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

Russia
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. 

Written By

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. 

23 Comments

23 Comments

  1. Alex

    January 24, 2022 at 12:55 pm

    And again I list your authors: 1. Russian “Desert Storm” against Ukraine, 2. Georgian scenario for Ukraine, 3. Russian “Vietnam” for Ukraine. What else can you think of? Do you have any brains, propagandists?

  2. Commentar

    January 24, 2022 at 1:14 pm

    Ukraine is NATO and US boldest scheme or gamble to initiate ww3 in northern europe in the shortest or easiest manner. Period.

    In such a war, europe will become a ghost landscape BUT US will remain unscathed. Thanks to the unthunking neofascist forces.

    This is europe’s nam, but unlike the nam in south-east asia, europe will be the loser!

    Countries in europe will suffer GREATLY from this nam, but US will be fully able to smile and also lick its lips and chuckle:what a bunch of fools;they sure ain’t learn no nothing from errors made by hitler and napoleon. Fools rush in while the dark angel chuckles at their stupidity.

  3. Commentar

    January 24, 2022 at 1:35 pm

    NATO has no bizness to exist today; but it’s right here on this earth strictly and solely to immorally serve the desires of the world’s only uberpower, the unrivalled fascist power, the modern genghis, the slavemaker without peer, the ultimate seductress and conqueror.

    Europe has been occupied and controlled by US since 1945, and it has shown no intention at all to let go. As a result, europe is in chains, just exactly like the blacks of southern US. In chains, for years and years even after end of civil war, despite both blackss and their masters going to church sundays all throughout the year.

    Today, the blacks are no longer in chains, largely thanks to the passing of time which rendered the ‘chained condition’ obsolete.

    But Europe? It is still in chains! It’s though time has stood STILL for euripe. Perhaps 75+years is still not considered
    to be acknowledged enough time has passed for europe to be unchained !!!

  4. Joe Comment

    January 24, 2022 at 10:53 pm

    Commentar: You feel sorry for the poor enslaved people in Paris, Copenhagen and Milan who lost their freedom in 1945 and suffered under the American yoke for 75 years? Maybe you could take a day trip to Tallin or Riga, talk to people there and see how they feel about the subject. (Rolls eyes)

  5. Bankotsu

    January 25, 2022 at 1:33 am

    What a silly article.

    If Putin has post imperial hang over on Ukraine, why didn’t he invade and annex ALL of Ukraine in 2014? That was the best time to do so.

    Garbage to the core this article.

  6. Sam

    January 25, 2022 at 2:05 am

    Right on, Robert. Negotiating while gun to the head is old Soviet tactic, but the very reason they got whipped in Afghanistan in 80s is the one west need to make it in Ukraine this time around. Russian so called green men are third country nationals who on Kremlin’s payroll continue to keep frozen conflict warm, but at some point it will have to lose its own soldiers to have its pliant citizens wake up. Always remember, good marketing kills the bad product real fast…..and body bags remove the veneer of invincibility real fast as well. I see that ghosts of grozny in Chechnya are the best parallel in this context.

  7. Nikichatzi

    January 25, 2022 at 4:32 am

    The editor had forgotten tat the majority of population in East Ukraine feel closer to the Russian element.This an important factor which make a substantial difference in comparison to Vietnam and Iraq.

  8. RFM

    January 25, 2022 at 9:10 am

    I agree with large parts of this thinking, particularly the now-convenient, revisionist history about “liberal illusion” that seems to assume Putin operates purely out of a sense of aggrievement (I would argue our free-wheeling support of Yeltsin and shabby treatment of the Russia in lower-level capacities fuel this aggrievement more than the Czech Rep joining NATO ever did). We might not be at exactly this point now had NATO not expanded–perhaps. But Eastern Europe would probably be worse off than it is at the moment and Russia already more-emboldened and have done much as you said to hamper and hinder those states. Show me a country Russia’s made BETTER in the past 30 years, and I’ll shut up. I’ll wait for that.

    The exit Putin is looking for (because I don’t think he’s really looking for a large-scale invasion, unless he’s lost a step) is for NATO to step on itself in the political build-up to this–there’s plenty of precedent (The Balts are looking to make sure Merkel’s really gone). Fiona Hill is right–he REALLY wants is NATO to fail–fail to stand up, be united and confront Putin; and toll its own bell. If they don’t have their act together, it could happen.

    People pointing out, correctly, popular support for Russia in eastern Ukraine fail to take into account how Russia’s incursions in later-2014 were much more destructive, expensive and yes, ripe-for-quagmire than they anticipated or wanted–yes, even there. The idea that the eastern half of Ukraine would largely welcome Russian occupation is a overly optimistic (sounds like American military planners). Eastern Ukraine is not South Ossetia.

  9. Slack

    January 25, 2022 at 12:00 pm

    Putin is the smartest political leader on the planet;he has gotten biden by the balls and at same time giving enough rope to NATO leaders to hang themselves.

    Biden can’t step back now or can do very little to do so. The GOP and US media will cruxify him if he shows any shakes in this contest of wills with putin who now has him by the testicles.

    NATO which last year got kicked out of kabul and its european officials currently having to talk to taliban about ‘aid’ will have to decide very soon whether it is worth plunging headlong into a quagmire 10 times worse than afghanistan or abandon a nation that’s more fascist than erdogan’s islamofascist turkey. Either way, NATO would have to tighten its own noose around its own neck.

  10. Alex

    January 25, 2022 at 12:18 pm

    The United States wants to arrange a long and unprofitable war for Russia on the territory of Ukraine. But it’s not the 20th century. Russia will not play for a long time, in case of provocations by Ukraine, which will be forced to arrange it on the orders of Washington. Or the capture of Luvov in a few days or the third world war. What will Washington choose?

  11. Joseph

    January 25, 2022 at 12:34 pm

    This is such a shallow and biased interpretation of history that it qualifies as propaganda. In addition, it lacks any understanding and knowledge of current Russia’s military doctrine. Pathetic pseudo analysis is what this piece is.

    FIRST, Russia doesn’t want or need Ukraine because Ukraine is a corrupt, bankrupt and failed state.
    SECOND, Russia doesn’t want NATO in Ukraine as much as Russia doesn’t to govern ungovernable Ukraine.
    THIRD, Russia sees NATO as an enemy and as an existential threat… because NATO is Russia’s enemy.
    FOURTH, if NATO moves into Ukraine significantly and/or if Ukraine seriously attacks the Donbass separatists and/or Russia, here is what Russia will do:
    1. Attacking units will be immediately obliterated by stand-off weapons;
    2. Within 2-3 days, most of Ukraine’s military infrastructure will be obliterated by stand-off weapons;
    3. Simultaneously, Ukraine’s military and political leadership will be decapitated;
    4. NO INVASION REQUIRED.
    5. Ukraine, as a state, will cease to exist.

  12. Stefan Stackhouse

    January 25, 2022 at 12:46 pm

    The Southern and Eastern parts of what is now Ukraine used to be called “Novorossiya” (New Russia), and before that, they were held by the Ottomans. The Western part used to be called “Galicia” and “Ruthenia” when it was held by the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Between the Wars, it was Polish territory. Way back, pretty much all of Ukraine was a territory of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Go farther back, and you see even more imperial conquerors come and go. The Ukraine that we see on the map today has not existed for very long at all, nor is it an ethnically or politically united country. I feel sorry for them because geography has dealt them a bad hand. However, it is ultimately up to them to live with that as best as they can.

  13. Tony

    January 25, 2022 at 1:13 pm

    I would not be so quick to assume Russia will suffer at the hands of the West, should they invade. The Iranians have publicly hanged homosexuals and others on cranes. The Chinese massacred thousands at Tiananmen, and of course run gulags for the Uighers. Does Europe condemn these actions, and prohibit economic transactions with these countries? No, of course not – there is money to be made!

  14. Rick Emory

    January 25, 2022 at 5:23 pm

    I tend to agree that invading Ukraine would be counterproductive. However, your fallacy lies in assuming that Putin is completely rational. I’m afraid that at the heart of this is his desire to bring back something resembling the Soviet Union, with him as the ultimate leader. Time will tell which of us was more correct in our assumptions.

  15. Scott

    January 25, 2022 at 5:37 pm

    An amazing number of Russian trolls here. If Russia invades, mothers, fathers, wives, sons and daughters of Russia will wonder why their soldiers are dying. For what, exactly? If Putin had played nice with the Ukraine, not seized Crimea or Donbass in 2014, Ukrainian government wouldn’t have an external threat to distract the people from corruption, crappy economy. If Putin orders an invasion, Ukrainians will see any Russian occupation as the enemy for decades. Really stupid decision if Putin does this.

  16. Alex

    January 25, 2022 at 6:59 pm

    Scott, you write the same thing. Perhaps you are the only Ukrainian troll here?

  17. TMark

    January 25, 2022 at 10:03 pm

    I’m amused at the Kremlin-centric interpretation of NATO as an occupying empire, and especially Rusdia’s “sphere of influence” entitlement attitude, as if Eastern Europe and its peoples were just a basket of commodities to be hoarded. NATO never expanded east; instead Eastern Europe freely expanded west. NATO membership was borne of each state’s democratic self-determination.

  18. Mario DeLosa

    January 26, 2022 at 9:13 am

    Oh look, Commentar is spouting Kremlin propaganda again, what a surprise. Here is the low down Commentar, countries like Poland, Rumania and the Baltic states hated the USSR, and the same goes for Hungary. That is why they all severed their ties with Russia as soon as the whole rotten edifice that was the USSR crumbled. Never mind that Russia did not exactly deal with Ukraine fairly or equitably. So, whether you like it or not, if Tzar Vlad Putin invades the Ukraine it will likely backfire on him and Russia. You may now go back to your Stalinist delusions.

  19. Lets_go_Brandon

    January 26, 2022 at 4:17 pm

    >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.

    Wait, I’m not the first nor the last to call bull sh!t on this.
    Did you not watch what happened to the color revolutionaries in Kazakhstan.

  20. from Russia with love

    January 27, 2022 at 1:20 pm

    Lets_go_Brandon: you are trying to explain something to a person who does not know the history of Ukraine, does not know the ethnic composition of Ukraine, he will not even be able to find Ukraine on the map 🙂
    for example, he does not know that despite the fact that for 30 years the state language of Ukraine is Ukrainian, they communicate in Russian in everyday life. he does not know that 7 million Ukrainians (about 30% of the working population) go to Russia every year (to Russia with which Ukraine has been at war since 2014) to work. who will participate in the guerrilla war there? do these people again hope for the Ukrainian Nazis, as after 1945?
    PS great nickname 😉

  21. Donald Link

    January 27, 2022 at 2:43 pm

    For those with short memories (includes those ignorant of history) the Ukrainians were ready to ally with Hitler formally during WW II, so great their hatred of Russia. Only the Russian winter campaign of 1942-43, aid by massive shipments of Western supplies, put a stop to that. Even so, Ukrainian small units remained with the Germans as far as the Oder River. The populace would surely pay a high price during a Russian invasion but back home the Russians would probably be having reruns in their minds of Soviets in Afghanistan.

  22. Alex

    January 28, 2022 at 7:03 am

    For those who have a “long” memory: it is not Ukrainians who hate Russia, but the population of western Ukraine, where there are Nazi followers of Bandera. It was they who became famous for their atrocities against the Ukrainians. Russians and Ukrainians love each other, but together they hate the Bandera criminals. Remember this.

  23. David Dzidzikashvili

    March 16, 2022 at 9:20 am

    The US, EU and NATO made grave mistakes when they let Putin conquer and start war in Georgia in 2008 and declare independence of the two Georgian regions in Abkhazia and Samachablo. What did the US, EU and NATO do? Absolutely nothing! Merkel and Obama expressed concerns and closed the case. Therefore, Georgia’s 2008 invasion was Putin’s test run for bigger wars and military adventures. 100% Obama’s and Merkel’s fault! The US, EU and NATO leadership completely failed. Then what did Putin do? In 2014 Russia attacked and took over Crimea at first and then Eastern Ukraine, where the Russian forces directly and indirectly engaged in warfare against the Ukrainian state. What did the US, EU and NATO do? Absolutely nothing! They forced (Germany & France) Poroshenko to accept horrible Minsk treaties and the EU/US did hit Russia with the bare minimum of sanctions that did not amount to anything… This further motivated Putin to solve his political goals of restoring the Russian Empire through military means and bloodshed. Therefore, now we have this global disaster! That’s why Putin did dare to start another war of conquest of the free Ukraine to enslave its people and change their future, their destiny & limit their freedoms and turn Ukraine into the Russian subservient state. Now we have this bloodshed, war crimes and terror… Whose fault is it? It is Putin’s fault as much as it is the US, EU and NATO leadership’s fault who kept ignoring the international bully and turned blind eye on the atrocities committed in Georgia and Ukraine for the past 15 years! US, EU & NATO need to impose the No Fly Zone immediately! At least above the humanitarian corridors so that Putin won’t be able to continue killing the civilians and children.

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