Vladimir Putin’s obsession with Ukraine could spark major European war

Events since 2014 have made it clear that Russia will do everything possible to restore control over Ukraine. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s obsession with Ukraine has already claimed more than 14,000 lives and plunged the world into a new cold war. It is now threatening to launch a major invasion that could spark the most devastating European conflict since World War II.

Putin’s fixation on everything Ukrainian is well documented. Despite the Kremlin’s official denials, its war in eastern Ukraine has been the world’s worst-kept secret since Kremlin forces began seizing cities in the region in the spring of 2014.

The Russian leader is also known for his frequent and often very moving public statements on the subject of Ukraine. This includes Putin remarkable essay from July 2021 in which he openly questioned Ukrainian statehood and asserted that “true sovereignty of Ukraine is only possible in partnership with Russia”.

While Putin’s ultimate goal is relatively clear, Russia is struggling to achieve its goals. Moscow used military force in Crimea and eastern Ukraine. He sought to destabilize Ukraine from within through a series of disinformation campaigns and pro-Russian political projects. He tried to pressure President Zelensky to implement a Russian interpretation of the Minsk accords that would undermine Ukrainian sovereignty.

None of these tactics produced the desired result. On the contrary, Russia’s hostile actions have proven to be counterproductive, greatly bolstering Ukrainian public support for Euro-Atlantic integration while strengthening the country’s determination to geopolitically distance itself from the Kremlin. Clear majorities of Ukrainians now support the idea of EU and NATO membership, while the alliance shifted Ukraine last year to Partner of enhanced opportunities and has since reaffirmed its commitment to Ukraine’s future NATO membership.

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Faced with the failure of his Ukrainian policies, it appears that Putin has now decided to raise the stakes dramatically and threaten Ukraine with full-scale conventional war. Since October 2021, there have been reports of increasing military build-up along Russia’s vast land border with Ukraine. Russian units have been moved to positions north, east and south of Ukraine in a way that experts say is fully compatible with preparations for a major offensive.

At this point, Russia’s actions appear designed to force the West to abandon Ukraine. Much of this effort focuses explicitly on the United States, with the debate over a potential invasion taking place primarily in the American information space. This indicates a carefully constructed Russian influence operation targeting the US foreign policy community.

As a great supporter of Ukraine, the United States is at the heart of the Kremlin’s thinking which seeks to settle the Ukrainian question. Many Russians have been encouraged by recent measures by the Biden administration, such as the decision to license the Nord Stream 2 pipeline. There is a growing consensus in Moscow that the White House’s focus on China creates opportunities for Russia to exploit.

The Kremlin now appears to be intending to offer Washington a choice between withdrawing from Ukraine or witnessing the country’s violent subjugation with overwhelming military force. It is a false choice that ignores the realities that any Russian invading force would face if Putin actually gave the order to continue his offensive.

Ukraine today is far from the failed state depicted in Kremlin propaganda. It is an increasingly self-confident nation with a mature and seasoned civil society. Since gaining independence three decades ago, Ukrainians have embraced a European identity and have grown accustomed to seeing themselves as part of the wider democratic world. Twice in the past twenty years, they have taken to the streets by the millions to defend the country’s democratic values ​​against domestic authoritarianism and foreign intervention.

The invasion of Ukraine will not provide Putin with the kind of “quick victorious war” that many hope in Moscow. The Ukrainian army is highly motivated and will fight on its own soil against a foreign invader. Unlike most of the Russian troops currently massed along the border, virtually all Ukrainian battalions and brigades have combat experience. Years of conflict with Russia have also produced a large pool of seasoned and highly skilled veterans, numbering in the hundreds of thousands.

While it is clear that Russia enjoys overwhelming military superiority in terms of numbers and armaments, any invading force would inevitably suffer heavy losses that Moscow would find difficult to justify to the Russian public. Far from raising Putin’s internal ratings, such a conflict could quickly undermine the stability of his entire regime.

After crossing the border, the Russian occupation forces would face formidable opposition from the Ukrainian army as well as irregular forces made up of veterans and volunteers, making effective administration impossible. Moscow’s military dominance in terms of aircraft and conventional weapons would be of limited use against the kind of internal resistance Ukraine might muster.

Russian troops would not be welcomed by the Ukrainian civilian population either. Moscow made this mistake seven years ago, when the Kremlin apparently fell into the trap of believing in its own propaganda and was then shocked when Ukrainian society mobilized to support the country’s defense.

Ukrainian public opposition to Russian intervention has only hardened since the historic days of spring and summer 2014. Over the past seven and a half years, the losses inflicted by Putin’s war have been felt in all of Ukrainian society. Meanwhile, the grim realities of the Russian occupation in eastern Ukraine have left few Ukrainians in doubt about the devastating economic and social impact of a larger Kremlin offensive.

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It is not a local problem. A major war in Ukraine would completely transform the European security climate with disastrous implications for the entire region. Millions of Ukrainian refugees are said to be flocking to neighboring EU countries. Ukraine’s economy would collapse, with a wide range of negative consequences for European and global economies, ranging from disruption of the food supply to loss of trade and investment.

It is also essential to understand that Russian ambitions do not stop with Ukraine. This is a dangerous misconception that fails to capture the true reach of modern Russian revisionism. In reality, Putin is seeking to demolish the entire rules-based world order established in the decades following World War II and consolidated since the collapse of the USSR.

In his place, he dreams of a world divided into spheres of influence where great powers like Russia have a free hand to dictate their rules to their weaker neighbors. Control of Ukraine is an important part of this vision, but it is only one element of a much more ambitious revisionist program.

If the West fails to stop Putin in Ukraine, cyber attacks and disinformation campaigns by the Kremlin will increase, while Russian mercenaries and conventional forces will be deployed in ever-increasing numbers to hot spots around the world. Moscow will become more daring in the militarization of energy supply and step up its support for destabilizing political and social movements in the democratic world.

In order to avoid a major war in Ukraine, America and Europe must react swiftly and decisively to Putin’s current posture. This reaction should include accelerated military support to Ukraine as well as clear and unambiguous warnings about the West’s willingness to implement the toughest sanctions package possible.

With the data available pointing to a possible Russian invasion of Ukraine in the first months of 2022, there is no time to create the necessary deterrence in terms of fighter jets and air defense systems. However, there are a range of military measures that can be taken to strengthen Ukraine’s ability to inflict unacceptable losses on invading Russian forces.

In the meantime, it is vital that the sanctions are developed in detail and announced in the coming weeks. The Russian economy is heavily dependent on the West and vulnerable to sanctions. America is likely to take the lead in devising serious sanctions measures, but it is essential that the UK and major EU countries, including Germany and France, also offer their support. unequivocal.

The world must understand that if the Ukrainians are prepared to defend their country against a full-scale Russian invasion, the costs of the ensuing conflict would be catastrophic and global in character.

Putin’s threatening military build-up is intended to intimidate the international community, but it would be a tragic mistake to assume that the Russian leader is only bluffing. His obsession with Ukraine and his desire to overturn the 1991 verdict means that a major war in Ukraine cannot be ruled out. Any indication of Western hesitation will make an invasion much more likely.

This makes prevention policies an urgent priority. Before it is too late, the West must demonstrate its determination to support Ukraine and impose crushing costs on the Kremlin. With Russia’s current disturbing but unclear intentions, preparation remains the best deterrent.

Andriy Zagorodnyuk is president of the Center for Defense Strategies. He was previously Minister of Defense of Ukraine (2019-2020) and Head of the country’s MOD Reform Project Office (2015-2018). Alexander Khara is a diplomat and expert in foreign affairs and security policy. He was Deputy Director General of Foreign Affairs at the National Security and Defense Council (2008-2011) and adviser to the Ukrainian Minister of Defense in 2020.

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The opinions expressed in UkraineAlert are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Atlantic Council, its staff or its supporters.

The Eurasia Center mission is to strengthen transatlantic cooperation by promoting stability, democratic values ​​and prosperity in Eurasia, from Eastern Europe and Turkey in the West to the Caucasus, Russia and Central Asia in the East .

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Image: Russian President Vladimir Putin holds a videoconference meeting with members of the Russian government. November 24, 2021. (Mikhail Metzel / POOL / TASS via REUTERS)


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