By Brendan Simms, Suzanne Raine & Donatas Kupciunas

The Russian invasion of Ukraine, which began with the annexation of the Crimea and support for separatist movements in two eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, has now culminated in a direct full-scale military assault on the entire country. Whatever one makes of the rights and wrongs of this conflict – and the invasion is certainly a massive breach of international law – it is the job of the Centre for Geopolitics to provide analysis and explanation.

By its very nature, events are not best understood as they unfold, but a number of things are already clear. First, until recently the West greatly under-estimated Vladimir Putin’s willingness to take radical measures to secure what he regards as Russia’s vital national interests. The Russian ex-Soviet political leadership had always treated Ukraine’s entry into the Western orbit as the geopolitical castration of Russia. This caused an asymmetry in the strategic importance of Ukraine to Russia and the West; it always mattered much more to Moscow than to Washington (or London, or Brussels). Sanctions and warnings only had a limited impact on a belligerent who sees the conflict as a just war against Western (or American) encroachment upon its vital interests. In other words, Western deterrence failed.

So did the European engagement strategy. The limits of EU and member state diplomacy were starkly revealed last week. President Macron of France’s summitry led nowhere; the longstanding German policy of enmeshing Russia in mutually beneficial trading relationships has run into the ground. One of the reasons why the sanctions against Russia will lack ‘bite’ is the staunch refusal by Berlin to exclude Russia from the international payments system SWIFT. This responsibility for this rests not only with the current coalition government, but also with Angela Merkel. Whatever one thinks of her approach, the objective cost to German standing in Europe, and to the former Chancellor’s reputation, has been colossal.

Unlike other crises, though, we have not seen a western warning failure. Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine was not a surprise.  After the shock capitulation in Afghanistan, attention and criticism in the West focused on the lack of anticipation of such a swift collapse, and a failure of understanding and insight.  In this case, the insight and anticipation was there.  The US and UK governments, and Baltic and Central and Eastern European countries in particular had been warning in precise language publicly (and it has to be assumed in more detail privately) of Putin’s intentions.  This warning was sounded very clearly and consistently throughout the autumn and winter of 2021 and the first two months of this year.  This contrasts with a historical parallel of the build-up of Soviet Bloc forces around Czechoslovakia in 1968, also presented as exercises.  In that case, the analytical community was divided on whether it an exercise or a prelude to invasion.  In this case, it wasn’t.

Putin, however, has also made two serious mistakes. First, the decision to launch an open full-scale invasion of Ukraine lost him the chance to confuse western audiences using the playbook that had worked so well in 2014. It also severely reduced the room for manoeuvre for pro-Russian tendencies in the country. Secondly, Putin grossly under-estimated the Ukrainian willingness to fight back. Despite being completely outgunned, the regular army and various militia formations have put up a formidable resistance. Moreover, even his harshest critic would agree that President Zelensky of Ukraine has showed himself to be not merely personally highly courageous but also very skillful communicator. Even if conventional Ukrainian forces are crushed quickly, which is not a given, a prolonged insurgency and civil unrest is a virtual certainty. Politically and strategically therefore, Putin risks catastrophic failure.

In short, so far the invasion has exposed two failures. The West failed to deter Putin, and Putin under-estimated the Ukrainian will to resist. It remains to be seen who has made the bigger mistake.


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