The German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche once said, “what doesn’t kill me, makes me stronger.” Vladimir Putin has turned that quote on its head for both himself and the Russian nation he leads. Due to the ramifications of the Russian Invasion of Ukraine, it might be said that whatever doesn’t kill Putin and Russia, makes them weaker. This is reflected in the fact that the latest blow to Putin’s master plan to push back against NATO expanding its influence has resulted in Finland and Sweden deciding to join the alliance. This was done for one reason and one reason only, so both nations could protect themselves from aggression by Putin’s Russia. There is safety in NATO membership.
Taking Sides – Neutral No More
The Russian invasion of Ukraine has laid bare what could happen to any nation that finds itself in Putin’s gunsights. One of the main reasons the Russian President ordered the invasion of Ukraine was to keep it out of NATO. In the process, he has ended up strengthening the alliance. NATO is now stronger than it has been at any time since the Cold War ended. Putin decided to invade Ukraine due to his own insecurities. He has super imposed these upon Russia during his 22 years in power. Putin’s insecurities, which are mostly the product of fantasy rather than reality (as are most insecurities), created reciprocal feelings of insecurity in Finland and Sweden. Both nations then felt compelled to make the momentous decision to give up their neutrality for the sake of security. Considering that both Finland and Sweden stayed neutral during the Cold War, this is a remarkable turn of events.
Putin’s worst nightmare is coming true as NATO expands its sphere of influence into Russia’s near abroad. Put another way, Putin rolled out the red carpet for NATO expansion with his decision to invade Ukraine. NATO could not have done a better job of promoting the alliance’s value without the assistance of Vladimir Putin. Incredibly, there may be even worse ramifications to come for Putin and Russia if they lose the war in Ukraine. It is beginning to look more and more like Ukraine could join NATO after the war. What Putin wanted to prevent, he ended up causing. Unifying most of Europe and the western world against Russia has been Putin’s greatest achievement up to this point. No one could have possibly predicted this three months ago. Now Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine is looking like one of the worst geopolitical catastrophes in modern history.
Smoke & Mirrors – A Grand Delusion
Before the invasion of Ukraine, many thought Vladimir Putin was a master strategist. The cold, emotionless, and calculating former KGB agent, Putin outmaneuvered his opponents both inside and outside Russia. He expanded Russia’s sphere of territorial influence in the Caucasus, made Belarus a client state and grabbed Crimea back from Ukraine at very little cost. Russia was also busy staking its claim to a greater share of Ukrainian territory with their support of separatism in the Donbas. All these gains mean very little now. Russia has been exposed militarily, economically, and politically. Its military is based on smoke and mirrors. The Russian economy is now laboring under sanctions. It is also heavily reliant on the sale of oil and gas to nations it has alienated. Politically, Russia is a kleptocracy that has morphed into a dictatorship. Russia is run for the benefits of elites who must pay fealty to Putin, the same person whose disastrous decisions threaten their interests.
No one thought it plausible, even a month after the invasion began, that Ukraine would ever be allowed into NATO. Then the Russian Army carried out massacres in Irpin, Bucha and other areas of Ukraine. They kidnapped Ukrainians and placed many of them in “detention” camps which are little more than a lesser version of concentration camps. Tens of thousands of Ukrainians have been forcibly resettled deep inside Russia. This is human trafficking on an industrial scale. Then there was the prolonged destruction of Mariupol. Satellite photographs show mass graves. There is no telling how many civilians have been killed during the destruction of Mariupol. All these actions have turned into own goals in football parlance. In other words, Russia has been its own worst enemy while alienating almost everyone in Europe.
The war in Ukraine has been a proverbial train wreck in slow motion for Russia, one that has lasted for months on end and shows no sign of ending anytime soon. Russia is still searching for victory. Meanwhile, the Ukrainian Army’s surprising military performance in the war, has led to a rethinking of Ukraine’s future. If Russia continues to underperform militarily, then they will have no way of stopping Ukraine from becoming the westward leaning nation it feared all along. Russia will also have no say over whether Ukraine decides to join NATO. While there will be NATO members who have misgivings about allowing Ukraine to join, how could membership be denied to a nation that has demonstrated through its actions the alliance’s core values.
Lost Greatness = An Incomplete Recovery
From the Russian perspective, the possibility of Ukraine joining NATO must be particularly frightening. It would be a colossal blow to their pride, perhaps worse than the losses they have suffered up to this point in the war. We should never underestimate the role Russian pride has played in the rise and reign of a regime that has swung from autocracy to despotism. Putin’s regime can be understood as one long reaction to the breakup of the Soviet Union and the resulting humiliation that Russians felt as they were reduced to a peripheral power. 21st century Russia dedicated itself to recovering Great Power status. More than anyone, Putin was responsible for what turned out to be an incomplete recovery.
Now Russia finds itself careening towards the same sort of calamity it experienced during the 1990’s. This time could be worse because Russia will be hemmed in by NATO-aligned nations. This leaves Russia little room for geopolitical maneuvers. The impossible has become probable with NATO more relevant and ready to defend its members interests. This is exactly what Vladimir Putin and those surrounding him feared the most. Now that it is coming to fruition, they can do little to stop it.
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