Russia’s invasion of Ukraine marks the beginning of the end for the Putin regime. It also marks the end of the beginning of a new era in geo-strategy and how the world’s democracies respond to threats from aggressive autocracies.
For President Putin, all the plausible outcomes in Ukraine leave him in trouble.
Even if Russian forces occupied the whole of Ukraine, that occupation could not be sustained. The numbers speak for themselves. During the worst of the troubles in Northern Ireland, the United Kingdom had around 20,000 armed forces personnel serving there, among a population of around 1.5 million. To achieve a similar ratio in Ukraine, Russia would need about 500,000 troops – more than double the number currently engaged in the invasion attempt.
But in the very different the circumstances in Ukraine, that number would be insufficient. Almost the entire population is hostile to Russian forces, and they have the capacity and the will to maintain a ferocious insurgency.
Furthermore, what would the effect be of a prolonged occupation where large number of Russian forces would come into contact with Ukrainians who can communicate directly with them in their own language?
Although President Putin – astonishingly – seemed to believe his own propaganda about Ukraine being governed by Nazis and drug addicts, the longer they stay, the more the occupying troops would realise that they had been duped into invading a country which is determined to defend its territory and system of government.
So – sooner or later – the Putin regime will have to click its spin doctors into overdrive and retrench.
President Putin will not withdraw his forces back to within Russia’s borders. He would certainly hope to consolidate his grip on Crimea and parts of Donbas, and perhaps a land corridor between the two. He would also be tempted to try to deny the rest of Ukraine access to the coast, and to hold a few areas bordering Russia. Time will tell how much Ukrainian territory President Putin feels he can hold, but an occupation of the whole of Ukraine already seems unachievable.
But whatever lines President Putin seeks to draw within Ukraine, his regime will remain an international pariah, facing a newly united coalition of democratic alliances and nations.
He will hope to “wait them out”, expecting that the next crop of world leaders will eventually think about another fresh start, but that seems a faint hope indeed. A line has been crossed. Sanctions will remain, and Russia’s economy will shrink while disillusionment among the population, the elites and the oligarchs will grow. And despite controls on the media in Russia, the realities of Russia’s invasion will percolate through the many family and personal ties between Ukraine and Russia.
Whether the regime will last weeks, months or years is anybody’s guess – as is the damage it might inflict in efforts to bolster domestic support and deflect attention from its failings – but at the very least, this must be the beginning of the end for the Putin regime.
An own goal
The fact is that President Putin has scored a spectacular own goal by invading Ukraine.
When new members joined the Alliance after the end of Cold War, NATO took incredible care to avoid any “provocative” force deployments – or even military exercises – on their territories. And even the measures taken after Russia occupied Crimea in 2014 were restrained, demonstrably defensive, and with forces rotated in and out, rather than being permanently based there. As it is, NATO is bolstering its defences in view of President Putin’s actions and alarming rhetoric, and neutral Sweden and Finland have drawn closer than ever to the Alliance.
And instead of dividing NATO, President Putin has united it – and almost the entire global community of democracies – in not only condemning but sanctioning Russia for its illegal and immoral invasion of Ukraine.
And they are now alert to the fact that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is actually a violent eruption of the strategic competition between democracies and autocracies which has been taking place for years, mainly in the so-called “grey zone”.
As at the end of the Cold War and after the dreadful “9/11” attacks against the United States, many long-held assumptions are now obsolete, and it is time for new thinking about adapting to a profound shift in the international security landscape.
The era of complacency is over
In a speech in Washington DC on 10 March, UK Foreign Secretary Liz Truss gave a lecture entitled The era of complacency is over in which she described Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as “a paradigm shift on the scale of 9/11” that has “shaken the architecture of global security”.
And as well as highlighting the need to strengthen NATO, she underlined “the need to ensure that our global security architecture is fit for the new era.”
In fact, the United Kingdom has been at the forefront of efforts to characterize the strategic challenges which democratic nations face and how they can respond effectively.
The United Kingdom’s recent Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development, and Foreign Policy presented a “whole-of-government” and “whole-of-society” approach to national security and resilience, going well beyond traditional notions of defence and foreign policy. The goal is to defend “our people, territory, critical national infrastructure (CNI), democratic institutions and way of life”.
The strength and solidarity of reactions to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine suggest that the “community of democratic nations” is now likely to be far more receptive to developing and implementing the more comprehensive and pro-active approaches advocated in the UK’s integrated Review.
In fact, the need for a fresh approach has been evident for a long time.
For years, both Russia and China have sought to weaken and undermine the world’s democracies using methods falling short of military force.
They have tried to tear holes in the fabric of democratic societies. Our societies are based on the freedom to express diverse views and the right of others to hold different beliefs. But hostile disinformation campaigns strive to amplify, exaggerate, and exploit those differences and turn them into rifts and chasms, inflaming tensions, and undermining confidence in governments, political systems, institutions, and beliefs.
And disinformation is just one weapon in the grey-zone arsenal, alongside deception, election interference, hacking, technology theft, coercion, bribery, trade inducements and “punishments”, or any method of weakening our societies and our democratic institutions.
Concerns about Russian energy, “troll farms”, political assassinations, and the largesse of oligarchs are now all too familiar. And China, too, actively seeks to diminish the power and cohesion of Western-style democracies, and has far more resources at its disposal, including formidable trade and economic incentives and disincentives: Chinese industries and tech giants do as they are told.
A New Approach for a New Era
Until now, however, the world’s democracies have responded with a piecemeal approach. Even NATO and European Union have been limited by their different memberships and responsibilities, and they have had mixed results in engaging other major world democracies.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, though, has had a galvanizing effect in drawing together what is effectively an informal coalition of democracies. That success must now be moulded into a more systematic framework for orchestrating a pro-active approach to managing the complex strategic competition between democracies and autocracies.
So for the end of the President Putin regime the question is not whether but when: for dealing with new a new strategic equation, the question is not when but how.