The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Putin’s assault on Ukraine will shape a new world order

A vehicle damaged by Russian shelling in Mariupol, Ukraine, on Feb. 24. (Sergei Grits/AP)
4 min

When Russian President Vladimir Putin launched his all-out invasion of Ukraine on Thursday, he effectively ended the post-Cold War era. A new architecture for global relations must be built, and its shape will depend on whether Putin’s brutal campaign succeeds or fails.

Putin’s attack awakened the ghosts of war that had haunted Europe for a century. The world watched in horror as a massive assault force attacked Ukraine from three sides with missiles, bombs, tanks and the electronic wizardry of cyberwarfare. Scores of nations condemned the invasion. But the gut-wrenching fact is that Ukraine is fighting Putin by itself.

The Post's View: Why Ukraine -- and Russian aggression against it -- matters to Americans

This conflict isn’t a case of sleepwalking toward war, as historians have described the blind march into World War I in 1914. It is closer to the attack that a bitter, vengeful German leader launched on neighboring Czechoslovakia in 1939. Putin isn’t Adolf Hitler — yet — but he shares a similar brooding obsession with settling scores by military force.

Putin’s willingness to escalate all the way to war has been increasingly clear to the Biden administration since CIA Director William J. Burns visited Moscow in early November. He traveled there to warn Putin that U.S. intelligence had concluded that behind a Russian troop buildup along Ukraine’s border lay serious war-planning.

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Burns told colleagues that Putin, normally a cool calculator, seemed ready to go to war. Partly, it appeared to be a sense of personal destiny as Putin neared age 70, partly his calculation that the moment was ripe because the United States and its allies were disoriented while Russia was relatively strong. At the core was Putin’s long-standing obsession with a defiant Ukraine, which he saw moving inexorably toward the West despite Kremlin warnings — and against the weight of Russian history itself.

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Putin had expressed his fixation with Ukraine to Burns back in 2008, when Burns was the U.S. ambassador to Moscow. That conversation, described in Burns’s 2019 memoir, makes for eerie reading now, with missiles falling on Kyiv. “Doesn’t your government know that Ukraine is unstable and immature politically and NATO is very divisive there?” Putin admonished Burns. “Don’t you know that Ukraine is not even a real country? Part of it is really East European and part is really Russian.”

Putin repeated those words almost precisely this week in announcing the war. Ukraine is his rawest nerve. He evidently believes that Russia cannot be a great power unless it controls Ukraine.

The Biden administration tried to deter Putin by warning him of potentially crippling sanctions, which it imposed on Thursday shortly after the invasion began. The White House also adopted a novel disruption tactic of revealing Russian military planning, false-flag plots to provoke war and even schemes for targeted killings.

Officials believe this information barrage checked some of Putin’s plans; it also shattered the narrative Putin had hoped to create. For once, the United States had the initiative in the information wars in which the Russian leader has been so adept.

As Putin moved toward all-out war, he was counseled by a tiny inner circle, led by three hard-liners: Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu; FSB chief Alexander Bortnikov; and security council chief Nikolai Patrushev. Lower down in the military and Kremlin bureaucracy, some were skeptical about the Ukraine war plans, U.S. officials believe. But that questioning clearly didn’t penetrate to Putin himself.

Now that Russian troops have surged into Ukraine, how does Putin plan to extricate himself? It’s likely that he hopes to keep Russian ground troops out of Kyiv and other big cities, instead using Spetsnaz special forces and FSB operatives to neutralize these targets. He will probably seek to install a puppet government. But here’s where U.S. officials believe Putin’s planning breaks down.

What Putin doesn’t appear to realize, with his vision of Russian-Ukrainian oneness, is that his bullying has deeply alienated Ukrainians. I saw that anti-Putin sentiment when I visited Kyiv in late January, and it’s undoubtedly even stronger now that Russian tanks are on the streets and jets are in the sky. Putin obviously believed his own rhetoric that Ukraine wasn’t a real country. That level of self-absorption so often leads to mistakes.

Eugene Robinson: Putin's attack on Ukraine is about more than his own delusions of grandeur

With his unprovoked invasion, Putin has shattered the international legal rules established after World War II, along with the European order that followed the Cold War. That old architecture was getting shaky, and it was destined to be replaced eventually.

The Ukraine assault, pitting a messianic Russian autocrat against the wishes of every other major nation, perhaps including China, will determine the shape of the new order to come. If Putin loses his battle to subjugate Ukraine, the new order will have a solid and promising foundation. If Putin wins, the new era will be very dangerous indeed.