Early in the morning on February 24, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced in an unscheduled televised address that Russia would engage in an attack against its democratic neighbor Ukraine, thus beginning the largest military action in Europe since the end of World War II. The ramifications of Putin’s decision will have effects for decades—not just in Europe, but around the world.
Despite Putin’s bizarre declarations that Russian military action was necessary to prevent a potential “genocide” of Russian-speakers in Ukraine (not underway and fairly unfathomable) as well as the need to “denazify” Ukraine (a truly mind-boggling charge given the fact that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is Jewish), this military action was driven by Russian fears about future Ukrainian alignment with Europe and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), which would deprive Russia of influence over Ukraine’s political orientation. Ukraine is not currently a member of NATO or the European Union, nor is it a candidate for membership in either organization. While the current Ukrainian political elite may desire such membership, no offer has been proffered by either organization.
For much of the 20th century, Ukraine was part of the former Soviet Union, and Putin has called its 1991 breakup “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the century. He has consistently sought to extend a larger sphere of influence over independent countries that were part of the Soviet Union, including Belarus, Georgia, Uzbekistan and Ukraine.
The short-term consequences of Putin’s actions are immense. The conflict has unified NATO countries and strengthened the principle of collective defense at the heart of the alliance. Former Soviet countries Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania are current NATO members that have withstood Russian interference over the last two decades.
While sanctions imposed by the U.S. and its allies may weaken Russia’s economy, they will fall short of mortally damaging it. With oil prices already high, the fossil fuel-based Russian economy has stockpiled enough foreign currency reserves to blunt the effect of these sanctions on Putin’s decision-making. Eastern European countries will be challenged to accept the massive flow of refugees escaping the violence in Ukraine. Energy prices will skyrocket as supplies tighten, which will have further inflationary effects on a U.S. economy that is emerging from a two-year pandemic.
The medium- to long-term consequences are harder to fathom. Russian troops in Ukraine will now be on the border of NATO countries Romania, Poland and Hungary. China may see this as the moment to seize Taiwan, knowing that the U.S. and its allies may not be able to sustain simultaneous military commitments in multiple theaters.
Countries around the world will see exorbitant prices for fossil fuels and may be persuaded to fund significant growth in renewable energy, thus weakening Russian influence over energy prices. Extended Russian occupation of Ukraine may enable local guerrilla forces to engage in long-term, low intensity warfare against Russian troops, leading to a quagmire from which Putin would be challenged to withdraw.
Putin has opened Pandora’s Box, and the unintended consequences of a “war of choice,” so familiar to Americans after the invasion of Iraq, are quite likely to be detrimental to Russia in the long term.
Scott T. LaDeur is a professor of political science at North Central Michigan College whose knack for challenging pre-existing ideas led him to teaching. His interest in politics was born out of a love of history and American presidents—specifically, how individuals can affect history through politics. Reach him at email@example.com.