By Matija Šerić
The Russian invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022 shocked the world. Although it was obvious for weeks and months that the attack is almost imminent, few truly believed that the Russian Federation would launch a complete invasion of Ukraine from all possible directions and with all branches of the armed forces: land forces, air force and navy. Two or three months after the beginning of the invasion, it can be stated that February 24 this year will be written in history as a colossal moment. Something like the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 or the demolition of the twins in New York in 2001. It is a moment of turning point in international relations in the 21st century. After a long time, one sovereign state openly attacked another sovereign state without a valid reason.
US and Allies attacks on Afghanistan and Iraq can’t be compared to Russian invasion of Ukraine because they nevertheless had some plausible justifications in the form of a “war on terror” and the elimination of Saddam Hussein’s dangerous regime (which did not possess weapons of mass destruction). Unlike them, the Russian invasion has no stronger rational justification. Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine is more appropriate in 1922 than in 2022. Such a decision would have been understandable in the days before the founding of the United Nations in 1945, when interstate disputes were often resolved by aggression from one state to another. The attack on Ukraine does not suit the times of the Internet, smartphones and the globally networked world that is still struggling with the corona crisis. However, the Russian invasion is not a nightmare but a reality whose consequences are not only suffered by Ukrainians and Russians but the whole world. A closer look shows how Putin’s decision to attack Ukraine is a startling strategic mistake. More precisely, it’s the biggest political mistake and the biggest (political) sin of the long-serving Russian president. Apart from the fact that the Russian invasion pushed the world to the threshold of the Third World War, it inevitably marks the beginning of the end of Putin’s Russia.
Putin’s decision to launch a “special military operation” in Ukraine is not only surprising but extremely irrational. It is completely contrary to the way Russian foreign policy has been conducted for the last ten years. Putin would regularly conduct detailed analysis before making important foreign policy decisions that would show their positive and negative consequences. All decisions would ultimately bring Russia more benefit than harm. From colder or warmer relations with China, India, Turkey, the European Union, and the United States, the Russian state would ultimately be the profit-making side. Diametrically opposed to such a policy, Putin launched the Ukrainian war at a time when diplomacy was doing a good job and there were opening real opportunities for a Russia-West agreement on Ukraine and its neutral status – turning it into a “bridge” between the West and Russia. Ahead of the invasion, it was clear that NATO would not integrate Ukraine into the alliance in the near future to please Russia and some of its members. But all this did not stop Putin from starting a war he should never have started.
Already in the first few weeks of the war, it became clear that the proclaimed initial goals of the Russian invasion (“denazification” and “demilitarization” of Ukraine) had not been achieved. The Russian army was very poorly prepared, poorly logistically supported and poorly motivated for demanding engagement in Ukraine. Many conscripts did not even know that they were going to a real war, but they thought it was a military exercise! Due to the wrong information of the Russian intelligence, Putin thought that he would “break down the door” and that the entire “rotten” structure of the Ukrainian state would collapse. Catastrophic calculation. The Ukrainian structure proved to be firmer and more compact than expected. Thanks to eight years of preparation, military knowledge and skills, and courage of Ukrainian soldiers, Ukraine has decided not to kneel before the aggressors. The unconditional diplomatic and military support of the United States and the vast majority of European Union countries has helped greatly. The Russians advanced in the south and east of the country, but slowly, insufficiently and with fears of losses in manpower and military equipment. In the north they are even defeated and humiliated. It is estimated that more than 20,000 Russian soldiers have already been killed, more than in the entire Afghan adventure of the 1980s. But the most important thing in the whole Ukrainian problem is the fact that the Ukrainians refused to agree to territorial concessions regarding Donbass and did not give up from integration into the Western world. Moreover, the issue of Crimea, which was not mentioned in the Minsk agreements, has been brought up again.
Russia is forced to either wage a long multi-year war to conquer all or much of Ukraine (Russia would be happy with a half-and-half division as in Korea) or will have to give up its initial goals which is unlikely. So, it is clear that a long war awaits us in Eastern Europe. The Russians failed to overthrow the legal government in Kiev, led by President Volodymyr Zelensky, and this was the main goal of the so-called denazification. The president and his administration have proven to be much more resilient and skillful than many expected. Zelensky became a global symbol of the resistance of a small country in a clash with a superpower. How irrational and insane the demand for the denazification of Ukraine is shown by the Russian bombing of the Babyn Yar Memorial Center and the fact that Zelensky himself is a Ukrainian Jew by ethnicity. In addition, before the war, Ukraine was a multiethnic country where more than a hundred nationalities lived in peace. No points of contact with Nazism.
The second goal of the invasion, demilitarization, was also not achieved. Ukraine is not that it is not demilitarized, moreover it has become much more militarized than it was before the invasion. The most advanced Western weapons and military equipment are arriving in Ukraine, along with technological know-how. Ukraine will not agree to capitulate, ie it will not accept to be another satellite state in Russian orbit like Belarus or Kazakhstan. The Ukrainians are ready to fight until the complete withdrawal of the Russian attackers. Ukraine’s strategic goal remains to join the European Union, and despite all the damage and rattling of nuclear weapons, Ukrainians have not yet given up on joining NATO. In realpolitik, Ukraine’s entry into the EU is far more likely than membership in the North Atlantic Alliance. Ukrainians would probably be willing to eventually give up NATO membership and become a neutral country at the same time, but that neutrality would be much different from what the Kremlin envisions. Ie. neutrality would include security guarantees from Britain, France, US, Turkey and other Western powers that would guarantee the protection of Ukraine’s territorial integrity and sovereignty from potential new Russian aggression.
The invasion of Ukraine is in every sense harmful to Russia, even if Putin achieves 100% of what he set out to do in Ukraine (and this is unlikely to happen). The Russians may be able to conquer parts of Ukrainian territory but in the long run they cannot keep the enemy people under occupation. The American experiences of Afghanistan and Iraq are fantastic examples of how puppet regimes cannot survive. Ukraine will give the Kremlin headaches in the long run, and that will become a great military and economic challenge to the Russian state. When viewed outside the context of Ukraine itself, the aggression against Ukraine has brought the Russian state into an unenviable position in international relations. The Russian attack united the until recently divided and quarreling EU and breathed new life into NATO. All conflicts disappeared overnight after the Russian boot stepped on Ukrainian soil. The Nord Stream 2 project failed not because of the skills of charming American diplomats but because the German leadership realized that Russia was a huge threat to European peace.
Moreover, the Russian invasion not only didn’t eliminate Ukraine’s ambitions for Euro-Atlantic integration, but led some European traditionally neutral countries, such as Finland and Sweden, to express their readiness to join NATO under an accelerated procedure. Finns and Swedes are frightened by Russia’s aggressive policy. They believe that their territorial integrity and sovereignty are threatened by Russia, and therefore they want to look for a shield under the NATO umbrella. With the two countries joining NATO, Russia would be further surrounded by NATO forces on its northwestern borders. In recent weeks, Allied military forces have already been drastically strengthened in Eastern Europe. It is very likely that such a belligerent Putin would try to prevent the two countries from joining NATO by carrying out some new military adventures that could be primarily nuclear, and much less likely conventional.
The invasion caused incalculable damage to Russia’s international reputation as a state, as well as damage to the Russian people and Russian culture. Putin has introduced Russia among a group of aggressor states from recent history such as Germany, Italy, Japan, Iraq, Serbia. Putin has irrevocably destroyed his own reputation in the vast majority of the world. From the main advocate of a multipolar and equal international world order, he has degraded his reputation, so many today classify him in the group of infamous conquerors such as Hitler, Mussolini, Saddam Hussein, Milošević. Inhumane (medieval) siege and ruthless destruction of cities such as Kharkiv, Kherson or Sumy, torture and killing of civilians, rape of women, looting of agricultural and other resources in Ukraine, are something that will forever remain written in today’s world of technology. It will take a long time for the actions of Russian forces to suppress time.
Every day of the war, the Russians become even more ashamed in front of all of humanity. Even countries that are declarative Russian partners like China and India do not look with approval and quietly criticize. Aside from crimes, the Russian army has cowardly failed in terms of combat and has lost its reputation. It will take Russia and the Russian people decades to iron out their image in the world and regain the reputation they enjoyed thanks to, for example, the victory over Nazi Germany, scientific achievements and writers such as Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Lermontov and Turgenev. It is not easy to be a Russian in the world today, although the Russian diaspora has nothing to do with the Ukrainian war. Russian communities, especially in Europe, are unjustifiably discriminated against and are often treated as second- or third-class citizens.
The protracted Ukrainian war sooner or later leads to the destabilization of the political system in Russia and the creation of favorable conditions for the overthrow of the existing Russian establishment led by Vladimir Putin. Regime change in Russia is becoming much more likely than previously thought. It’s an irresistibly tempting option that policymakers in Brussels and Washington are looking at with a smile from ear to ear. Of course, the overthrow of Putin cannot be reported by foreign countries, but only by the Russian people, ie certain Russian opposition circles. International economic sanctions against Russia create a fertile ground for their actions because they are slowly but surely leading the Russian people into misery, poverty and hopelessness. The uprising in Russia can take place under the direction of the political opposition, but also the position. Since Russia is not a true democratic country, regime change will not happen in elections but through a coup (revolution). Although Putin has politically marginalized increasingly prominent opposition leaders, the opposition still exists. Some things just need to coincide and for the people to take to the streets and start street riots. A good example is the Arab Spring, which was triggered by a spontaneous act of self-immolation by a Tunisian street vendor. A similar sequence of events that would start the Russian masses is possible in Russia. However, Russia is a country of the October Revolution and a country of revolutionaries. In the mass of demonstrators, leaders easily emerge, be they professional politicians or ordinary people.
In the last year, the Russian authorities have launched repressive measures against the opposition media, associations and individuals. According to a survey conducted last year by the Russian NGO Levada Center, 52% of Russians fear mass repression, and 58% fear that the authorities will arbitrarily arrest or otherwise injure them. These are the highest figures since 1994. Such an increase in repression is common in the late stages of autocratic regimes and usually heralds the end of the regime. Along with repression comes media manipulation that is becoming more incoherent day by day. Yet anti-war grays have so far erupted in more than 60 Russian cities and Russia’s anti-war climate will not go away despite fears of repression. The protracted Ukrainian crisis could lead to the loss of patience of the Russian public and revolutionary ferment.
Also, the problem for the Putin regime is not only the opposition but also members of the ruling party (army, police, secret services) who are dissatisfied with the situation in which the country finds itself. The duration of the Ukrainian war for months and years will increasingly destroy the living standards of Russian citizens, mostly through inflation and shortages of consumer goods. According to some estimates, Russia should go back 30 years economically and return to the gloomy 1990s. Sugar and drug shortages have already been reported. Not to mention that most popular western brands have left Russia like Goldman Sachs, McDonald’s, H&M, Apple, Nestle, Nike, Adidas, ExxonMobil. Most dangerous of all, the crisis could very easily threaten the disintegration of the complex multiethnic, multicultural and multi-confessional Russian Federation. It is no secret about secessionist aspirations in Russian republics and provinces such as Chechnya, Tatarstan, Dagestan, Khabarovsk, Sverdlovsk, Buryatia and others.
If part of the government structures realizes that Putin is the main threat to Russia, he can be removed through a coup. It has often happened in history in autocratic regimes that the military staged a coup and overthrew authoritarian rulers who harmed the country. Instead, it would set up an interim government and maintain order until the next election, where the people would decide who will run the country. The threat is also posed by Russian oligarchs who have been with the regime so far. If they feel that sanctions are hurting them too much and that Putin can no longer guarantee their future interests, they could try to replace him with a leader who would withdraw from Ukraine and encourage the West to unfreeze their assets.
It is difficult to predict when the end of Putin’s Russia will happen, but it certainly started on February 24. The end will come sooner or later because all politicians are transient. However, it is certain that Putin’s position was shaken after the initial failure of the Ukrainian operation. Putin is no longer as secure in power as he was before the invasion because he has lost some of his authority in state structures and the people. Putin’s biggest threat is his inner circle of associates and advisers. It was thanks to bad information that people from the inner circle attacked Ukraine. Here again, Putin himself is to blame for surrounding himself with suitable careerists and swindlers who tell him not the real situation but what the president would like to hear. Another similar wrong decision cannot be ruled out that would contribute to the end of an era.
*Matija Šerić is a geopolitical analyst and journalist from Croatia and writes on foreign policy, history, economy, society, etc.