Putin’s Waterloo?

By Artchil B. Fernandez

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is now three weeks old and the invaders are still struggling to reach their objectives. Russians are bogged down by several factors: fierce Ukrainian resistance, logistical problems, poor or sloppy invasion plan among others.

Three weeks ago, Russia in a move that stunned the world invaded Ukraine, a sovereign nation. With its superior military power, Russia expected a quick victory. Its blitzkrieg, Russia assumed will make the conquest of Ukraine easy and swift. Russia thought Kiev, the capital of Ukraine will fall within three days of the invasion, its tanks swarming the city.

All Russia’s assumptions were wrong and as of this writing, its invasion plan went awry.   Not only has its invasion bogged down, Russia so far has failed to achieve its strategic objective – the hasty collapse of the Ukrainian government and immediate capitulation of the country. After all, Russia framed its invasion as the liberation of Ukraine from “neo-Nazis,” claiming Ukrainians will welcome Russian soldiers with flowers and warm hugs. Instead, Ukrainians greeted the Russian invaders with Javelin anti-tank and Stinger surface-to-air missiles.

The most puzzling and perplexing question is why did Russia invade Ukraine? Both countries have shared Slavic history and are ethnically intertwined.

If Western media are to be believed, the Russian invasion of Ukraine is a madman’s current flavor of the month. It seems Russian President Vladimir Putin woke up one morning and decided to send tanks, armored personnel, jets and soldiers to Ukraine. But the issue is complex and complicated. There is a historical context to the invasion and is a consequence of several incidents many decades ago.

Putin’s grievance with the West goes back to 1991 with the collapse of the Soviet Union. The disintegration of the Russian empire was a bitter pill to swallow for a former KGB foreign intelligence officer.

In exchange for forsaking communist rule, Russians were promised paradise by the West. Russia presumed a transformation similar to what the West did to Japan and Germany after the Second World War.

There was no Marshall Plan for Russia and the country was instead subjected to neo-liberal shock therapy. Russia was left to fend for itself, its economy as well as its social institutions in shambles. The chaotic years after 1991 created a deformed Russian society paving the way for the rise of oligarchs who gobbled up the prime areas of the economy leaving ordinary Russians discontented and destitute.

Another Russian gripe concerns NATO, the military alliance which was the West’s vanguard against the Soviet empire. With the dissolution of the USSR, Russia thought NATO would no longer be a threat and will have a reduced role in Europe. Over Russia’s objection, NATO instead expanded admitting countries that were formerly Russian satellites.

The intention of Ukraine another former Soviet republic to join NATO is the last straw for Russia. Once Ukraine joins NATO, Russia is almost completely surrounded by NATO countries with only Finland and Belarus serving as buffer nations. This is the red line for Russia and Kiev is about to cross it by applying for NATO as well as European Union (EU) membership. Kremlin viewed Kiev’s move as a grave threat to its security.

Russia may have valid grievances against the West but the problem is Ukraine is a sovereign nation with a right to self-determination. Putin may not like and even be angry at the decision of Ukraine to move closer to the West by joining NATO and EU but it has the right to do so as a sovereign state. Russia has no right to impose its will on the Ukrainian people and force them to align themselves to it.

Global condemnation of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine (only four countries – Belarus, Eritrea, North Korea, and Syria, sided with Russia at the UN General Assembly) is rooted in the fundamental principle of self-determination. A country has no right to invade another country just because it disagrees with its foreign policy.

The war in Ukraine is about Russia’s security vis-à-vis Ukraine right to self-determination.

Universal censure of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine prompted some observers to say that it could be Putin’s Waterloo. Many experts believe that if his Ukraine venture fails, it might seal Putin’s doom.

No doubt, Russia with its military superiority will conquer Ukraine but holding the country is a different matter.  Ukraine is shaping up to be Afghanistan 2.0 for Russia.

In 1979 Russia invaded Afghanistan and installed a puppet government (which is also Putin’s end game in Ukraine) but propping up the regime is another story. After ten years, Russian troops were forced to withdraw from Afghanistan and two years later the Soviet Union fell apart.

Occupying Russian troops supporting a puppet government in Ukraine will face a fierce insurgency backed by the military and economic might of the West. Can Russia under the severest economic sanction in recent memory sustain its occupation of Ukraine?

Putin is in a no-win situation in Ukraine.  If he did not invade Ukraine, he will be putting Russia’s security at risk. But invading Ukraine has harsh economic, social, diplomatic, and political costs to Russia. Putin has placed not only his regime but his own political and personal survival at stake with his decision to invade Ukraine. Is Ukraine his Waterloo?  That will be determined by the outcome of his Ukrainian mis/adventure.