Putin is paying the price for the war in Ukraine

Until 2014, Russia had a lot of military power and global influence for a country with a population and GDP smaller than Brazil’s and not much larger than Mexico’s. Vladimir Putin’s policy towards Ukraine has cost Russia dearly.

In 2014, with the invasion of Crimea, it cost Russia’s influence over Ukraine’s future. And now it has also cost Russia its global position.

losing ukraine

In 2014, after the Maidan protests, Ukraine’s pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych resigned. Putin invaded Ukraine, annexing the strategically important Crimea region and later helping to establish and sustain two “people’s republics” in pro-Russian areas of eastern Ukraine.

It is worth remembering the situation in Ukraine before the Russian invasion of 2014. In the last Ukrainian parliamentary elections, relatively pro-Russian parties won more than 40% of the vote. Maidan’s own protests were sparked by Yanukovych’s last-minute decision not to sign a trade treaty with the European Union. It wasn’t as if Ukraine was about to join NATO.

Before the Russian invasion, Ukraine was the kind of buffer state that Russian apologists said was necessary to maintain peace between Russia and NATO – a neutral territory that links the two military blocs. Russia’s influence in the country has increasingly waned, but with a 40% popular vote base, pro-Russian parties were in a strong position to benefit – over time – from undecided voters’ reactions to chronic incompetence and corruption of Ukrainian governments.

Putin’s 2014 invasion ended this great opportunity, because it led to the collapse of pro-Russian parties. By absorbing Crimea and parts of Donetsk and Luhansk, Ukraine’s most pro-Russian areas, Russia removed its strongest base of support from the Ukrainian electorate — and many of the pro-Russian voters who remained in Ukraine did not accept Russia’s invasion. . The pro-Russia percentage dropped from over 40% in 2012 to 16% in 2019.

Thus, after 2014, Ukraine’s future would be decided by disputes between parties who wanted to align themselves economically, diplomatically and militarily with the West. In the 2019 elections, pro-Russian parties lost and a pro-Western comedian from a new party won.

In a July 2021 article, Putin warned that Ukraine was embarking on an “anti-Russia project”. That was ironic. It was his own 2014 invasion that sparked not only a nationalist backlash within a hitherto divided Ukraine, but also led to a NATO-assisted reform of Ukraine’s armed forces.

Putin’s annexation of Crimea and parts of eastern Ukraine came at a price: he managed to get pieces of Ukraine to Russia, but he lost his hold over the rest of the country. Putin was unwilling to accept the political costs of his own actions. But as he himself had destroyed the electoral base for a pro-Russian Ukrainian government, his only remaining option to keep Ukraine from ever closer alignment with the West was military coercion.

It is reasonable to imagine that he may have had less qualms about using such coercion at this time than at others, because it was a successful tactic for Putin in the past.

When Putin won

Prior to his invasions of Ukraine, Putin had invaded Georgia in 2008 and the breakaway Russian republic of Chechnya in 1999. Both wars were reasonably successful from Putin’s perspective. After a brutal campaign, Russia managed to suppress the Chechen rebellion. The Russian president’s forces also quickly defeated the Georgian military, increased Russian influence over Georgian areas that wanted to secede from the country, and pushed the Georgian government towards a more pro-Russian orientation.

But there were conditions that allowed these successes, and those conditions were not present in Ukraine. Chechnya in 1999 had the equivalent of less than 1% of Russia’s population. Georgia in 2009 had a population less than one-thirtieth the size of Russia. Both the Chechen rebels and the Georgian military were few in number and geographically isolated. Russia has not suffered significant economic sanctions as a result of the conflicts, and neither the Chechens nor the Georgians have received significant assistance from the West in their struggles.

Within his Machiavellian profile, Putin had chosen his battles wisely. Georgia and Chechnya were small enough that he could bring an overwhelming military force upon them without having to mobilize the Russian people and Russian economy.

By painting the Chechen rebels as terrorists and the Georgian government as the aggressor (the truth was complicated enough that people who wanted to see it that way had reason to do so), Putin managed to secure the neutrality of much of the West and the practically everyone agrees. The result was that the only price he paid was the lives of Russian soldiers, and most of those killed in the war were indentured soldiers rather than conscripts.

Losing everywhere

Ukraine was different. In 2022, the country’s population was the equivalent of just under a third of that of Russia (or, put another way, more than ten times the population of Georgia in 2008). Ukraine also had supply lines to NATO countries.

Russia still had more men, more tanks and more money, but if the Ukrainians decided to mobilize their population and fight, winning a war with Ukraine could be a much bigger task than any Putin had previously undertaken.

Before this year’s invasion, no one knew how much more cohesive Ukraine had become as a result of the nationalist reaction to Putin’s 2014 invasion. And no one knew how effectively the new NATO-backed Ukrainian military would fight.

When Putin tried to coerce — and then invade — Ukraine, the Ukrainian military turned out to be more effective than most people expected. Putin’s failure to secure a quick victory has severely damaged Russia’s influence and military power.

The first and most obvious cost of this strategic miscalculation was paid by the Russian military itself. Russia lost, by some estimates, tens of thousands of men. Its best equipment is being chewed up by Ukrainian troops using NATO-supplied artillery and anti-armor weapons. The organization is hanging by a thread and the costs in material and men will only increase as the war drags on.

Russia’s losses even led Putin to take the politically and militarily risky move of expanding recruitment and openly sending recruits to the war zone under the guise of “partial mobilisation”. That was a step Putin resisted for six months, until the successful Ukrainian offensive in the Kharkiv area left him with no other option.

It was also an admission that their professional armies of indentured soldiers had failed. From now on, more and more Russian fighting and killing will be done by troops who have so far refused to join for reasons of patriotism or money, and more and more the mourning will be done by the families of those same Russian recruits.

It is not difficult to see why Putin resisted such a mobilization for so long. The fact that the Russian military has become so desperate for manpower as to require partial conscription is a very worrying sign for the Kremlin.

But there is also the relative decline of Russian military power in Europe. Since the beginning of the Ukrainian War, Poland, Finland, Sweden and the Baltic states have substantially increased their military spending. Sweden and Finland joined NATO after decades of official neutrality. Russia is now weaker relative to the rest of Eastern and Nordic Europe than it was in January 2022, and with each passing day, it gets weaker as a result of losses in Ukraine and increased defense investment by Russia. Eastern and Nordic countries that were outraged by Putin’s invasion.

Perhaps even more noticeable than the weakening of the Russian military has been the Putin regime’s arrogant refusal to engage in strong diplomacy towards the West and its failure in the face of a war of relations that involves European and American hearts and minds. The result was a sharp decline in Russia’s global political influence.

Germany is a good case study. Before the war, the German population was satisfied with a deal where the Germans bought Russian gas and Russia used some of that money to…employ retired German politicians. Since the beginning of the war, German public opinion has been strongly on Ukraine’s side.

While Germany’s government was not as enthusiastic as those of Poland and the US in supporting Ukraine, Germany agreed to sanctions on Russia that weakened the country’s productive capacity and provided Ukraine with military support.

While the amount of this aid was disappointing to some supporters of the Ukrainians, the fact that Germany got so straight to the point shows a substantial erosion of Russian political influence. The result is that Russia, as of September 2022, has a weaker army, a weaker economy, better-armed and more numerous enemies, and less influence than in January 2022. The losses increase with each day the war continues. , and many of them will not be recovered by Russia anytime soon, regardless of the end result of the war. That’s the price of Putin’s war against Ukraine.

© 2022 National Review. Published with permission. Original in English.

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