On 24 February 2022, the President of the Russian Federation, Vladimir Putin, has declared war on Ukraine. After weeks of intense arms build-up at the Russo-Ukrainian borderlands, several threats and diplomatic pressures, the Eurasian nation has launched a large-scale operation in Ukraine. Although there has been an imminent diplomatic escalation between the two parties, the actual operation comes by surprise and forces us to re-evaluate our approach to contemporary politics. There are two major dimensions to this invasion that need to be looked at. First, the person of Vladimir Putin needs to be fully reassessed, and with him the potential policy actions that might follow from here on. Until 23 February 2022, Putin could have legitimately been described as one of the great political geniuses of our time, but this invasion now exposes him and his previous policy actions. The second dimension is concerned with the use of the military in the context of powerful nations. For most parts of the last century, the most powerful nations were keen on preserving a sensitive status quo of avoiding direct military combat with other powerful nations. Wars, thus, were outsourced to other regions and actors. The days of this status quo might now be counted.

Putin Then and Now

Vladimir Putin has been the ruler of Russia since the end of 1999. Surely, he did not continuously serve as president of the Russian nation, because three consecutive presidential terms are prohibited by the Russian constitution. However, Putin was able to install a puppet in Dmitry Medvedev between 2008 and 2012, when he was not allowed to continue his presidency, and effectively continued to rule Russia. Under the first 13 years of his rule, the nation’s gross domestic product almost grew tenfold, while he also reduced significant security concerns. Further, he boosted trade, the financial market expansion and solidified Russia as an important player in the global commodity markets. On the power political side, Putin quickly reestablished Russian international presence after it has lost much of its international relevance with the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Throughout his rule, Putin has navigated Russia through a number of armed conflicts. In 2008, Russia waged a 12-day war against Georgia, supporting a separatist group in South Ossetia. In 2011, Russia strongly supported the Syrian government throughout the whole Syrian civil war as a close ally and large-scale military presence in the country. Here, Putin was able to defend the Syrian government and restore a stable situation, while also reaching progress diplomatically in cooperation in Turkey. Those two actors met again in 2020 on Azeri soil where the Karabağ War was fought. Russia facilitated peacemaking together with Turkey and the region was stabilised again. However, the most notable military action by Putin came in 2014, when Russia annexed the Crimean peninsula. Internationally, this military manoeuvre caused much dissent and condemnation, but it has to be acknowledged that the annexation was not only peaceful and grounded in somewhat understandable motives, but it greatly served the Russian interest. Because Crimea is predominantly inhabited by Russians, there is a justifiable claim on the side of Russia. Further, it granted Russia access to the important port of Sevastopol.

With all of these military actions, Putin built a reputation of being a confident, decisive, but also tactical leader of the Russian people, presenting the nation as a strong and mighty actor on the international stage. Paired with his domestic ruling style, which is quite authoritarian, his style has also carried a harsh and frightening note. Until the invasion of Ukraine, however, a certain balanced was preserved and the build-up at the borders could have been described as a strategically brilliant move. Because the NATO has increasingly pushed towards Russian borders over the last decades, the strengthening of separatist regions in Russia could have been a feasible option to create a buffer zone, in case Ukraine was to be included in the NATO. This would have been an acceptable course of action of a nation that has been increasingly threatened by a military international organisation. Officially recognising the disputed regions and reaching an international agreement of a demilitarised buffer zone would have been enough to address Russia’s security problems, but with the invasion of Ukraine, Putin now exposed his true goals, which are rather of narcissistic nature than in the interest of the Russian people.

The invasion of Ukraine is a pointless endeavour. First, Ukraine is, though the largest European country, also the poorest. Despite its size, the natural resources are also not really abundant. Strategically, its whole importance is tied to the existence of Russia, but does not carry any geostrategic importance on its own. Accordingly, there is no economic value in conquering Ukraine. Strategically, it is even a very harmful move, because it would greatly expand the land borders with NATO nations, increasing security pressures. Of course, Putin did not state that he envisions to conquer Ukraine, but demanding complete demilitarisation of a nation effectively equals the removal of that nation’s ability to exist – no nation can survive without a military. Even if he is only eyeing control of certain regions, it is no less than a military conquest. But Ukraine cannot suffer under the security concerns of Russia with the NATO; especially, considering that Ukraine is not even a member state of NATO. Putin also stated that another factor is that he wants to stop the genocide of Russians in Ukraine. This weak argument basically just serves as a motivation for his troops and gaining support domestically. The discrimination of Russians does not amount to a genocide. Even if that was the case, the invasion should have come earlier or a population exchange could have been arranged. None of it happened. It is needless to say that territorial considerations also cannot be a driving motive, as Russia is by far the biggest country in the world.

It becomes clear that Putin exploits an international power vacuum. The leaders of Europe and the United States of America were never less skilled than today. China, Turkey and Japan are most likely to remain neutral as their interests are not involved here. With the invasion, Putin wants to assert power by demonstrating that he can personally break the contemporary pacifism among powerful nations through an almost direct confrontation. It is the clearest move against the interests of European nations since the Cold War. Putin wants to claim a place in history books as a leader who is feared. Whereas the developments until now, displayed his genius, the current invasion reveals his intentions of merely reserving his place in history. He is becoming old and the political conditions were suitable to launch such an operation, but it is going to drain Russian resources and probably end as a disaster for Putin and his place in history books.

A New Era?

Historically, Europe was always home to the most brutal and devastating wars of mankind. Just because it has now experienced a phase of prolonged peace and wealth, it cannot be forgotten that war and Europe went hand in hand for most parts of its history. Even though war is unthinkable for most western societies today, it was never removed from the repertoire of politicians. Putin now is making this clear by infringing European borders. The aggression is unjustified, pointless and even against the interest of Russia. Unlike Turkey, for example, which used her military power surgically, achieved quick and effective peace and retreated after reaching her objectives, Russia has a track record of holding control and prolonging conflicts unnecessarily – just like the USA. Therefore, it might well be that the current invasion is pulling us back into political reality that war is possible anywhere and at any point. It shows us that the idea of lasting peace is just an illusion and it serves as a reminder that nations cannot always solve conflicts diplomatically.

However, the invasion shows also that Europeans and Euro-Americans have forgotten about what war feels like. Waging wars abroad seemed to be easy, but facing potential threats at the own borders currently triggers great fears. Another point to consider is that maybe the NATO was too aggressive over the last decades. Maybe it threatened Russia too much. In any case, both sides relied excessively on the other side’s unwillingness to provoke conflict. This was in Putin’s interest who ultimately broke the fragile balancing between threat and diplomacy. He revealed himself as a narcissistic ruler who wants to demonstrate domination. He believes that no European nation will risk military counteractions, because the leaders are significantly under his tactical skill level. The USA will not risk open confrontation with the current cadre of underqualified politicians. However, with the return to classical use of militaries in political contexts, nationalist sentiments could be strengthened in Europe and according leaders will assume power. And once they are in power, Europe will also return to its days of war. Thus, the invasion could have long-term effects on state behaviour and international state conduct. This would make a madman’s dream come true.