Russia’s Long, Slow Slog to Nowhere in Ukraine

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, that began on February 24, 2022, has digressed after one hundred plus days into a trench war slugfest reminiscent of the battles on the Western Front during World War I. Putin’s quick hit strategy to knock out the Ukrainian government in Kyiv and install a Pro-Russian puppet regime failed spectacularly. This was, perhaps, Russia’s only hope of achieving a “victory” worth the consequences of a Russian invasion of Ukraine. Only with the acquiescence, or even indifference, of the Ukrainian people to Russian hegemony could Putin hope for some sort of victory worth the cost of invading. As we all know, that did not happen.

For over a month, from early May to early June, the Ukrainian and Russian militaries have committed a large number of their forces in the battle for Severodonetsk, with it appearing at least for now that the Russians have won the battle and can now occupy the rubble that once was a city of roughly 100,000 people. But to what end? Putin may now be able to claim that Russian forces control most of Donetsk and Luhansk. But again, to what end?

When trying to make sense of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine it’s important to remember that Russia before invading Ukraine already controlled one-sixth of the earth’s land mass and one-eighth of the earth’s ‘inhabitable landmass. Russia has one of the best ratios of per capita arable land and abundant other natural resources. And Russia’s fertility rate was below replacement level so the population was declining, meaning Russia faced no pressure to add living space. So how does Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and the accompanying exodus of many of Russia’s young professionals help Russia to realize the country’s already vastly unrealized potential?

What possible incremental benefit to Russia, even if the Putin did “conquer” Ukraine, could the invasion possibly bring? My contention is nothing. The idea that adding Ukraine to Russia as a buffer with NATO strengthens Russia’s security defies all logic and is a total misreading of history. To see why I say that, look at the relationship Russia already with its western neighbors.

The Russian dominated Soviet Union, along with Nazi Germany, dismembered and erased from the map Poland under the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact in the fall of 1939. Poland was completely and unquestionably conquered militarily and the Soviet Union occupied roughly half the country. After Hitler turned on Nazi Germany’s ally and attacked the Soviet Union, Poland came completely under German control. But as the tide of war turned and the Soviet Union was able to reverse their losses and march on Berlin the Soviet Union gained complete control over all of Poland. For over 40 years the Russian dominated Soviet Union exercised military superiority over Poland and called the shots. But again, to what end?

When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989 and Poland was able to free itself of Russian domination, like most peoples under Russian domination the Poles immediately looked west. Putin and unfortunately some academics and media sources talk as if NATO expanded into the former Warsaw Pact countries and former Soviet Republics as conquerors. In fact, Poland and the former Soviet Republics in the Baltics of Estonia, Lithuania, and Latvia didn’t have to be conquered militarily, or even cajoled, bribed or begged to join NATO. Those countries couldn’t join NATO fast enough precisely because they knew firsthand and better than most what it was like to be dominated by Russia. With Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February of 2022 it should come as no surprise that some of the most ardent and generous supporters of the Ukrainians in their hour of need are the Poles, Estonians, Latvians, and Lithuanians. Russia’s nearest western neighbors understand and fear most what Putin’s expansionism means for the world if not stopped in its tracks.

The only certain outcome of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is that the Ukrainians and Russia’s nearest neighbors, even the citizens of Russia’s erstwhile allies like those in Belorussia, will trust Russia less and less, and many will hate the Russians more and more. We’ve already seen this in Finland’s abrupt change in policy and recent effort to join NATO.

Russia has already and may continue for many days, if not months and years, to flatten large areas and depopulate many of the cities of Ukraine, but what benefit does that bring to Russia? Putin may be able to keep Ukraine from exporting its millions of tons of grain to the world’s hungry masses, but will that generate goodwill to Putin and Russia? Absolutely not. There is no winning of this war for Russia. Russia has done generational harm to its own reputation throughout the world, and most importantly with Russia’s nearest neighbors. Russia and will never see any benefit that even approaches the cost of Putin’s invasion.

It’s becoming more and more evident that Vladmir Putin has put Russia on a long, slow slog to nowhere with his invasion of Ukraine.