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Russia-Ukraine war: 10 years and still no end in sight

Roman Goncharenko
February 24, 2024

Russia's war of aggression against Ukraine began with the annexation of Crimea in 2014. For most Ukrainians, the conflict was remote — until February 2022, when Moscow launched its full-scale invasion.

Ukrainian infantrymen keep the watch in the trenches on the front line, as a dog walks nearby
Today, many Ukrainians argue that Ukraine should have fought for Crimea in 2014Image: Ignacio Marin/Anadolu/picture alliance

Maryna Lyushyna was planning to give a chocolate-themed cooking class on February 24, 2022. The actress and mother of two had prepared everything the night before, and was looking forward to greeting the children who were supposed to be coming to her youth theater in Konotop in northern Ukraine for the event.

But that night, she had trouble sleeping. When she heard some noise, she thought it must be the tram. "At 7 in the morning, a friend called me and said: 'Turn on the TV, the war has begun!"

Konotop is around 80 kilometers (about 50 miles) from the border with Russia. Two years ago, the town was surrounded by Russian troops within hours of the invasion. There was some resistance, but the forces were unequal and the Ukrainian army soon withdrew. 

In the first days of the war, Lyushyna, who now lives in Bonn in western Germany, fled to live with her mother on the outskirts of Konotop. There, she came across Russian soldiers.

"I asked them: 'What are you doing here?' They answered: 'We've come to get President [Volodymyr] Zelenskyy.'" As if Ukraine were not an independent state, she remembered angrily, adding that the occupiers had thought they would be welcomed and were surprised this wasn't the case.

Ukrainian soldiers face second winter on front lines

Three days later she escaped to western Ukraine, eventually making her way to the European Union like millions of her compatriots. Her husband stayed behind in Ukraine.

'How could something like this happen?'

Today, Lyushyna is still baffled. "I would never have thought there would be a major war. How can something like this happen in the 21st century, in the middle of Europe?"

She accuses the West of regarding Ukraine as a plaything and a bargaining chip, adding that "Europe watched and waited to see whether we would be killed or not." By contrast, the United States and the United Kingdom had begun supplying weapons to Ukraine before the start of the full-scale invasion two years ago. Germany came late, she said, but is now near the top of the list of states supporting Ukraine.

Many were surprised by Russia's full-scale invasion, including people in Ukraine itself. And yet, Russia's attack began eight years earlier, on February 27, 2014, when armed and masked men wearing uniform without insignia occupied the Crimean parliament and the building of the legislative body. Russian President Vladimir Putin later admitted they were Russian soldiers.

Should Kyiv have fought for Crimea?

Ukraine was severely weakened. Protests in Kyiv earlier that month had forced the pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych into exile in Russia. The new pro-Western government did not dare defend Crimea with weapons, and the West also advised Kyiv to exercise restraint.

Even when war broke out in the eastern Ukrainian coal-mining region of Donbas a few months later, there were no harsh sanctions. Russia installed loyalists in the self-proclaimed republics of Donetsk and Luhansk, and secretly provided more and more weapons. The West tried to put an end to the conflict through negotiations and Ukraine did not impose martial law, describing the conflict as an "anti-terrorist operation."

Soldiers with the Russian flag and the flag of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People"s Republic
Donetsk and Luhansk remain under Russian occupation todayImage: Valentin Sprinchak/TASS/dpa/picture alliance

For many, this meant that the war seemed very far away. "Most people in Ukraine didn't understand that it was their war," said Lyushyna.

'I understood back then: It was war'

But that wasn't the case for everyone. Maksym Kosub, an interpreter from Kyiv, recalled attending a rally in front of the Russian Embassy in June 2014 where protesters called for relations to be broken off with Moscow. "Everyone underestimated Putin and his willingness to ignore the rules," he said. "I understood back then: It was war."

Kosub volunteered to go to the front line in Donbas, part of a patriotic minority that tried to stand in Russia's way. He was wounded, but after the full-scale invasion in February 2022 he rejoined the Ukrainian army.

Today, many Ukrainians argue Ukraine should have fought for Crimea in 2014. Susan Stewart, an EU-Russian relations expert at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, agrees.

"I am tempted to say there should have been an attempt," she told DW. However, she pointed out that the leadership in Kyiv was "weak" at the time. Furthermore, Russia had deployed troops along the Ukrainian border and was already threatening to invade the country. Ukrainian troops in Crimea were demoralized, and many defected.

Though it seemed to many that the war in the Donbas region was frozen between 2015 and 2022, it was in fact a war of attrition that resulted in thousands of deaths. Why, then, did the West refuse to supply Ukraine with heavy arms, and continue to plan major projects with Moscow, such as the Nord Stream 2 pipeline? Stewart said the hope was that wars in Europe could be avoided by integrating Russia.

'We continue to stand and fight for Ukraine'

The situation has changed considerably since February 2022. "We continue to stand and fight for Ukraine, even if the price is very high," said Kosub. He explained that the army had changed a lot over the last decade, becoming more professional, although there were still problems.

Ukrainian women prepare for combat roles

"Society has shown a lot of self-organization," he said, giving as example the volunteers who had been providing the army with vehicles, night-vision goggles and medicine since 2014. He predicts the war will go on for a long time, and thinks there will be many victims. But in the end, he said Ukraine will win.

Maryna Lyushyna also believes Ukraine will prevail. She said the war had made her tougher and more uncompromising toward Russia, the Russian language and Russian culture. She hopes to return to Ukraine and her husband one day, but does not want to live in Konotop again, even though the city has been liberated by Ukrainian troops. Russia still remains a dangerous neighbor. Instead, she hopes to find a new home in western Ukraine, where "it's safer."

Stewart was reluctant to make any forecasts, but said she did not expect any "surprises" in Russia. She thinks Ukraine can hold out with Western support, but added that people are exhausted after 10 years of war.

"Too little thought is given to what happens if Ukraine loses," she said. In this case, she said, the costs would be "much higher."

This article was originally written in Russian.