I woke up this morning to the news that I had been dreading.
Russia launched a wide-ranging attack on Ukraine on Thursday, hitting cities and bases with airstrikes or shelling, as civilians piled into trains and cars to flee. Ukraine’s government said Russian tanks and troops rolled across the border in a “full-scale war” that could rewrite the geopolitical order and whose fallout already reverberated around the world.
In unleashing Moscow’s most aggressive action since the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, President Vladimir Putin deflected global condemnation and cascading new sanctions — and chillingly referred to his country’s nuclear arsenal. He threatened any foreign country attempting to interfere with “consequences you have never seen.”
Ukraine’s president said Russian forces were trying to seize the Chernobyl nuclear plant, site of the world’s worst nuclear disaster, and Ukrainian forces were battling other troops just miles from Kyiv for control of a strategic airport. Large explosions were heard in the capital there and in other cities, and people massed in train stations and took to roads, as the government said the former Soviet republic was seeing a long-anticipated invasion from the east, north and south.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine shows how having a big military capability can seduce a country’s leaders into thinking that they can achieve by force what they cannot achieve otherwise. We see this over and over again.
Whatever historical reasons Russia’s president Putin may give for saying that Ukraine is not a genuine country but one of recent creation, or that the western powers and NATO seek to bring it into an anti-Russia alliance so as to circle that country, it is the case at some point a new country becomes a fait accompli and trying to reverse that result by force only leads to needless death and destruction.
Putin is not alone in harboring dreams of lost empire or in trying to rebuild them by redrawing new borders in the present day. Much violence around the world seems to stem from similar sentiments held in other countries: The aggressive foreign policies of China, Turkey, Iran, and Serbia, as well as other modern states built from the ruins of past empires, appear to be similarly fixated on restoring historic territories to which they feel they have been deprived in the present day. Though less explicitly irredentist at the moment, some Western European countries also seem to feel a sense of ownership over territories they formerly controlled, most notably France in the Sahel region of Africa and in Lebanon.
The United States has criticized Russia for violating another nation’s sovereignty. But given its own track record of invasions, assassinations, and torture of foreign citizens, it may not be the best messenger. Instead, at what’s certainly a dire moment for Europe, it is the words of the [Kenyan Ambassador to the UN Martin Kimani] that best embody the high principles of liberal internationalism and multilateral cooperation that now seem mortally endangered.
“We believe that all states formed from empires that have collapsed or retreated have many peoples in them yearning for integration with peoples in neighboring states. This is normal and understandable. After all, who does not want to be joined to their brethren and to make common purpose with them? However, Kenya rejects such a yearning from being pursued by force,” Kimani said. “We must complete our recovery from the embers of dead empires in a way that does not plunge us back into new forms of domination and oppression.”
Since Russia has overwhelming military power on its side, we can expect to see the same result we have seen elsewhere when a big military power invades a smaller country: a quick military victory followed by a long war of attrition as it faces ongoing resistance in its attempts to get a stubborn local population to accept their new overlords. The invasion will very likely end in failure. The main question is how long it will take before Russia ‘declares victory’ and leaves, as has happened with so many other invasions, leaving behind a devastated country. Ultimately, the invasion of Ukraine, rather than being the triumphant capstone to Putin’s long tenure as leader of Russia, may well turnout to be a catastrophe that leads to his downfall.
The wrinkle here is that there are some deep historical and cultural connections between Russians and Ukrainians which it makes it different from (say) the US and Russian invasions of Afghanistan and the US invasion of Vietnam. It is a war between relatives and not strangers.
In the end, as with all wars, the people who suffer the most are the ordinary people just trying to live their own lives in peace. One has to hope that the country will not be as ruined by the war as other countries have been.