Why is Russia invading Ukraine and what does Putin want?

Watch: Missile strikes, tanks and buildings destroyed in Kyiv

By air, land, and sea, Russia has launched a devastating attack on Ukraine, a European democracy of 44 million people, and its forces are on the outskirts of the capital, Kyiv.

For months, President Vladimir Putin denied he would invade his neighbour, but then he tore up a peace deal, sending forces across borders in Ukraine’s north, east and south.

As the number of dead climbs, he stands accused of shattering peace in Europe. What happens next could jeopardise the continent’s entire security structure.

Why have Russian troops attacked?

Russian troops are advancing on Ukraine’s capital from several directions after Russia’s leader ordered the invasion. In a pre-dawn TV address on 24 February, he declared Russia could could not feel “safe, develop and exist” because of what he claimed was a constant threat from modern Ukraine.

Airports and military headquarters were hit first, near cities across Ukraine, then tanks and troops rolled into Ukraine from the north, east and south – from Russia and its ally Belarus.

Many of President Putin’s arguments were false or irrational. He claimed his goal was to protect people subjected to bullying and genocide and aim for the “demilitarisation and de-Nazification” of Ukraine. There has been no genocide in Ukraine: it is a vibrant democracy, led by a president who is Jewish.

“How could I be a Nazi?” said Volodymr Zelensky, who likened Russia’s onslaught to Nazi Germany’s invasion in World War Two.

Map showing Russian advance
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President Putin has frequently accused Ukraine of being taken over by extremists, ever since its pro-Russian president, Viktor Yanukovych, was ousted in 2014 after months of protests against his rule.

Russia then retaliated by seizing the southern region of Crimea and triggering a rebellion in the east, backing separatists who have fought Ukrainian forces in a war that has claimed 14,000 lives.

Late in 2021, Russia began deploying big numbers of troops close to Ukraine’s borders, while repeatedly denying it was going to attack. Then Mr Putin scrapped a 2015 peace deal for the east and recognised areas under rebel control as independent.

Russia has long resisted Ukraine’s move towards the European Union and the West’s defensive military alliance, Nato. Announcing Russia’s invasion, he accused Nato of threatening “our historic future as a nation”.

How far will Russia go?

It is now clear that Russia is seeking to overthrow Ukraine’s democratically elected government. Its aim is that Ukraine be freed from oppression and “cleansed of the Nazis”.

President Zelensky said he had been warned “the enemy has designated me as target number one; my family is target number two”.

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This false narrative of a Ukraine seized by fascists in 2014 has been spun regularly on Kremlin-controlled TV. Mr Putin has spoken of bringing to court “those who committed numerous bloody crimes against civilians”.

What Russia’s plans are for Ukraine are unknown, but it faces stiff resistance from a deeply hostile population.

In January, the UK accused Moscow of plotting to install a pro-Moscow puppet to lead Ukraine’s government – a claim rejected at the time by Russia as nonsense. One unconfirmed intelligence report suggested Russia aimed to split the country in two.

In the days before the invasion, when up to 200,000 troops were near Ukraine’s borders, Russia’s public focus was purely on the eastern areas of Luhansk and Donetsk.

By recognizing the separatist areas controlled by Russian proxies as independent, Mr Putin was telling the world they were no longer part of Ukraine. Then he revealed that he supported their claims to far more Ukrainian territory.

The self-styled people’s republics cover little more than a third of the whole of Ukraine’s Luhansk and Donetsk regions, but the rebels covet the rest, too.

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