Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskiy speaks from Kyiv hours after the Russian invasion, February 25, 2023: “We are all here defending our independence, our state”

Originally written for the Birmingham Perspective:

The brutal and illegal invasion of Ukraine has reminded the world that wars of imperial conquest are not relegated to centuries past.

Vladimir Putin’s desire to rebuild the Russian empire on the trampled bodies and violated sovereignty of Ukraine show the limits of diplomacy and the fragility of the current international system. Thirty years after the end of the Cold War, geopolitics has returned with a vengeance.

A key assumption in Putin’s mind at the start of the war was that Russia’s possession of nuclear weapons meant that the response of the west would be limited, and he would be free to pursue his military conquest under the cloak of nuclear coercion. His actions have brought nuclear weapons back to center stage in a way not seen since the 1980s. How the war ends will determine whether nuclear coercion has failed or whether its success spurs a new round of nuclear proliferation.

Putin also assumed that the western powers’ dependence on Russian hydrocarbons would ensure a muted and divided response, much as happened in 2014 with his invasion of the Donbas and Crimea. The scale and brutality of this hostility proved this assumption wrong. Instead, the West has proved united, America has reengaged in European security and the relevance and importance of NATO has become enhanced.

The impact of sanctions on Russia, however, has been somewhat blunted by the opportune way that China, India, and others have sought to exploit the availability of cheap oil and gas despite the bloodstains with which it comes. Attempts to justify this by statements of moral equivalence to the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 are as unconvincing as they are opportune. They point, however, to an international system where the moral and political leadership of the western powers is in decline.

In the short term, there is little prospect of an end to hostilities since both sides see advantage in the anticipation of military success. Russia believes that, having mobilized 300,000 men, it can force the Ukrainian army out of the Donbas region and possibly advance further into Ukraine. Its stated aim remains regime change and occupation.

For Ukraine, the supply of western military technology opens the prospect of a counter-offensive that cuts off the Russian forces in Crimea and leads to the liberation of more of its occupied lands.

For Kyiv’s allies, the defeat of the Russian offensive is essential to convincing Moscow that it cannot take Ukraine by brute force and that it must enter negotiations to end the war and relinquish its imperial claims.

The weeks and months ahead are likely to be characterised by more death and violence. An end to conflict in 2023 is possible, either resulting in a frozen conflict or a negotiated settlement. The fighting and the capacity to fight will determine the nature and timing of the result.

Devastating and murderous as it has been, the invasion of Ukraine has global implications beyond the immediate and limited war zone itself. How it ends will influence how China moves forward in relation to Taiwan and how states like South Korea, Japan, and others arm themselves against nuclear adversaries.

Some states may even acquire nuclear weapons if the lesson that they draw from this conflict is that possession enables conventional aggression and deters an international military response. Resources spent deterring and containing Russia are also ones that canot be spent on sustainable development or decarbonisations. The costs and consequences of this conflict are considerable and will ongoing.

However the war ends, it is also likely that Russia will remain a recalcitrant and disruptive member of the international system, a fact which will shape international politics for the foreseeable future. Russia’s aggression has made its own economic, political, and security situation considerably worse. Not only has it destroyed the natural market for its oil and gas, but it has destabilized the European security order that followed the end of the Cold War.

If Ukraine survives as an independent state, it will both seek a military posture that deters attack and expect international security commitments that guarantee its sovereignty. In effect, the borders of the Western security order will have shifted eastwards. Creating such a new fault line in Europe on the borders of a Russian state consumed in the psychosis of victimhood does not suggest an easy peace once the fighting stops. Only once Russia ceases to be a revolutionary state in the international system can some semblance of order be re-established.