Vladimir Putin declared war on Ukraine last Thursday after months of denials

Photography by HablerNET (Public Domain)

For over a year, Vladimir Putin has repeatedly denied allegations that he was planning to invade Ukraine. On Thursday 24th November 2022, Russia invaded.

A war eight years in the making

The history of Russo-Ukrainian relations is complex and steeped in Realpolitik. It is easy to forget that the current conflict started in 2014 following the ousting of then Ukrainian President, Viktor Yanukovych.

Yanukovych had attempted to block Ukraine’s association with the EU, choosing instead to seek closer alignment with Russia. This move was not popular. The memory of Soviet hegemony was all too fresh. Ceding control to Moscow had, in living memory, created a system that caused one of the largest grain producers in the World to suffer two artificially created famines. Mass protests broke out and Yanukovych was ousted. His final parting gift was to invite Russia to intercede and, like many a dictator before him, Putin used this “invitation” as an opportunity to annex Crimea.

Fast forward eight years and, after 12 months of sabre rattling, Putin has launched the largest coordinated invasion on European soil since World War 2.

Why did he invade Ukraine?

It is not clear why Putin has chosen this moment to strike, but what is clear is his motivation. Putin is seeking power at all costs and believes that the way to do this is through the barrel of a gun. According to the BBC, in December 2021 Putin gave the World a prescient glimpse into his psyche:

“What was the break-up of the USSR? It was the break-up of historical Russia. We lost 40% of our territory… much of what had been accumulated over 1,000 years was lost.”

Pursuit of power is Putin’s primary interest and his primary motive appears to be re-establishing Russian influence over Eastern Europe. It follows that a secondary interest is to undermine Western influence, which he appears to blame for the dissolution of the USSR. It is difficult to fathom precisely what Putin’s endgame is, but it is likely he was hoping for three outcomes:

  1. Installation of a puppet government in Ukraine
  2. Undermine Western influence and send a clear message to his neighbours; NATO cannot protect you
  3. Gain concessions from Western powers acknowledging Russian claims to Crimea

Viewed in this way, his machinations make sense – undermine the West and increase his influence in one fell-swoop.

Putin has underestimated Ukraine’s resolve

No matter what way you look at it, the war is not going well for Russia.

It is difficult to pierce the veil of Russian misinformation, but it seems clear that Putin expected the Ukrainians to fold. Instead, fierce resistance has foiled the Russian armed forces. Virtually the entire country has mobilised into an armed militia with the sole aim of preventing Russian occupation. Despite overwhelming firepower, the Russian advance has faltered with the majority of the country still under Ukrainian control.

Putin also appears to have pinned his hopes on the Ukrainians ousting their President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. In reality images of Zelenskyy leading from the front have turned him into a national hero. Irrespective of the outcome, this man is likely to be immortalised in the Ukrainian public conscience for generations to come. Whether Zelenskyy can retain control is unclear, but Ukrainian resistance has guaranteed that any puppet government will have zero legitimacy.

The awe inspiring resistance of the Ukrainian people, coupled with unanimous and unflinching support for their government, appears to have nullified two of Putin’s three goals. So what about the third?

NATO is united… sort of

NATO has generally presented a united front, but under the surface there are clear tensions. These tensions have manifested in slow decision making and half measures that may even have emboldened Putin.

Individuals have been targeted by Sanctions, but the logic around which individuals have been selected is bewildering. There are several notable individuals who are absent, as the Ukrainian activist Daria Kaleniuk bravely outlined at a press conference today.

Chief amongst these are close associates and family members of Putin who are resident in the UK and the EU. It seems obvious that these individuals are beneficiaries of Putin’s regime. A bolder move is the removal of Russia from the SWIFT network. This has had immediate consequences, with the Ruble dropping 20% over night. This move is a good first step, but is also general and reactive.

What is really needed is an internationally coordinated effort to root out Russian assets; both financial and political. The US has attempted similar undertakings in the past with the Magnitsky Act. Unfortunately, Russian political influence is far reaching with many European countries in thrall to Russian interests in one way or another.

With the above said, it is enough to say that for now NATO is united and the effort to expand Russian influence has backfired spectacularly. Ukraine is closer than ever to the EU and latent Russian sympathisers within Ukraine are generally outraged.

So, is this good news for Ukraine?

No. Putin’s objectives have been thwarted, but he cannot just throw in the towel. His country is facing economic ruin thanks to his war and returning home a loser would pose an existential threat to his regime. Putin’s only choice is to strive for military victory, even if his core objectives are no longer achievable.

To date, Putin has sought to ensure that there was something left to rule at the end of this campaign. It is likely that this has prevented the Russian war machine from employing the tactics used in Syria. If preservation of infrastructure ceases to be a concern, there is a real possibility that Russia will shift to a campaign of destruction. This has all the makings of a long and bloody dispute, with renewed aggression from an unfettered Russia.

The only remaining tether to common decency that Putin has left is Russian domestic opinion. There is a growing and influential movement within Russia condemning the violence. We can only hope that this gives Putin pause for thought, but I’m not sure it will be enough.

Edit 02/03/2022: Since writing this article, Russia has stepped up it’s bombing campaign. I have just read this analysis at the Guardian which provided useful further reading on Russia’s way of war.

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