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RA’s Daily Russia News Blast – February 24, 2022

Today in Russia: Invasion. Will the world respond?

It actually happened. Just before 5am Kyiv time this morning, Russian President Vladimir Putin delivered a menacing speech where he declared war on Ukraine. The Russian President issued what appeared to be a nuclear threat to any country that tried to intervene, stating “Whoever tries to stand in our way or create threats for our country and people should know Russia’s response will be immediate and lead you to consequences you have never encountered in your history.” Russia’s aims appear to be for absolute regime change and “demilitarization” of Ukraine.

Russia has launched attacks from all sides of Ukraine. Moscow said it has destroyed over 70 Ukraine military targets, although verifying information about ongoing fighting is proving challenging. The goal thus far appears to make rapid gains and avoid getting bogged down in fighting in cities. Bloomberg noted that most of Russia’s initial military moves have included “a barrage of missile attacks to destroy Ukraine’s air force and air defenses quickly followed by a massive land campaign aimed at crushing armed resistance.”

Some reports have indicated that Ukrainian forces are putting up stiff resistance in some areas. Worryingly, Ukraine’s military announced that Russian forces took control of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant after heavy fighting in the area. Gostomel airbase, a strategic airfield just outside of Kyiv is currently being battled over (and Russia appears to have just taken control of), and both Kyiv and the eastern city of Kharkiv are being enveloped in missile strikes. At least dozens of Ukrainian civilians have already been killed in the fighting today, and Ukraine’s railway operator said it has evacuated some 7,600 people from border areas such as Mariupol, Lysychansk, and Avdiivka.

The Americans were right, after all. The US has been warning of an imminent Russian invasion for weeks now. The New York Times noted, “In the end, the war appeared to be playing out exactly as the American intelligence community said it would when officials first warned about the threatening movement of Russian troops toward Ukraine’s borders last fall.”

How strong will the sanctions be? The UK unveiled new sanctions against Russia today, “The government said it would impose an asset freeze on some major Russian banks, including state-owned VTB, its second-biggest bank, and stop major Russian companies from raising finance in Britain,” BBC wrote, and flag carrier Aeroflot has been banned from flying to the UK.

US President Joe Biden is preparing to deliver a speech shortly after this newsletter is published where he is expected to unveil new sanctions. Bloomberg has reported that aluminum will likely be spared from the sanctions list given the already big shortages of the metal on global markets.

The EU is currently discussing its next round of sanctions, which European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen promised will “target strategic sectors of the Russian economy by blocking their access to technologies and markets that are key to Russia.” The “nuclear option” of sanctions – banning Russia from the SWIFT payments system, is unlikely to be implemented at this stage. Chechia and Latvia became the first EU countries to stop issuing visas to Russian nationals.

The home front. In Russia, markets have not reacted well, with Russian stocks ending their trading day down 33 percent, wiping off nearly $200 billion of stock market value, the ruble has plummeted, and the cost of insuring Russian debt against default reached its highest since 2009.

Elsewhere on the home front, pockets of resistance to Russia’s war in Ukraine are being crushed by authorities. Moscow Times wrote that “Muscovites were in a state of shock on Thursday after waking to the news that Russia had invaded neighboring Ukraine.” Images from Moscow and St Petersburg in particular showed large groups of anti-war protestors. OVD-Info, which tracks arrests of demonstrators, reported that more than 917 protesters have been arrested in 44 cities across the country. The New York Times wrote,

Russians awoke in shock after they learned that Mr. Putin, in an address to the nation that aired before 6 a.m., had ordered a full-scale assault against what Russians of all political stripes often refer to as their “brotherly nation.” Liberal-leaning public figures who for years tried to compromise with and adapt to Mr. Putin’s creeping authoritarianism found themselves reduced to posting on social media about their opposition to a war they had no way to stop.

And a number of people in Moscow’s foreign policy establishment, where analysts overwhelmingly characterized Mr. Putin’s military buildup around Ukraine as an elaborate and astute bluff in recent months, admitted on Thursday that they had monumentally misjudged a man they had spent decades studying.

PHOTO: Kyiv, Ukraine at dusk on Thursday after the first day of Russia’s invasion of the country (Brendan Hoffman for The New York Times).