When Russian President Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine in late February, he abandoned his minimum risk strategy of keeping his opponents off balance with a mix of diplomatic and military maneuvers. Instead, he launched a large-scale, conventional air and ground attack with an apparent goal of regime change. Russia may eventually overpower the Ukrainian resistance with its sizable military and indiscriminate firepower. But whether Russia will be “victorious” remains unclear. Russia’s off ramp in Ukraine must include more imagination and subtlety than the Soviet smackdown of Czechoslovakia in 1968. Since then, the world has changed in ways unfavorable to military aggressors and ambitious autocrats.
Since 2008, Russia has modernized its military; it improved its weapons and enlisted more professional soldiers compared with the Soviet and early post-Soviet period. However, most agree that its performance so far has disappointed. No doubt Ukraine countered Russia with a stronger-than-expected resistance. But Putin underestimated Zelensky—a leader who turned out to be more like Winston Churchill than the Duke of Windsor. And, NATO, in response to Putin’s war, has never been stronger. Democracy may prevail over autocracy, but the price may be nontrivial.
The above excerpt was originally published in Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.
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