In January 2022, many of our distinguished colleagues were asking whether Putin would really invade Ukraine. To our answer “of course”, they countered with the disbelief that Putin could be crazy enough to attack a country as large as Ukraine in the 21st century. But it was the wrong question to ask. “Is Putin crazy enough to invade Ukraine?” presumes either economic or moral consideration, neither of which are relevant in this context.
One of us had already had to watch her family and friends flee the Donbas region and leave everything behind after the first “liberation” by Russians in 2014. It was only a matter of when Putin would come back to resolve his unfinished business. The right question to ask in January 2022 was: “Who is Putin, and what are his objectives?” He is a ruthless dictator who will stop at nothing to restore Russia’s power and greatness in the world.
Taking over Ukraine is just the first step in achieving Putin’s grand ambitions. Putin believes that the collapse of the USSR was a great tragedy for Russia. He will stop at nothing to take over Ukraine as a stepping stone toward restoring Russia’s power over the former Soviet-bloc countries. Putin has been telling us this for years, we just did not listen. To him, taking over Ukraine would mean building his legacy as a great Russian leader akin to Stalin. He will not back down. The humiliation of not taking Ukraine would be unacceptable.
Once you understand Putin’s end-game, what is the right question to ask now? We, a group of Ukrainian American Economists, think that it is crucial to ask how this bloody war is likely to end. While no one knows the future, we can draw out possible scenarios and consider their likelihoods. Without this step, it is not possible to devise actions that are likely to solve this tragedy.
Let’s start with the two most desirable (but unlikely) scenarios. The first is that current sanctions will “work” and stop the war. Historically, sanctions did not deter dictators from bad behavior. In the current context, the sanctions are based on two wrong assumptions. The first assumption is that the economic sanctions will hurt Russian oligarchs. Many entertain an idea that oligarchs will get upset about losing their yachts and make Putin stop.
It’s time to recognize that Russian oligarchs are puppets; Putin, along with his KGB friends and the state police are in control. The second incorrect assumption is that ordinary Russians will put pressure on Putin to stop the war if they are deprived of McDonald’s. Most of the Russian population supports the war because of decades of disinformation and propaganda: They think they are saving fellow Ukrainians from the “Nazis,” and the Russian population has a high tolerance for economic pain in service to the patriotic “greater good.” In fact, Putin’s popularity jumped after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, just as it did after the previous 2014 aggression against Ukraine.
The second unlikely scenario is Putin’s loss of power: Neither sanctions nor divine intervention is likely to lead to regime change where Putin gets replaced with a non-war-hungry leader.
A more likely scenario is that Ukraine and Russia will fight a war of attrition until one of the sides exhausts either its military power, its economy, or the fighting population. The hope is that a strong flow of weapons and other resources from the West can help Ukraine outlast Russia.
On the face of it, this seems to be a scenario that the Western countries bet on: Drag out the war, make Russia weaker, let Ukrainians pay. But even if Ukraine eventually wins, the costs of this strategy is human lives: The human toll of a continued war of attrition would be huge. Furthermore, unless there is a radical change in Russia, lasting peace is unlikely because another wave of Russian revanchism can emerge.
In the absence of direct military help on the ground from the civilized world, the grim reality is that Russia could take over Ukraine. Despite the tremendous bravery and determination of Ukrainians, the fight is incredibly unequal: 40 million Ukrainians vs. 140 million brainwashed Russians plus an unlimited supply of soldiers who are either hired (e.g.,Syrians) or forced to fight against the Ukrainian army (e.g.,occupied Donbas). Russia stashed billions of dollars outside of the Western reach that it will use to fund the war for many months. Russia’s rich natural resources will fund the war for many years to come.
Putin will bomb Ukrainian cities to dust (e.g., Syria in the past and Mariupol in Ukraine now). He will use chemical or nuclear weapons to win if needed. For those who still doubt that Putin would use these deadly weapons, remember that he does not care about human lives, only about achieving his objectives. He will do whatever he can to achieve the first step in his larger goals of restoring Russia’s power in the former Soviet bloc.
In areas taken by Russians, they will jail or kill pro-Ukraine, pro-democracy, or pro-EU activists and journalists. This happened in Russia and Belarus before, this happened in the occupied territories of Ukraine since 2014, and has already started to happen in the areas of Ukraine recently occupied by Russians. Tens of millions of Ukrainians will become refugees. Putin will instate martial law and position a heavy military presence all along the border with NATO countries.
The Ukrainian resistance would be squashed, and the Russian state police would run the captured territories, just like they run Russia. A puppet government would quickly sign a range of mutual security arrangements with Russia, possibly asking to formally join the Russian Federation or otherwise becoming a de facto military launchpad for Russia – akin to Belarus.
Putin would go on to threaten that the “provision of aid to terrorists within the borders of the Russian Federation is an open declaration of war upon the Russian Federation.” Ukraine would be in economic ruins akin to the Donbas region controlled by the Russians since 2014, which was thrown back to the level of economic development seen during the 1990s when eggs were a luxury.
Putin wants to turn Ukraine into a launchpad to terrorize other former Soviet neighbors for decades to come. After the war, the Russian economy will reorient itself to trade with autocratic (e.g., China) and developing countries (e.g., India). Once Putin’s economy re-adjusts to the new world structure, he will continue with his bigger plans.
It might take five or ten years, as it took him from the 2014 annexation of Crimea to the current war. But make no mistake: He will get there. And NATO will be just as tied then as it is now. If we “give up” Ukraine — the largest country in Europe with 42 million people — to Putin because of his nuclear threats, It is not clear that smaller Latvia or Lithuania will not be analogously sacrificed to avoid a nuclear war in the future.
The last two scenarios are not good for Ukraine, democracy, global long-term economic development, and global security. Fortunately, they are not destiny. We don’t have to repeat the mistakes of WW2 of letting Hitler take Poland and becoming a stronger foe. Like Hitler, Putin will not stop at Ukraine. The civilized world should decide between defeating Putin now or facing a much stronger future Russian aggressor.
Authored by: Tania Babina (Columbia University), in collaboration with Anastassia Fedyk (UC Berkeley), Yuriy Gorodnichenko (UC Berkeley), Tetyana Balyuk (Emory University), and James Hodson (AI for Good Foundation)
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The article is published as first appeared on Vox Ukraine