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Russia has invaded Ukraine, marking the start of the largest conflict on European soil in decades. When Putin invaded Crimea in 2014, commentators spoke with shock and disdain over how he was acting like an 18th century man in the 21st century era of neo-liberal globalization. Putin’s more recent decision to invade all of Ukraine is a stark reminder to policy makers and scholars alike that power is still the driving force behind geopolitics, and the ultimate exercise of power is military force. As Putin rebels against the arc of history that many believed would “civilize” leaders like him and slowly shape them to the modern era, the world looks on and waits to see if Putin emerges as the bold brilliant leader of a resurgent Russia or as a fool who overplayed a potentially winning hand with needlessly catastrophic consequences for the people of Ukraine.
For months, media pundits and policy analysts have been warning of this event and debating its significance with bombastic fervor that has clouded attempts at rational dialogue about the situation surrounding Ukraine, Russia and the potential ramifications of invasion. This isn’t surprising, as the Russian invasion of the second largest country in Europe forces people to grapple with a form of geopolitics dominated by balance of power considerations. Instead of friction over concerns of economic parity and human rights, the fault lines here are drawn along lines of ideology and national identity, a stark contrast to the neo-liberal world view that dominates much of western foreign policy. A key part of neo-liberalism is the belief that globalization and economic interdependence would make violence between industrialized nations prohibitively costly and irrational. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union wars between nations have been seen as aberrations to be curtailed through proper policy coordination among responsible nations, rather than a legitimate, if violent, negotiation tactic among states.
If Not NATO, Then What?
In the media the growing tension surrounding Ukraine has been framed as a dispute arising from Ukraine’s potential admission into NATO making Russia nervous about its security. Putin’s recent comments in several speeches make it clear however that this is not that case. Putin has long viewed Russia as a great power that has been wrongly relegated to a second and then third tier status among important nations, due to both a series of unfortunate circumstances throughout the 20th century and the mistakes of his predecessors who too easily gave up territory and standing in the name of “developing” into a modern nation.
His revisionist take on history where he denies Ukraine’s historical separation from Russia due to its long dominance by the Russian empire indicates that he has decided to act not out of a rationally calculated security concern driven by the potential encroachment of NATO, but as a rebellion against the arc of history that the neo-liberal worldview believes makes such moves among the economically interdependent industrialized “modern” world a thing of the past. Evidence of this can be seen in the level of risk Putin has accepted to play his gambit.
It’s hard to overstate how much of a gamble Putin has taken with his invasion. As much as pundits and analysts will seek to debate how America or various European nations could have pursued different policy options to dissuade invasion, it must be acknowledged that Putin was sent a clear series of signals that an invasion of Ukraine would make him and Russia economic and diplomatic pariahs, with potentially crippling consequences for Russia’s already fragile economy.
Having communicated to his population repeatedly that he was not planning invading, he has had numerous opportunities to claim a series of small, but significant diplomatic victories and not risk a single Russian life or ruble on military adventurism fraught with danger and whose outcome is impossible to predict even in the most lopsided of contests. In any calculation it is hard to see how the seizure of Ukraine’s various natural resources and economic infrastructure will make up for the losses Russia is likely to incur by invading. Focusing on the perceived “errors” of western political leaders of any kind ignores the level of agency Putin and Russia feel entitled to act with within Eastern Europe, or how much agency the Ukrainian nation is willing to exercise in response.
Putin’s Odds of “Success”
Ukraine’s President has pledged an all-out defense against Russian aggression and has a much better trained and equipped military than in 2014 when Russia invaded Crimea and fomented rebellion in Donbas. However, in a straight up fight, Russia clearly has enough military power to defeat the Ukrainian military and occupy most if not all of the country. The questions that need to be asked however are how quickly and at what cost?
Russia’s mechanized battalions are designed to move quickly and effectively employ artillery and air power to mass combat power where needed to pulverize or bypass hardened defenses. However, they also rely on armored vehicles for firepower and mobility, which are extremely vulnerable to man portable anti-tank missile systems. America has been flooding the Ukrainian military with Javelin missile systems, which were purpose built to destroy Russian tanks and can be employed by small teams of two soldiers. Such teams can impose a heavy cost on advancing Russian armor, even if they are unable to stop a column entirely.
Then there is the problem of fighting in cities, which can be easy to advance to and challenging to subdue as defenders can employ the full range of techniques available to the urban guerrilla. The will to fight and defend one’s home plays an outsized role in urban combat and holding a city can become more challenging than seizing it. This will to fight was demonstrated by the Ukrainian defenders of Snake Island, who lost their lives after refusing a demand to surrender by a Russian warship at the beginning of the invasion in an event reminiscent of the Alamo.
Even if it succeeds in conquering Ukraine’s territory Russia faces the risk of fighting a protracted insurgency. One of the things that made the invasion of Crimea and Donbas successful in 2014 were the large ethnic Russian populations in these territories and geographic proximity to Russia ensuring secure lines of communication and resupply. By invading the rest of the country, Russia is giving up these advantages. Although Russia can target Ukraine’s centralized military infrastructure and cripple the country’s ability to launch an effective defense of its borders, it must contend with the semi formal patchwork of territorial units and volunteers which were key to staving off rebel advances in 2014, and that the government has supported and armed. Poland, as a friendly neighbor with a secure border can provide a safe haven for Ukrainian partisans fighting against Russian occupation, while fighters and supplies move back and forth hidden in the cross flow of refugees and aid that are the likely result of fighting in cities across the country.
Holding It All Together
The costs in time and materiel could show Putin’s bold rebellious gambit to be a colossal blunder. The longer the fighting drags on, the more the people of Russia will question the prudence of the decision to invade after being repeatedly told that there were no plans to do so as Russia had no reason to. As the international community continues to pile sanctions on Russia’s brittle economy, popular support, or apathy, to the invasion will turn to outrage against the regime. Political opposition in Russia has a long record of failing to garner meaningful support or challenging the power of the central regime, but this is due in no small part to Putin’s prudent avoidance of pushing the Russian people too far and avoiding direct accountability for blunders in the domestic press while simultaneously painting attacks in the global media as anti-Russian propaganda that only he is strong enough to stand up to.
Now he’s proven the foreign “propagandists” right while leaving his own domestic state media stuck performing rhetorical backflips to justify his actions to a population whose young men were just sent to fight and die in a war that until recently they were told didn’t need to be fought. It’s too soon to tell what repercussions this may have, but it does mark a fundamental break from the playbook that has kept Putin in power for so long. Even among the most staunch, nationalistic hawks in Russia’s establishment the potential loss of a significant chunk of its most capable military hardware and units could begin to lead to doubts about the wisdom of this campaign and the leader that brought them to it.
Russia already struggles with maintaining its military while pursuing limited modernization programs, and equipment lost cannot be easily replaced domestically or purchased abroad. As with many authoritarian regimes, the Russian military is as much of an employment program for young men as it is a tool of power, and an outsized portion of what is capable of fighting is now at risk in Ukraine. The economic sanctions will only make this worse. A slow, costly takeover of Ukraine followed by a bloody insurgency could leave Putin facing a restless population and a chorus of insiders indicating it’s time to cut losses with little to show for his efforts. Obviously, Putin believes otherwise, and maybe he and his advisors are justified in a certain amount of confidence given their success in Crimea and Donbas in 2014, in Georgia in 2008, and their recent expeditions to support Assad in Syria. Seizing and subduing all of Ukraine is a fundamentally different problem though, and wars never go as planned.
Putin has seemingly decided to risk it all by starting a war in Europe he believes he can contain and control. In one sense he appears to be right, as no nation has rushed to send its own troops to protect Ukraine and powerful nations that could help, such as the United States, have made it clear that they will not put their own soldiers in harm’s way or risk getting into a shooting war with a nuclear power. But the ramifications of engaging in an imperial conquest on the European continent is a break from international norms drastic enough to lead to a restructuring of the security architecture of Europe in a way that permanently blocks any attempt at further Russian expansion while leaving them cut off economically and diplomatically for generations.
The feverish attempts at shuttle diplomacy undertaken by leaders such as France’s Emmanuel Macron is evidence of a newly felt agency among European leaders following Brexit and the election of Donald Trump and his “America First” policies.
Russia’s invasion is likely to accelerate the European Union’s desire to create a European military separate from NATO and American sponsorship, while the willingness of German Chancellor Olaf Shultz to halt and potentially permanently scuttle the Nord Stream 2 pipeline indicates a willingness by European leaders to bear the costs of increased domestic energy prices in a world where Russia has become an unreliable, destabilizing actor on the continent. Poland is certain to rush military units to its border with Ukraine for its own security and to deal with an ever-increasing flow of refugees while accelerating projects to move its permanent military bases from its western borders facing Germany, where they were established during the cold war under Russian guidance, to the East to fend off the same Russia.
Past as Prologue
If Ukraine is conquered and subdued in a timeframe and at a cost the Russian people can stomach, Putin may still find himself in a worse security position than before. In reaching for empire, he may cripple his country and hollow out the nation he seeks to promote. In 1979 Soviet troops invaded Afghanistan in an attempt to expand and protect the interests of the Soviet Union and hold back a perceived threat of encroachment by western outsiders, only to retreat in disgrace years later after draining the Soviet Union of military power, economic resources, and political credibility at home and abroad it could ill afford to lose, contributing to its downfall. The march into Ukraine may prove to be a path to a similar fate for Putin’s Russia.
In success or failure though, Putin’s rebellion against the arc of history which was destined to end in neo-liberal globalization has damaged the credibility of the neo-liberal world view and its utility as a guide to geo-politics, potentially beyond repair. Adherents to the orthodoxy may claim that this is a temporary aberration, overhyped in the news cycle of the day as we observe this temporary, and relatively small wrinkle in the modern flow of international relations. Perhaps they are right, and this is the last gasp of a dying, power driven ideological approach to geo-politics that has stubbornly held on at the periphery long after it was viable. But that gasp will include the cries of the Ukrainian people and the creeks of a brittle world order struggling to stand against collapse.
It seems more likely that the time after WWII, and the seemingly universal acceptance of western ideas of government and human rights that proliferated after the Cold War will be remembered as a temporary feature of the international system that is moving away from American dominated liberal hegemony and back to balance of power politics. Putin’s rebellion may eventually be contained and put down, but its impact on the world is here to stay.