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Fierce fighting continues on the Black Sea coast and in Donetsk and Luhansk, while Russia and President Vladimir Putin face growing global condemnation for alleged war crimes. Here’s what you need to know

Near Oleksandriya, Ukraine, May 15: Ukrainian soldiers Yashka and Olga embrace while their convoy makes a stop on its way to the eastern front.Jorge Silva/Reuters

War in Ukraine: Today’s updates

  • Ukrainian counterattacks in the northeast have advanced as far as the Russian border and driven the invading forces from Kharkiv, Ukrainian officials claimed Monday, though wire services could not immediately verify that account. If confirmed, it would be an important reversal in the three-month-old war that has battered Ukraine from the north, south and east.
  • A Canadian-supplied weapon that cost US$20,000 helped turn the tide in a battle near Staryi Saltiv where Ukrainian forces destroyed a $4.5-million T-90M tank, one of Russia’s most advanced armoured vehicles, the local commander told The Globe and Mail.

To learn what you can do for Ukrainians, consult our how-to-help guide.


Situation in Ukraine and Eastern Europe so far


Southern front: Mariupol and the Black Sea

Russia’s Black Sea fleet and its troops in the annexed Crimean Peninsula make up the southern front of the invasion. The heaviest fighting has been in Mariupol, where Ukrainian defenders have held control of the strategic Azovstal steel plant for weeks, but Russians occupy or have destroyed much of the rest of the port city. For now, Russian forces have been ordered not to storm the steel plant, but to encircle it and starve out the defenders.

Pro-Russian troops, including fighters of the Chechen special forces unit, stand in front of the destroyed administration building of the Azovstal steel works on April 21.Chingis Kondarov/Reuters


Eastern front: Donbas

Donbas, an eastern industrial region, has been a conflict zone since 2014, when the pro-Russian “people’s republics” of Donetsk and Luhansk broke away from Ukraine. Russian troops have been busy there since their invasion began on Feb. 24, and in mid-April they concentrated their forces there for an all-out assault described by Ukraine’s President as the “Battle of Donbas.” The fighting there has also spread to nearby Ukrainian cities such as Kharkiv, the country’s second-largest city.

Ukrainian soldiers load bodies on a military truck after a rocket attack in Kramatorsk on April 8.FADEL SENNA/AFP via Getty Images


The Russian attack on Kyiv

Russian troops spent weeks battering Kyiv with rockets, but while the Ukrainian defenders were outnumbered and outgunned, they kept control of the city before Russian troops pulled back from outlying areas in late March. The Ukrainians were horrified to find civilian bodies on the streets of northwestern satellite cities such as Bucha; some bodies showed signs of being tortured, tied up or shot execution-style.

Newly dug graves lie at a cemetery in Bucha on April 28.Zohra Bensemra/Reuters


Northern front: Belarusian border and Chernihiv

Russian troops had been in Ukraine’s northern neighbour, Belarus, on drills before Feb. 24, then began pushing south, aided by Belarusian counterparts in attacks on Chernihiv and other cities. Chernihiv’s siege began to lift in early April as the Russians regrouped; soon, the regional morgue in the city was overwhelmed as hundreds of bodies came in for identification. Ukrainian officials are also in control of the nuclear-waste storage facility on the former site of the Chernobyl power plant; its exclusion zone was invaded by Russian forces in February, but they handed it back in early April.

Yehor, 7, holds a wooden toy rifle next to destroyed Russian military vehicles near Chernihiv on April 17.Evgeniy Maloletka/The Associated Press


Where Ukraine’s refugees are going

More than six million people have fled into neighbouring countries since the invasion began, the United Nations refugee agency estimates, and millions more have been displaced within the country. Most international refugees have gone to Poland, either to stay or to pass through to other European countries. There have been smaller flows of refugees to Hungary, Moldova, Slovakia and Romania; many have even gone to the aggressor countries, Russia and Belarus.

More coverage: Refugees in Poland

Warsaw’s mayor pleads for international help with refugees

Children struggle to process war’s traumas in Poland

Africans and Asians fleeing Ukraine subjected to racial discrimination by border guards

More coverage: Refugees in Moldova

The Decibel: Ukrainian refugees find help in tiny neighbouring Moldova

Moldova vows to seek closer ties with Europe despite fears of provoking Russia

Western sanctions and the SWIFT ban explained

Demonstrators in London on Feb. 26 call on Russia to be banned from the Swift banking system.TOLGA AKMEN/AFP via Getty Images

Russian banks cut off from SWIFT

To punish Russia for its actions, western countries agreed on Feb. 26 to use what could be called a weapon of mass financial destruction: Excluding some Russian banks from SWIFT. The full name of the Belgian-based network is the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication; without it, banks can’t exchange records of payments received or issued, so trading goods internationally becomes much harder. Russia and China each have their own, much smaller equivalents to SWIFT.

Russia’s central bank under pressure

Russia has amassed a lot of foreign currency assets since 2014, but on Feb. 27 the West put new restrictions on how it might use them to undermine sanctions. The Russian central bank is now forbidden from buying rubles on international markets to boost the currency’s external value, which could accelerate Russian inflation and hobble its exports. Russian sovereign debt is also off-limits to Canadian and U.S. investors, making it harder for Moscow to raise money via bonds.

Western economic sanctions against Russia

Before and since the invasion, the United States, Canada, Britain and the European Union each stepped up their sanctions on Russian institutions and individuals. Major changes so far include:

  • Canada is charging a 35-per-cent duty on all Russian and Belarusian imports.
  • Canada and the United States have barred imports of Russian crude oil, which accounted for less than 2 per cent of Canadian oil imports in 2020 and 8 per cent of U.S. imports in 2021.
  • Canada will no longer approve export permits for controlled technology to Russia, and has cancelled existing permits.
  • Western companies can’t do business with the Donetsk or Luhansk republics.
  • Countries have expanded their lists of Russian individuals forbidden from doing business with the West.
  • Overseas assets belonging to Mr. Putin and his foreign minister are frozen.

How is Canada’s military involved in Ukraine?

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau inspects troops at Adazi Military Base in Kadaga, Latvia, in 2018.Roman Koksarov/The Associated Press

Canada was the first western state to recognize Ukraine’s independence in 1991, and relations have been strong since. Not so with Russia, whose annexation of Crimea was strongly denounced by Ottawa at the time. Over the years, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his No. 2, Chrystia Freeland – an MP of Ukrainian descent whose work in the 1980s with Ukraine’s independence movement made her persona non grata in the USSR – have offered Kyiv various kinds of military resources and training. But if you’re expecting to see Canadian troops in active combat against the Russians, that’s looking less and less likely; here’s what you’re likely to see instead.

Military aid to Ukraine
  • Canada has approved three shipments of military gear to Ukraine so far, including lethal weapons (such as machine guns, sniper rifles and ammunition) and protective gear (such as helmets and night-vision goggles).
  • Canada is sending Ukraine 100 Carl Gustav anti-tank weapon systems and 2,000 rockets; 4,500 M72 rocket launchers; and 7,500 hand grenades.
  • Canada is giving Ukraine $1-million for access to high-resolution satellite images, allowing them to better track the Russians’ movements.
  • In January, Mr. Trudeau extended Operation Unifier, a military training mission in Ukraine, for three more years. Canadian troops in Ukraine were later moved to Poland as the risks of invasion grew.
Canadian military deployments in Latvia

Operation Reassurance, a multinational NATO mission to shore up Eastern Europe against Russian aggression, is currently Canada’s largest military commitment abroad. On Feb. 22, the Trudeau government announced more gunners, a second frigate and a long-range patrol aircraft to be sent to Latvia, where Canada is leading a 10-country battle group. Up to 3,400 more Canadian troops are on standby if they are needed for NATO missions in Europe, Defence Minister Anita Anand said on Feb. 24.

Canadians in Ukraine’s international legion

While Canada has said it’s not safe for Canadians to go to Ukraine, it also isn’t forbidding them from joining the “international legion” Ukraine has organized, if that is their choice.

Russia’s nuclear rhetoric

Russian nuclear forces launch an ICBM is during exercises on Feb. 19 in an unknown location in Russia.Russian Defence Ministry via REUTERS

Mr. Putin’s threats against Ukraine hit a disturbing note on Feb. 27, when he said Russia’s nuclear forces would go on a “special regime of combat duty,” an unusually worded order that left defence analysts guessing whether Mr. Putin would really use atomic weapons, and against whom. In April, Russia’s tests of its nuclear-capable Sarmat ballistic missiles raised further international concerns.

Nuclear alert levels are, in theory, a signal from military commanders to troops about how ready they should be to fire at short notice. The U.S. alert system, DEFCON, is a five-point scale with DEFCON 5 between the lowest state of readiness, and DEFCON 1 an imminent or actual nuclear war. But in Cold War times the alerts were more often a kind of rhetorical deterrent to other countries, something to make the enemy less likely to strike first – which is what Mr. Putin might be doing to persuade the United States and Europe to stay out of Ukraine.

Ukraine was once home to roughly a third of the USSR’s nuclear arsenal, but after 1991 the newly independent Ukrainians, Belarusians and other states either destroyed the weapons or returned them to Russia. Belarus’s constitution forbade it from having such weapons again, but that changed this past Feb. 27 after a referendum organized by President Alexander Lukashenko, an autocratic Putin ally. He’s threatened to ask Russia to arm Belarus if the West does the same with NATO states such as Poland or the Baltic countries.

Russia vs. Ukraine and NATO: How we got here

A demonstrator in Kyiv holds a placard of Russian President Vladimir Putin reading 'murderer' on Jan. 9.Valentyn Ogirenko/Reuters

Nov. 2021 - present: Military buildup and diplomatic gridlock

Tensions on the Ukrainian frontier began to escalate late last year, when Mr. Putin moved tens of thousands of soldiers into the region. It was his latest move in a years-long effort to deter Ukraine from joining the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, a 30-country alliance that, since the mid-2010s, has resisted Russia’s expansion of influence into Europe.

The Kremlin’s list of demands from NATO and its most powerful member, the United States, sought guarantees that Ukraine would be left out of the alliance and included in a Russian “sphere of influence” of ex-Soviet tates. The West didn’t give in to these demands, and offers of other military agreements failed to mollify Moscow.

FILE - People wave Russian flags in Donetsk on Feb. 21 celebrating Russia's recognition of its independence.Alexei Alexandrov/The Associated Press

Feb. 21, 2022: Putin’s Donbas declaration

Ukraine’s eastern industrial heartland has been a conflict zone since 2014, when pro-Russian separatists seized power and declared two breakaway states in the provinces, or oblasts, of Donetsk and Luhansk. A 2015 peace deal made the fighting less intense, but skirmishes continued with no progress on a political settlement with the rebels. Russia accused Ukraine of flouting the deal by accepting weapons and training from the West – hence Mr. Putin’s demands to remove NATO forces. Then, Mr. Putin said Moscow would recognize Donetsk and Luhansk as independent states and deploy a “peacekeeping” force there, which, in Kyiv’s view, amounted to an invasion and an act of war.

Dec. 2021 - present: Nord Stream 2 standoff

The fate of a Russian natural-gas pipeline, Nord Stream 2, was also tied up in the Ukraine conflict. The US$11-billion undersea conduit was still waiting on German and European Union approval when tensions with Russia first escalated. The Ukrainians, Poles and Americans were against it, arguing it would give Mr. Putin leverage to withhold gas if Europe – which is facing a gas shortage this winter – didn’t do what he wanted. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, who took office in December, had supported the project as finance minister to Angela Merkel, but once the Russians made their move into Donbas he suspended the approval process.

Europe’s gas pipelines

Gas pipelines

Entry stations

RUSSIA

Nord Stream 2

NETH.

Yamal

BRITAIN

Sudzha

Mallnow

BEL.

POLAND

UKRAINE

Sokhranovka

FRANCE

CZECH REP.

Russia exports around

16 billion cubic feet

per day (bcfd) of

natural gas to Europe

ITALY

TURKEY

GRAphic news, Sources: BP Review of world

energy; Reuters

Europe’s gas pipelines

Gas pipelines

Entry stations

RUSSIA

Nord Stream 2

NETH.

Yamal

BRITAIN

Sudzha

Mallnow

BEL.

POLAND

UKRAINE

Sokhranovka

FRANCE

CZECH REP.

Russia exports around

16 billion cubic feet

per day (bcfd) of

natural gas to Europe

ITALY

TURKEY

GRAphic news, Sources: BP Review of world

energy; Reuters

Europe’s gas pipelines

Gas pipelines

Entry stations

Nord Stream 2

RUSSIA

NETH.

Yamal

BRITAIN

Sudzha

Mallnow

BEL.

GERMANY

POLAND

UKRAINE

Sokhranovka

CZECH REP.

FRANCE

ITALY

Russia exports around 16 billion

cubic feet per day (bcfd) of

natural gas to Europe

TURKEY

GRAphic news, Sources: BP Review of world energy; Reuters

The national question and Russia and Ukraine’s fraught history

Ukrainians light candles in Kyiv this past November at a monument to victims of the Soviet-era famine of 1932-33, in which millions died.GENYA SAVILOV/AFP via Getty Images

Russians and Ukrainians are East Slavic peoples with a common cultural ancestry, but also a long legacy of one group exploiting the other. Ukrainians were ruled by Czarist Russia from the 18th to early 20th centuries; broke away from the collapsing Russian Empire from 1917 to 1921, only to be absorbed into the Soviet Union; then became independent again when the union collapsed in the 1990s.

Mr. Putin – who grew up in the USSR and worked for its feared intelligence agency, the KGB – doesn’t think either of Ukraine’s breaks with Russia really count as independence. In the revisionist history he laid out in his Feb. 21 speech, the Bolshevik revolution of 1917 was what created the first Ukrainian republic, not the will of Ukrainians themselves, and the collapse of “historical Russia” in 1991 was a tragedy. “Ukraine never had a tradition of genuine statehood,” he said to justify his policy of keeping the country within a Russian orbit, whether it wants that or not.

This is not how Kyiv or its allies see the past or future of Ukraine. Since 2014, when a popular uprising ousted Ukraine’s pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych, Ukraine has moved closer to the West, and has taken steps toward membership in not just NATO but the European Union. President Volodymyr Zelensky appealed for Russians’ acceptance of their independence in a Feb. 23 address, in his native Russian. “Neighbours always enrich each other culturally; however, that doesn’t make them a single whole, it doesn’t dissolve us into you,” he said. “We are different, but that is not a reason to be enemies.”

The Russia-Ukraine conflict: More from The Globe and Mail

ANDREJ IVANOV/AFP via Getty Images

Resources to understand and help Ukraine

Crowdfunding links and tips on avoiding disinformation

Books that go beyond the headlines on Ukraine's past

How teachers are helping students make sense of Russia’s invasion

Backstory

Mark MacKinnon: How 20 years of covering Ukraine prepared me for this war

Marcus Gee: Putin, in his own words, told us long ago that Russia would invade Ukraine

Michael Ignatieff: From Hungary in 1956 to Ukraine in 2022, Russia has tried to crush the people’s will – and failed


With reports from Mark MacKinnon, Nathan VanderKlippe, Paul Waldie, Janice Dickson, Eric Reguly, Steven Chase, The Associated Press and Reuters

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