Russia, Ukraine, and the future of Europe
The world now has to grapple with the reality of an all out Russian invasion of Ukraine. There are three factors in the coming weeks to watch out for as the largest war in Europe unfolds since the guns last fell silent in May 1945.
1. Ukrainian resistance: This week President Volodymyr Zelensky spoke directly to the Russian public saying that Ukrainians were not a threat to Russia and they wanted peace. However, he noted that, if an attack proceeded, “You won’t see our backs, but you’ll see our faces.” As the Russian navy warned Ukrainian troops stationed on an island to surrender, the Ukrainians radioed back: “Russian warship, go f**k yourself.”
Ukraine is a large country and borders several NATO member states (Romania, Slovakia, Poland). The Ukrainian armed forces are battle-hardened after having fought with pro-Russian separatists in the Donbas region since 2014. However, Russia remains one of the largest and most advanced military powers in the world. It is difficult to see how long the Ukrainian army can hold off Russia more than a few weeks or months at most. What will be key is how the United States and European countries move to support a Ukrainian resistance movement.
A resistance could take several forms, either in a united national front or with several different underground factions emerging to carry out hit-and-run attacks on Russian occupation forces. It is also uncertain to what extent a resistance movement can obtain arms and supplies over a long period of time. But it is worth noting that most of the Ukrainian population is certainly not thrilled about potentially falling back under the iron grip of Putin’s Russia.
There is a very clear indication the Ukrainians will resist. The Ukrainian forces are smaller in numbers but have better morale, better training, and are more professional. Russia’s forces, however, are not as well trained and are mostly composed of 1 year conscripts. Their morale is also questionable. As the Russians sustain battlefield losses, they will inevitably start committing atrocities out of frustration, which will in turn boost more determination and recruitment on the Ukrainian side. How this resistance plays out and the impact they have on the Russian occupation forces will be key in the coming months.
2. U.S. and EU response: The United States, European Union, and NATO have sought to stay out of the fight but are likely to supply intelligence and other types of support and arms to the Ukrainians. In addition to the intense sanctions, it will be up to the United States and Europeans to stay united over a long period of time against Russia. It is my belief that Putin’s gambit has greatly changed the geopolitical calculus in Europe and that European countries, such as France and Germany will take a different approach to Russia going forward. However, Europe’s economy is deeply connected to Russia through energy and trade supply and demand. It will become painful for not only Russia, but Europe (and very quickly, the whole world) as this drags out.
The crisis will be the EU and NATO’s biggest test to see if they can maintain a united diplomatic and economic front against Putin’s aggression. There are elections coming up, for example France (April) and the midterms in the United States (November). If the economic pain gets out of hand, it will be a key test for the populations in the West to see how determined they are to stand up for the defense of a country’s sovereignty in Europe for the first time since WWII. Russia is also likely to stage cyber attacks against the West or even base missiles or other military assets in Latin America as the conflict continues.
3. Putin and the future of Russia: Putin has dramatically changed the trajectory of Russia’s foreign policy. Even though Russia has for years carried out military actions to support its foreign policy goals: Georgia (2008), Ukraine (2014), Syria (2015), there has always been some element of nuance that allows pro-Russian voices to successfully argue that Putin has taken a very careful and thoughtful course of action to guarantee Russia’s interests. However, this invasion of Ukraine is a very big shock, not just for ordinary Russians, but even some of the Russian diplomatic corps and some pro-Putin media outlets. There have been several big demonstrations in Russia and many have been arrested. Many Russians shrugged off the U.S. warnings that Putin would actually invade and this has been a huge surprise that will have domestic consequences.
It is hard to determine how isolated Putin’s circle of advisers is from the rest of the government. Over the last few years, his core group of advisers has allegedly shrank to just a few trusted military and intelligence officials. He is supposedly mostly surrounded by hardliners who tell him what he wants to hear. My sense is that Putin’s war will ultimately be more harmful to his foreign policy since this type of action is very unpredictable and will leave Russia very isolated. If Putin is able to secure some kind of victory in Ukraine and forces them to agree to stay out of NATO and he withdraws his forces, it is not clear that this will be enough to keep Ukraine in the long term from turning completely towards the West.
However, if Putin tries to stay in Ukraine with an occupation force, it will likely become very costly if there is significant resistance. Urban warfare is very difficult and seems to be the path to where the Russian offensive is heading. More Russian troops being killed in a brotherly nation will only cause Putin’s popularity in Russia to continue to decline. It’s a very big gamble for him and my hunch is it will not pay off in the long run.