We suspect that most people thought that the days were long over when one country would invade another sovereign state in order to preserve the former’s preferred notion of geopolitical order. Building NATO-esque alliances is one thing, but military aggression? It’s just not the way twenty-first century major powers are expected to behave. While Vladimir Putin’s savagery has forever changed the way we think about this sort of thing, for all his barbarity we still cannot allow ourselves to lose sight of what it will take moving forward with him as Russia’s head of state.
At this point we can respect President Joe Biden’s reliance on economic rather than military measures to counter the Russian onslaught and pray that it will turn out to be an effective response. We cannot escape the feeling, however, that Biden seemed somewhat surprised by how things have turned out – that he did not fully appreciate how ferocious Putin would be in responding to the U.S. welcoming closer ties with Ukraine and hints about NATO membership that heated up towards the end of last year.
While two other former members of the Soviet Union are already members of NATO (and share borders with Russia), they do not approach Ukraine in population size nor in military or economic power. Thus the possibility that Ukraine would join an organization whose raison d’etre was and is countering Russia’s projection of its influence in Europe should have been foreseen as the biggest of big deals to Putin. This is especially true given all of the indications over the years that Putin was intent on restoring Russia’s role as a major world power, something that came crashing down with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1992. One could also have expected Putin would make an example of Ukraine to other former Soviet states, large and small, not to wander too far off the reservation.
One does not have to in any way condone what Vladimir Putin has unleashed to recognize that he has to be dealt with, certainly in the near future. As the old maxim wisely puts it: “Know thy enemy.”