For the second time, I can begin a post with the words “Well. That wasn’t supposed to happen, was it.” The previous occasion was the election of Donald Trump, and while the two events are not unrelated, the precise nature of the connection will have to wait for another time.
I was wrong about the invasion, but I was right in thinking that a limited operation made no sense: that Putin would be taking on a huge risk for an only minor gain. From that I drew the conclusion that he would not move at all and the whole operation was a bluff. Instead, he chose to aim high.
So instead of a war for the Donbas or some other limited objective we now have a war for the future of Ukraine. But a war for Ukraine is also, and more importantly, a war for the future of Russia.
There was much talk beforehand (some of it from me) on the question of whether NATO should compromise on its expansion program, with the possibility of guaranteeing the neutrality of Ukraine. Some are still having that discussion now.
I remain of the view that NATO’s approach in the 1990s was mistaken, but the question is now entirely academic. Ukrainian neutrality is off the table, possibly forever. After the experience of the last four days (and of the probably much worse things to come), no democratic government in Ukraine will ever be anything other than anti-Russian.
Conversely, the only way now of keeping Ukraine out of the western orbit is by Russian military occupation. And the occupation will have to be permanent: as soon as the troops leave, the Ukrainians will overthrow a pro-Russian government and lynch every collaborator they can get their hands on.
And if the Ukrainians are determined enough – and so far it looks as if they are, although it’s very much not for us to tell them how much they should be willing to sacrifice – they can bleed an occupier white. Ukraine is a big country, with a long western border through which aid can come, and its neighbors are rich as well as supportive. There is also the historical memory of large-scale partisan resistance to the Nazi occupiers in 1941-44.
At the moment it’s not even clear that the initial occupation will be successful. The opening days of the invasion have not gone the way Putin obviously expected; Ukrainian forces have put up a solid defence, president Volodymyr Zelensky has provided inspirational leadership, and ordinary Ukrainians have shown themselves overwhelmingly hostile to Russian takeover.
None of that will help them very much if Putin uses the full weight of his available firepower. He can carpet bomb cities, he can bring heavy artillery to bear, he can use thermobaric and similarly advanced weapons. But there must be reasons why he has not already done that, and it’s unlikely that respect for Ukrainian lives is among them: perhaps he was just overconfident, or perhaps he is worried about domestic or international opinion.
This is also a downside (from his point of view) of Putin’s insistent claim that Ukrainians are really one with the Russians, in that it makes it harder to dehumanise them in the eyes of his own soldiers. The Nazis also invaded Ukraine with a conscript army in 1941, but they weren’t troubled much with desertions – partly because their leaders were more ruthless but also because it was easier to convince them that the Slavs were subhuman and deserved what was happening to them. A lot of Russian conscripts, on the other hand, just sound confused about why they’re fighting.
Which brings us back to the point that this is really about the future of Russia. Already there has been much more open dissent, both from Russians in the street and from members of the political class, than anyone would have expected. If the war intensifies, that is only likely to escalate, and the country will be trapped in a downward spiral: more war calls forth more repression, and more and more resources are thrown at it as conquest becomes more difficult and sanctions bite harder.
In principle, Putin could halt that slide by backing down – offer a cease-fire and propose peace talks with Ukraine. But in its current mood the Ukrainian government is unlikely to accept anything less than complete Russian withdrawal from its territory, and it’s impossible to see Putin agreeing to that.
Ultimately the only lasting solution is regime change in Russia. It’s not impossible that that may happen quickly: if people near the centre of power decide that Putin is leading them over a cliff, they may take more or less violent measures to remove him. But it’s a very dangerous objective for the west to openly embrace, since it risks putting Putin in a position where he feels he has nothing to lose. As nuclear expert James Acton puts it (as quoted in the Guardian), “It’s difficult for the west to create a de-escalation pathway.”
Perhaps Putin’s friends (or “friends”), and particularly China, can play a role in that regard. But that’s enough for today anyway; let that be a thought for tomorrow, by which time there may be further interesting developments on the ground in Ukraine.