What Does Russia Want From Ukraine? What to Know as Invasion, Attacks Intensify

Both sides have said they are ready to resume talks aimed at stopping the fighting

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As Russian forces renewed their bombardment of Ukraine's second-biggest city and besieged its strategic ports, both sides have said they were also ready to resume talks aimed at stopping the fighting.

The two sides held talks Monday, agreeing only to keep talking. It was not immediately clear when new talks might take place or what they would yield. Zelenskyy said Tuesday that Russia should stop bombing before another meeting.

So what does Russia want from the country it has attacked on multiple fronts?

Why is Russia invading Ukraine and what does Putin want?

Western officials believe Russian President Vladimir Putin wants to overthrow Ukraine’s government and replace it with a compliant regime, reviving Moscow’s Cold War-era influence.

Putin told the world in the lead-up to attacks on Ukraine that his operation aims to “denazify” Ukraine, a country with a Jewish president who lost relatives in the Holocaust and who heads a Western-backed, democratically elected government.

The Holocaust, World War II and Nazism have been important tools for Putin in his bid to legitimize Russia’s moves in Ukraine, but historians see their use as disinformation and a cynical ploy to further the Russian leader’s aims.

World War II, in which the Soviet Union lost an estimated 27 million people, is a linchpin of Russia’s national identity. In today's Russia, officials bristle at any questioning of the USSR’s role.

Some historians say this has been coupled with an attempt by Russia at retooling certain historical truths from the war. They say Russia has tried to magnify the Soviet role in defeating the Nazis while playing down any collaboration by Soviet citizens in the persecution of Jews.

On Ukraine, Russia has tried to link the country to Nazism, particularly those who have led it since a pro-Russian leadership was toppled in 2014.

This goes back to 1941 when Ukraine, at the time part of the Soviet Union, was occupied by Nazi Germany. Some Ukrainian nationalists welcomed the Nazi occupiers, in part as a way to challenge their Soviet opponents, according to Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial. Historians say that, like in other countries, there was also collaboration.

Some of Ukraine’s politicians since 2014 have sought to glorify nationalist fighters from the era, focusing on their opposition to Soviet rule rather than their collaboration and documented crimes against Jews, as well as Poles living in Ukraine.

But making the leap from that to claiming Ukraine’s current government is a Nazi state does not reflect the reality of its politics, including the landslide election of a Jewish president and the aim of many Ukrainians to strengthen the country’s democracy, reduce corruption and move closer to the West.

“In terms of all of the sort of constituent parts of Nazism, none of that is in play in Ukraine. Territorial ambitions. State-sponsored terrorism. Rampant antisemitism. Bigotry. A dictatorship. None of those are in play. So this is just total fiction,” said Jonathan Dekel-Chen, a history professor at Jerusalem's Hebrew University.

What's more, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is Jewish and has said that three of his grandfather's brothers were killed by German occupiers while his grandfather survived the war. That hasn't stopped Russian officials from comparing Zelenskyy to Jews who were forced to collaborate with the Nazis during the Holocaust.

What happened in 2014?

When Ukraine’s Moscow-friendly president was driven from office by mass protests in February 2014, Russia responded by annexing Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula. It then threw its weight behind an insurgency in the mostly Russian-speaking eastern Ukraine region known as Donbas.

In April 2014, Russia-backed rebels seized government buildings in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, proclaimed the creation of “people’s republics” and battled Ukrainian troops and volunteer battalions.

The following month, the separatist regions held a popular vote to declare independence and make a bid to become part of Russia. Moscow hasn’t accepted the motion, just used the regions as a tool to keep Ukraine in its orbit and prevent it from joining NATO.

Ukraine and the West accused Russia of backing the rebels with troops and weapons. Moscow denied that, saying any Russians who fought there were volunteers.

Amid ferocious battles involving tanks, heavy artillery and warplanes, Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was shot down over eastern Ukraine on July 17, 2014, killing all 298 people aboard. An international probe concluded that the passenger jet was downed by a Russia-supplied missile from the rebel-controlled territory in Ukraine. Moscow still denied any involvement.

After a massive defeat of Ukrainian troops in August 2014, envoys from Kyiv, the rebels and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe signed a truce in the Belarusian capital of Minsk in September 2014.

The document envisaged an OSCE-observed cease-fire, a pullback of all foreign fighters, an exchange of prisoners and hostages, an amnesty for the rebels and a promise that separatist regions could have a degree of self-rule.

The deal quickly collapsed and large-scale fighting resumed, leading to another major defeat for Ukrainian forces at Debaltseve in January-February of 2015.

France and Germany brokered another peace agreement, which was signed in Minsk in February 2015 by representatives of Ukraine, Russia and the rebels. It envisaged a new cease-fire, a pullback of heavy weapons and a series of moves toward a political settlement. A declaration backing the deal was signed by the leaders of Russia, Ukraine, France and Germany.

What about the 2015 peace deal?

The 2015 peace deal was a major diplomatic coup for the Kremlin, obliging Ukraine to grant special status to the separatist regions, allowing them to create their own police force and have a say in appointing local prosecutors and judges. It also envisaged that Ukraine could only regain control over the roughly 200-kilometer (125-mile) border with Russia in rebel regions after they get self-rule and hold OSCE-monitored local elections — balloting that would almost certainly keep pro-Moscow rebels in power there.

Many Ukrainians see it as a betrayal of national interests and its implementation has stalled.

The Minsk document helped end full-scale fighting, but the situation has remained tense and regular skirmishes have continued.

With the Minsk deal stalled, Moscow’s hope to use rebel regions to directly influence Ukraine’s politics has failed but the frozen conflict has drained Kyiv’s resources and effectively stymied its goal of joining NATO — which is enshrined in the Ukrainian constitution.

Moscow also has worked to secure its hold on the rebel regions by handing out more than 720,000 Russian passports to roughly one-fifth of their population of about 3.6 million. It has provided economic and financial assistance to the separatist territories, but the aid has been insufficient to alleviate the massive damage from fighting and shore up the economy. The Donbas region accounted for about 16% of Ukraine’s GDP before the conflict.

Amid soaring tensions over the Russian troop concentration near Ukraine, France and Germany embarked on renewed efforts to encourage compliance with the 2015 deal, in hopes that it could help defuse the current standoff.

Facing calls from Berlin and Paris for its implementation, Ukrainian officials have strengthened their criticism of the Minsk deal and warned that it could lead to the country’s demise. Two rounds of talks in Paris and Berlin between presidential envoys from Russia, Ukraine, France and Germany have yielded no progress.

The lower house of the Russian parliament, meanwhile, urged Putin last month to recognize the independence of Ukraine's rebel regions.

What happened when Putin recognized the rebel regions' independence?

Putin’s recent recognition of the rebel-held territories’ independence effectively shattered the Minsk peace agreements and further fueled tensions with the West ahead of Russia's latest attacks. He said that Moscow would sign friendship treaties with the rebel territories, a move that could pave the way for Russia to openly support them with troops and weapons.

What is happening now?

Russia's assault on Ukrainian cities continued, including a strike on the country's second-largest, Kharkiv. The shelling led one official to call Kharkiv "the Stalingrad of the 21st century.”

Oleg Sinehubov, head of the Kharkiv regional administration, said 21 people had been killed and at least 112 had been wounded over the previous 24 hours.

The human toll of the war kept mounting, too, with the number of Ukrainians who have fled from their homeland expected to reach 1 million soon and the Ukrainian government putting the civilian death toll in the thousands, though the claim couldn't be verified.

A 40-mile (64-kilometer) convoy of hundreds of Russian tanks and other vehicles is on a road to Kyiv, a city of nearly 3 million people. The West feared it was part of a bid by Putin to topple the government and install a Kremlin-friendly regime.

Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov said Wednesday that Russia's airstrike Tuesday on the main TV tower in Kyiv was aimed at disabling Ukraine's ability to stage “information attacks.”

Konashenkov didn't discuss the five people who Ukrainian officials say were killed in the attack, which damaged a TV control room and power substation and briefly knocked some channels off the air. But he did say no residential buildings were hit.

Where do talks stand?

Even as Russia's invasion continued on multiple fronts, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that a delegation would be ready to meet Ukrainian officials.

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba also said his country was ready but noted that Russia's demands have not changed and that he wouldn't accept any ultimatums. Neither side said where the talks might take place.

What is the West doing?

Most of the world lined up against Moscow in the United Nations on Wednesday to demand it withdraw from Ukraine.

The U.N. General Assembly voted to demand that Russia stop its offensive and immediately withdraw all troops, with world powers and tiny island states alike condemning Moscow. The vote was 141 to 5, with 35 abstentions. It came after the 193-member assembly convened its first emergency session since 1997.

Countries that spoke up for Russia included Belarus, Cuba, North Korea and Syria.

Assembly resolutions aren’t legally binding, but they do have clout in reflecting international opinion.

President Joe Biden and U.S. allies in a matter of days weaponized the global economy against Russia for invading Ukraine, and the resulting destruction has been devastatingly fast.

The sanctions almost instantly put Putin on the defensive against skyrocketing inflation. Russia's central bank, unable to tap foreign reserves, tried to use what resources it had to slow the ruble's steep decline.

It goes unchallenged among economists that Russia's $1.5 trillion economy, previously about 7% the size of the U.S. economy, will shrivel further in ways that could be unprecedented for a nuclear power.

There is a push for even greater financial penalties. Ukrainian parliament member Oleksandra Ustinova met with U.S. senators on Tuesday to advocate for more sanctions immediately if Ukraine is to hold off Russian attacks.

The U.S. and its allies have retaliated against Russia with a series of financial attacks, reflecting a massive change in how conflicts can be waged in a world that is globalized, digital and highly dependent on accessing money.

Locally, Chicago's mayor said Tuesday World Business Chicago will suspend its relationship with Moscow in light of events escalating surrounding the Russia-Ukraine crisis.

Chicago "needs to go further in its definitive actions against Russia," Lightfoot said in a statement released Tuesday afternoon.

"While this is not a decision I enter into lightly, we must send an unambiguous message: we strongly condemn all actions by the Putin regime. This suspension will be upheld until the end of hostilities against Ukraine and the Putin regime is held accountable for its crimes. We must continue to support freedom-loving people everywhere and ordinary Russians in their desire to be free," Lightfoot said in the statement.

Will the US send troops to Ukraine?

Biden has repeatedly said there will be no U.S. troops on the ground, even as weapons and materiel are provided to Ukraine.

The sanctions also are a substitute for direct military action against Russia by the U.S. and its allies.

Are the sanctions working?

Russia has found itself increasingly isolated, hit by sanctions that have thrown its economy into turmoil and left the country practically friendless, apart from a few nations including China, Belarus and North Korea. Biden said the sanctions have left Putin ”isolated in the world more than he has ever been.”

Leading Russian bank Sberbank said Wednesday that it was pulling out of European markets amid tightening Western sanctions. The bank said its subsidiaries in Europe were facing an “abnormal outflow of funds and a threat to the safety of employees and branches,” according to Russian news agencies. They did not provide details of the threats.

The U.S. and EU have levied sanctions on Russia’s biggest banks and its elite, frozen the assets of the country’s Central Bank located outside the country, and excluded its financial institutions from the SWIFT bank messaging system.

The sanctions and resulting crash of the ruble have left the Kremlin scrambling to keep the country’s economy running. For Putin, that means finding workarounds to the Western economic blockade.

China won’t impose financial sanctions on Russia, the country’s bank regulator said Wednesday. China is a major buyer of Russian oil and gas and the only major government that has refrained from criticizing Moscow’s attack on Ukraine.

“We disapprove of the financial sanctions, particularly those launched unilaterally, because they don’t have much legal basis and will not have good effects,” Guo Shuqing, the chairman of the China Banking and Insurance Regulatory Commission, said at a news conference.

What are the economic impacts of the invasion?

As Russian troops move deeper into Ukraine, Biden is taking steps to rein in rising energy costs even if those moves run counter to his agenda for addressing climate change.

Biden announced on Tuesday that he is releasing 30 million barrels of oil from U.S. strategic reserves as part of a 31-nation effort to help ensure that supplies will not fall short after Russia's invasion of its European neighbor. The release follows ones ordered in November that also were coordinated with U.S. allies.

"These steps will help blunt gas prices here at home,'' Biden said in his State of the Union address. The U.S. stands ready to do more if necessary to protect American businesses and consumers, he said.

Russia's invasion of Ukraine has shaken markets worldwide. Oil prices have soared, with U.S. benchmark crude surpassing $106 per barrel — the highest price since 2014.

Fears of a supply interruption have rattled people and the markets. Some gasoline stations in Poland saw lines or ran out of gas Friday as people afraid of the fighting in neighboring Ukraine rushed to fill their tanks. A government spokesman said Poland has plenty of fuel reserves.

The conflict is adding to the surging energy prices already plaguing Europe and the U.S., crimping consumer spending and holding back economic growth. If oil prices rise to $120 per barrel and gas prices remain elevated, inflation would rise and slow economic growth this year, analysts at Berenberg bank say.

Some analysts believe regular gasoline could climb to $4 a gallon on average in the U.S. in the coming months.

Farmers have seen higher costs to fuel their equipment and those costs will turn up in food prices as well. Some people who switched to discount providers — which rely on energy from wholesale markets — have been sticker-shocked with sharply higher bills or had their contracts canceled when the supplier faced losses from high prices.

Many U.S. households also are struggling with high home heating bills, spending 40% more on home heating oil and natural gas compared with the same time last year.

NBC Chicago/Associated Press
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