VILNIUS, LITHUANIA – FEBRUARY 24: People hold flags and posters during a protest against Russian attack on Ukraine near the Russian Embassy, on February 24, 2022 in Vilnius, Lithuania. Overnight, Russia began a large-scale attack on Ukraine, with explosions reported in multiple cities and far outside the restive eastern regions held by Russian-backed rebels. (Photo by Paulius Peleckis/Getty Images)
By John Nagl
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine marks the end of the post-Cold War world that began with the collapse of the Soviet Union but also shows how much the world has changed in those thirty years, in many ways for the better.
The twentieth century was marred by great power wars in Europe and Asia, caused by the rise of German and Japanese power and by the fear that that power caused in their neighborhoods.
The defeat of Germany and Japan in the Second World War was followed almost immediately by a forty-five year Cold War with the Soviet Union that turned hot in Korea and Vietnam.
The Soviet incursion into Afghanistan to support a puppet regime created a bloody wound that contributed to the collapse of the Communist regime and the dissolution of the Soviet empire—what Putin has called the greatest catastrophe of the twentieth century. Countries that had comprised the Soviet Union, including Ukraine, chose independence and democracy.
In a bid to reverse that historic choice, and push the prospect of democracy far from Russia’s borders, Putin has launched a war of aggression against his Ukrainian neighbor.
That war has gone worse than Putin had expected–on the ground, at home, and around the globe. While Russia will capture Ukraine in short order, Putin will rue the day he chose this course of action.
On the ground, Ukrainian forces are fighting back harder than Putin expected. Early reports are uncertain, but it is clear that there have been significant tank and aircraft losses for Russia, including at least one airborne platoon that surrendered to Ukrainian forces.
More importantly, Ukrainian resistance to Russian domination is just starting; an insurgency against Russian occupation is almost guaranteed.
Ukraine is a harder country to occupy than Iraq was for the United States, with a larger population, vast territory to occupy, and excellent lines of communication to a number of NATO countries that will likely supply arms and possibly even fighters against the Russian occupation. In Afghanistan, an insurgency brought the Soviet Union to its knees; expect the same here.
The consequences are likely to be severe. Putin expected his invasion of Ukraine to be popular at home, but it has proven to be anything but.
There have already been significant protests against the invasion across Russia; more significantly, Russian intellectuals and business leaders have courageously signed open letters decrying the rape of Ukraine. Putin is terrified of democracy at home, the underlying cause of his invasion of his neighbor; ironically, he has provided his opponents with a just cause to push for his dismissal. The seeds of rebellion against the autocrat are sprouting in the open.
They are being nurtured by an unusual degree of unanimity among the rest of the world’s powers. The principal foreign policy goal of the Soviet Union, and of its successor state of Russia, has been to drive a wedge between the United States and her European allies, but the invasion of Ukraine has brought NATO closer together.
Finland and Sweden, who are not currently NATO members, are meeting with NATO today and openly considering joining the alliance, while the United States has deployed significant combat troops to buttress NATO’s eastern flank. No U.S. forces are deploying to Ukraine, which is not a NATO member, but the Biden administration has made it clear that it will defend every inch of NATO’s soil against any additional Russian offensives.
The world has also imposed an extraordinary series of economic sanctions on Russia in response to the invasion of Ukraine, essentially isolating Russia from the global economy and leading to a loss of nearly half of the Russian stock market’s value and the lowest value of the Russian currency against the dollar in history.
If the West holds together on these sanctions, the Russian economy will pay a heavy price for its actions—one that will only grow over time. It is not too much to suggest that, while winning the battle for control of Ukraine in the short term, Putin could easily find that this battle costs him control of his own country — opening the door for a new and better chapter in world history.
John Nagl is a visiting professor of National Security Studies at the U.S. Army War College in Carlisle, Pa. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.
Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.