Russian President Vladimir Putin gives a speech at a plenary session of the Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok on September 3, 2021. Photo: AFP / Pool / by Alexander Zemlianichenko

A large-scale war between Russia and Ukraine seems to be only a matter of time. Such a conflict will undoubtedly have severe consequences not only for the two countries, but for most European nations, especially those heavily dependent on Russian energy.

But could the bloodshed have been prevented in 2014? As a result of the US-backed violent protests in Kiev’s Maidan Square in the winter of 2014, allegedly pro-Russian Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych was overthrown.

If he was Moscow’s ally, why did the Kremlin not support him the same way it supported Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko in 2020 when mass protests, as well as nationwide strikes, erupted after a controversial presidential election?

In a 2018 interview with famous Russian journalist Vladimir Solovyov – critics call him a propagandist – Russian President Vladimir Putin openly admitted his American partners called him during the Maidan demonstrations and asked him to “make sure Yanukovych does not deploy the army against protesters.”

Putin said “Horosho,” meaning yes, okay, good, fine. Without troops on the streets of Kiev, Yanukovych simply could not crack down on the rebellion. He was overthrown on February 22 after police stopped guarding presidential buildings, allowing protesters in.

Putin blamed Poland, France and Germany for not forcing Yanukovych’s opponents to implement the agreement on a settlement of the political crisis in Ukraine signed on February 21 by the Ukrainian president and opposition leaders.

Tens of thousands gather in Kiev’s Independence Square to hear the line-up of the new pro-Western cabinet on February 26, 2014. Photo: AFP / Bulent Kilic

The agreement was mediated by Polish, German and French Foreign Ministers Radoslaw Sikorski, Frank-Walter Steinmeier and Laurent Fabius, as well as by Russian special envoy Vladimir Lukin.

“Was that the first time that the West deceived us,” journalist Solovyov asked Putin.

“It was possibly the first time that they deceived us in such a rude and arrogant way,” the Russian leader replied.

It was certainly not the first time Putin accused the West of deep deception. In 2010, he said NATO “deceived Moscow in the rudest way” after breaking a promise made to the Soviet Union on no NATO expansion eastward.

To this day, Putin continues to blame his Western partners for breaking promises. As the saying goes: Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.

Even though Putin blamed Germany and France for their actions in Maidan in 2014, Russia held numerous summits with representatives of the two countries over the Donbas conflict.

In September 2014, then-French President François Hollande and then-German Chancellor Angela Merkel played the roles of mediators during ceasefire negotiations between the Russian-backed Donetsk People’s Republic and Lugansk People’s Republic, and Western-sponsored Ukraine.

As a result, the Minsk Protocol, also known as the First Minsk Agreement, was signed in the Belarusian capital. The document paved the way for a series of meetings that resulted in signing the Minsk II deal that de facto ceased to exist after the Kremlin recognized the two self-proclaimed republics on February 21, 2022.

But why did Russia not recognize the two entities in May 2014 after they held a referendum on the status of Donetsk and Lugansk? Instead, Putin asked them to postpone the plebiscite.

Map: Public Domain

Over the past eight years, Russia insisted the Donbas republics were part of Ukraine. Even a day before the official recognition, Russian ambassador to the US Anatoly Antonov explicitly confirmed Donetsk and Lugansk were part of Ukraine.

In 2014, Putin said only “complete idiots” claimed the town of Kramatorsk was not Ukrainian. Kramatorsk is a town in the Donbas that was controlled by the Donetsk People’s Republic but was captured by Ukrainian forces.

Now that “the general line of the party” has changed, Putin firmly insists that Kramatorsk, Mariupol and all other cities in the Donbas that are under Ukrainian control – two-thirds of the region’s territory – are part of the Donetsk People’s Republic and Lugansk People’s Republic.

Putin recently received approval from Russian lawmakers to deploy troops to Ukraine, exactly the same move Russia’s upper house of parliament made in 2014. At the time, Putin did not – at least officially – deploy regular Russian army troops to help the Donbas rebels.

After Crimea was incorporated into the Russian Federation in 2014, the Russian leader said Moscow “does not want a partition of Ukraine and is not interested in other Russian-speaking Ukrainian regions.”

For eight years, Putin, as well as other Russian officials, have been claiming the Kremlin “respects the sovereignty of Ukraine.” Not including Crimea, though. Now Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov openly questions Ukraine’s sovereignty.

The Kremlin is not even willing to negotiate with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. On February 22, Lavrov called him an “unstable and dependent man.”

Moscow’s claim it needs to protect ethnic Russians in eastern Ukraine is rooted in certain history. In May 2014, Ukrainian nationalists burned alive dozens of pro-Russian activists in the southern Ukrainian port city of Odessa.

Yet days later Russia still recognized the results of Ukraine’s presidential election. At the time, Lavrov said newly-elected President Petro Poroshenko was “the best chance for Ukraine.”

More importantly, Volodymyr Bodelan, the main suspect in the 2014 Odessa tragedy, was given a high-ranking post in Russian-controlled Crimea in 2020. Eight years later, Putin has promised to punish those involved in the 2014 Odessa tragedy and it will be interesting to see if Bodelan will be among them.

Russian policymakers and strategic planners must have been aware in 2014 that, sooner or later, Ukraine would try to join NATO. At the time when fighting broke out in the Donbas, the Ukrainian army was on the brink of collapse.

Ukrainian troops conduct a drill with tanks while military activity continues in the Donbas region on April 18, 2021. Photo: AFP / Armed Forces of Ukraine / Anadolu Agency

Kiev did not have nearly as many Western weapons as it has now, nor were its troops and commanders – at least in the southeast parts of the country – willing to fight against Russians.

The situation in 2022 is completely different. Ukraine has developed closer ties with NATO. Without bloodshed, Russia will unlikely be able to reduce the former Soviet republic to its pre-Bolshevik borders – something Putin might have suggested in his recent speech.

Such an option might have been realistic in 2014, while pro-Russian sentiment was still relatively strong in the southeast of Ukraine.

But for some reason, in 2015 the Kremlin semi-officially abandoned the “Novorossiya project” – a historic region on the northern shores of the Black Sea in modern southeastern Ukraine and contemporary home of ethnic Russian and Russian-speaking Ukrainians.

Alexander Borodai, a member of the Russian State Duma who served as the first prime minister of the Donetsk People’s Republic in 2014, said in January 2015 that the idea of creating Novorossiya was a “false start.”

The coming days and months will show if the Kremlin will try to revive the project. But the key question is expected to remain unanswered: Why did the Kremlin make such a radical flip-flop in 2022?

Nikola Mikovic

Nikola Mikovic is a political analyst in Serbia. His work focuses mostly on the foreign policies of Russia, Belarus and Ukraine, with special attention on energy and “pipeline politics.”