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Russia’s Vietnam: Why an Invasion of Ukraine Would Be a Disaster for Putin

Russian tank in Red Square in 2021. Image Credit: Russian Federation.

Ukraine is about Putin’s Post-Imperial Hangover, not NATO, Biden’s ‘Weakness,’ and So On: A Russian invasion of Ukraine would be a disaster for Russia. It would obviously also be a disaster for the Ukrainian population, but geopolitically it is hard to see how Russian President Vladimir Putin would escape either the international isolation which would ensue, or win the war itself with manageable costs.

The media’s coverage of Ukraine has missed this; it has been alarmist and hyperbolic. As in the coverage of the Afghanistan withdrawal last summer, the media again has rehearsed exhausted neoconservative tropes about US ‘weakness’ and the ‘strength’ of its autocratic opponents who are apparently bent on no less than global domination. The ‘blob’ seems particularly dazzled by Putin’s strength, tactical brilliance, and so on. Just as predictions last summer that the withdrawal from Afghanistan would bring down the world order, this year’s hyperventilating will almost certainly be inaccurate.

NATO Expansion is Not to Blame

One variation on this argument is that had NATO not expanded, Putin would not be pressuring Ukraine and other states around Russia. The Russians read NATO as a threat, and its expansion east is the reason Putin supports gangsters like Alexander Lukashenko, the repressive president of Belarus, or maintains ‘frozen conflicts,’ as in Georgia, along Russia’s perimeter. The story goes that US officials made promises to the last Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, that the US would not expand the alliance towards Russia’s borders.

Whether such promises were made and how binding they were given has long been a point of contention, but this entire line of argument misses the real, geopolitical reason NATO expanded – the huge demand for it in Eastern Europe and its massive advance of Western security and values (200 million people and the economies permanently joining the West). The entire Russian argument, for decades, against NATO expansion is premised on the idea that eastern European states do not enjoy full foreign policy autonomy, that they are within a Russian sphere of influence which gives Moscow some measure of veto privilege over their foreign policy choices, such as external alignment. Accepting this line of reasoning is consonant with neither the moral (liberal) values of democratic states, nor in the national interests of the NATO membership.

Ostensibly, an Eastern Europe outside of NATO would have placated Russia, and Putin would behave better. But this counterfactual is unlikely and has become less and less believable over the decades, given Putin’s nationalist-revanchist foreign policy and repressive domestic policy. There is no reason to think that Russia would have allowed Eastern Europe to find its own way democratically. Putin has made it clear that he thinks the Soviet Union’s implosion was terrible. It is at least as plausible that Putin would have tried to bully those unallied eastern European states, as Russia had done in the past. So the argument that expanding NATO was a ‘liberal illusion’ misses the clear geopolitical value of expanding NATO: Russian revanchism was at least as likely as Russian restraint had NATO not expanded, and integrating Eastern Europe into the West was a huge victory for both Western geopolitical interest and its values.

A Quagmire Awaits

So now Putin has painted himself into a corner. He has built his foreign policy around a confrontation with NATO, but he has neither the domestic strength at home for a sustained foreign military campaign – Russia’s GDP is smaller than South Korea’s and the country’s economy is corrupt and already under sanction – nor a small, pliant target, like Georgia in 2008, in Ukraine today.

If Putin partially invades Ukraine – through a mix of military force, support for militias, subversion and so on – the war will likely degenerate into a quagmire like Iraq or Vietnam. Ukraine would indeed lose any direct battlefield contests with the Russian army, but Ukraine’s large, nationalist population is almost certain to widely resist the incursion through asymmetric and guerilla action, pinning down the Russian military in a ‘forever war’ semi-occupation from which it could not withdraw without losing. The war would further Russia’s isolation from the world economy because of the dramatically stepped-up sanctions sure to follow. Moscow will become more dependent on China, and most of Europe will turn enough more sharply against Putin. Pressure to find alternatives to the Nord Stream 2 pipeline will rise significantly. Eastern European countries will increase their defense spending. US troops may be stationed further east in NATO.

Alternatively, if Putin tried to avoid a quagmire by actually conquering the whole of Ukraine and absorbing it in a full-scale war, Russia would be isolated from the Western economy for a generation. It would be expelled from the SWIFT inter-bank exchange system and the political support for Nord Stream 2 would disappear. NATO defense spending would explode. Even China might not back away if Russia got pulled into a major offensive war of its own choosing, complete with mass civilian casualties. The risk of outright conflict with NATO would rise.

Biden is Wise to Wait

US power is based in America’s large, dynamic economy and its skilled, power-projectable military, complemented by its many alliance relationships around the world. Were Putin to invade Ukraine, none of that would change. In fact, US alliances would likely tighten as states drifted away from Russia in fear. Whether the US should help Ukraine and how much is a tough policy question, but Putin’s dilemma is far worse than alarmist, threat-inflating US media coverage suggests. This is probably why Putin, for all his braggadocio, has not attacked. He is looking for an exit.

Dr. Robert E. Kelly (@Robert_E_Kellywebsite) is a professor of international relations in the Department of Political Science at Pusan National University. Dr. Kelly is now a 1945 Contributing Editor as well. 

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Dr. Robert E. Kelly (@Robert_E_Kelly; website) is a professor of international relations in the Department of Political Science at Pusan National University. Dr. Kelly is now a 1945 Contributing Editor as well.