The benefit of our modern world is that when things go to shit, we know at the speed of light. And things have gone to shit for Russia in Ukraine, regardless of how Putin’s minions try to spin it. Also, thanks to the lethality of modern battlefield weapons, things have gone to shit much faster than they have in other failed invasions since 1914.
One could say that the Russia-Ukraine War has followed a familiar pattern: a global power with max hubris doesn’t like how things are going in another country, decides to do some regime change by force, and is then brought down by fierce resistance from all corners of the country being invaded–a resistance aided in varying degrees by other powers avoiding direct confrontation for…reasons.
We are pros at hubris in the US. We just quit one of those wars, and are arguably still embroiled in another despite mostly withdrawing. We are relearning the Vietnam lessons again via Afghanistan and Iraq: the cost in blood of rewriting the culture and politics of another state through force is extremely high and almost always a failure. Germany is the exception that proves the rule.
But what Russia is trying to do in Ukraine goes beyond anything America has done since the Trail of Tears and the Indian Wars. Russia is not just trying to rewrite the nature of Ukraine–Putin wants to erase it entirely as an entity, destroy its separate culture and language, remove it from the world as anything other than an appendix to Russia itself. Putin claims Ukraine is a made-up place, and that it is really just Russia.
This is the Chechnya playbook. It’s the same playbook he has for Georgia, for Moldova, and probably for Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia if he thought NATO was weak enough. He wants the old Empire back, an Empire that was never really a happy family no matter what stories Russians tell.
The playbook only worked in Chechnya because of its size and geography. Ukraine is a different place, even with millions now left or leaving to avoid the violence. The Chechens didn’t have western weapons, aid or training. The best that can be had is a very bloody deadlock that magnifies security risks to Russia (and the world) for decades to come.
This is not Putin’s Afghanistan. The Russian army has already taken more losses in a little more than a month than it lost in 10 years in Afghanistan. The total toll is rapidly approaching that of the Vietnam War, the closest equivalent in modern American history. Putin will spill the blood of a whole generation of Russians to achieve a fraction of his goals, if any–and any victory at this point will be Pyrrhic.
The problem, of course, is that Putin has painted himself into a corner. There is no exit strategy that will be satisfactory to him politically; even if he manages to annex the Donbas, he will be left unsatisfied (and it is far from assured that he will manage even that).
Thus, we are on the verge of a quagmire that will affect everyone in the world because of food prices, fuel prices, the weight of humanitarian relief and the return of conventional arms buildups, the weakening of deterrence, and a few dozen other things. There is no rapid end to this. If Ukraine sweeps the field in the next week, it will still not be over. Putin will never sit down with Zelenskeyy and say “Не больше!”