Over the past few rotten years, a constant refrain in my thinking can be summarized as next year couldn’t possibly be worse than this year, only to be disproven comprehensively by events. 2021 was bad enough, so I hoped that 2022 would finally see the end of Covid-19, and be a year to look forward to as well as a year to look back on fondly as a good one in future. Then, on 24 February 2022, Russia started its invasion of Ukraine, and shattered everything.
I had been utterly wrong and thought such invasion unlikely, despite the multiple prescient warnings, because I could not quite see the ‘endgame’ for Vladimir Putin. Yes, Russia is likely to win the war militarily, though reporting thus far suggests Ukrainians are putting up a desperate, determined, heroic, but also tragic resistance against the odds on their own. Details on military and civilian casualties are scarce, but given that this is a full-on confrontation between two well-equipped regular armed forces, they must be high. Russian forces might occupy Kyiv and institute a ‘regime change’. But then what? Is Putin prepared to fight and occupy the entire territory of Ukraine for the long haul?
Unlike Crimea or eastern Ukraine under separatist control, or South Ossetia and Abkhazia, Russia does not enjoy anything resembling popular support in Ukraine. Also to state the obvious, Ukraine is a far bigger area and has a lot more people. If Russia manages to occupy large parts of Ukraine and Putin finds a willing puppet to head a government in Kyiv, that puppet will not be seen as legitimate by most Ukrainians or by most other states. Russia the hated occupier will have to resort to a massive programme of repression to prop up the puppet. Occupation, repression, and counter-insurgency are difficult as numerous examples over the past two decades demonstrate. Military victory for Russia if it comes might end up pyrrhic, as well as at the cost of enormous losses of life.
Disagree or abhor, in many cases the end is quite clear and concrete when someone pursues a course of political or military action. In other words, the supposed objectives make some sort of sense, however twisted. Putin’s statements regarding Ukraine have been often vague and abstract as well as contradictory. They have been full of bombast and would ordinarily be consigned as ravings of an unhinged individual. Obviously they are primarily for domestic consumption and Putin is oblivious to what the rest of the world thinks. There remains something of a Putin conundrum: are his comments cunning dissimulation and diversions based on rational calculations, or has he ‘gone mad’ as a few people are suggesting, consumed by dangerous delusion of grandeur or invincibility or infallibility to restore the glory days of the Russian or Soviet empire? Whether cold-bloodedness or madness, Putin’s readiness to use naked force poses danger to many, and I have no idea what kind of world we are now entering.