War broke out live on television Wednesday night. As the U.N. Security Council convened an open session to discuss Russia’s imminent invasion of Ukraine, a CNN correspondent on a rooftop in Kyiv heard explosions—one after another after another, later revealed to be cruise missiles. The correspondent in Kharkiv, near the Russian border, 300 miles to the east, heard explosions too. Another reporter in Russia’s Belgorod region heard outbound artillery fire—possibly the source of the noises in Kharkiv.
This was around 5 a.m. Ukraine time. Two hours earlier, satellite footage on Google Maps showed a traffic jam of military vehicles heading toward the border from the same Belgorod region.
As if to confirm what viewers were hearing and seeing all over the world, word came that Vladimir Putin appeared on Russian TV—at 5:30 a.m. Moscow time—to announce that he was starting a “special military operation” to protect the Russian-speaking people of Ukraine’s Donbas region. Two days earlier, Putin had recognized the region’s Donetsk and Luhansk provinces—parts of which are controlled by pro-Russia separatists—as independent republics. He also unleashed a stream of propaganda that Ukrainian soldiers were committing acts of “genocide” in those districts as pretext for his military operation.
But if the explosions in Kyiv are any indication, the scope of the war was already extending far to the west of Donbas, Ukraine’s easternmost region. Putin’s speech suggested as much. He claimed that the U.S. was helping Ukraine build nuclear weapons, likened the Kyiv government to Nazis, and declared that the aims of his military operation are the “demilitarization and denazification of Ukraine.”
In other words, Putin has embarked on a war of regime change. He means not merely to slice off a chunk of eastern Ukraine but to overthrow the Ukrainian government—which seeks association with the European Union and (someday) membership in NATO—and to replace it with a pliant proxy who would bring the country back into Moscow’s orbit.
For months, Russian ground forces have surrounded Ukraine from the east and the north, while naval forces—including troop carriers and cruise missile–firing ships—have done so from the south. If Putin has ordered a full-scale invasion, as worst-case scenarios had envisioned, attacks would come from all sides. In the pre-dawn hours, that was what started to happen.
The attack began with Russian cruise missiles, ballistic missiles, and artillery shells striking military targets. They cratered Ukrainian airfields to keep the country’s combat jets grounded—five cruise missiles exploded on a single military airfield in Kyiv alone—and pounded anti-air batteries to keep Ukrainian forces from shooting down Russian jets and helicopters. Though this isn’t known, it is likely that Russia has also mounted cyberattacks to cut off communications from Ukrainian commanders to their officers in the field, in order to fog their intelligence and disrupt their defenses. Cyber squadrons could also feed Ukrainian officers false communications, to further discombobulate a defense.
Shortly after sunrise in Ukraine, video footage showed Russian tanks and armored vehicles crossing the northern border from Belarus, where in recent weeks they had assembled for what were said to be routine military exercises. This northern border is a mere 100 miles from Kyiv. There were also reports of explosions or attacks in several Ukrainian cities, not just in the east and the north near Kyiv but also in the south around Odessa.
If Putin carries out the full scale of what are now his clear intentions, the assault will be the largest, most complex military operation in Europe since World War II. But it goes too far—as some network commentators have done—to liken the attack to World War II or Putin to Adolf Hitler. The Russian military, though much improved in recent years, has nowhere near the might of Nazi Germany’s Wehrmacht. Nor does it have the slightest ability to move on from Ukraine to Poland and, from there, to the rest of Europe. Nor, for all of Putin’s grandiosity, does such a wild-eyed scheme seem to be his intention. Nor, even if it were, does a newly revitalized, unified NATO seem remotely inclined to let him get away with anything of the sort.
What’s happening now is more comparable to the Soviet Union’s 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia, to keep its leader, Alexander Dubcek, from pursuing what he called “socialism with a human face” and reaching out to the nations of Western Europe for support. The Soviets sent in five tank divisions—250,000 troops—to sack Dubcek, install a loyalist, and oppress the population, destroying the roots and branches of the pro-democracy movement called the “Prague Spring.” (One big difference is that, in Czechoslovakia ’68, the local military and Communist Party were loyal to Moscow and abetted the oppression. This is not true of the Ukrainian military today or many of its politicians.)
Putin intends to bring Ukraine back in Moscow’s orbit with similarly brusque methods.
The Russian military massively outguns Ukraine’s; it will probably have little trouble in the first phase of this war. But it will be an extremely daunting task to occupy sections of Ukraine and fight off bands of regular soldiers and citizen insurgents in a country three times the size and 10 times the population of Czechoslovakia in ’68. This is especially true given the strong likelihood that the U.S. and other Western countries would assist the Ukrainian resistance, even if they don’t send their own troops to fight.
Many Russian officers no doubt remember these lessons from their adventure in Afghanistan, which helped bring down the Soviet Union itself—just as Americans learned it in Vietnam, Iraq, and belatedly Afghanistan.
Putin may believe that his holy cause—the restoration of as much of the old Russian empire as he can manage, or at least to block any further losses—transcends the lessons of history, that he can somehow succeed where lesser mortals have failed.
Ukrainians are awakening with the awareness that, however this ends up, they are now living in a different country. People all over Europe must be feeling the same sensation, not because they may face bombs or artillery fire, but because very few have imagined in their lifetimes the prospect of a land war in Europe.
Unless Putin changes course, that is now the gruesome reality.