The Russian invasion of Ukraine this morning puts an end to several months of doubt and debate on the objective of Moscow’s military reinforcement on the border of the two countries. Washington’s repeated warnings of an impending military operation turned out not to be the hysteria that Russian President Vladimir Putin called hysteria. In the end, the Putin-fabricated crisis was not an attempt at coercive diplomacy, or if it was, it was a failure.
War and conflict have rarely been absent from the European continent, even during the past 30 years of ostensible peace and prosperity. But a war of choice and aggression by one nation against its neighbour, and especially one of this apparent magnitude, sends shockwaves through Europe and beyond. Thus, if the start of military operations closes a period of uncertainty about what is to come, it opens another with even deeper and wider implications.
This uncertainty will be felt at three levels: military, political and societal.
Most of the speculation in recent months has focused on the first of these tiers, the military, for obvious reasons. Regardless of Putin’s original intentions, he has now started a war. But as even the most casual student of strategy and history – both ancient and more contemporary – knows, it is much easier to start wars than to end them. And once started, their course and consequences are impossible to predict.
At first glance, a quick and easy Russian victory seems likely. Russia enjoys an overwhelming advantage in terms of firepower and expensive weapons platforms. Combined with air superiority and a command and control infrastructure beyond the reach of Ukrainian forces, there is little hope for a stunning upheaval on the battlefield.
Still, the size of the Russian invasion force is relatively small considering Ukraine’s landmass and population. The ostensible strategic objective of the operation also seems chimerical. In his speech to the Russian people that coincided with the first airstrikes on Ukrainian territory, Putin claimed that the purpose of the operation was to demilitarize Ukraine, not to occupy it. But it is difficult to see how this is possible in the long term, even under a puppet regime installed by the Kremlin in Kiev, which would enjoy little legitimacy and would be inherently unstable. Just look to the American experiences in Afghanistan and Iraq for recent examples of quick and easy invasions that turned into long and painful occupations.
The current hostilities also increase the other two risks of overspill and escalation. There have already been reports of a Ukrainian air force plane seeking refuge in Romania, raising the specter of a scenario in which a hot pursuit by Russian fighter jets in airspace of a NATO member draws the alliance more directly into the conflict. If the invasion spawns a Ukrainian insurgency, as many observers have suggested, the question of safe havens and outside support from NATO members would also open the door to a wider confrontation.
Putin did not help matters by warning the West that the Kremlin is ready to respond to any outside “interference” with crushing retaliation, including, in thinly veiled terms, the use of nuclear weapons. In doing so, he used the worst possible formula of deterrence: maximum retaliation to defend vaguely defined red lines. This too creates the conditions for an involuntary escalation.
A kind of curtain seems destined to fall on Europe, softer than the iron curtain of the Cold War, perhaps, but nonetheless far-reaching in its consequences.
Politically, the uncertainty and accompanying risk are no less significant. First, it starts with the potential backlash in Russia. We tend to think that authoritarian regimes like Russia’s are impervious to public opinion. But Putin’s power base rests on a coalition of elites with often disparate interests, mostly financial. Although much has been said about how he “protected” the Russian economy, the unintended consequences of the invasion – like the collapse of the Russian stock market this morning – have a way of introducing new variables. in the inner equation.
And while Putin won’t have to answer to popular opinion through elections, he is far from having a string of major victories in recent years. Russia’s economy, while resilient, suffered the consequences of its 2014 annexation of Crimea. An unwelcome pension reform fueled sporadic protest in 2018. And its handling of the pandemic has been abysmal. So far, Putin has managed to limit the costs of his military adventurism, both financially and humanely, by using high-leverage intervention in Syria and outsourcing operations elsewhere to clandestine contractors. The costs of a massive invasion of Ukraine, on the other hand, will be harder to conceal, for a cause that is unlikely to arouse patriotic fervor and at a time when the Russian people will understandably be less eager to tighten their belts further. .
The political uncertainty also extends to the European level. Since early December, I have maintained that even in the absence of a Russian invasion, the Ukrainian crisis represents a “before and after” for Europe. This is even more the case now.
Clearly, there can be no going back to dealing with Putin’s Russia as a “normal” power. The Euro-Atlantic worldview, especially with regard to popular legitimacy and national sovereignty, is incompatible with Putinism. And given Putin’s revanchism, it is clear that he is determined to establish a “line of control” within Europe between the West and what he sees as the sphere of interest of the Russia. It is even likely that he will continue to push and probe further to determine where this line will eventually be drawn, and there are plenty of possible places to do so: Bosnia and Moldova, for example, to name only the more obvious.
And yet, while it seems obvious that a new and fresh iteration of a Cold War dynamic is now inevitable, the exact form it will take is harder to imagine, given the complex economic and political interdependencies that bind the two parts. Total decoupling seems unrealistic, but anything less seems extremely complex to configure. Europe needs gas and Russia needs revenue. The two parties also continue to share common diplomatic interests and objectives, notably in the ongoing negotiations to revive the Iranian nuclear deal, but also in Afghanistan.
Nevertheless, a sort of curtain seems destined to fall on Europe, softer than the iron curtain of the Cold War, perhaps, but nonetheless far-reaching in its consequences.
Finally, if history is any guide, Putin’s reckless militarism will have huge societal consequences, most obviously in Ukraine, but also within and across Europe. We have seen in Iraq and Syria the impact that the loss of human life and the destruction of war can have on the social fabric of a nation in the short and medium term. The former Yugoslavia provides an example of longer-term effects. Radicalization and criminality are inevitable by-products of war, and it is hard not to imagine an equally tragic fate for Ukraine, which depends in part on the scale of combat operations.
But it would be shortsighted if we narrowly assume that these societal aftershocks will be limited to Ukraine: as is often the case with war, they usually spread through displacement, and more recently through the internet. We have seen how the wars in the Middle East came to Europe in the form of the refugee crisis of 2015 as well as the terrorist threat which only recently seemed to fade away. We now risk seeing a similar scenario, only originating in the heart of Europe. Given the role that the war in eastern Ukraine has already played over the past eight years in the emergence of a transnational far-right movement, including armed militias, in Europe and the United States United, this should be cause for alarm and vigilance.
Russia will not be immune to these societal impacts either. There is no way to draw a direct line between the wars launched by the United States in the Middle East 20 years ago and the erosion of political and social cohesion that is now evident in America. But it is difficult to take seriously the proposition that they played no role, even if their effect was indirect and slow to emerge. Something similar will in all likelihood begin to take hold in Russia should the war in Ukraine drag on longer than Putin hopes or expects.
Projecting over a similar time horizon of 20 years, the implications for Russia and Europe are worrying. Putin won’t be around forever, and we know that a power transition is the most dangerous time for an authoritarian regime. Russia already appears particularly vulnerable to some of the most corrosive effects of a potential blowback. But any period of internal instability, whether under Putin or after him, would only amplify this.
If there is any certainty today, it is the tragic costs that will certainly be borne by the Ukrainian people. This will certainly be the center of attention in Western capitals in the weeks and months to come. But it would be a mistake to ignore all these other uncertainties that now loom on the horizon in the short, medium and long term.
Judah Grunstein is the editor of World Politics Review. You can follow him on Twitter at @Judah_Grunstein.