There are no simple explanations for the causes of Putin’s invasion and what will happen.
It is a complex situation but the bottom line is that, whatever the provocations and mistakes of the West, Putin has invaded a member of the United Nations which is internationally recognised as a sovereign state. This is illegal, immoral and his fault. What will happen next is uncertain but we can identify some things which are likely.
Putin’s rambling on about fascism in Ukraine is nonsense. Although Kyiv’s clumsy attempts to impose the Ukrainian language on Russian speakers in the Donbas and failure to establish a degree of autonomy as per the Minsk agreement did anger people in that region, his claim that Ukraine is practising genocide in the Donbas is ridiculous. Angst about the eastward expansion of NATO needs to be examined more carefully.
Putin says the West has welched on guarantees that NATO would not move east towards Russian borders and that this is a threat to Russia. While there is some controversy over who said what to whom when, it does seem likely that the USSR agreed to German unification on the understanding that NATO would not move East and especially not up to Russian borders. Certainly, Russians believe this to be the case. Ukraine has not helped matters by legally correct but politically insensitive talk about joining NATO and by its general move away from Russia to Europe however much it was entitled to do this.
Much is made of Russian unhappiness that following the implosion of the USSR Russia was no longer the major player on the planet that it had been. People, especially Tsar Vladimir, want Russia to be respected and accepted as a great power. This is no doubt behind Putin’s desire to strut the international stage like a colossus as his rhetoric shows and this is likely to be a major factor in his decision to invade.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Australian TV recently that “you can’t just change the borders of another country by force; you can’t decide for another country its choices, its policies, with whom it will associate; you can’t exert a sphere of influence that tries to subjugate your neighbours to your will.” Given his country’s record in doing just that, his statement shows incredible chutzpah but, however hypocritical, it is nevertheless accurate. We may well say judge not lest ye be judged but what is relevant to the current situation is that American sins do not justify the commitment of the same sins by others.
So, what next? Putin has the firepower to win the battle but at what cost? The lessons of Vietnam and Iraq for the US and of Afghanistan for both Russia and the US should not be ignored; you can win battles but lose the war. Nobody is going to send troops to defend Ukraine but while the Ukrainian forces are no match for Russia, they can inflict casualties and fight a guerrilla war. Civil resistance will also be a problem and the more Russians repress Ukrainian civilians the more they will resist. How will Russian soldiers react to being spat on when they expected bread and salt?
Sanctions are being imposed but this is a double-edged sword which may cause domestic suffering in countries whose people are not interested in Ukraine so this will be a factor in those countries’ political decisions. Biden faces an electorate which is sick of war after Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. The UN Security Council can do nothing because of the Russian veto. The Secretary General has made a strong statement but Putin doesn’t care. It is unclear how much Russia will be affected by sanctions. Causing pain to ordinary people and to powerful oligarchs might cause them to turn against Putin and we have already seen some anti-war protests in Russian cities. No doubt Putin will project himself as Alexandr Nevsky fighting the wicked West but how successful will that be as Russian troops get bogged down and the body bags start coming home? In short, domestically it is a gamble as well as internationally.
Putin must think he can win. He got away with Crimea, he knows nobody is going to send troops against him, he has military superiority in Ukraine and he believes Europe and the USA to be weak and in disarray. Like most dictators and many democratic leaders, he surrounds himself with people who tell him what he wants to hear so nobody tells the king that he has no clothes. Domestically, he cracks down on dissent so maybe he thinks he can do that in Ukraine? Only time will tell but things may not pan out as he thinks they will. As well as domestic pressures, he must think about how much international opprobrium he will face and how much will it matter? Will he have the numbers in the UN General Assembly if a motion is put? Has he calculated all these factors or is he flying blind on hubris and illusion?
Putin may hope that the invasion will strengthen his hand in negotiations which will get him enough of what he wants so that he can withdraw quickly. This is possible and if it is the case, it should be revealed soon. We will just have to wait and see.
Australia is not a player. Julie Bishop confirmed this on TV recently. She said that when she was Foreign Minister the Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, had made our lack of influence clear to her on a number of occasions. Our politicians will thump their hairy chests but this will be directed at a domestic audience and nobody will tremble in the Kremlin. Solidarity with the international community will be highlighted but that will not affect anything. The Coalition will hope to use it in their election campaign and predictably Dutton has already blamed China for not solving the problem.
The Panda in the parlour will be watching. China would rather not get involved but is being pressured to support Putin. So far, they have been only as supportive as they absolutely have to. If Putin is successful, will China consider invasion of Taiwan as some say? This is something to be considered elsewhere.
The crystal ball is clouded over.