Is Putin’s gamble on Ukraine rational?

The invasion can bring the downfall of Putin’s regime – but it can also give him exactly what he wants.

Ukranian soldiers are seen on military vehicles in Ukraine's Lugansk region
Ukrainian servicemen get ready to repel an attack in Ukraine's Lugansk region on February 24, 2022. -[Anatolii Stepanov/AFP]

Early in the morning of February 24, under the orders of President Vladimir Putin, Russia launched a full-out invasion of Ukraine. The Russian air force started striking military targets all around the country and advanced occupation forces crossed the border to the north and the south.

What seemed unimaginable to many Russia experts, including myself, just a day ago is now a reality the world will need to accept and cope with.

On the face of it, Putin’s move appears irrational. It is a crime against Ukraine – a brazen violation of international law. It will mark a dark chapter in Russia’s history and inflict costs on Russia that could prove to be heavy enough to turn the Russian people against their president.

The Kremlin’s rhetoric about Ukraine being a “brotherly nation” is widely mocked in the West, but this is indeed how most Russians see their neighbour – not for ideological reasons, but because almost all of them have either relatives or friends in this country.

Selling this war to Russians will be an uphill task for Putin – nothing like the occupation of Crimea, which was nearly bloodless with a clear majority of the locals welcoming the change of flag. Today, Ukrainians seem poised to put up a real fight, which means a protracted conflict with multiple casualties on the Russian side.

Justifying the loss of income and savings Russians will experience because of the expected Western sanctions will be similarly difficult. This morning people in Moscow were reportedly already queueing at cash machines dispensing foreign currency in anticipation of the rouble’s collapse. Furthermore, inevitable isolation from the West is going to be a nightmare not only for the liberal intelligentsia, but also for a large part of the political and business elite.

If all these predictions prove correct and this war results in Putin’s fall, many in Ukraine and in the West will say it was worth the sacrifice. But what if Putin is not being irrational? What if those who continue to think that he is are naive idealists? What if Ukraine completely surrenders after a few days, the Russian economy sustains Western sanctions without breaking a sweat, and Russians continue to go about their daily lives?

If that turns out to be the case, we will find ourselves in a darker, much more sinister world where aggression and cruelty is seen as a prerequisite for success on the international arena.

We will soon find out whether Putin was rational or not.

How will Zelenskyy’s gamble play out?

We will also soon find out whether Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy did the right thing when he chose to put up a fight rather than avoid collusion by accepting his country’s neutral status or agreeing to implement the Minsk agreements, as Russia demanded prior to the invasion.

We do not yet know how all this will end, but we do know that the results of (a very likely) Ukrainian defeat will be infinitely more drastic than what Russian demands envisaged just a few days ago.

Zelenskyy definitely felt the support of Ukrainian society when he made the call, but perhaps he also felt an urge to present himself as a truly tough politician in a situation where both the Kremlin and the domestic opposition pictured him, a former comedian, as a spineless political amateur. That urge perhaps incentivised him to take an untenable risk.

We will also find out, albeit much later when classified documents will be put into the public domain, what role Ukraine’s Western allies played in him making this decision – whether they encouraged him to resist Putin with all the means available to him, or were nudging him towards compromise, but failed to overcome his stubborn resolve.

While only time will tell what this escalation will bring for Putin and Zelenskyy, there are also some immediate lessons that can be learned from today’s events.

Time to question Washington’s approach to Russia

The tragic events under way in Ukraine should reinvigorate the discussion on the wisdom of Western and specifically American policies regarding Russia and the remainder of the former USSR in the last 30 years.

How wise was it to expand NATO and the EU towards Russia’s borders, isolating Russia from its closest neighbours and breaking the natural flow of post-Soviet societies with hard borders and trade barriers? The policy was aimed at preventing a new aggressive monster state, the USSR 2.0, from rising from the ruins of the Soviet Union. But isn’t this exactly what is happening now? Wouldn’t it have been much wiser to prioritise integrating Russia – a huge nuclear power – into the West when the country was ripe and ready for it, rather than brushing it off as a largely irrelevant declining power?

Various Russian officials warned the West back in the 1990s that the efforts to isolate and sideline Russia would result in the rise of nationalist and autocratic forces in the country. Indeed Putin himself recalled in one of his latest speeches how he once asked President Bill Clinton whether Russia could also join NATO, but did not get an answer.

Back in 2000, when he was first elected in the still democratic elections, Putin was seen as a liberal and tacitly supported by the West against his more conservative rivals. A man without real political principles, just hungry for power, Putin could have become a perfect eurocrat. Hasn’t the West, with its perpetual fear of Russia, grown its own Frankenstein?

Even now, at the point of collision, the West does not have a vision for a post-Putin Russia which could motivate Russians to change the political regime in their country. Indeed, for many in the hawkish circles, an aggressive and isolated Russia is a milking cow that secures their salaries and lucrative contracts.

Russian society is responsible for Ukraine’s current tragedy and for allowing Putin to usurp power. But this war, with its many dire consequences that will emerge in the coming days and weeks, is in itself a punishment for Russians. Now all efforts should focus on finding a way to build a united Europe, with a democratic, post-Putinist Russia as an integral part.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.