Putin’s War in Ukraine Will Not Stay in Ukraine

World Politics Review, 24.02.2022
Judah Grunstein, editor en jefe

The Russian invasion of Ukraine this morning ends several months of doubt and debate over the purpose of Moscow’s military buildup at the two countries’ border. Washington’s repeated warnings of an imminent military operation proved not to be the hysteria that Russian President Vladimir Putin dismissed them as. In the end, Putin’s manufactured crisis was not an attempt at coercive diplomacy, or if it was, it was a failed one.

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 neighbor, and especially one of this apparent magnitude, sends shockwaves across Europe and beyond. So if the start of military operations closes a period of uncertainty as to what will come, it opens another one with even deeper and broader implications.

This uncertainty will be felt on three levels: the military, the political and the societal.

Most of the speculation over the past few months has centered on the first of these levels, the military, for obvious reasons. Regardless of Putin’s initial 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 far easier to start wars than to end them. And once begun, 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 big-ticket weapons platforms. Combined with air superiority and a command-and-control infrastructure that is beyond the reach of Ukrainian forces, there is little hope of a stunning upset on the battlefield.

Still, the size of the Russian invasion force is relatively small given Ukraine’s landmass and population. The ostensible strategic objective of the operation also seems chimerical. In his address to the Russian people that coincided with the first airstrikes on Ukrainian territory, Putin claimed the goal of the operation was to demilitarize Ukraine, but not to occupy it. But it’s hard to see how that is possible over the long term, even under a puppet regime installed by the Kremlin in Kyiv, which would enjoy little legitimacy and be inherently unstable. One need only look to the U.S. experiences in Afghanistan and Iraq for recent examples of quick and easy invasions that unraveled into long and painful occupations.

The current hostilities also raise the two further risks of spillover and escalation. There have already been reports of a Ukrainian air force jet seeking refuge in Romania, raising the specter of a scenario in which a hot pursuit by Russian fighter jets into the airspace of a NATO member draws the alliance more directly into the conflict. Should the invasion spawn a Ukrainian insurgency, as many observers have suggested it will, the question of safe havens and outside support by NATO members would similarly open the door to broader confrontation.

Putin has not helped matters by warning the West that the Kremlin is willing to respond to any outside “interference” with overwhelming retaliation—including, in thinly veiled terms, the use of nuclear weapons. In doing so, he used the worst of all possible deterrent formulas: maximal retaliation in defense of vaguely defined red lines. That, too, creates the conditions for unintended escalation.

On the political level, the uncertainty and accompanying risk are no less significant. First and foremost, that starts with the potential blowback in Russia. We have a tendency to think of authoritarian regimes like Russia’s as impervious to opinion. But Putin’s power base rests on a coalition of elites with often disparate interests, most prominently financial. While there has been much talk of how he has “sanctions-proofed” Russia’s economy, unforeseen consequences of the invasion—such as the Russian stock exchange collapsing this morning—have a way of introducing new variables into the domestic equation.

And while Putin will not have to answer to popular opinion via elections, he is far from being on a major winning streak over the past few years. The Russian economy, though resilient, has suffered from the consequences of his annexation of Crimea in 2014. A poorly received pension reform fueled a sporadic protest movement in 2018. And his handling of the pandemic has been catastrophic. Until now, Putin has managed to keep the costs of his military adventurism down, in both financial and human terms, by using a tightly leveraged intervention in Syria and outsourcing operations elsewhere to off-the-books contractors. The costs of a massive invasion of Ukraine, on the other hand, will be harder to dissimulate, for a cause that is unlikely to drive patriotic fervor and at a time when the Russian people will understandably be less eager to tighten their belts any further.

The political uncertainty extends to the European level, too. Since early December, I’ve argued that even absent a Russian invasion, the crisis over Ukraine represents a “before and after” moment for Europe. That 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, particularly with regard to popular legitimacy and national sovereignty, is incompatible with Putinism. And given the revanchism Putin espouses, it is clear that he is dead set on establishing a “line of control” within Europe between the West and what he sees as Russia’s sphere of interest. It is even likely that he will continue to push and probe further in determining where that line will end up being drawn, and the possible locations for doing so are not lacking: Bosnia and Moldova, for instance, to name the most obvious.

And yet, while it seems obvious that a new and novel iteration of a Cold War dynamic is now inevitable, just what form that will take is harder to imagine, given the complex economic and political interdependencies linking both sides. A total decoupling seems unrealistic, but anything short of it seems exceedingly complex to configure. Europe needs gas, and Russia needs revenue. Both sides continue to share common diplomatic interests and objectives, too, most prominently now in the ongoing negotiations to revive the Iran nuclear deal, but also in Afghanistan.

Nevertheless, some sort of curtain seems destined to descend across Europe, softer than the one made of iron during the Cold War, perhaps, but nonetheless far-reaching in its consequences.

Finally, if history is any guide, Putin’s reckless militarism will have enormous societal consequences, most obviously in Ukraine, but also within and across Europe. We’ve seen in Iraq and Syria the impact that the loss of life and destruction of war can have on a nation’s social fabric in the short and medium term. The former Yugoslavia offers an example of the longer-term effects. Radicalization and criminality are the inevitable by-products of war, and it is hard not to imagine a similarly tragic fate now for Ukraine, depending in part on the extent of the combat operations.

But it would be short-sighted if we narrowly assume those societal aftershocks will be limited to Ukraine: As is often the case with war, they are usually spread by displacement, and more recently the internet. We saw how the wars in the Middle East came home to Europe in the form of the refugee crisis of 2015 as well as the terrorist threat that has only recently seemed to subside. We are now at risk of seeing a similar scenario, only originating in the heart of Europe. Given the role the war in eastern Ukraine has already played over the past eight years in the emergence of a transnational, extremist, far-right movement—including armed militias—in Europe and the U.S., that should be cause for alarm and vigilance.

Nor will Russia be immune to these societal impacts. There is no way to trace a direct line between the wars the U.S. launched in the Middle East 20 years ago and the unraveling of political and social cohesion that is currently on display in America. But it is hard to take seriously the proposition that they played no role, even if their effect was indirect and slow in taking shape. Something similar will in all likelihood begin to take root in Russia in the event the war in Ukraine drags on longer than Putin hopes or plans.

Projecting out over a similar 20-year time horizon, the implications for Russia and Europe are ominous. Putin will not be around forever, and we know that a power transition is the most dangerous moment for an authoritarian regime. Russia already seems particularly vulnerable to some of the more corrosive effects of potential blowback. But any period of internal instability, whether under Putin or after him, would only magnify that.

If there is one certainty today, it is the tragic costs that are certain to be borne by the Ukrainian people. That will certainly be the focus of attention in Western capitals in the coming weeks and months. But it would be a mistake to ignore all these other uncertainties that now loom over the horizon in the near, medium and long term.

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