By de facto cutting off the regions of Donetsk and Luhansk in the east, Moscow also got rid of significant pro-Russian voices from being heard in Kyiv. If Putin wanted to pull Ukraine closer to Russia again, he has achieved the exact opposite. In terms of language, national symbols, patriotic rhetoric, and self-esteem, Ukraine was never as Ukrainian as it is now. 

Andreas Umland, associate professor at the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, does not see much gain for Putin, either. “While most analysts see primarily a crime, I see primarily an error in Putin’s recognition of the two Russia-created East Ukrainian pseudo-states,” he said, assessing the latest developments. “Instead, the larger political constellation of the conflict is arguably shifting to Russia's disadvantage. First, the always-dubious and Kremlin-imposed Minsk agreements will not any longer be available as instruments of Russian political pressure on Ukraine. Second, the West will now close ranks with Ukraine in view of Russia’s new blatant violation of international law. Third, serious sanctions will now be seemingly imposed on Russia even without a major military escalation yet starting (which may, to be sure, happen soon). Fourth, the Russian economy, judging from the stock market reactions, seems to be taking a hit.”

A closing of ranks can also be observed along the frontline in Donbas. I met Olexi Hodzenko in a trench near a dugout of the 503rd battalion at the so-called zero line just across the village of Horlivka. Behind the zero line is enemy territory, controlled by the separatists. Hodzenko signed up with the Ukrainian army because of some unfinished business that his father Dmytro started. His father’s face is tattooed on Hodzenko’s right upper arm. His father died on a Thursday in March 2016, not far from the place we now stand and talk. 

With a front line stretching over almost 500 kilometers, both sides are stuck in trench warfare. The dead are often hit by snipers who use precision technology to take the deadly shot. At the edge of one of the trenches, a plastic head is fixed. It serves as a target for the enemy and already has lots of bullet holes. Sometimes, it seems, even high-tech can still be fooled by old tricks. 

Hodzenko’s father Dmytro did not die from a sniper’s shot, but from shellfire—one day before he was due to be discharged from active service. At 6 a.m. on March 31, 2016, the house where Dmytro and his comrades were staying came under heavy artillery fire. On Hodzenko’s birthday, March 16, he visited his father. It was part of his job as a war reporter for the Ukrainian television station Channel 24. On that occasion, the last photo of the two together was taken. Since then, it has been Hodzenko’s profile pic on his Facebook page. His father is holding a Kalashnikov in front of his chest. Hodzenko is holding a microphone in his hand. The father puts his arm around his son’s shoulder, both looking immensely proud of each other.

“I don’t think about him every day,” Hodzenko told me, a little too determined, a bit too cool. And then, adding almost defiantly, he added, “Life goes on.” Did he sign the three-year contract with the army because he still has a personal score to settle with the enemy? None of that. Hodzenko, around 30 years old, says he is working in the military because he wants to defend his homeland, he wants to defend Ukraine. 

The Ukrainian army in which Hodzenko serves looked pretty bad at the beginning of the war in Donbas in spring 2014. True, the army has since improved. The men and women at the front line seem determined, courageous, passionate, and motivated. It seems absolutely credible when they say they know exactly what they are fighting for: for “Rodina Mat,” for the motherland. But how professional are the Ukrainian forces really? 

In April 2014, this Ukrainian motherland was caught with its pants down. When it started in Donbas, just a few weeks after the annexation of Crimea by Russia, the Ukrainian army was completely unprepared for a military engagement of that scale. Many high-ranking officers, often still Soviet-trained, sympathized with the Russians. The commander of the Ukrainian Navy, Denis Berezovsky, had already joined the Russian side during the Crimean crisis, with numerous other defectors following suit. The general staff was interspersed with Russian spies that reported to Moscow what the Ukrainian military was planning and where forces were most vulnerable. 

There were lots of vulnerabilities. Ihor Tenyukh, briefly defense minister of Ukraine, admitted in March 2014 that of the 140,000 soldiers, only 6,000 were operational. Battalions existed only on paper, numerous Ukrainian soldiers discarded their weapons and deserted, command structures were chaotic, communication lines were not tap-proof, and those who were wounded on the battlefield had to pray that they would receive adequate medical care. In Ilovaisk, Debaltseve, and the Donetsk International Airport, the army suffered bitter defeats. Without volunteer units, the Ukrainian army would not even have been able to hold the lines of retreat. 

Irregular volunteer battalions such as Azov, Right Sector, Aydar, Donbas, and Dnipro-1 became decisive in the war. At that moment, it did not matter how nationalistic and often radically right-wing they were. Kyiv needed them, so they became powerful. Today, they are mostly integrated into the army's command structures, but there they still enjoy special freedoms. In return, they often take risks and are deployed for dangerous special operations behind enemy lines. 

However, it is unclear how much longer the people in Donbas will endure the conflict. In the region controlled by the separatists, about half of the population that used to number six million people have already left. Of those who have remained, over a million are pensioners. In the Ukrainian part of Donbas, the situation is only slightly better. With the economy weak, depression and desolation are perceptible almost everywhere. “We are defending them, but at the same time, people have had enough of the war,” says Hodzenko, looking up from the trenches. Now it seems that war is only starting. 

On Hodzenko’s Facebook page, there is a new image this week: a television screen with Vladimir Putin giving his speech Monday night. Putin’s face is pictured through a riflescope—with fingers on the trigger. 

Russia Crisis

Read the latest news and insights on the unfolding Russia situation from our experts.