When Vladimir Putin shattered the peace in Europe by unleashing war on a democracy of 44 million people, his justification was that modern, Western-leaning Ukraine was a constant threat and Russia could not feel “safe, develop and exist”.
But after weeks of bombardment, thousands of deaths and an exodus of millions of refugees, the question remains: what is his war aim and is there a way out?
What does Putin want?
The goals he set at the start of Russia’s invasion appear to have been watered down during the course of a war that he assumed would be swiftly won. He could not even admit it was an invasion or a war, preferring the fiction of a “special military operation”.
But what is clear is that he sees this as a pivotal moment in Russian history. “Russia’s future and its future place in the world are at stake,” says foreign intelligence chief Sergei Naryshkin.
The Russian leader’s initial aim was to overrun Ukraine and depose its government, ending for good its desire to join the Western defensive alliance Nato.
He told the Russian people his goal was to “demilitarise and de-Nazify Ukraine”, to protect people subjected to what he called eight years of bullying and genocide by Ukraine’s government. “It is not our plan to occupy the Ukrainian territory. We do not intend to impose anything on anyone by force,” he insisted.
But there were no Nazis and no genocide, and Russia has imposed brutal force on dozens of towns and cities and united Ukrainians in opposition to its occupation.
The bombardment continues – but latest reports from peace talks suggest Russia is no longer seeking to overthrow the government and is instead aiming for a neutral Ukraine.