On Thursday, 24 February, Russia launched a full-scale war against Ukraine. Markku Kangaspuro, director of the Aleksanteri Institute of the University of Helsinki, notes that the attack was an enormous miscalculation by President Vladimir Putin and the Russian government.
“They have totally miscalculated the situation.”
Kangaspuro believes that the people currently supporting Putin will eventually stand up against their president.
“Russians will at some point find out what this war is really about. At that point, the finger currently pointing at the West and Ukraine will turn towards Putin.”
The economic sanctions imposed by Western countries will bring the Russian economy to its knees. A large part of the population will sink into poverty. Pensions will lose their purchasing power, and the middle class their comfortable everyday life. At the same time, Russia must spend enormous amounts of money to pay for the military action underway in Ukraine.
“We’ll see whether Russia will institute martial law or declare a state of emergency. That too would accelerate societal recession and brain drain in the country.”
Launching a war of aggression has tarnished Russia’s reputation in the eyes of the international community. If Putin imagined that the war would boost Russia’s security, that assessment was most likely wrong.
“In Europe, the attack brought about such a reaction against Russia that it certainly won’t increase Russia’s security,” Kangaspuro notes.
Putin launched an attack due to the fear of Russia becoming a military underdog
Even though Putin’s attack was an error of judgement, Markku Kangaspuro finds it unproductive to keep repeating that Putin is insane. Instead we should try to understand why he is doing what he is doing.
“I too think he is acting like a crazy person, but to keep repeating it doesn’t help us understand his logic.”
According to Kangaspuro, the origins of the attack against Ukraine date back to the 1990s when the Soviet Union fell and Russia came close to collapsing, while the European Union and NATO expanded.
“At the time, people didn’t want to see that Russia was historically in exceptional circumstances. When Russia got back on its feet in the 2000s, it started protesting against the expansion of NATO. On the Eurasian continent, the Russian army is a military giant, but the accession of Ukraine, a country of more than 40 million people, to NATO would significantly alter the power balance.”
Kangaspuro does not believe that Russia is afraid of NATO attacking any time soon. Instead, Russia is afraid of becoming the underdog to such a degree that it could be pressured through military means.
“In the West, the battle for spheres of influence has been consigned to the past century, whereas from Russia’s perspective the West has continuously expanded its sphere since the end of the Cold War. In a very stark way, it is this notion that we have now encountered in Ukraine.”
Putin also thought that if the expansion of NATO cannot be stopped by agreement, an open attack is the only option.
A professor surprised by the tenacity of the Ukrainian resistance
In recent days, many things have come as a surprise to Juhana Aunesluoma, Professor of Political History at the University of Helsinki.
The first surprise was how hard Ukrainians have been fighting back against the Russian occupying force.
“Russia has clear military superiority. I wouldn’t have thought that Ukrainians would be able to put up such a fight through traditional defensive warfare.”
Another surprise was the severity of the economic sanctions Western countries were prepared to impose on Russia, which will hit Western economies hard as well.
“Similar sanctions were imposed in connection with the two world wars. For Western countries to be willing to suffer such significant financial losses, certain values central to them would have to be under threat.”
However, what may have come as the biggest surprise to Aunesluoma is the effect that Russia’s attack has had in Germany.
“It appears that a tremendous change has taken place in Germany. The post-war era is coming to an end.”
Front page news: Germany regains its status as a military power
Four days after the Russian invasion, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz announced that Germany would raise its defence spending to over 2% of its gross domestic product, while allocating an additional €100 billion to its current defence budget.
“Democratic Germany, which has gone through an immense internal process, is reassuming its place as a European military power and preparing to use military force. Now Germany can do so again without people getting anxious,” Aunesluoma explains.
According to Aunesluoma, that is bigger news than the sanctions imposed by the West or the morale of the Ukrainians. Germany’s policy shift is a change that will go down in the history books.
“Vladimir Putin has awakened Germany. That’s quite an achievement.”
Why is Putin acting blindly? Because he believes his own story
Katri Pynnöniemi, an assistant professor at the Aleksanteri Institute specialising in Russian security policy, also believes that Putin did not foresee what he would be facing by attacking Ukraine.
“Researchers are pretty much in agreement on Putin having made a massive strategic mistake. He has underestimated the response of Ukraine and the West.”
Why, then, did Putin act so blindly?
Juhana Aunesluoma thinks that he may have become paranoid. That’s what happened to Stalin.
Markku Kangaspuro notes that the number of diplomacy-minded advisors close to Putin has decreased, with proponents of the heavier use of military force taking their place.
Pynnöniemi believes that the president ‘has begun to believe his own story’.
“According to it, the West is using Ukraine, as it were, as a bridgehead to weaken Russia. This is how Putin is justifying the necessity of Russia preventing the military reinforcement of Ukraine.”
The campaign plan was prepared well in advance
According to Katri Pynnöniemi, Putin’s justification for the attack is part a long-standing line of thinking in which Russia is depicted as a besieged fort. Various external influences are perceived as a threat to Russian identity and power.
“The idea that the West has for a long time been trying to influence Russia and erode Russian identity and values is dominant in the country.”
Pynnöniemi believes it would be a mistake to be lulled into thinking that Putin’s attack was caused by a sudden mental disorder.
“He has been preparing to launch military action in Ukraine for a long time, but he managed to hide the extent of the coming attack from both Russian and external observers.”
Russians are more fearful of disorder than tyranny
Juhana Aunesluoma also notes that, since the 1990s, Russia has been in the grip of a profound existential fear that Russian values, Russian identity and the entire great country of Russia is under a threat of annihilation.
“Russians are more afraid of disorder than tyranny. That’s why many see Putin as a saviour who brings order and dispels fear.”
But Putin too is fearful. According to Aunesluoma, the president is afraid of losing his power. But even more than that, he is afraid of Russia’s collapse.
“I think that what Putin fears the most is the destruction of Russia. Deep down, he is a patriot.”
Russia is left with only poor cards to play
Tuomas Forsberg, director of the Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies and specialist in the psychology of foreign policy and Russian statecraft sees a handful of options for how the situation in Ukraine could play out.
One option is for Russia to storm through all of Ukraine, employing increasingly brutal force.
“This is what happened in Chechnya, but in the case of Ukraine we are talking about a country on a totally different scale.”
And even if Ukraine were to fall, the cards dealt to Russia would still be bad.
“You can kill hundreds of thousands of people in battle, but you cannot kill all Ukrainians. How would you govern the remaining population? The Kremlin doesn’t have a grasp on reality if they think that Viktor Yanukovych could return to power. He has been thrown out twice already.”
Yanukovych is a former president of Ukraine who fled the revolution of 2014 to Russia.
Regardless of the number of missiles and RPGs Western countries provide to Ukraine, Forsberg thinks it is impossible for the Ukrainian military to drive the Russians out of the country by military force alone.
“Ukraine can only fight back, but that will only make the war longer and bloodier. Help from the West only prolongs it.”
Putin unlikely to be replaced – Would China be a suitable mediator?
Another option is that there would be an upheaval in the leadership of Russia: Vladimir Putin would be overthrown or forced to end the war.
Tuomas Forsberg, Markku Kangaspuro and Juhana Aunesluoma do not consider this alternative likely.
“The replacement of authoritarian leaders who fare poorly in war is by no means common,” Forsberg notes.
What remains is the possibility of a ceasefire and peace negotiations. One potential mediator between the parties could be China.
“Russia would see that the United States is not calling the shots in Europe, while it is in the interests of China to keep the war from escalating further.”
Fraternity between Ukraine and Russia comprehensively destroyed
Forsberg believes that peace negotiations require that the Russian leadership stops spreading lies.
“Peace cannot be achieved if the Kremlin continues to talk about a genocide perpetrated by Ukrainian fascists and does not admit to bombing civilian targets. The West can make many concessions on other matters, but we cannot compromise on the truth.”
No matter how the war ends, Forsberg thinks Vladimir Putin has comprehensively destroyed the relationship between Russia and Ukraine.
“Putin has lost that game. For a long time, Russia will have no chance of establishing normal fraternal relations with Ukraine.”