Vladimir Putin has launched a massive military assault on Ukraine, with the stated purpose of overthrowing the democratically-elected regime there and replacing it with one subservient to Moscow. Russian forces have arrived in the suburbs of Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv.
Ukraine is a country I know well. My center at Stanford University has run a series of leadership training programs for mid-career Ukrainian activists and officials who are trying to reform their country, and I have visited to teach there many times. Ukraine suffers from high levels of corruption, but my personal experience has convinced me that there is a rising new generation of Ukrainians imbued with democratic values, and who want to join Europe rather than a kleptocratic Russia. I take the invasion very personally: many of my friends—human rights activists, journalists, anti-corruption campaigners—would be the first targets of a pro-Moscow regime were it to come to power.
Prior to the invasion, many observers believed that Putin was bluffing and that the Biden administration was hyping the threat. The Russian troop buildup and Russian propaganda revived the long-standing discussion in Europe and the US of how NATO expansion threatened Russia, and that the United States was in part responsible for the present situation. There were calls from many “realists” to grant Russia a sphere of influence over the territory of the former USSR, and to negotiate the neutralization of Ukraine.
These arguments were weak even before the invasion: Ukrainian entry into NATO was purely theoretical; no one had pushed for this since 2008, and the Ukrainian military was heavily overmatched by the 190,000 Russian troops gathering on their borders.
In the past week, the Russians have put forward a series of increasingly ridiculous justifications for its actions: that Ukraine was a fascist, neo-Nazi state, that it was committing genocide against the Russian-speaking population of Donbas, or was contemplating a huge military operation against Russia. The invasion has made all of these claims utterly hollow. It is crystal clear now that the threat runs only in one direction, from Russia to Ukraine, and indeed, to every country that borders on Russia, and beyond.
Putin’s motives are not hard to fathom, since he has talked at length about his worldview and strategic objectives. He stated some years ago that the dissolution of the USSR was the greatest tragedy of the 20th century. In a long article last summer, and in the rambling speech he gave on the eve of the invasion, he stated that Ukraine was not an independent nation but an essential part of Russia, one that did not have the right to a separate identity and existence. The demands made of NATO in the discussions that have taken place in recent weeks indicate that Moscow cares not just about Ukraine, but the entire European order created in the wake of the fall of the Berlin Wall. It has demanded that NATO cease any military support not just for Ukraine, but for all the countries that joined the organization from the 1990s onwards. He wants, in other words, to restore as much of the former USSR as possible, to neutralize Eastern Europe and turn it into a buffer zone, and to undo the entire post-1991 settlement of a “Europe whole and free.”
A democratic Ukraine does in fact threaten Putin—not the Russian people, but Putin’s view that democracy is not suitable for Slavic peoples, who according to him naturally gravitate towards strong, centralized leadership. The success of a democratic Ukraine and its desire to join Europe suggests that something similar could happen in Russia as well, which would spell the end of Putin and Putinism. This is why he would never have settled for a neutral Ukraine that foreswore NATO membership—as long as it remained a democracy, it would undermine his narrative and would need to be eliminated.
We are currently at a critical juncture in world history. If Putin succeeds in overthrowing democracy in Ukraine and replacing it with a puppet regime, he will have set a terrible precedent for the use of naked force. China will take a cue from this, as it contemplates options for re-incorporating Taiwan. The US and NATO will have been humiliated, and a signal will go out across the world that American promises of support are hollow and cooperation among democracies non-existent.
On the other hand, it is just as possible that Putin has made a blunder of monumental proportions. The invasion has triggered massive protests in Russia itself; even propagandists and diplomats promoting the Russian line have been taken aback by the fact that the invasion actually happened. It has unified the Ukrainian people like nothing else, and they have shown incredible willingness to fight back. In military terms, Putin does not have remotely enough forces to control a country of nearly 40 million people, or even a city like Kyiv with 2.8 million inhabitants. NATO has been unified in imposing stiff sanctions, including German agreement to cancel the Nordstream II gas pipeline. The Russian offensive may bog down in house-to-house fighting and produce massive casualties among Ukrainians, but will also lead to large numbers of Russians returning home in body bags. Russians are already astonished that their military investments are being used in the first instance to kill fellow Slavs and destroy a country with which they feel close kinship.
The outcome of the war in Ukraine will also affect domestic politics in the United States. Former President Trump has over the years expressed admiration for Vladimir Putin, a pattern that has continued up to the past week when he called Putin a “genius” for declaring the independence of parts of Ukraine. Democracies do not decay out of an ideological choice for authoritarian government, the way they might have affirmed Marxism-Leninism. They decay because of an admiration for strength and strong men who can get away with big actions outside the bounds of the checks and balances that exist in rule-of-law countries. If Putin succeeds in his aggression in Ukraine and the Republican Party follows Trump in his admiration for what he has done, then it will be making a decisive break with fundamental American democratic values. This will consolidate the authoritarian turn the party took by affirming the January 6th attack on the US Capitol. Given the importance of the United States to the maintenance of a liberal world order more broadly, this will be a very bad development for the free world as a whole.