War Stories

How Putin’s Move Into Ukraine Could Backfire Disastrously

Invading is the easy part. Controlling Ukraine while sanctions bite might prove impossible.

A few soldiers in fatigues stand near an armored vehicle
Ukrainian troops block a road in the so-called government quarter in Kyiv on Thursday as Russia’s ground forces invaded Ukraine from several directions. Sergei Supinsky/AFP via Getty Images

President Joe Biden acknowledged on Thursday that his new sanctions against Russia would take months or longer to affect Vladimir Putin’s behavior, if they affect it at all. So what are the U.S. and its allies doing now—what can they do now—to help Ukraine resist the invasion?

The stark answer is not much. The hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of anti-tank and anti-air missiles, which Biden and other NATO leaders have sent Ukraine in recent months, are probably stiffening its defenses, but even if we sent more now, they might arrive too late to matter.

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Ukrainian soldiers are reportedly putting up fierce fights in the eastern city of Kharkiv and at the main airport outside Kyiv. According to one report of unknown reliability, a column of Russian tanks was devastated by a Ukrainian brigade firing U.S.-supplied Javelin anti-tank missiles.

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Still, it is doubtful they can keep the invaders from accomplishing their aims for very long. The Russians vastly outmatch them in firepower, missile arsenals, air superiority, and mobility. Some have predicted Kyiv falling in a matter of days, if not hours. This is probably exaggeration. Russians haven’t conducted such a large, complex military operation in more than a half-century. It isn’t likely to go like clockwork.

But let’s say that Russia captures the capital, ousts the popularly elected president, Volodymyr Zelensky, and installs a puppet leader with the mandate to haul Ukraine back into Moscow’s orbit—all reasonable expectations. Then what? Ukraine has been an independent country since 1991. As Tim Judah notes in a dispatch from Ukraine for the New York Review of Books, “Most young Ukrainians, who have no memory of the Soviet era … are now just like other Europeans.” There is no appetite for resuming a supplicant’s status to an empire to the east. Even among the older generation, three decades of independence, combined with Putin’s new aggression, have intensified a sense of Ukrainian nationalism and a longing to join the West.

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As a result, after the main fight is over (whenever that happens), those 150,000 Russian troops in or around Ukraine will have to remain as an occupation force. They will face resistance—not just from Ukrainian soldiers, who will have access to weapons, but from civilian insurgents, who have training in arms as well and who will surely receive supplies (and perhaps more) from U.S. and other intelligence agencies. Without Russian occupiers, the new Quisling regime would be overthrown at once. Even with the occupiers, its edicts are unlikely to be obeyed. The notion that Putin could control Ukraine, in the way that his Kremlin predecessors did in Cold War times, seems improbable.

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Reports are still slim on how the fighting is going, but some Russian soldiers must be dying; many more will likely die in the war’s insurgency phase, if recent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are precedent. Will the sight of body bags coming home turn Russia’s public opinion against Putin’s adventure—and, if so, does that matter?

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This is where the sanctions come in, theoretically. Biden and leaders of the EU are tightening sanctions on Russian banks, high-tech firms, and elites—wealthy friends of Putin—as well as their families. For now, NATO allies have stopped short of kicking Russian firms out of the global SWIFT banking network, sometimes described as the financial nuclear option, though some analysts believe Russia would be able to route money through other channels. They have also refrained from targeting Russia’s all-important oil and gas exports, in order to avoid an even bigger spike in global energy prices than the world has already experienced. However, Germany has decided not to turn on the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, and Biden has now sanctioned the pipeline company’s executives.

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But the steps the West has taken so far—especially banning foreign funding of Russian debt, barring large Russian banks from doing any transactions in dollars, euros, pounds, or yen, and limiting exports of high-tech equipment—are likely to make a major economic dent. Sanctioning the elites could also have a big impact over time, as well. These elites own property in London and New York, vacation on the Riviera, send their children to Western schools. If their assets are seized and they have no access to dollars, euros, pounds, or yen, their lives will be miserable. Will they take out their misery on Putin? That’s the hope, but it’s not clear how their discontent translates into political rebellion.

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Earlier on Thursday, as the country’s stock market tanked for the second day in a row, Putin held a televised meeting with Russian big businessmen. Alexander Shokhin, the group’s leader, told Putin, “Everything should be done to demonstrate as much as possible that Russia remains part of the global economy and will not provoke … global negative phenomena on world markets.” He seemed nervous while making the statement—a strong, if implicit, critique of Putin’s policies—but the fact that he said this at all should raise eyebrows.

In the long run, Putin’s adventure in Ukraine may prove a gigantic blunder. Even now, it has thrown an enormous wrench in Putin’s broad foreign policy strategy, which, for the past decade, has been to intensify fissures within the EU and to drive wedges between Washington and its NATO allies. Putin’s aggression against Ukraine has patched those fissures, elevated America’s leadership role, and unified the alliance more solidly than at any time since the end of the Cold War.

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In the short to medium run, this unity may crumble if Ukraine’s defenses collapse, if a potent resistance force doesn’t take hold right away, and if the allies—or the American people—grow frustrated with how long it’s taking for the sanctions to hurt Putin and how quickly the sanctions are hurting their own economies.

A big factor will be China. In early February, Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping signed a declaration of an alliance with “no limits.” However, since then, Beijing has been ambivalent about Putin’s moves on Ukraine. The weekend before the invasion, Foreign Minister Wang Yi defended the principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity—including for Ukraine. Since then, Chinese officials have mainly sided with Russia, blaming the U.S. for the escalation in violence. Still, Beijing seems to be in a wait-and-watch mode for how firmly to back Putin in this campaign. Putin may be counting on Beijing to rescue Russia from the sanctions, stepping in with trade and investments that Moscow can no longer conduct with the rest of the world. But if the war or its occupation go south, Xi might not want to saddle himself with the partnership’s exorbitant costs. At his press conference Thursday, Biden was asked if he’s talked with China about aligning against Russia on Ukraine. Biden replied that he didn’t want to talk about that just yet.

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All in all, the war we see on television—the war that Ukrainians are experiencing with painful intimacy—is only one part of the wider conflict that Putin has put in motion. This conflict is military, economic, and political. It encompasses not only the fate of Ukraine but the shape of Europe. It is a massive gamble on Putin’s part—a wild dice throw to secure what he sees as his destiny to save and revive the great Russian empire. Biden and the European allies, with help from Japan and other countries, are putting everything they can muster (short of direct military force) to disrupt this ambition and restore international law. The main battle may be over soon; the wider one could take many months, even years, to play out.

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