Russo-Ukrainian War: where it was, is, and is going

The world expressed shock when Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an invasion of neighboring Ukraine on February 24th, less than two days after sending a ‘peace-keeping’ force into regions of that nation which attempted to claim independence.  It appears that Putin has terribly miscalculated a significant number of issues related to his invasion:  the defiance and resistance of Ukrainians, the international response, and protests from within his own borders.  Putin’s invasion might signal the beginning of the end of his career.  

Why did Russia do this in the first place?

Clearly, he is not pleased with the progress of the war

There’s quite a bit of backstory to this invasion which spans the course of over 100 years.  After the Russian Revolution in 1917, communist leaders creates the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.  The nation comprised of 15 ‘republics’ including both Russia and Ukraine as political entities.  Because of its sheer size, Russia dominated the Soviet Union.  

During the last 100 years, each of these republics developed their own nationalistic identities.  After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Ukraine declared independence and began its own path, separate from Russia, in 1991.

From his statements and actions, it is clear that Vladimir Putin has never reconciled with the end of the Soviet Empire.  He mentioned as much prior to the invasion last week, claiming, 

I would like to emphasize again that Ukraine is not just a neighbouring country for us. It is an inalienable part of our own history, culture and spiritual space. … 

Since time immemorial, the people living in the south-west of what has historically been Russian land have called themselves Russians and Orthodox Christians. This was the case before the 17th century, when a portion of this territory rejoined the Russian state, and after. … 

… modern Ukraine was entirely created by Russia or, to be more precise, by Bolshevik, Communist Russia. This process started practically right after the 1917 revolution, and Lenin and his associates did it in a way that was extremely harsh on Russia – by separating, severing what is historically Russian land. Nobody asked the millions of people living there what they thought.

Putin does not believe Ukraine should exist as a geopolitical state, nor should it have ever been partitioned in such a way in 1917.  He might as well say, “It’s ours — always has been and will be.”

The invasion into Ukraine also pertains to concerns that Russia becoming increasingly surrounded by member states of NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization).  The alliance is a holdover from the Cold War, and has increasingly expanded eastward through Europe.  The Baltic states all are former Soviet republics, directly border Russia, and have NATO membership.  A number of other former Soviet satellites, such as Hungary, Poland, Romania, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia have also joined NATO since the fall of the Soviet bloc.

In 2014, Russia invaded the Crimean Peninsula, taking it from Ukraine by force.  In 2008, engaged in a 12 day war with the Republic of Georgia.  A key point in both of these conflicts?  NATO wants to incorporate these states into the fold.  

Russia’s concerns about a NATO dominated Europe are more evident than ever, particularly when the Russian Foreign Ministry issued a warning to Sweden and Finland, expressing the possibility of political and military consequences if they attempted to join NATO.

This should not surprise any of us, particularly in light of a speech Putin gave at the Munich Security Conference in 2007.  He railed against an American foreign policy which stood uncontested in the world.  Putin’s speech also hinted that other powerful nations should rally together and use their economic power to leverage against a ‘unipolar’ world as an effective counterweight to what he believed was unchecked American power.

Russia’s invasion into Ukraine undoubtedly involves access to important natural resources and a land grab akin to its 2014 incursion into Crimea.  Ukraine is the second largest country by land area in Europe and offers significant access to the Black Sea, which in turn, connects to the Aegean and Mediterranean Seas.

Ukraine currently holds the 7th largest reserve for coal deposits in the world and the 2nd largest in Europe.  More than 1.1 trillion cubic meters of natural gas reside within Ukrainian borders, along with 3.7 billion tons of oil.  These fossil fuels alone make it an enticing target for Russia.  Additionally, large deposits of iron ore, manganese, and uranium are found there.  The most significant resource of the Ukraine, however, lies in its agricultural output.  This former Soviet state, often referred to as the ‘Breadbasket of the Empire,’ is one of the leading exporters of corn and wheat in the world.  Some estimates claim Ukrainian grains could feed the world.  

Integrating this land into Russia would be a major victory for Putin in terms of adding resources to an already powerful nation.  He would have the buffer state he wants along with stronger influence on European and global policy.

So, how’s that invasion working out for Russia?

Russian advances haven’t conquered the capital of Kyiv yet

It’s sufficient to say that Russia’s invasion is not going well.  According to many sources, Russia expected a swift victory in less than five days.  Today marks the fifth day and Ukraine appears more defiant with each passing day.  In the terms of a traditional military advance, the Russian Army has moved progressively through a significant portion of Ukraine, however, one of its main objectives is capturing the capital city of Kyiv. Russia most likely wants to remove the current Ukrainian government and establish a puppet state in its place.  These goals may be impossible to attain.  

The Ukrainian people show no signs that surrender is an option and they will not accept a Russian backed government.  Removing an enemy from a city it occupies requires quite a bit of effort and the defender in a the city always has an advantage in urban warfare.  Even if Russia does capture Kyiv, the people will never accept the occupation.  It’s a losing proposition for Russia.  This doesn’t even account for the near $20 billion per day the war costs for the invaders, or that their ability to replace war materiel has become limited now that economic sanctions are in place.

The International Response

Russia’s actions have also established an international sense of outrage not seen since perhaps the events of September 11, 2001.  Vladimir Putin’s plans included a belief that the United States and European nations would not go to war over Ukraine.  In that aspect, he was correct.  No nation has explicitly committed troops to assisting Ukraine (that in itself is a crime).  However, the backlash against Putin’s actions has been fierce.

The invasion into a sovereign nation with no plausible reason concerns all of Europe.  Nations rightly see that if Russia is willing to invade Ukraine, they could be next.  Putin’s actions represent an existential threat to Central and Eastern Europe.  Conflict also disrupts already fragile supply chains by which many European nations rely upon for important resources.  That disruption also extends to international stock markets and prices for commodities. 

The Russo-Ukrainian War has also provided the world with important insight into how social media can affect conflict.  The even faster than usual dissemination of information provided the world with a number of images, videos, and stories which have tugged at the hearts of people everywhere.  Who wouldn’t be moved by some of great stories of individuals fighting for their homeland or acting in defiance toward a hostile, invading force?

  • Former heavyweight boxing champion brothers Vitali and Wladimir Klitschko, who both have more than enough financial resources to escape the war before it started, stayed to fight for their nation.  
  • Others were awed by an elderly woman who confronted Russian soldiers with sunflower seeds, telling them that when Ukrainians kill them, their dead bodies will fertilize the ground for the seeds to bloom.
  • The internet has been wild with rumors of the “Ghost of Kyiv,” a supposed Ukrainian pilot who downed six Russian planes and two helicopters on the first day of fighting.  Is this ghost real?  Probably not, but people love a story like this — and the want to believe.
  • Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has also emerged as an unlikely hero.  Just five years ago, Zelenskyy held no political office of any kind.  He originally embarked on a career in acting and comedy, only to appear on the political scene in 2018, in part, to bring a model of decency to politics in the nation.  Zelenskyy, and all 100 members of the Ukrainian Parliament, have joined the fight.  Zelenskyy also refused to leave the nation when US officials offered him help in evacuation, stating the fight was here and he needed anti-tank ammunition, “not a ride.”  This sort of active leadership is unprecedented in modern history and I know that Americans love and respect this.
  • Throughout the crisis, Ukraine has maintained an active presence on social media, routinely asking for support from other nations through financial means, pressuring Russia through tweets, and providing slickly made videos detailing how citizens are stepping up to fight.

The invasion also prompted a slew of sanctions against Russia.  Almost immediately, Germany responded by canceling their deal with Russia on the Nord Stream 2 pipeline.  The underground pipeline was completed in September but not yet operational.  Germany expected to import significant quantities of natural gas annually from Russia, and abandoning this project is a serious step in punishing Russia.

President Zelenskyy has literally joined the fight

Moreover, Germany announced it would send anti-tank weapons to Ukraine and more significantly, it would invest more than €100 billion into defense spending.  This is more relevant due to the fact that it’s a reversal of previous German policy not to send weapons into a hot zone.  Newly minted German Chancellor Olaf Scholz tweeted, “The Russian invasion marks a turning point.”  Other world leaders have expressed a similar sentiment.

The European Union announced today it would be sending fighter jets to assist Ukrainians, which could neutralize the air superiority held by Russians.  Ukrainian officials would love to see a no-fly zone set up over Ukraine, and if that happens, Russia loses any hope of military victory.  

Great Britain is sending additional anti-tank weapons to Ukraine and it has given a green light to a special operations team to assist Ukrainians in military training.  

President Joe Biden has authorized $350 million in emergency spending for military aid in Ukraine, and is asking the US Congress to approve an additional $6.4 billion. 

The United States, Japan, Taiwan, Australia, New Zealand, Great Britain, and the nations of the European Union have placed economic sanctions with respect to trading against Russia and have also limited Russian access to banking assets.  This places the Russian government and corporations in great economic distress.  These restrictions have caused the massive sell-off in the Russian stock market and of the ruble, causing both to drop precipitously.  These companies also will not longer have access to the international ‘SWIFT’ program, a computer system which allows for easy conversions of currencies.  Russia held more than $630 billion in foreign currencies — but only digitally through the SWIFT system.  Like most of anyone’s money these days, it exists in the ether of the internet and if Russia is locked out of the ability to access that money, Russia’s problems multiply.

How will all this play out?

Much of the future depends on Vladimir Putin.  His invasion into Ukraine has altered the geopolitical balance of power in the world.  No one ever really sympathized with Russia, but now Putin’s position will only worsen each day.  

The economic sanctions against Russia will likely continue until a drastic change occurs.  A world leader, particularly from a nation like Russia, does not simply walk away from an act like this unscathed.  The United States, the European Union, and other allied nations will apply economic pressure until Putin guarantees Ukraine’s borders will remain secure, Ukraine receives membership in NATO, or Putin walks away from leadership.  

Putin’s language during this crisis has alarmed world leaders for another reason.  The Russian president stated that any interference with the Russian invasion would face “consequences you have never seen.”  This immediately brought concern as a thinly veiled reference to nuclear weapons.  That fear elevated today when Putin placed his nuclear forces on high alert.  

Every move made by Putin is a form of brinkmanship, pushing nations closer to a potential third worldwide conflict and nuclear conflict.  Would Putin be so bold?  Unlikely, but at this point, if he backs down from his tough guy persona, it could be perceived as weakness within his own nation and the embarrassment of a lifetime.  Putin lacks options that allow him out of this conflict without losing face.  He’s like a gambler who is in too deep and believes doubling down is the only way out.  That attitude never pans out.

President Zelenskyy agreed to meet with the Russians at the border between Ukraine and Belarus.  It remains unclear if Putin himself will be there and the specific location has not been revealed.

Throughout more than 20 years as Russia’s leading politician, Putin has been attempting to reforge Russian military might and economic power.  He repeatedly demonstrated a willingness to use violence as a means of achieving policy goals, crushing dissent, and bringing his country to a place of prominence.  And now, we are going to remember this as indeed a turning point.  Putin’s career can’t come back from this blunder.  There’s no political spin that could save him, no regaining respect with his own supporters.

In the end, the world will remember Putin as another failed autocrat.  And we all had front row seats.  It’s sad when we consider the cost in human tragedy.  How many people did this tragedy rob of their lives?  Every nation should consider this a valuable lesson.  The Ukrainians showed us more courage than most of us thought possible.  The Russians reminded us about hubris.  And for a tiny moment, the world rallied around something good.

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