The invasion has prompted an unprecedented suite of economic sanctions against Moscow from Western powers and their allies. The US and Europe have demonstrated an unexpected unity. The European Union, which for years dithered over the true threat posed by Russia, has acted faster and decisively than it has done for decades.
It has led Germany—traditionally a dove toward Russia—into a policy revolution as its government pledged a sharp increase in military spending and lethal weaponry for Ukraine’s defense. Chancellor Olaf Scholz called the invasion “a watershed in the history of our continent.” Countries of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization moved to shore up their military presence on the alliance’s eastern flank.
Meanwhile, Russia’s best-case military outcome—a lightning attack that quickly topples the government in Kyiv—isn’t panning out in the face of Ukrainian resistance.
It isn’t known how much of the scale of the response Russian President Vladimir Putin built into his calculations. He may have believed that western nations, which he has frequently depicted as weak, divided, degenerate and corrupt, would split.
He may also have believed his own country’s propaganda about the illegitimacy of the state of Ukraine and misunderstood its people. In the battle for hearts and minds outside Russia, he has an adversary in President Volodymir Zelensky who has rallied his nation and much of the outside world to his cause.
For years, Mr. Putin has been clamoring to overturn the U.S.-led security order that emerged after the collapse of the Soviet Union. On Thursday, his attack on Ukraine ended it. He is unlikely to like what is emerging in its place.
“I think this is the trigger point for the second Cold War between the West and Russia,” said Ian Bremmer, president of Eurasia Group, a political risk consulting firm, ahead of the expected Russian attack.
The contours of the new Cold War are unknown but will be partly shaped by what happens in Ukraine—and the extent to which Russian forces become bogged down in a drawn-out conflict.
Angela Stent, a professor at Georgetown University who specializes in Russian affairs, says there is a concern in Western governments that hostilities could spread, possibly inadvertently, beyond Ukraine to NATO members, risking the U.S.-led alliance being drawn into a wider war
Even if that doesn’t happen, she said it is likely the West will return to “a Cold War playbook that regards Russia as an adversary that has to be contained.”
That will mean more U.S. and other NATO troops nearer to Russia’s borders. “This is exactly what Putin was trying to prevent but now it’s going to happen,” she said.
On the economic front, western sanctions will seriously hurt Russia, distancing its economy further from the West and pushing it deeper into an economic relationship with China.
The prospect of growing dependence on China has worried Russian strategists in the past, fostering fears that the country’s destiny is to become a “cornfield and gas station” for the Chinese. But having ruptured relations with the West, the country doesn’t have many other options.
The West will also be hurt—and its unity tested—as the economic costs become clearer. The conflict and the sanctions are already sending food and energy prices higher, intensifying inflation that stands at its highest level for four decades. If Russia natural gas stops flowing in retaliation for personal or economic sanctions, “you will see energy rationing in Europe,” said Henning Gloystein, an energy specialist at the Eurasia Group.
In the longer term, Mr. Gloystein says Russia has destroyed its reputation as a reliable energy supplier. Governments will likely embark on a major debt-financed energy transformation in Europe to sharply reduce dependence on Russia.
Europe’s current energy dependence on Russia is one reason why Cold War 2.0 won’t look exactly like the first version. Even as Western nations pile sanctions on Russia, they are paying it hundreds of millions of dollars a day for natural gas and oil. Russia is also partially integrated with Western economies in contrast to Cold War 1.0 where Moscow constructed a separate economic system.
In the military and security sphere, many of the agreements and conventions that constrained behavior and encouraged transparency before 1990 no longer exist.
“The Cold War is back with a vengeance but with a difference,” United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres said last month. “The mechanisms and the safeguards to manage the risks of escalation that existed in the past no longer seem to be present.”
In an ambition laid out in many speeches, Mr. Putin’s immediate war aim appears to be to create a client state in Ukraine, like he has in its neighbor Belarus, creating a union of Slavic states and marking an important steppingstone toward rebuilding Russia’s sphere of influence.
Western concerns that he may not be satisfied with Ukraine have been heightened by another theme of his speeches: the expansion of NATO over the last 25 years, which he depicts as the result of broken promises and a threat to Russia. Thursday’s attack demonstrated exactly why NATO’s new allies wanted to be there in the first place.
How the future plays out hangs significantly in what goes on in Ukraine. Just as Mr. Putin may have underestimated the Western reaction to the invasion, he may have overestimated the capability of his armed forces to quickly overwhelm Ukraine, military analysts say.
They believe that Moscow’s quantitative and qualitative military advantages mean it is likely still to prevail, possibly after a serious escalation it didn’t initially envision. But the reaction of the Ukrainian armed forces, helped by Western defensive armaments and thousands of citizen volunteers, has set the Russians back on multiple fronts. The halting advance has also helped reveal logistical and other problems that have hampered the Russians.
The delay has raised more questions about what victory will mean. Russia has said it wants to demilitarize Ukraine and most western observers assume it seeks to install a puppet government that would renounce any movement toward the West.
But Mr. Putin’s actions since he annexed Crimea in 2014 have aroused a sense of nationhood in Ukraine that wasn’t so evident before.
“I don’t know how long that government would last,” said Ms. Stent at Georgetown. “Putin doesn’t understand Ukraine. He didn’t understand the unity there is about Ukraine being an independent country even among Russian speakers.” She believes occupying a larger chunk of Ukraine than it does now wouldn’t satisfy Moscow.
If Russia wants to tame the whole of Ukraine, it will likely need to maintain an occupying force there. That would require, according to some estimates, as many as four times the 190,000 troops that encircled Ukraine before the invasion—making it an expensive project of indeterminate length that would threaten to exhaust the country’s military that has been undergoing modernization since 2008.
“There is a difference between an invasion and an occupation,” said James Hackett, a military analyst at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, ahead of the invasion.
The losses of men and equipment so far in the campaign shouldn’t affect Russian capabilities long term, though they raise questions about military leadership, analysts say. But extended over months and years of occupation, the toll on the military would be significantly higher, analysts said.
“There is only one Russian army. It took over a decade to build it to its current level of capability,” Mr. Hackett said. “The risk of spending this too freely in any kind of combat operation where it may well be needed elsewhere…will be strongly held in the mind of planners in Moscow,” he said.
The risks Mr. Putin has taken—and for which he doesn’t appear to have prepared the Russian population—have given rise to questions about why he has staked so much on this military action. He is viewed by some observers as becoming more isolated during the Covid-19 pandemic, listening to a few advisers who daren’t contradict him. say Russia watchers.
“I think everybody assumed that he wasn’t a risk taker, that he was pragmatic and methodical… I think he has changed,” said Ms. Stent.
Mr. Bremmer of Eurasia Group said he doesn’t see the Russian leader as a great strategist. “He’s not a chess player. He’s a Texas Hold’em player,” he said. The trouble is he prefers no limits to the stakes.