Vladimir Putin’s illegal war in Ukraine is a turning point in history. But no one knows who will emerge victorious as one era ends and another is born. Before this war, the momentum was with Mr Putin, whose military adventurism paid off in the last decade while the United States, humbled by Iraq, turned inward. However, the Russian president’s invasion of Ukraine has been a criminal mistake. Russian soldiers are killing civilians, who share a Slavic identity, and flattening cities in land that gave birth to their country’s culture. Mr Putin’s unprovoked war against a smaller, democratic neighbour has resulted in 1.7 million people fleeing their homes. This is a humanitarian crisis on the edge of Europe. If war was just a battle for public opinion, Mr Putin would have lost by now.
Moscow understands this dynamic which might explain why it cynically undermined peace talks by offering humanitarian corridors for trapped populations only to shell Ukrainians who attempt to use them. This bodes ill for talks later this week between the Russian and Ukrainian foreign ministries in Turkey. Moscow, perhaps for public consumption at home, is seeking to play peacemaker in a war that it started. The Kremlin’s spokesperson told Reuters that Russia was ready to halt military operations “in a moment” if Kyiv meets a list of conditions, such as recognising Crimea as Russian territory and giving two Russian-majority regions independence. It is hard to see how any government in Kyiv could survive in power if it signed such a “land-for-peace” deal.
Wilful blindness lies at the heart of Russia’s problems. Mr Putin’s political blunder was to see Ukrainians as waiting to be liberated by Russian soldiers. Mr Putin’s belief that the US, the EU and the west’s Pacific allies were too divided to be capable of collective action was misguided. Not only have these nations managed to come together, but they are supplying arms to Ukraine in a manner which suggests they want Moscow defeated. Mr Putin might have wished for a quick military operation capped off by a lightning decapitation of the Ukrainian government. Instead, he faces a grinding war of occupation in the largest all-European country.
Unlike in Chechnya and Syria, where Mr Putin could rely on local proxies to run a dirty war, war crimes in Ukraine will diminish Russia’s stature in the world. Moscow’s military aggression threatens its foreign policy. Mr Putin is trying to veto the Iranian nuclear deal unless he gets guarantees that Russia won’t be subject to sanctions if it convinces Tehran to sign up to the pact. Russia remains a vital player in the commodity markets. The “black earth” breadbasket of the Eurasian steppe sees Russia and Ukraine supply a quarter of the world’s wheat exports. Yet Mr Putin’s war threatens regimes – including Russia’s allies – in the Middle East who are watching wheat prices approaching levels not seen since the Arab spring.
Russia’s invasion could disrupt energy markets on a scale not seen since the 1970s. Cutting off oil and gas from Russia would be a self-inflicted embargo. But it would also hit Mr Putin’s ability to pay for his war. With the spectre of runaway inflation haunting the west, Washington has begun to woo oil-rich pariahs such as Venezuela, a Russian ally. Peter Beaumont, a Guardian war reporter, wrote that where “states stand on the spectrum from fragility to resilience, an issue that takes in everything from social cohesion in conflict to the ability to sustain a protracted war effort” must be understood in conflicts in determining which side can last the course. Mr Putin is fighting the wrong war in Ukraine. Instead of finding a way of living with his neighbours, he has set himself on subduing Ukraine – and risking the ruination of Russia.