Russia’s war on Ukraine: a tragedy for Ukrainians, a disastrous miscalculation by Putin, and the bitter fruit of the unipolar moment

Photo by Al Jazeera. Ukrainian firefighters attempt to put out a fire in a Kyiv apartment building, caused by Russian shelling.
  1. The Ukrainian government, which is the force Russia is making war against, is not remotely akin to neo-Nazis. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is a liberal Russian-speaking Jew. The far right has a relatively small foothold in Ukraine’s parliament — smaller than in several other European countries.
  2. It could hardly be more obvious that Russia’s intervention, seeing as it is now pursuing a regime change operation that will almost undoubtedly require some period of occupation, is going to strengthen Ukraine’s far right. If we have learned anything from Iraq and Syria, it’s that reactionary extremists benefit from these situations.
  3. Russia is aligning itself with far-right forces in multiple European countries.
  1. Russia wants to keep Ukraine in its economic sphere. In 2012, Ukraine sent a quarter of its exports to Russia and a quarter to the EU. Since then, even with EU membership a distant prospect and NATO membership all but unforeseeable, Ukrainian exports shifted overwhelmingly toward the EU.
  2. Putin is espousing an increasingly virulent Russian nationalist ideology and operating with an imperial mindset. He does not recognize Ukraine as an independent nation, but as a periphery of the “Russian world,” artificially separated from Russia by the Bolsheviks. That doesn’t mean he wants to annex the whole of Ukraine; he would probably be satisfied with Ukraine as a pliant pro-Russian regime like Lukashenko’s in Belarus. I also want to clarify, because I am hearing pundits make this mistake: Putin’s idea of the “Russian world” is not the whole former USSR. It’s Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus. He may want a sphere of influence encompassing the former USSR, but only those three countries form a unitary “people” in Putin’s worldview.
  3. Russia wants to prevent the US from stationing a missile defense system on Ukrainian soil. This system would be a grave threat to Russia, making nuclear war more likely. This might sound strange to laypersons — isn’t “missile defense” just defensive? — but this is a widely held view among defense systems analysts. (If a nuclear-armed state thinks it can shoot down the other side’s nukes, then it loses its deterrence from launching its own.)
  1. The sanctions imposed are serious. I find it hard to imagine that Russian elites, in the long term, will be happy with Putin’s actions. These sanctions will also hurt the global economy, driving up already-high energy prices, but Western leaders appear willing to make the tradeoff (even as sustained inflation is spelling a midterm election disaster for Biden’s party). Fears of rebound effects have thus far stopped Russia from being kicked out of the SWIFT banking network, but it remains a possibility.
  2. Putin has few friends in this. Syria, Belarus, and maybe Kazakhstan are with him — not exactly a formidable crew to roll with in the international arena. China is fence-sitting, as are a few other countries, but not supporting Russia outright. Putin’s international reputation is on the ropes.
  3. There is a non-negligible amount of dissent within Russia itself. Media outlets always play up dissent in enemy countries, and we need to be wary of that, but by Russian standards, the antiwar protests we have been seeing in Russian cities are no joke. Numerous Russian celebrities and journalists, including some working for state media, have spoken out against the war. This is a stark contrast to the reaction in 2014 when Putin annexed Crimea and enjoyed all-time highs in his highest favorability ratings. To be clear, I strongly suspect that the majority of Russians are in support of this war so far. But to have any significant dissent, not just after a war has gone sour but at the start of it, in a relatively authoritarian country like Russia, is something to be remarked upon.
  4. The Ukrainian military is not rolling over. They won’t be able to prevent a regime change if Russia wants a regime change, but they seem to have some ability to slow Russia’s advance and inflict casualties. (However I do suspect the numbers of Russian casualties put out by the Ukrainian government are grossly inflated.)
  5. Assuming Russia occupies Ukraine for a significant period of time, which it will probably have to do to effect regime change, it will face an insurgency, and it’s very possible that that insurgency will eventually receive arms from outside. Putin probably knows this, and that’s likely part of why Russia’s onslaught in Ukraine has so far been much more careful than its brutal bombing campaigns in Syria. Still, I highly doubt that Putin can win many “hearts and minds” in western Ukraine, or even in Kyiv. I think if anything we will see previously pro-Russian populations turning against Russia.

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I’m a writer, musician, and theatre artist from the US, currently located in Norway.

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Matthew Waterman

Matthew Waterman

I’m a writer, musician, and theatre artist from the US, currently located in Norway.

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