March 4, 2022 | OPINION | By Tom Byron
Last Thursday, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine ended 30 years of peace in Europe. Despite weeks of warning by United States intelligence, the world was shocked by the sudden reality of a European land war, something many thought to be as dead as the Soviet Union. Yet as Vladimir Putin seems determined to wind back the clock, it’s important for us to understand the roots and possible consequences of this horrific invasion.
Putin’s invasion is rooted in three decades of historical grievances. First, he believes that Ukraine is an integral part of Russia and that the separation of the two after the fall of the USSR was a deliberate blow to Russia. Second, he believes that the U.S. struck that blow and followed it up with wave after wave of expansion by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, bringing the alliance to Russia’s doorstep. Third, he sees 30 years of war by the United States everywhere from Kosovo to Afghanistan as evidence that powerful nations can do whatever they want regardless of morality or law.
It is also a bet — a dangerous bet — that the U.S. and its allies are too weak to do anything to stop him, and that he can crush Ukrainian resistance quickly and effectively. This perception of weakness is about more than national rivalry.
Putin, and leaders like him around the world, see liberal democracy in retreat and believe their brand of reheated autocratic nationalism to be the wave of the future. They see free speech, free elections, and an open, diverse society not as strengths, but as existential threats to order which will inevitably lead to weakness and chaos. This war is a demonstration of that belief and an open challenge to the world’s democracies.
What’s less clear is exactly what Putin’s goal might be. This invasion is a continuation of Russian policy going back to 2014’s annexation of Crimea, where any move by Ukraine to get closer to the U.S. and Europe is met with Russian aggression. Yet this policy has failed to accomplish much, beyond starting an eight-year insurgency in eastern Ukraine that has required a steady stream of Russian troops to maintain. The current invasion is a much larger undertaking, and Putin’s forces have already faced unexpectedly fierce resistance.
Putin might be hoping that he can quickly take major cities, install a government friendly to Russia, and then withdraw. Russia’s tactics may indicate that this is their preferred solution. So far, they’ve tried to avoid civilian casualties and even combat wherever possible, and a relatively bloodless victory would make a puppet government easier to establish. Russian state media has portrayed the war as a strike against neo-Nazis and fascists who supposedly control the Ukrainian government, so it seems like regime change is at least one of Putin’s goals.
However, that entire scenario seems increasingly unlikely. Ukrainians have already proven that they’re willing to overthrow pro-Russian governments in Ukraine, and any Russian force that remains to try to keep such a regime in power would face massive popular resistance. The assault on Kyiv and other Ukrainian cities has stalled, and Russian forces have failed to take control of the air. Russian losses may already exceed 4,500 dead or missing — for comparison, 4,431 US servicemembers were killed in Iraq in the entire period of 2003 to 2021.
Putin’s goal might shift to a full occupation of Ukraine. Whether temporary or permanent, this would require him to conquer and hold a hostile nation almost twice the size of California. Conquering Kyiv and Kharkiv would mean weeks or months of brutal urban combat, along with thousands more civilian deaths. It would also require many more Russian soldiers, as there are currently only 190,000 Russian troops in the invasion force. Occupying a nation this large would take far more troops. Many would die in the process.
The least likely path, unfortunately, is a Russian withdrawal from Ukraine. With Western sanctions intensifying by the day, thousands of Russian casualties in the first week, and Russia’s international reputation in shambles, Putin has already committed far too much to back out now. Doing so would be an admission of the very weakness he diagnosed in the United States, and possibly destabilize his regime.
But continuing the war might do the same. Anti-war protests are continuing throughout Russia, and the more Moscow loses control of the narrative, the more people will be unwilling to tolerate a war against Ukraine. Economic damage from sanctions could crush what remains of the Russian economy, and military failure might reveal the Russian army’s weakness to the rest of the world.
Only one thing is guaranteed: this war will kill, maim, and exile countless innocent people. At least 660,000 Ukrainians have fled already, and if the war continues, many more will follow them. Russia has begun missile strikes against major cities, and any kind of urban warfare will mean death and homelessness for thousands more. No matter the outcome, this war will shatter lives on a global scale, and despite all his justifications, that carnage will be Putin’s final legacy.