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24 February 2022updated 02 Mar 2022 12:21pm

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine changes everything

We are in a different world now.

By Jeremy Cliffe

BERLIN – Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has started. At 6am Moscow time Vladimir Putin addressed the nation, announcing that the goal of the attack was to “defend people who have been victims of abuse and genocide”, an utterly bogus and baseless pretext for what is a war of unprovoked aggression to stop a democratic country from continuing its self-determined shift towards the West.

At the time of writing, air raid sirens were sounding across the country. Ukraine’s government has reported strikes on major airports and military installations and Russian troops appear to be moving in on a broad front. This is the full-scale invasion that Western governments, including the US and UK, have warned of over the past few weeks. The intelligence seems to have been spot-on.

Full details of the attack are only starting to emerge, but its scale and Putin’s language (“we will strive to demilitarise and de-Nazify Ukraine”) suggest a goal of toppling the Ukrainian government and replacing it with a pro-Kremlin puppet. Volodymyr Zelensky, the Ukrainian president, addressed his country as the attack began with a message of defiance: “We are strong. We are ready for everything. We will overcome everyone because we are Ukraine. Glory to Ukraine.” There can be no doubt about Ukraine’s will to resist, despite Russia’s overwhelming military superiority.

We are in a different world now. The full effects of Russia’s attack on Ukraine will play out not just over years but over decades — and in ways that no-one, including Putin, can predict with any confidence. The war will almost certainly be the biggest conflict in Europe since 1989, perhaps 1945. It will be transformative.

There were explosions across Ukraine as Russian forces attacked its military infrastructure. (Photo by Aris Messinis/AFP.)

Huge questions loom about what happens next. If Moscow seeks to occupy large parts of Ukraine, it should reckon with prolonged partisan warfare. It is also hard to imagine any Kremlin puppet government in Kyiv enjoying any sort of stability in a country that will be overwhelmingly set against it. We should reckon on the fighting and suffering caused by this attack continuing for years, not weeks.

Then there are the wider questions. Relations between Russia and the West will be transformed, and with them potentially the entire landscape of global geopolitics. Nato will almost certainly send major reinforcements to its eastern flank, including the Baltic states, Poland and Romania. The alliance will impose severe sanctions on Putin’s regime. How their impact, and that of the inevitable Russian casualties, will be felt in Russia is another major question. We should not rule out the possibility that the domino chain started by Putin’s attack ends with a serious challenge to his rule.

The destabilising effects of the conflict may well travel far beyond Ukraine — to other parts of central Europe, to the Balkans (where a fragile peace was fracturing even before last night), to Central Asia and even to the Pacific. How the West reacts now will certainly shape China’s thinking on its own designs on Taiwan.

Precedents will be set in the next days: precedents about what is acceptable in the international system of the early-to-mid 21st century and what is not; precedents that will shape the decades to come. The West must now hit Russia with crippling penalties, its sanctions targeted as much as possible not at the Russian people, who in no meaningful sense can be said to have voted for this turn of events, but at Putin’s kleptocratic regime. 

In the UK that means permanently closing down the “Londongrad” nexus of oligarchs, their dubiously gained fortunes and the lawyers, bankers and lobbyists who abet them. Such measures may come at a significant economic cost. Western leaders must make crystal clear to their electorates that this is a price worth paying to uphold the fundamental principles now at stake.

And the West must provide massive, open-ended military and humanitarian support to Ukraine. It is easy to send out tweets saying #StandWithUkraine, as plenty of leaders in Europe and the US have done in recent days. Now is the time to deliver the substance. Ukraine may be outgunned but it must be supported to defend itself as well as it can, and to put up such fierce resistance to any Russian occupation that Putin regrets his decision.

This also means every effort to minimise human suffering. US official estimates in the past weeks have put the number of casualties from a full-scale invasion at up to 50,000 and the number of refugees at up to five million. During my reporting trip to Kyiv a month ago I was told that an attack on the capital — the likes of which is now underway — might cause a million people to flee. The EU and the UK must prepare to take in numbers potentially well into the millions and to give them refuge for as long as they need it.

Ukraine is a democratic country that did not seek this conflict. For all its imperfections and all its difficulties since Russia began its campaign of aggression in 2014, it has made significant strides towards a prosperous, liberal-democratic future for its people. All that progress faces annihilation by the Russian onslaught, the punishment of a sovereign people for the “crime” of seeking to choose their own path. This appalling assault on all of the principles that Western nations claim to hold dear is — pure and simple — a test of their sincerity, resolve and mettle.

A military airport near Kharkiv in northeast Ukraine was one of the first targets hit. (Photo by Aris Messinis/AFP.)

It is no exaggeration to say that we are probably at some form of turning point in history. Yet it would also be a major error to mistake Putin for the master of that turning point. Yes, he is the one who has made the misguided, unjustifiable and ultimately self-sabotaging move to attack Ukraine, but he does not get to dictate how that plays out in the long term unless the West lets him. To take command of that turning point, and decide to where it leads, is the task to which its leaders must now rise. History will be unsparing on those who fall short.

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