Vladimir Putin is not crazy. He has not lost touch with reality. He is evil, a KGB thug, murderer and war criminal, and he knows what he is doing. Many believe that he will stop at nothing to recreate the Russian Empire. Others believe that Putin is vehemently opposed to NATO expansion.
Whatever his motives, nothing justifies Russia’s horrific invasion of Ukraine. It is a flagrant violation of international law that has resulted in a humanitarian disaster. It seems strange now that anyone ever imagined that Putin might not invade Ukraine.
The West is told that Putin has made a strategic mistake in thinking his military could overwhelm Ukraine, capture Kiev within 72 hours, decapitate the Ukrainian government, install a pro-Moscow puppet regime and face little popular resistance. But he knows he can achieve his objectives by behaving badly.
On Aug. 8, 2008 Russian forces began the invasion of Georgia, marking the start of Europe’s first war of the 21st century. The conflict itself was over within a matter of days, but the repercussions of the Russo-Georgian War continue to reverberate.
The international reaction to Russia’s military campaign in Georgia was remarkably muted. It minimized Russia’s bad behavior, with Moscow suffering few negative consequences. The invasion of Georgia should have been a wake-up call to the international community.
Understandably, Putin interpreted this accommodating approach as an invitation for further acts of aggression in what he perceived as Russia’s traditional sphere of influence. The 2008 invasion of Georgia was a Beta test for future aggression against Russia’s neighbors and a dry run for the tactics and strategies that would later be deployed in the 2014 invasion of Ukraine: launch a cyberattack, a disinformation campaign, and an all-out effort to meddle in a country’s domestic politics. Six years after the Russo-Georgian War, Russia embarked on a far more comprehensive military campaign against Ukraine which again went unchecked.
Even after the illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014 and the launch of Moscow’s war in eastern Ukraine, the U.S. and Europe still failed to acknowledge that Russia had become a revisionist power seeking to establish its dominion over the eastern half of Europe.
One can only speculate whether firmer Western responses in 2008 and 2014 could have prevented the tragic events of 2022. Now Ukrainians are paying the ultimate price. Based on the West’s behavior, Putin could only have concluded that the benefits of invading Ukraine would exceed the costs.
Europe and the U.S. keep learning the wrong lessons; their weakness begets weakness. Showing restraint and searching for a diplomatic solution encourages Putin, who has no retirement plans, to exploit the West’s vulnerability and double down.
Putin is holding the world to ransom. Few thought he would actually invade Ukraine, but he did just that. Why would you put anything past him, including widening the war leading to a nuclear Armageddon? An economically cornered Russia coupled with continued Ukrainian resistance could cause Putin to escalate.
Putin understands that the U.S. and Europe will not resort to measures such as a no-fly zone that could lead to direct conflict with Russia and risk nuclear war over Ukraine, which is not a NATO member. He knows full well that nuclear brinkmanship has prevented the West from bombing his army into the ground. The result would be World War III. After all, Russia has nearly 6,000 nuclear weapons, with an estimated 1,600 active and deployed.
Will all this end with a diplomatic solution in which Russia withdraws its forces in exchange for Ukraine’s neutrality? Who knows? It is too early to start considering the shape of things to come. As Yogi Berra famously put it: “It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.” This is especially true when your calculations depend on the actions of an evil man.