Russia's Ambassador to U.S. Reveals Why Ukraine War Began, How It Could End

A month and a half into Russia's war in Ukraine, Moscow's envoy to Washington has outlined to Newsweek his country's reasoning for launching what it has deemed a "special military operation" against its neighbor, and detailed the demands that, if satisfied, could end the conflict involving Europe's two largest countries.

And as Kyiv (spelled Kiev by Russia) accused the Kremlin of conducting "war crimes" to the extent of "genocide," Russia's ambassador to the United States, Anatoly Antonov, argued it was Ukraine's alleged ethnic cleansing, along with its bid to join the U.S.-led NATO Western military alliance, that fueled the war.

"The special operation in Ukraine is the result of the unwillingness of the Kiev regime to stop the genocide of Russians by fulfilling its obligations under the international commitments," Antonov told Newsweek. "The desire of the NATO member states to use the territory of a neighboring state to establish a foothold in the struggle against Russia is also obvious."

Antonov's argument, one that reflects that of the Russian government, runs contrary to that of Ukraine and its foreign backers, including the U.S., which has deemed the conflict the result of an "unprovoked and unjustified invasion" ordered by Russian President Vladimir Putin. Kyiv and Washington see the incursion as an escalation of Moscow's initial intervention in 2014.

The senior Russian diplomat also said the events of February 24 had roots eight years earlier, when the uprising known to its supporters as the Euromaidan toppled a Ukrainian government with close ties to Moscow and put into power a pro-West administration seeking closer ties with NATO and the European Union.

But to Russia, Antonov said that the revolution was a "bloody coup d'état instigated by the West" in which "ultranationalist ideas came to power in Kiev." He said that policies viewed by Moscow as hostile such as the removal of Russian as a national language and the rehabilitation of nationalist Ukrainian figures such as Stepan Bandera, who collaborated with Nazi Germany during World War II, had "taken root in Ukraine under external administration."

As unrest first gripped Ukraine in 2014, Russian forces quickly seized Crimea with the stated goal of protecting the Black Sea peninsula's ethnic Russian majority and, around this time, pro-Moscow separatists took up arms, proclaiming the breakaway Donetsk and Luhansk (spelled Lugansk by Russia) People's Republics in the eastern region of Donbas (spelled Donbass by Russia).

Tensions spiraled into all-out fighting between Kyiv and the rebels, killing up to 14,000 people, including civilian casualties that both sides blame the other for inflicting. Two ceasefire attempts known as the Minsk Agreements were reached but bloodshed persisted amid dueling accusations of violations.

Antonov argued that it was the "nationalist frenzy and revanchist sentiments of the Kiev regime" that resulted in the effective death of the Minsk deals as Ukraine chose "the path of rapid militarization" with help from abroad.

"The NATO member countries have commenced a military exploration of Ukraine," Antonov said. "It was flooded with Western weaponry while President Vladimir Zelensky announced Kiev's plans to acquire nuclear weapons which would threaten not only neighboring countries, but also the entire world."

While Ukrainian officials have repeatedly denied any plans to develop nuclear weapons and the United Nations' atomic agency has also dismissed the argument, President Zelensky (who spells his first name Volodymyr) did question Kyiv's non-nuclear status at a speech delivered at the Munich Security Conference just days before the Russian incursion.

At this point, Russia had amassed nearly 200,000 personnel along Ukraine's borders, including in neighboring Belarus and Crimea. Antonov argued, however, that it was Ukraine that had gathered its forces in preparation for an attack on the rebel states in Donbas, something Kyiv has denied.

"In this context, Russia had no other choice but to recognize the independence of the Donetsk and Lugansk People's Republics," Antonov said. "Then, in accordance with Chapter VII, Article 51 of the U.N. Charter, with the authorization of the Federation Council of Russia and in execution of the Treaties of Friendship and Mutual Assistance with the Donetsk People's Republic and the Lugansk People's Republic, President of the Russian Federation Vladimir Putin made a decision to begin a special military operation."

"Its aim is to demilitarize and denazify Ukraine in order to reduce military threats posed by the Western states that are trying to use the fraternal Ukrainian people in the struggle against the Russians," he added.

Ukraine, Borodyanka, war, Russia, April, 2022
An aerial view taken on Friday shows diggers working in the rubble of collapsed buildings in the town of Borodyanka, northwest of Kyiv. Ukraine has accused Russia of killing civilians, some execution style, though Moscow has rejected these claims, arguing that far-right forces have hijacked the Ukrainian military, staging atrocities of their own. RONALDO SCHEMIDT/AFP/Getty Images

The goal of the operation, Antonov said, "is to put an end to the genocide perpetrated by the Kiev regime and ensure a nuclear-free and neutral status of Ukraine."

At a time when Ukraine, and a growing number of its foreign partners, including U.S. President Joe Biden, were calling for Russian forces, including Putin to face trial for the war, Antonov said Moscow achieving its aims "requires concluding the hostilities that have been taking place since 2014 as well as bringing to trial those who committed a large number of bloody crimes against civilians, including against citizens of the Russian Federation."

And he dispelled speculation of a plan to exert control over Ukraine in the long term, saying "the occupation of Ukraine is not the goal of the special operation."

He also rejected Ukrainian allegations that Russians were responsible for targeting civilians, such as in Bucha, where hundreds of civilians were reportedly found slaughtered, some execution-style, days after Russia withdrew from the city. Antonov had previously told Newsweek that grisly scenes of massacres were conducted by Ukrainian forces that entered Bucha shortly before news of the mass killings emerged in international media.

"The Russian Federation is taking the necessary measures to preserve life and safety of civilians," Antonov said. "We do everything to maintain the normal functioning of critical infrastructure facilities, to ensure law and order and the security of people. The strikes are made only on military targets and exclusively with high-precision weapons."

Such strikes were claimed Friday by the Russian Defense Ministry to have "destroyed weapons and military equipment arriving in Donbass at Pokrovsk, Slavyanskk and Barvenkovo." Russia has since denied a missile strike against the Kramatorsk station, blaming it instead on Ukrainian forces, which have counted up to 50 dead in what they say was one of their foe's deadliest attacks on civilians to date.

Washington has backed Kyiv's assessment of the incident as the Biden administration and its European allies vowed to send more military assistance to Ukraine. Antonov warned such aid only worsened the conflict and could potentially lead to a direct conflict between the U.S. and Russia.

"Western states are directly involved in the current events as they continue to pump Ukraine with weapons and ammunitions, thereby inciting further bloodshed," Antonov said.

"We warn that such actions are dangerous and provocative as they are directed against our state," he added. "They can lead the U.S. and the Russian Federation onto the path of direct military confrontation. Any supply of weapons and military equipment from the West, performed by transport convoys through the territory of Ukraine, is a legitimate military target for our Armed Forces."

Antonov also reiterated Russian accusations that the Pentagon had engaged in potentially illicit biological research activities in Ukraine, the result of a 2005 agreement that laid the groundwork for joint bio-research. He asked, "What does the Pentagon have to do with health issues? Why are biolaboratories established along Russian borders—thousands of kilometers away from the American territory?"

Last month, a State Department spokesperson confirmed to Newsweek the presence of "Ukrainian diagnostic and biodefense laboratories" but emphasized that these "are not biological weapons facilities" and instead "counter biological threats throughout the country."

Conflicting narratives have been a central tenet of the war in Ukraine, as both sides sought to dominate the information space with their respective claims.

But as Antonov accused the West of "demonizing our country," he asserted that "the policy of our country is based on the right for all the peoples living today in the Ukrainian territory to choose their own future."

"Together we need to get rid of the nationalists who seized power in Kiev as soon as possible, turn this tragic page and move forward to build mutually respectful and equal relations," he added.

Russia, special, military, operation, Z, symbol, Ukraine
A Russian soldier paints the "Z" that has come to symbolize the country's "special military operation" in Ukraine on military vehicles in this still from footage published in March by the Russian Defense Ministry. Russian Ministry of Defense

In a bid to bring the conflict to an end, representatives of Kyiv and Moscow have engaged in multiple rounds of negotiations, the first of which took place in Belarus just days into the war and the latest of which have taken place in Turkey.

Antonov explained what Russia seeks from these talks.

"Our principled position regarding the settlement of the conflict has been clearly defined," Antonov said, "including the demand for an unconditional consideration of Russia's security interests, the demilitarization and denazification of the Ukrainian state, ensuring its neutral and non-nuclear status as well as the recognition of Russian sovereignty over Crimea and the independence of the Donetsk and Lugansk People's Republics."

Zelensky and his administration have expressed an openness to ending Ukraine's NATO aspirations, and formally forgoing any nuclear plans. But territorial concessions have proven a more arduous area of contention as the Ukrainian government still considers Crimea and the entirely of the Donbas region to be part of the country's territory, a position backed by the international community.

Nonetheless, Antonov said Moscow sought to bring the conflict to a close at an early date.

He told Newsweek that "Russia is doing everything possible to negotiate a path to the prompt completion of the confrontation, the restoration of peace in Donbas and the return of all the peoples of Ukraine to peaceful life."

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