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August 24th, Independence Day in Ukraine. The country is celebrating its independence from the former Soviet Union, 31 years ago. This Wednesday, however, also marks exactly six months since Russia started the war in Ukraine by invading its neighbour. After a televised speech, Russian president Vladimir Putin ordered tens of thousands of Russian troops into Ukraine in what he has so far referred to as a "special military operation" - in fact, an invasion unprecedented in Europe since the Second World War. Since then, it has been grim. Thousands of people have died, millions have fled their towns and others who have stayed have watched as their homes and communities have been completely destroyed by bombing and violence.

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Ukraine's president, Volodymyr Zelensky / Europa Press

For weeks, Russia denied intending to invade Ukraine 

For weeks, Russia strenuously denied that it was planning military action against Ukraine. Putin reassured world leaders, while many analysts and experts saw it as impossible that a large-scale invasion would be attempted. However, on February 24th, everything changed. At the time, Putin asserted that he sought to "disarm" Kyiv from the "nationalists" and halt NATO expansion. The Russian autocrat's original plan was to storm the capital as quickly as possible. Ukrainian soldiers, however, inflicted heavy losses on Russian paratroopers and destroyed an airstrip near the capital. Columns of tanks were seen approaching Kyiv. But later they retreated.

The expectation, as people took refuge in metro stations of the major cities, was that the president of the country, Volodymyr Zelensky, would leave the country, but he himself said that he would not. "Good morning," he said in a video filmed on his mobile phone on the third day of the war. Videos that have had an on-going protagonism in the war. In fact, Zelensky's own look and military aesthetic, since the beginning of the war, has been a symbol of resistance.

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Street in the city of Butxa, after the witthdrawl of Russian troops / Efe

Refugees and the gates of hell

While Russia bombarded the second city of Kharkiv and committed massacres like those in Butxa or Borodianka, millions of people fled their homes. In fact, the United Nations has described this refugee crisis as the fastest growing in generations. More than 6.6 million refugees have been registered across Europe. Most have gone to neighbouring countries. It should also be remembered that Kyiv banned men between the ages of 18 and 60 from leaving the country, requiring them to stay and, if called on, to fight. Meanwhile, in the first weeks of the war, the city of Mariúpol was converted into a hell on earth. On March 9th, Russia bombed its maternity hospital. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe has described it as a war crime, according to Reuters. A few days later, the city's theatre, which was being used as shelter for hundreds of people, was also bombed, even though "Дети" (children) had been painted boldly on the asphalt outside. After falling to the Russians in June, electricity has not yet been restored to the city and it functions only in certain areas. Nor is there drinking water, and the residents trapped there have to do their best to survive. The humanitarian aid delivered is not enough and every day sees queues for basic needs in the streets. In recent reports, people say they are living on a diet of flour patties.

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Refugees fleeing Mariúpol / Efe

Mariupol fell when the massive steelworks of Azovstal fell. For weeks, soldiers were trapped in the Azovstal works. Eventually, they surrendered and were captured by the Russians. From this moment on, communications with the prisoners have been complicated. Zelensky fears, in fact, that the symbolism of this Wednesday could be used to precipitate Russian actions in relation to the factory prisoners. For the anniversary, he thinks Russia might begin a trial for the prisoners. This would, say Ukrainian authorities, destroy any faint possibility of peace talks and sitting down to negotiate. Moscow pledged to treat the prisoners according to the Geneva Conventions, but has so far refused to exchange them. Reuters recalls that on July 29th, dozens of defenders of the factory were killed while in the custody of pro-Russian forces in a fiery explosion that occurred in the prison where they were being held. Kyiv calls it a war crime.

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The Azovstal steelworks / Efe

"Russian warship, fuck off"

The first few hours of the Russian invasion of Ukraine were dramatic. The Russian warship Moskva radioed Ukrainian guards located on the strategic Snake Island in the Black Sea. They were ordered to surrender or die. One of the soldiers replied "Russian warship, fuck off." The phrase went viral and became popular, being used on stamps and coffee packets, among other things. In fact, it has become a national slogan. Finally, the Moskva ended up sinking in April.

How the war strategy changed

After several weeks of attempting a generalised invasion of Ukraine, the Russians saw that taking Kyiv was not as easy as they had expected. In this context, in early April, Putin ordered troop withdrawls from the north, and redeployment to concentrate on another hot spot: the Donbass. This southeastern region of Ukraine has been living with war since 2014, the year that Russia captured Crimea from Ukraine while also arming and supporting pro-Russian forces in Donetsk and Luhansk, a conflict that hardened into an eight year stalemate. But in the Russian army movements from April onwards, what Moscow sought was to cut its losses in other parts of Ukraine and consolidate its efforts on securing the Donbass and the Black Sea coastal regions. Ukraine wants, however, to recover the territory in the south of the country, and is trying to make the key port city of Odessa secure.

Last weekend, a new issue has arisen that could mark a further complication in the war: the explosion of the vehicle of Putin ally Alexander Dugin, which killed his daughter, Daria Dugina. Ukraine asserts it had nothing to do with it, but on Monday, the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) attributed the authorship of Saturday's attack to Ukraine. "The crime was prepared and executed by the Ukrainian special services," the FSB said in a statement. They claim that the attack was perpetrated by a Ukrainian citizen identified as Natalia Vovk, 43 years old who, according to Russian authorities, arrived in Russia on June 23rd with her 12-year-old daughter and rented an apartment in the same building where Dugina resided, before fleeing to Estonia through the Pskov region after allegedly committing the crime. Ukraine has distanced itself from the incident. But whoever is telling the truth, the consequences of the action could mark a turning point in the war. Meanwhile, Kyiv has been waiting to see how Russia might act during its Independence Day. Zelenski has warned this week of actions that the Kremlin could carry out on such a red-letter day.

How long might the war in Ukraine last?

At present, there is no possibility of a ceasefire to be able to negotiate the situation, and much less to start peace talks. Ukrainians, as France 24 points out, believe they are in an existential struggle to defend a nation that Putin dismisses as a historical fallacy. Putin, however, continues to allege that his invasion was about the country's "denazification" as well as resistance to an expansionist NATO.

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Russian president Vladímir Putin / Efe

No-one expected the Ukrainian army to put up so much resistance. However, a key factor has been the arrival of military equipment as well as intelligence support from Europe and the United States, which has allowed Ukrainian forces to punch above their weight. Ukrainian resistance have also caused the Russian troops to be slowed down in their efforts to finish their conquest of the Donbass. But they haven't been stopped. Russia is consolidating its positions as well as increasing military presence in Crimea. Zelenski has asked for more and more sophisticated weapons, although his latest requests have not yet been granted.

As August comes to an end, autumn arrives and winter beckons. The arrival of the cold will also be a test of fire for the Ukrainians, both in terms of military performance as well as the country's lack of fuel. In addition, the director of the European Council of Foreign Relations, Marie Dumoulin, has stated that 40% of the country's schools will remain closed. A fact that was not planned and that could lead to psychological consequences, highlights France 24. The same broadcaster points out other problems: if the conflict continues into 2023, the evolution of the war will also depend heavily on the support of the West, and in particular, on how the peoples of Europe and North America react to the major increases in fuel and food prices that are already provoking protests and economic hardships. So far, however, there is nothing to suggest that Zelensky would agree to negotiate on anything less than a full recovery of Ukrainian territory - including Crimea.


Main image: a Russian soldier at the Azovstal works in Mariúpol / Efe