Will Putin Get His World War III?

Vladimir Putin at the Olympic Opening ceremony
Photo by Anthony Wallace/Getty Images
Julia Ioffe
February 22, 2022

Who would’ve thought that Vladimir Putin was so into numerology and anniversaries. On August 8, 2008—08/08/08—he invaded Georgia. Shortly after midnight in Moscow, on February 22, 2022—02/22/22—he sent troops (“peacekeepers,” in the Kremlin parlance) into the Donbas region of Ukraine after recognizing the independence of the two breakaway “people’s republics” of Donetsk and Luhansk. It also marked the day, exactly eight years ago, that Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych fled Ukraine (with Putin’s help) after ordering his troops to open fire on the protestors in Kyiv’s Maidan, killing over 100 people. 

That day in 2014 was a turning point. For Ukrainians, it was a day of celebration: what they called “the Revolution of Dignity” had triumphed. The old, corrupt, pro-Moscow regime was out and a new era of hope, good governance, and Westernization seemed to have dawned. (Not all these dreams would pan out, as corruption and political squabbling continued and even deepened.) 

For Putin, February 22, 2014 was a much darker day. He would forever after call what happened an “anti-government coup.” He saw it as a repeat of the Orange Revolution of 2004, another successful regime change in Kyiv, which, in his view, could only have been orchestrated by the C.I.A. and the State Department. Almost immediately after that day, Putin launched his first invasion of Ukraine. He sent “little green men”—Russian soldiers without any identifying insignia—into Crimea, whipped up some astroturf pro-Russia protests, held a quick and dirty “referendum,” and annexed the peninsula. At the same time, “volunteers” and Russian military personnel ostensibly on vacation from active duty started showing up in the Russian-speaking east of Ukraine, seizing government buildings and starting a separatist war. The conflict eventually led to separatists (with help from the FSB) accidentally shooting down Malaysian Airlines flight 17 and killing all 298 civilians on board. Ever since, the two separatist republics, the LPR and DPR, have existed in a militarized limbo, cut off from Ukraine but not part of Russia and not recognized as real countries by anyone in the world.