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Reader Q&A: Your questions about the Russian invasion of Ukraine answered

Here are answers to some of the key queries about the ongoing invasion.

Rescuers at Kharkiv Regional State Administration building situated in Svobody Freedom Square on Tuesday in Ukraine.
Rescuers at Kharkiv Regional State Administration building situated in Svobody Freedom Square on Tuesday in Ukraine.
Image: Vyacheslav Madiyevskyy

Updated Mar 5th 2022, 9:30 AM

EARLIER THIS WEEK, we asked for your questions about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. 

We received dozens of emails asking about aspects of the war and the lead up to it.

We’ll answer the questions in a series of articles as the war continues.

As in previous reader Q&As, we’ve sought responses from experts where necessary and journalists from across The Journal‘s team have contributed answers. 

This first piece will focus on responding to the questions asked most frequently by our readers – including why the invasion was ordered by Putin, the fallout from the refugee crisis and the risks of the conflict escalating. 

  • If you would like to submit a question to our team please send it to: answers@thejournal.ie 

Why did Putin invade Ukraine?

This really is the question on everybody’s mind since the invasion. 

Let’s start out with why Russian President Vladimir Putin says he is invading Ukraine. 

In the early hours of 24 February, Putin announced what he termed as a military operation in Ukraine.

This was instigated to defend separatists in the east of Ukraine from “humiliation and genocide perpetrated by the Kyiv regime”, he claimed despite no reports of any targeted mass killings of civilians in eastern Ukraine. 

Putin warned of “ominous consequences” if other countries interfered in his attack. 

In his national TV address confirming the invasion he described a fundamental threat created by Western politicians for Russia through the expansion of Nato into eastern Europe. 

russian-president-putin-annouces-invasion-of-ukraine Putin delivering a televised address to the Russian people announcing the invasion of Ukraine. Source: Kremlin Pool/Kremlin Pool

The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato) is a military alliance of countries set up after World War II.

A number of eastern European nations have joined Nato since the demise of the Soviet Union in the ‘90s.

Ukraine has tried to join Nato for years but western officials said on a number of occasions before the attack that the prospect was not on the cards anytime soon.

Russia has often said that any moves towards Ukraine joining Nato would be a red line for Moscow.

Putin also said in his speech that he wants to “de-Nazify Ukraine”. 

He has often accused Ukraine of being taken over by extremists since 2014 when a pro-Western popular uprising led to Russian-backed president Viktor Yanukovych fleeing the country. 

After this, Moscow annexed the Crimean peninsula and supported separatists in the east of Ukraine. The conflict has continued in this region in the years since and has claimed around 14,000 lives.

In his speech ahead of the attack last week, Putin claimed Russia had “been doing everything possible to settle” conflict in Donetsk and Luhansk by “peaceful political means” since 2014, but that “everything was in vain”.

It’s important to note here how Putin views Ukraine - he wrote a 5,000-word essay last year trying to prove that “Russians and Ukrainians are one people”. 

But all this is Putin’s side. Experts and governments of democratic countries have dismissed his arguments as twisted propaganda and said they by no means represent the truth of what’s happening on the ground. 

ukrainians-prepare-to-defend-kyiv Ukrainian military member in Kyiv. Source: Diego Herrera

Since late last year, Russia has massed hundreds of thousands of soldiers on the Ukraine border, fuelling fears of an invasion. Moscow had denied and tried to dispel these fears. 

Donnacha Ó Beacháin, an expert in post-Soviet politics and a politics professor at Dublin City University, told The Journal recently that the invasion has “all the hallmarks of the worst periods in European history we thought we’d left behind”. 

We all knew that Putin had aggressive instincts. We’d seen him in Chechnya, we’d seen him in Georgia, we’d seen him in Syria, we’d seen him in action but we thought that he was a more cautious gambler in terms of war.

He has utilised war to his own advantage, but usually the wars he has been engaged in in the past were relatively short and winnable, and popular at home like the annexation of Crimea in 2014.

This is different in terms of scale and in terms of it being open-ended. There’s no obvious exit strategy here. We cannot really predict what will happen because what has happened has been completely unpredictable.

By the way, regarding Putin’s comments about wanting to “de-Nazify Ukraine”, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who is Jewish, said last week: “How could I be a Nazi?”

In an address spoken in Russian, the Ukrainian President asked: “Could a people who lost more than eight million lives in the battle against Nazism support Nazism?”

Does Putin want to take over Ukraine?

Putin hasn’t explicitly said this, but he said on Thursday that the advance in Ukraine is going “according to plan”. 

In his speech last week, Putin said: “It is not our plan to occupy the Ukrainian territory.” 

French President Emmanuel Macron believes “the worst is to come” in Ukraine after a recent phone call with Putin, an aide to the French leader said.

The aide added that the Russian President “wanted to seize control of the whole of Ukraine”. 

There was nothing in what President Putin told us that should reassure us. He showed great determination to continue the operation.

g20-emmanuel-macron-meets-vladimir-putin File image of Vladimir Putin and Emmanuel Macron in 2019. Source: Blondet Eliot/ABACA

Donnacha Ó Beacháin (post-Soviet politics expert) said it’s “very hard” to get inside Putin’s mind. 

Speaking to The Journal‘s The Explainer podcast on the day of the invasion, he said:

“In terms of how he perceives himself, he sees himself as a messiah figure for Russia. As a saviour, as following in the footsteps of the great modernisers of Russia like Peter the Great, and indeed, perhaps even Stalin.”

He said Putin played on a victim narrative that the collapse of the Soviet Union was the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th Century”. 

“He sees the 1990s as the worst period in memory for Russians, when they were humiliated when they lost their place in the world.”

In Putin’s view, said Ó Beacháin, the West “tried to humiliate Russia, they betrayed Russia, they expanded Nato eastwards, and they made Russians lose their self-respect.

So his role, as he sees it, has been to make Russia great again.

You can read further analysis on the Kremlin’s war aims from security specialist and The Journal columnist Tom Clonan in his most recent piece.

If Russia did take over Ukraine, what would happen then?

Again, nobody can say for sure what Putin’s plans are beyond the current invasion. 

Ó Beacháin said it’s “no coincidence” that in a speech last week, Putin “made constant reference to the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union” as where the natural boundaries of historical Russia end. 

“The worrying thing about that is if you go back to the Russian Empire, the Russian Empire included Finland, it included Poland, it included large parts of what are now EU member states, and he’s making it clear that this is what he considers to be the natural boundaries of Russia,” he said. 

“So Ukraine is a part of this attempt to restore the Russian Empire. He certainly sees himself as having a legacy.” 

canada-ukraine-invasion Protesters outside the Embassy of Russia in Ottawa, Canada. Source: Justin Tang

German Chancellor Olaf Schulz recently said that “we are living through a watershed era” and that the world “afterwards will no longer be the same as the world before”. 

Russian human rights activist and former world chess champion Garry Kasparov said that if Putin isn’t stopped now, “there will be a next time and it will be in Nato, with an unprecedented nuclear threat”. 

“If he destroys Ukraine, he won’t stop,” Kasparov said on Twitter. 

Pavel Podvig, senior researcher at the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research, said that “it is at this point not even clear what Russia’s goal is in Ukraine”.

“I don’t know what kind of plan the Russian government has in mind when they started this. To me, it’s very difficult to imagine how they could achieve any of the goals that they stated in the beginning.”  

So it is still too soon to know what will come next, but the invasion is hugely significant. 

Professor of International Relations in University College Dublin Ben Tonra said: “This is the fall of the Berlin Wall and 9/11 squared. That’s not hyperbole.”

“Half of the European Union is living this. European member states Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Hungary, Czech Republic, they’re living this. They see refugees flooding across their borders,” he told The Journal.

They’re listening to a Russian president who says Lithuania, Estonia, Latvia and Finland don’t have a right to exist.
A year ago, ten years ago, we thought that was hyperbole. We just thought that was colourful political rhetoric.

Lithuania’s president Gitanas Nausėda warned this week that no country in Europe “can feel safe right now”. 

“If Ukraine will fall – be sure that we’ll be next,” he told CNN about the former Soviet state.

How can I help? Is there a government scheme that allows me to take in a Ukrainian refugee?

The short answer is no, not yet. 

Earlier in the week, Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney said that Irish people could be asked to open up their homes to Ukrainian refugees. However, no such scheme or appeal has been set up yet.

Senior ministers attended a meeting chaired by the Taoiseach last night where it was decided relevant departments and agencies would work together to prepare for the possibility of significant numbers being offered protection in Ireland. 

Integration Minister Roderic O’Gorman this evening said the government is working with the Irish Red Cross to record all offers of help from Irish people. 

“Work is ongoing to put in place a national pledge portal to help coordinate offers of support. We’ll have this portal up and running shortly,” O’Gorman said. 

“We appreciate the outpouring of offers of accommodation and support in the coming weeks. 

Many will be asking how can I best respond right now? Today, we encourage you to give financial support to aid agencies and international organisations who are working on the grounds on Ukraine’s western borders, follow Irish charities like the Red Cross for more information, the government will provide further updates over the coming days.

Work is ongoing in assessing possible accommodation needs. Around 500 refugees have arrived so far, with the majority of those people arriving in Ireland  staying with family members already resident here. 

If and when refugee numbers increase, it is understood that hotels will be firstly used to accommodate arrivals. 

Taoiseach Micheál Martin said as the numbers grow the State will provide accommodation, but said it’s going to be “very, very challenging”.

It was decided yesterday to grant temporary protection to all refugees from Ukraine that will enable them to live, work and study in EU countries.

bomb-shelter-in-a-metro-station-kyiv People staying in an underground metro station used as a bomb shelter in Kyiv earlier this week. Source: Raphael Lafargue

What are the nuclear risks? 

We received a lot of questions around nuclear weapons and the risk of the war escalating to that level, particularly if Nato countries got involved. 

Russia owns the most nuclear warheads of any country in the world but the US has more deployed or immediately usable warheads. 

The Russian constitution gives the president control over nuclear weapons, but the transmission of any order to use them, and the authentification of that order, also involves the defence minister and the armed forces’ chief-of-staff.

Pavel Podvig, the senior rearcher at the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research, said the risk of nuclear weapons being used is “not zero” but it’s “hard to tell” at the moment. 

His research focuses on nuclear disarmament, arms control and nuclear security.

“We could say that it is really, very unlikely, highly unlikely, but there are ways for this crisis to escalate into a nuclear crisis,” he told The Journal.  

“In all the scenarios we should worry about, a scenario in which Russia uses a nuclear weapon in Ukraine is probably the least possible, the least probable.

“If you look at it from a cold-blooded, military perspective it just doesn’t make any sense. 

And of course there are also political consequences and of course, humanitarian consequences. Of all the unimaginable things that could be out there, this would be the most unimaginable.

In Putin’s pre-invasion speech, the Russian leader said that if other countries tried to interfere in this conflict they would face consequences “as you have never seen in your entire history”. 

“This appears to be a direct reference to nuclear,” Podvig said. 

I do worry about the various scenarios that President Putin had in mind when he said those words, and the problem is that the situation is very uncertain because certain actions, you would think that they are not interference, but who will be making that decision?

That’s what worries me. There is a possibility of misunderstanding, miscommunication and there is also the possibility of an accident, an inadvertent [nuclear] accident.

Russian forces last night seized control of Europe’s largest nuclear power plant after a battle with Ukrainian troops that caused a fire. 

The Ukrainian nuclear regulator said that the fire had been extinguished and no radiation leak had been detected.

shutterstock_2030778947 Cooling towers of Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Station near city Enerhodar, Ukraine. Source: Shutterstock/Ihor Bondarenko

Where are other nuclear fears coming from? 

“The scenarios of nuclear use that I think we should worry about are more along the lines of escalation that leads to a direct conflict between Russia and Nato and then we could imagine a limited use of nuclear weapons targeted at military bases – the consequences of which would be serious,” Pavel Podvig said. 

It is a very unlikely event, and extremely unlikely [that it would escalate further], but the consequences could be truly catastrophic.

He emphasised the perspective that “nuclear weapons should not be part of any conflict”.

“The point should be just that no, they should not be there at all and I would emphasise that Ireland is in fact a party to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons and one of the most active parties to that treaty.”

This is a UN treaty to prohibit nuclear weapons. 

Of course there are people who argue – most of them are in nuclear weapon states – that nuclear weapons are the best thing since sliced bread and nuclear deterrence is needed, but nuclear deterrence doesn’t keep everyone safe.

“They are, in fact, an existential threat and they should be eliminated.” 

Would this attack have happened if Ukraine was in the European Union?

On paper, it may not have made a huge difference if Ukraine was an EU member before the attack. 

UCD’s Ben Tonra said: “The EU does not defend the territorial integrity of its member states, so it does not have a common defence.

“In the union treaties there is what is called a solidarity clause. There is also, to be frank, a mutual defence clause.

“But both of those are qualified in such a way that there’s no obligation on anybody to fight for anybody. There is no common defence as you have in Nato.”

Tonra said that “perhaps it would have made it more difficult” for Putin to invade if Ukraine was in the bloc “because he would have been invading a European Union of which 21 members are in fact Nato members”.

eu-summit-in-kiev-ukraine-08-jul-2019 File image of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in 2019. Source: Sergei Chuzavkov

What would happen if Russia attacked a Nato country? 

The key principle of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato) is that if one or more of members are attacked, it’s considered an attack against all of Nato. 

This principle has only been utilised once after the 9/11 attack in the US. 

Many European countries are in Nato but Ukraine isn’t (nor is Ireland). Other countries like France, Germany, Estonia and Bulgaria are members of the alliance. 

The alliance was formed in 1949 after World War II. The organisation said it is “committed to the peaceful resolution of disputes” but if diplomatic efforts fail, it has the military power to address crises. 

So Russia attacking a Nato country would have huge ramifications, both in Europe and across the world. 

As we said earlier, Putin is against the fact that Nato allowed eastern European countries to join the alliance after the end of the Soviet Union. Ukraine joining Nato is a red line for Russia. 

Has Ukraine tried to join the EU before? 

Ukraine is one of a number of countries currently awaiting a decision on EU membership. Officials have cautioned it would take years of reforms for Ukraine to be able to join the bloc.

Professor of International Relations at UCD Ben Tonra said that Ukraine has been “banging on the door” for EU membership for a long time.

In 2014 Ukraine had previously negotiated a “deep and comprehensive trade agreement” with the EU while “simultaneously negotiating a customs agreement with the Russian Federation”.

“When it came to it, sort of on the eve of signing and deciding, the then-Ukrainian president decided he was not going to sign the European agreement, he was going to stick with the Russian Agreement,” Tonra said. 

There has always been a debate in the European Union as to whether or not Ukraine is fit to join for all kinds of reasons in terms of its economic development.

So the Ukrainian application for the EU wasn’t going anywhere fast ahead of the invasion. 

“People who do EU enlargement will tell you that this is a 10 or 12 year process, at the best of times, never mind in the middle of an invasion.

“Nobody’s going to get special membership to the European Union at like 72 hours notice. That’s not happening,” Tonra said. 

But what you have seen are some of the clear political points from the commission president and from different member states to say, No, you’re one of us. We’re on your side, and we will have you at some point.

Earlier this week, Ukrainian President Zelenskyy urged the European Union to “prove you are with us” 

Zelenskyy, Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal and Ruslan Stefanchuk, the Chairman of the Ukrainian Parliament all signed an application to join the EU earlier this week, saying it was the choice of the Ukrainian people.

President of the European Parliament, Roberta Metsola, said that she welcomed the Ukrainian application to join the EU.

“We will work towards that goal,” said Metsola. “We will and we must stand to face the future together.”

Taoiseach Micheál Martin has said that while he favours an accelerated process for prospective EU members, he is unsure whether Ukraine could join “immediately”. 

So while Ukraine is not a member of the bloc at the moment, the signals are that it may well be in the future. 

What has China said about the invasion?  

xi-jinping-welcomes-vladimir-putin File image of Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin. Source: Roman Pilipey/Pool/Pi

There is growing scrutiny across the world of warming ties between Russia and China. 

President Xi Jinping held a meeting last month with Putin where the pair agreed to a “no limits” partnership.

China has tried to remain cautiously diplomatic since the invasion began to try and balance its core foreign policy line – that a country’s sovereignty is sacrosanct and no other countries should interfere – with support for its close ally Moscow. 

It has called for Russia’s “reasonable” security demands to be heard, repeatedly refusing to condemn Putin’s actions or use the term ‘invasion’, a term Russia has also not said.

In the weeks leading up to the invasion, Chinese state media repeatedly dismissed Western warnings over an invasion as US hype and did not evacuate its citizens from Ukraine. 

The United Nations General Assembly on Wednesday overwhelmingly adopted a resolution condemning Moscow’s invasion, which demanded that Russia “immediately” withdraw from Ukraine.

China was among 35 countries that abstained, while just five – Eritrea, North Korea, Syria, Belarus and Russia – voted against it.

The New York Times reported this week that Chinese officials had asked senior Russian officials not to invade Ukraine before the end of the Winter Olympics in Beijing. China has denied this report, with a foreign ministry spokesman saying it is “complete fake news”. 

Are the sanctions having any impact? 

Countries have issued sanctions against Russia (and Belarus) since the attack.

Belarus has been included in the sanctions after Russia used the country as a base to launch its invasion. 

The EU, UK, Canada and US are the major players to impose sanctions to hurt Russia’s economy. 

They have removed some Russian banks from the Swift banking system and announced restrictive measures on Russia’s central bank. 

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The EU also agreed to supply half a billion euro worth of weapons to Ukraine. Talks about further sanctions are ongoing. 

An expert on economic warfare Gary Hufbauer told AFP recently that Western sanctions will have a significant impact on the Russian economy, but are unlikely to stop the attack.

He has researched cases of sanctions being used over the past century, and said that: “Most of the countries where there was success were smaller countries, weaker countries, not so much bigger countries as in the case of Russia.” 

Is Ukrainian gas and cobalt a significant factor in this invasion?

It’s probably not worth speculating whether Ukrainian natural resources were a motivating factor for the invasion or whether Russia intends to extract them.

What we can say is that despite being the poorest country in Europe, Ukraine has an abundant supply of valuable commodities, particularly metals. That could be bad news for the global economy in the event of a protracted conflict or occupation of the country, which cuts it off from world markets.

The country was among the world’s top 10 producers of iron ore in 2019, according to the US Geological Survey, mining around 62,000 tonnes of the stuff in that year alone.

In 2020, Ukraine was also the world’s eighth-largest producer of uranium — used to achieve fission in nuclear reactors — the World Nuclear Association estimates. 

But it’s the country’s untapped resources that have attracted a lot of attention in recent years.

The New York Times reported this week that Ukraine had last year “started to auction off exploration permits to develop its lithium reserves, as well as copper, cobalt and nickel”.

Used in batteries for electric cars, lithium is a particularly valuable commodity at the moment. (You may recall a controversial tweet by the chief executive of a certain electric car-maker during the 2019 coup in Bolivia, which holds the world’s largest lithium deposits). 

As for natural gas, Ukraine has vast untapped reserves of fossil fuels, according to the International Energy Agency

What would happen in Ireland if Russia stopped exporting gas and oil?

First things first, it’s important to understand that Ireland doesn’t directly import a lot of natural gas or oil from Russia.

About 27% of Irish demand for gas is met with supply from the Corrib gas field, according to Gas Networks Ireland. The other 73% is met with supply from Britain and, in reality, the Irish gas market is just an extension or a “node” in the British one, as Muireann Lynch, an energy economist with the ESRI, told The Journal recently.

As for oil, it’s more difficult to find precise, up-to-date figures.

Ireland imports all of its oil from abroad, about 70% of it in the form of finished petrol and diesel products, according to a 2020 report by the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland (SEAI).

As you can see from the table below, the vast bulk of those imports come from Britain.

screenshot-2022-03-02-at-13-34-12-296x146 Irish oil imports from 2005-2018. Source: SEAI/Eurostat

You can also see from the table that Russia is a large individual supplier to Ireland. But it pales in comparison to the contribution made by Britain to Ireland’s oil supply.

There’s also an element of diversity of supply there that isn’t present when looking at the Irish gas market.

“The UK supplies most of Ireland’s product imports but its share has declined from 93% in 2005 to 64% in 2018, partly because of refinery closures between 2009 and 2014,” the SEAI noted in the report.

Does that mean that Ireland will get off scot-free if Russian energy exports are curbed? Not at all.

While Ireland isn’t directly reliant on Russian energy, Britain and Europe both import a lot of gas and oil from the country. About 40% of European gas comes from Russia and 27% of its oil.

About 44% of British gas demand is met by domestic production and it imports about 47% of its natural gas from Europe, much of that coming through Russian pipelines. It imports 11% of its oil from Russia as well.

So Russian energy plays a large role in setting prices across Europe.

With Europe and America both trying to wean themselves off Russian oil in recent weeks, demand for crude from alternative sources — Norway, the Middle East, North Africa etc — has increased and so have prices. Motorists and transport companies can expect to translate into higher prices at the pump over the coming weeks.

Gas prices, meanwhile, are increasing largely as a result of speculation that gas flows from Russia to Europe could be curbed as a consequence of the war.

So while we’re unlikely to get a situation in Ireland where petrol pumps and pipelines run dry, as Lynch said.

But even though we’re not directly connected to Russia, we are still affected; both on the price side and also on the physical supply side,” she said. 

Is Russia using its embassy in Ireland as an espionage base?

The Journal last week looked at the work of Russian intelligence services in Ireland.

We spoke to a number of security sources, independent of each other, to determine the presence of the GRU and SVR in Ireland. These sources spoke on the basis of anonymity  due to the sensitivity of their roles.  

What we found was that there was a large body of intelligence that Russian espionage agents are located at the embassy

These intelligence agencies include the GRU (its full title is the Main Intelligence Directorate of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation). It is believed also that the SVR, the Foreign Intelligence Service of the Russian Federation, has agents based in Ireland.

Sources said that Irish and international agencies believe that the Irish embassy is used as a communications hub – disseminating information to their agents across Europe.

We also confirmed that activities at the Embassy are being monitored by Irish security officers. 

Sources said that one key Irish government response to the Ukrainian invasion is to find a way to expel the Russian agents. 

These sources believe that this would have a positive impact on dealing a blow to Russian intelligence activities.

Reporting by Orla Dwyer. Additional reporting by Christina Finn, Ian Curran and Niall O’Connor. Edited by Daragh Brophy and Orla Dwyer.

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