Allied Complacency: How Russia’s invasion of Ukraine will forever undermine democracy
Raised in desperate poverty in a single-room apartment in St. Petersberg (then Leningrad), Putin is the child of a disabled factory worker and cleaner. He lost two elder brothers as an infant. In school, he was a bully, reportedly tormenting his fellow class mates and teachers by constantly throwing erasers at them.
Still, as he entered high school, his grades rapidly improved and he was helped along by a mentor at the time. Clearly driven, intelligent and hard-working, he was then accepted into law school — and became the only one out of his class of a hundred students to be accepted into the KGB. Putin had also joined a judo club at a young age and became highly skilled in the sport as a teenager. Laying the basis for hand-to-hand combat, his judo prowess undoubtedly helped get him in.
Putin then worked as spy in Eastern Europe, reportedly under deep-cover (think James Bond). He had always been a firm believer in an expanded Russian state. As the Iron Curtain fell, he requested tanks to quell local uprisings. They were not given to him. With the Soviet Union collapsed, Putin moved into politics. He worked in office of the the mayor of St. Petersburg and eventually joining Boris Yeltsin’s administration (Yeltsin is a former Russian president reportedly once found wondering around Washington DC in his boxer shorts, drunk). Although never very influential, he was finally earmarked to succeed Yeltsin, and became Russia’s president without an election.
Early in his career, Putin had felt that Russia required strong central leadership to counter the effect of a sprawling geography and a population full of diverse ethnic groups. He started to incorporate a ‘judo mindset’ into everything he did; feeling the moment, leaving your opponent wrong-footed, leveraging momentum and thinking many moves ahead. A strategic thinker, through-and-through. Beyond that, knowledge was power and the free dissemination of information a carnal sin. No one should know what you’re thinking, nor what your next move will be. Anti-government sentiment should never be tolerated.
Putin’s approach to power has restricted Russian freedoms, arguably curbed the wealth of the Russian nation and had a destabilising effect on geopolitics. Worst of all, the West has been entirely complacent as his reign has expanded and consolidated.
Let’s begin with his presidency; rather than serving a maximum of two four-year terms, Putin has managed to hold onto power for a remarkable twenty three years. For a short period, his office was taken over by Dimitry Medvedev, but it is well known that all critical decisions remained in his jurisdiction — nothing had changed there. Putin, among those in the know, is suspected to be one of the richest individuals in the world. His corruption is so utterly complete, it is accepted by the world and the Russian populace as a forgone conclusion. Whether embezzling state money, nationalising industries, requisitioning stakes in private entities, corruption in the highest corridors of power in Russia seems to have no bounds.
Putin’s intimidation of opponents, and in fact their outright imprisonment (case in point: Alexei Navalny) as well as journalists and frankly anyone who speaks out against him, is par of the course. As is the skewing of election results. Russia’s 2018 election saw him win 78% of the vote, despite a stagnating economy sustained only by fossil fuel exports, themselves destroying the planet (thanks Russia). Does such landslide victory under the circumstances seem reasonable?
Any form of successful business that survives rampant nepotism to grow on its own merit is quickly asked to share its equity with the state or face the consequences. Beyond that, Putin is famously homophobic, seen in Russia’s embrace of some of the world’s harshest anti-gay sentiment. Women’s rights, I fear, are ignored in a similar vein. Russia lacks any concern for the environment (Russia, with China, did not attend COP26) which is not really a surprise considering its economy is almost entirely dependent on the export of oil and gas.
Then, in 2014, Putin decided to invade Georgia — because he could. For autocrats, foreign wars often pay for themselves because they divert their population’s attention away from the country’s struggling economy and towards patriotic sentiment. The West stood by and let it happen. Then, Russia seeing no repercussions for its actions, decided it was Ukraine’s turn. First in the East of the country, as Russian soldiers with their insignia’s removed, wreaked havoc and stirred separatist sentiment among the local population. The rebellion instigated in the East was soon followed by an outright invasion of Crimea, a strategically well-positioned region on the Black Sea. And how did the West respond to all that Russian meddling? Again, only with meek economic sanctions.
Emboldened by the the lack of response from European and US leaders, and perhaps by its ever closer relationship with China, Putin has since brazenly interfered in Western elections, whether that of Donald Trump or the Brexit vote. So is it really a surprise that we see ourselves in the position we’re in now after all that inaction? The threat of a complete Russian invasion of Ukraine and the largest war in Europe seen in seventy seven years?
It is likely Russia will invade. After Putin’s military and political manoeuvring over the last few months has proven to Russia that the West is incapable of coherent action, and that the only repercussion of a Ukrainian invasion will be economic sanctions, there is not really much of a reason for him not to invade. As per his ‘judo mindset’, Putin believes in keeping his opponents wrong-footed. So any words or actions that seem to indicate he is stepping back from war can’t be trusted. Whereas the West is very open about what it knows and what it believes, no one actually has any idea where Putin stands — and that gives him leverage. NATO’s former Supreme Allied Commander, General Richard Shirreff , stated in an interview last week that in his opinion, an invasion is very likely and could even lead to nuclear war (ref). The sentiment is reflected by most individuals with either military or diplomatic experience and actual exposure to Russian culture and geopolitics. In Shirreff’s fiction, War with Russia, an invasion of Ukraine triggers World War III (in his book, the West wins).
Ukrainian GDP is a tenth that of Russia’s (€156B vs. €1.4T). Their army in terms of man-power is comparable, but in terms of equipment, again, about a tenth. Russia’s army is arguably the second most powerful in the world (ref). A war with Russia would be impossible for Ukraine to win, and moreover, it would be so swift that it would probably not even result in many Russian losses. Ukraine has no nuclear weapons. It gave them back to Russia in the early nineties with the assurance of national security and peace. So much for that deal. It also has a minute navy.
A failed invasion of Ukraine would hurt Putin massively. The conquest itself will be swift and effective. But the occupation of Ukraine will result in popular unrest and major underground resistance. To nip any resistance in the bud, Putin will brutally repress the Ukrainian people who for the last few decades have enjoyed unprecedented freedoms. Such a prospect is dismal and just a sad state of affairs…
What could have been done? Strong and decisive action could been taken. Sometimes the best way to de-escalate a conflict is by showing strength. If Britain and France had acted more decisively after Austria had been subsumed by the Reich, perhaps World War II could have been prevented. But the Reich’s expansion was allowed to continue, and the allies were eventually caught off guard by Germany’s conquest of Poland and Slovakia.
There is no way Putin would dream of a conflict with the US or even Britain for that matter. There is real leverage there. Admitting Ukraine into NATO was all that was needed. Better yet, deploying hundreds of thousand’s of US and European troops in the country would have made Putin run a mile. Putin is a bully. Bully’s only respond to strength. They respect action and the ability to fight back. They dismiss words, and words themselves hold little meaning for them. A large European and US military presence in Ukraine would have prevented an invasion of the country and could have been the quickest route to de-escalation.
But it’s scary. On the surface, it seems like an escalation. As a career politician, Biden surely only thinks of the national backlash he will receive upon deploying troops abroad, especially after his dismal handling of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan. Europe is actually scared of Russia. Germany feels that it can’t show military might because of its past. The UK economy is in tatters and Boris is facing huge domestic pressure to step down. And honestly, everyone would prefer to ignore what’s going on because China is a big enough threat as it is.
Now, since the deployment of a meagre few thousand troops to surrounding countries, the provision of some armaments, and the threat of yet more economic sanctions, the West has shown itself to be unable to truly fight back. In the meantime, Russian has built up massive forces around the Ukrainian boarder, has kept everyone on tense high-alert, and has essentially controlled the playing field.
What is there to be done? It is too late to deploy troops to Ukraine. Russia seeing this happen will immediately invade with the force available (which is easily large enough). A solution still is to admit Ukraine into NATO, but as this will require the agreement of all 30 member states, it’s unlikely that could happen at short notice or that all member states will agree anyway. In a way, NATO is much like the UN, unable to take quick and decisive action because unworkable governance.
So another option: the US, UK, France and Germany simply issue a joint statement stating that if Russia invades, they will declare war. That will be enough to scare Putin. But it needs to be a real threat. There is always the risk that Russia will invade anyway, and we’ll be at war. But the alternative is a more powerful Russia on the borders of Western Europe, ever closer to China. It is likely that if war is declared with China, Russia will not be on the West’s side. So allowing Russia to invade Ukraine will essentially create create an even stronger military ally for China.
But mainly, and here’s the crux of the matter, allowing autocratic regimes to invade their neighbours willy nilly, not only harks back to the middle-ages, but sets dangerous precedent for others, and undermines the global authority of the West, particularly the US. It shows that Western democracies no longer set the standards for how nations treat each other. And it shows the people of those nations, victims of undue aggression, that the West will stand by and do nothing — setting the stage far right parties to take power and weakening arguments for democratic process.
By the US, UK, France and Germany immediately issuing a joint declaration promising military retaliation if Russia invades the Ukraine, it is likely the situation will de-escalate quickly. It is risky, but so too is allowing autocrats to do whatever they please, putting millions of lives at risk whenever they want, and undermining the democratic value of respect for free nations. Think of all the Ukrainian and Russian families about to be torn apart (physically as well as emotionally)? Upon the whim of one person? And we have not even gotten into the resulting global economic fallout. Putin will know that war with the West will not serve his intentions. He only wants to consolidate power at home by expanding Russian territory. He does not want to destroy his country.
But time is of the essence.