A few caveats. All I write here is based on limited information on conditions on the ground, predictions are dicey because I do not know exactly what Putin is thinking, and let me say clearly I do support Ukraine and I loathe the Putin regime.
I think the whole “Putin is afraid of Ukraine as a post-Soviet democratic example to Russia” is exaggerated, if not plain wrong. Very, very few Russians want Russia to be like Ukraine, because Ukraine is a poor country burdened by grossly ineffective government. And note: there are about a million Ukrainians who live and work in Russia, economic migrants. There are basically no Russian citizens moving to Ukraine for work. And while both countries suffer from corruption, the Russian state performs far better and the economy is much stronger.
Likewise, I think the “Putin is a dictator, Ukraine is a flowering democracy” narrative is mostly wrong. Putin is an autocrat, elections are not fair, but Russia is not a dictatorship. There are opposition parties and there is still an opposition press. But the fact is, Putin remains popular. Ukraine does have more democratic elections, but discontent is high, people are cynical about politics.
So What’s Next?
So what’s going on right now? My sense is Ukraine cannot hold out long, its military is simply overwhelmed by the Russian war machine. And what does Putin want? Basically, to strip Ukraine of its sovereignty and make it a vassal state. That means that Kyiv recognize the annexation of Crimeaand the “independence” of Donesk and Lugansk. It means a treaty obligation to sever ties with NATO and the EU. And it means Versailles style limitations on Ukraine’s military. Oh, and the installation of a pro-Moscow puppet government.
President Zelensky has two options. Maybe his government can hold onto Western Ukraine in the hope that Russian occupation of the rest of Ukraine will become too costly for Moscow. I do not think this option holds great promise. More likely, he will have to swallow the bitter pill of submitting to Putin’s ultimatum. In one sense, much of what Putin demands is mere recognition of present realities. NATO and EU membership were pipe dreams all along, and Crimea was lost forever. But of course Putin’s demands go further, beyond what any sovereign country could submit to without occupation.
But Ukraine is coming under occupation, its two largest cities including its capital will be under Russian control within days. I wish it weren’t so, but I think capitulation now is better than capitulation later. At least less blood will be shed.
God bless Ukraine. But that matters not, when Ukraine has no real allies and limited capacity to resist naked Russian aggression. And damn Putin and Russia. And that matters not as well, sanctions will hurt but will not be decisive. It’s all a terrible tragedy, and senseless. Ukraine represented no real threat to Russia, this war is the product of Putin’s oversized ego, his paranoia, and a bloated sense of Russian pride.
And the irony? Putin has created a neighbor whose 44 million people will bitterly hate Russia, forever. Other post-Soviet states like Uzbekistan will regard Moscow with renewed suspicion. And NATO is now united like no time since the Cold War. The conquest of Ukraine will be a tactical victory but a strategic defeat.