By Daniel Serwer
President Putin has committed Russia not only to a full-scale invasion of Ukraine but also to replacing its democratically elected government. He wants a vassal state with a puppet government in Kyiv, like Lukashenko’s in Minsk. Donald Trump is expressing his admiration. China’s President Xi is helping finance the enterprise, which has ended a long peace in central Europe.
Putin is winning
I was wrong in thinking Russian objectives would be limited to the south and east. I wasn’t alone. Ukrainian President Zelensky did not anticipate the assault on the capital, which aims to replace him. Russian forces are already in Kyiv, which is suffering bombardment with missiles as well as a ground assault. Appeals to citizens to take up arms at this point aren’t likely to change the situation. Unless something dramatic happens soon, Ukraine will soon be captured, except perhaps for a rump territory around Lviv in the west.
The Western response
The Western reaction has been vigorous. Pre-emptive release of intelligence on Russian plans ruined Putin’s effort to blame the invasion on its Ukrainian victims. Sanctions are making it difficult for Russian banks to survive while the stock market crashes and the ruble tanks. More sanctions are on the way. Banks and individuals will be cut out of world financial markets. Russia will soon find it difficult to obtain Western technology.
But sanctions won’t change Putin’s mind. You get what you want from them only when an opponent negotiates for relief, not when they are imposed.
NATO has beefed up its forces on Russia’s periphery, the opposite of what Putin wanted. Any move against a NATO country now will bring a far wider and more dangerous war.
The conflict will continue
The war may end soon, but the conflict will continue. the Russian government has earned the enmity of all Ukrainian patriots. Unfortunately, some of those are extreme nationalists, but so too are lots of Putin’s supporters in Russia.
It is arguable that Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is in the tradition of Hitler’s Anschluss into Austria. The invasion has certainly been justified on similar grounds. Even if the war ends in a Russian victory, the conflict will continue until Ukraine is again an independent state. I doubt however that it will accept the neutral status Austria lives with, and RAND colleagues have proposed. Ukrainians are going to want NATO membership more than ever before.
Impact in Russia
The impact of this war on Russia is difficult to predict. Pre-invasion views of Russians on Ukraine issues were more nuanced than might be assumed. Even views in Donbas were equivocal on remaining in Ukraine. Putin and his circle are diehard Russian nationalists, but he regards Ukrainians as “brothers.” That view is common in Russia. But unlike Putin, most Russians don’t think it appropriate for Cain to kill Abel.
War polarizes. Putin’s propaganda machine is working overtime. His repressive forces are too. Russian police have arrested thousands of anti-war protesters all over the country. The question is whether the economic pain from sanctions will strengthen Putin’s hold on power or loosen it.
Worse in Ukraine
The repression in Ukraine will be far worse than in Russia. Moscow’s forces will attempt to capture or kill the officials of its democratically elected government and parliament. They will install a puppet government that will need to impose its will. Ukraine’s army and police forces will be subjagated and purged. Its educational system will be vetted for hints of anti-Russian or Ukrainian nationalist sentiment. Moscow will take control of the media and install Russia Today and Sputnik, or clones of them, as major outlets.
Implications for Europe and the Balkans
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has interrupted the long peace in north central Europe and ends hope for a “Europe whole and free.” Instead Europe will be divided between autocracy and democracy. NATO will have renewed significance and a greater presence near Russia’s borders. Moscow will need to depend on Beijing for whatever limited access to global financial markets China is willing to provide. The stock market and the ruble have already registered their lack of confidence in this arrangement by dropping precipitously. But sanctions will not force Putin to capitulate.
A lot still depends on the course of the war in Ukraine. Ukrainian forces are putting up a courageous resistance. But Russia’s superior technology, training, and organization is likely to prevail. Kyiv is in play. If it falls, the main question will be about western Ukraine. Will the Russians leave a rump there as an escape route for dissidents, or will Moscow try to take Lviv?
For the Balkans the consequences are frightening. There too division is in the future. Serbia is maintaining its official neutrality, but its government-controlled media are aligned with Russia. If the invasion of Ukraine is successful, Presidents Vucic and Dodik might conclude that the time has come to create the “Serbian world” they want. The EU is correct to beef up its forces in Bosnia and Herzegovina. KFOR should be enhanced as well. Russia’s friends in the Balkans can’t be relied on to show self-restraint while Russia gobbles up Europe’s second largest country. The new division of Europe will run through the Balkans as well.
One outstanding question
It is not clear yet whether Russia will try to take all of Ukraine, or leave a rump territory in the west near Lviv as an escape valve for opponents. That might make repression in Kyiv easier, but it would also given Ukrainians a territory from which to mount an insurgency. Best bet is that Moscow will try for all of Ukraine. Putin will only stop when resistance forces him to do so.