“There are no certainties in war.” – Winston Churchill
Putin does not shy away from the use of military force, and his experience of war over the past two decades undoubtedly makes him confident, even cocky, as Russian forces attack Ukraine.
Putin’s regime began with a successful attack on Chechnya in 1999. Russian forces besieged the capital, Grozny, killing thousands, and soon took control of the entire breakaway republic. While a guerrilla war smoldered for years, Putin was finally able to establish control by installing a mini-dictator, first Akhmad Kadyrov, then his son Ramzan Kadyrov.
Putin invaded a sovereign country, Georgia, in 2008. In just five days, the Russians drove to the outskirts of Tbilisi but did not take the capital. Instead, the invaders secured the Russian enclaves of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, which remain under Kremlin control. Georgia’s ambitions to join NATO lay shattered.
In 2014, after the overthrow of a pro-Russian ruler in Kyiv, Putin launched his first invasion of Ukraine. “Little green men” — i.e., Russian troops in uniforms without insignia — took control of Crimea. Meanwhile, Russian-backed separatists launched a war in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine that has continued to the present day and now serves as a pretext for a wider invasion of Ukraine.
Then came the 2015 Russian intervention in Syria. With Russia’s ally Bashar al-Assad on the verge of being toppled, Putin sent in the Russian air force and a small number of Russian mercenaries and special forces to rescue him. With indiscriminate bombing of urban areas and even hospitals, the Russians killed thousands of civilians — but they did help save a murderous regime. Putin defied predictions from then-President Barack Obama that Syria would turn out to be a Vietnam-style “quagmire” for Russia. Instead, it turned into a training ground for the kind of high-tech war that Putin is now unleashing on Ukraine.
It is easy to see how this long record of military success can lead Putin, who has ruled unchallenged for more than two decades, to imagine that he can now turn Ukraine into a satrapy. But the war he just unleashed on Ukraine is considerably more challenging than the ones he has previously waged.
Ukraine’s military, while inferior to Russia’s, is superior to those of all the other foes Russia has fought over the past two decades. Ukrainians have more modern weapons than they did in 2014, and they have years of combat experience fighting Russian separatists. Russia’s continuing aggression has also made Ukrainians more nationalistic and pro-Western. One poll shows that support in Ukraine for joining NATO has risen from 34 percent in 2013 to 62 percent today. Ukrainians have been signaling they will resist, with even great-grandmothers training for guerrilla warfare.
Russia is in the early stages of an offensive that Putin says is designed for the “demilitarization and denazification” of Ukraine — a country with a Jewish president. The revamped Russian military can certainly defeat the Ukrainian armed forces and take Kyiv. But then what? As Gen. David H. Petraeus said during the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003: “Tell me how this ends.”
The 190,000 troops that Putin has assembled to invade Ukraine are sufficient to effect regime change — but, as Petraeus recently noted, they are completely insufficient to control a country of more than 43 million people. That would likely require hundreds of thousands more Russian troops and could expose them to a costly, drawn-out guerrilla war that could sap Putin’s popularity.
Putin’s best bet would be to install a puppet regime in Kyiv — but how to keep it in power? The Ukrainian people have already used “people power” to topple two previous pro-Russian leaders, in 2005 and 2014. What is to stop them from doing it a third time? Putin would need to create a pro-Russian security force in Ukraine but, given the growing nationalism of the populace, that will be hard to do.
None of this is to suggest that his offensive is doomed to fail. It would be foolhardy to bet against a tyrant with Putin’s track record. But there is nothing foreordained about Russian success — and much that the West can do to stymie his aggression. It is imperative for the West to keep arming and supporting the Ukrainians, keep adding to NATO troop deployments in Eastern Europe and to keep piling up draconian sanctions on the Russian regime.
Napoleon marched into Spain in 1808 confident of success, only to bog down in a long and costly guerrilla war aided and abetted by his English enemies. Before long, he would complain that he was being bled dry by the “Spanish ulcer.” The West now has an opportunity to create a “Ukrainian ulcer” for Putin. We must ensure that the Russian dictator’s cruel and reckless gambit does not pay off.
War in Ukraine: What you need to know
The latest: Russia claimed to have seized control of Soledar, a heavily contested salt-mining town in eastern Ukraine where fighting has raged recently, but a Ukrainian military official maintained that the battle was not yet over. The U.S. and Germany are sending tanks to Ukraine.
Russia’s Gamble: The Post examined the road to war in Ukraine, and Western efforts to unite to thwart the Kremlin’s plans, through extensive interviews with more than three dozen senior U.S., Ukrainian, European and NATO officials.
Photos: Washington Post photographers have been on the ground from the beginning of the war — here’s some of their most powerful work.