No one should have been surprised that Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered the invasion of Ukraine on Thursday morning, experts in that region’s history and politics said.
“This didn’t come out of nowhere,” said Professor Scott Radnitz, associate professor of Russian and Eurasian studies in the University of Washington’s Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies. “For Putin, this is a war of choice.”
Most military analysts believe Ukraine will not be able to hold out for long, Radnitz said. It’s not clear whether the Russians will try to conquer the entire country or just occupy the major cities.
The latter could lead to an insurgency by Ukrainian nationalists in the countryside if Putin, as expected, installs a new government in Kyiv.
Whether the invasion ends quickly or takes a long time, the end result is likely to be the same, said Professor Laura Brunell, who teaches courses on European politics at Gonzaga University.
“Vladimir Putin is a realist,” Brunell said. “Power talks. And sanctions … are not effective with him. He’s going to take all of Ukraine.”
She’s also skeptical of parallels being drawn between a Russian occupation of Ukraine and the Soviet Union’s disastrous experience in Afghanistan. “It’s a totally different situation,” Brunell said, adding that such a protracted war in the middle of Europe would be reminiscent of World War II, not remote Afghanistan.
“A lot of people think Russia’s plan is to install a friendly regime in Ukraine,” said Florian Justwan, associate professor of political science at the University of Idaho. While it probably has the military power to do that “it’s definitely going to be costly,” he added.
Whether sanctions being imposed by the United States and its allies will have much effect on the invasion of Ukraine is open to debate.
“Russian citizens themselves are going to suffer,” Radnitz said. The ruble, the nation’s currency, is already falling, inflation is high and so is unemployment.
As a nation, Russia is likely to become a “political pariah,” he added. But it is still a member of the United Nations Security Council and the World Trade Organization.
The United States and Europe already have significant sanctions in place on Russia, Justwan said. But high oil prices have allowed Russia to build up financial reserves.
Americans and European allies can expect higher gasoline and energy prices, and a disruption in the supply of certain minerals from Russia, including titanium.
Putin won’t be personally affected by the sanctions, Brunell said. He’s been building up his personal wealth for years and he’s not concerned that the general public might suffer.
He also has laid the groundwork for the invasion with a propaganda campaign on government-controlled news media that has been telling the Russian people the Ukrainian President, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, is the head of an illegitimate government that came to power through a coup, and Russia is righting that wrong. “He’s adept at manipulating public opinion,” she said.
Putin could suffer some public backlash if the Russian people start seeing pictures and video of the destruction of Ukrainian cities, Radnitz said. The two countries have been connected historically, and many Russians have friends or relatives in Ukraine, and vice versa.
Although Russian television will avoid showing such images, Putin can’t completely control social media and the internet, which could bring those views onto computer screens and into smart phones.
That may not make much difference, all three said.
Putin is the strongest Russian leader since Joseph Stalin and has little or no political opposition, Radnitz said.
“At the end of the day, Putin does not live in a democracy,” Justwan said. “He does not need the support of the majority of the population to maintain power.”
Brunell said she doesn’t see anything changing while Putin is alive, although when he dies there’s going to be a “power vacuum” because there’s no clear successor.
Poland and the Baltic states of Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania – which, like Ukraine, were either part of or under the control of the Soviet Union – are probably safe from a similar move by Putin because they joined the North Atlantic Treaty Organization before he came to power, she said.
“The whole thing here is whether you’re NATO or not,” Brunell said. Putin’s goal is not to cede any more territory to the Western alliance and maintain a buffer zone around Russia, she said.
The effects of the invasion may seem remote to Americans, but Europe will feel it more directly, Brunell said “like gangs taking over your neighborhood.”
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