By recognizing the independence of the self-proclaimed republics of Donetsk and Lugansk in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine on Feb. 21, Vladimir Putin put an end to the negotiated resolution of a secessionist conflict that had been active since 2014.

Many experts anticipated a Russian invasion limited to these two provinces as a last resort, as was the case in Abkhazia and South Ossetia during the Russian-Georgian war in 2008.

However, two days later, the Russian president declared war on all of Ukraine, taking many observers by surprise, despite American warnings to the contrary.

The Kremlin, therefore, wishes to exercise complete control over its neighbour, which it considers to be an integral part of "greater Russia," but also a buffer zone between Russia and the West.

Ukraine is thus the centrepiece in the reconfiguration of the security architecture in Europe desired by Putin, and the war he has just unleashed is the latest in a series of attempts to bring Kyiv to heel.


Until 2014, Moscow managed to influence Ukraine to a good extent because the population was more or less balanced between pro-Europe and pro-Russia views.

A pro-Russian president, Viktor Yanukovych, was also in charge in Kyiv between 2010 and 2014.

However, the Kremlin's interests were undermined by the Euromaidan protests, which brought to power a clearly pro-European president and agenda.

The Russian response was to immediately annex Crimea and support the pro-Russian separatists in Donetsk and Lugansk.

These hostile moves, however, did not deter the new authorities in Kyiv from signing association agreements with the European Union.

Far from bringing Ukraine back into the Russian fold, they had the effect of reinforcing pro-European and anti-Russian opinion among Ukrainians.

While support for NATO membership in the 2000s was around 20 per cent, it has now risen to 60 per cent (excluding Crimea and self-proclaimed republics).

Between 2019 and 2021, support for NATO doubled in the traditionally more reluctant southeastern regions, and membership in NATO and the European Union is now enshrined in the Ukrainian constitution.

To question it would now be political suicide.


In practical terms, destabilizing Ukraine by supporting the pro-Russian separatists was intended to prevent it from joining NATO and the EU, as these organizations are reluctant to welcome new members with territorial disputes.

As long as the conflict in the east of the country continued, NATO and the EU would remain out of reach for Kyiv.

This destabilization effort was also intended (as in the case of Transnistria in neighbouring Moldova) to force Kyiv to implement the Kremlin's preferred scenario: to reintegrate the separatist regions into Ukraine as autonomous territories with a special status, which would give them a veto over Ukraine's geopolitical direction.

The Minsk agreements signed in 2015 and supposedly offering a diplomatic way out of the conflict were moving in this direction, according to Moscow.

The problem is that the interpretation of each of the 13 points they contain and the sequence of their implementation have always been disputed on both sides.

For many Ukrainians, the Minsk agreements lack legitimacy because Russia is listed as a mediator, while its active involvement with the separatists is now well documented.

By early 2020, even in the Donbas, the majority of the population living in the vast portion controlled by Kyiv wanted to return to Ukraine and were increasingly unwilling to compromise.


At this point, Ukraine was more than ever beyond Moscow's control.

In an effort to keep the "Western threat" away from what it considered its zone of influence, Russia massed a hundred thousand troops on the border of Ukraine before announcing its demands: withdrawal of NATO troops from Eastern Europe, a commitment by NATO to stop expanding eastward, etc.

Thinking to take advantage of a moment of weakness among Western allies (chaotic withdrawal of the United States from Afghanistan, election campaign in France, scandals surrounding the British Prime Minister, new coalition in power in Germany), Putin hoped that they would lower their flag and agree to his demands.

He failed.


Unable to force Ukraine to fall into his orbit and to push the Western allies out of his "zone of influence", Vladimir Putin is now playing a no-go game.

Gone are the negotiations, the nuisance and the tactical advances. Overthrowing by force the "nationalist-fascist" government, the "puppet" of the West in Kyiv, is the new objective, despite the fact that the war is causing a shock wave within Russia itself.

The majority of Russians, for whom the Ukrainians are by no means enemies, are opposed to it.


Canada is not dependent on Russia for gas or trade.

Sanctions will not affect its economy to the same extent as in Europe.

But the Russian-Ukrainian war is affecting many of the 1.3 million Canadian citizens who identify themselves as Ukrainian and whose families are in Ukraine.

As a member of NATO, Canadian armed forces are deployed in Latvia, which borders Russia. 

  • Magdalena Dembinska is the academic director of the Centre for International Studies and Research at the University de Montreal