Reports on Thursday of Russian attacks on Ukraine show the impunity that has been unleashed on the world in the last several years. The fact that Russia was able to openly build up its forces on the border of Ukraine for months, without laying down any kind of demands, and then launch an attack on Ukraine illustrates how there is no international mechanism or world leadership that can stop wars like this.
The next days will be essential in seeing how the US, UK and others respond to this attack. The attack on Ukraine was unprovoked. Russia unilaterally decided to recognize two separatist areas of Ukraine and then used this as an excuse to attack Ukraine. There was no response from Ukraine to this Russian threat, military build up, recognition and attack. This is not an equal fight.
The US has been warning of a Russian invasion for months. Over that time major media was provided analysis and intelligence from the US that indicated Russia was increasingly ready to attack. Back on February 6 NBC said that Russia “has massed seventy percent of forces” it needed to invade Ukraine. Over the next weeks that percent grew to 80 percent and then 100 percent, according to reports yesterday. This was an open deployment of forces. There was no great secret here. The only question many asked was whether this was meant as a stratagem to get concessions and keep the US and its allies running in circles with warnings, or if this was the real thing.
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The tragedy unfolding on Thursday is that it appears that Russia not only built up forces but then scripted an invasion by building on what Russia had already done in 2014 by backing separatists. Russian President Vladimir Putin had given a long speech on Monday claiming he would recognize the two separatist areas of Ukraine. This is the Donetsk and Luhansk “People’s Republics.” Those two areas, which Russia now was treating as two new countries, immediately drafted a request for Russian intervention on February 22. The February 22 note was then sent to Moscow on February 23. This was a fait accompli because now Russia’s script was that it had a “right” to go into Ukraine. Russia had already annexed Crimea in 2014 and had thus already invaded Ukraine. However the question was what Russia was planning now.
It appears Russia has gone further than just deploying what it called “peacekeeping” forces on Monday and Tuesday. Now Russia has said it has launched an unprovoked “special” military operation. Now, as CBS reports, diplomats at the UN are “begging” Putin to change course. US media depicts this as Putin being isolated. However it’s unclear how isolated he is if countries are begging. The analysis on CBS is indicative of some of the sense of how the US felt this would unfold. Despite the warnings of invasion for months and tough talk at various forums, there was no real western response to stop this. Experts agreed on CBS that it was not “at all likely they can fend off the Russian military.” Commentators said the US had held off on further sanctions against Russia until now because sanctions would remove all the arrows from the US quiver the US had to deter Russia.
So where is the deterrence? While Russia was moving units into position to attack the US Embassy in Kiev was tweeting about how Moscow was a deserted forest in the 12th century, when Kiev was a flourishing city. It’s not clear what this “trolling” of Moscow accomplished. In the end of the day it was not Twitter that decided Russia’s actions. On the ground Russia was preparing strikes against Ukraine. By the early morning of Thursday there were reports in Ukraine of explosions and attacks. Reports said that in Kiev the mayor had warned citizens not to panic. Live footage from the capital of Ukraine showed people driving and going about their daily life.
A lot of disinformation was fed to social media in the first hours of Thursday claiming that Russia had targeted Odessa and many other places across Ukraine, ostensibly to spread panic. However what video did show was smoke rising from a site in Kharkiv. Meanwhile at the UN the Secretary General has called on Putin to bring his troops back to Russia.
However, all these statements are meaningless in the face of real conflict. The sanctions the US threats likely have no real strength behind them. This is because the US has already sanctioned many countries and those countries have become stronger. Iran, for instance, under “maximum pressure, was able to increase its influence in Yemen, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. There was no real reduction of Iran’s role. Iran is supposedly under sanctions but exports missiles and drones, chaos and terror, all over the Middle East.
The message of Russia’s invasion is that there is impunity for these kinds of attacks. Turkey also invaded Syria in 2018 and 2019, ethnically cleansing Kurdish areas and there were no consequences. Unlike in the 1990s when there was a fiction of an international community that would stand up to attacks and aggression, the last few years have shown that authoritarian regimes can do whatever they want and there will be no real pushback. The US retreat from Afghanistan and US signaling that it wants to focus on domestic issues and withdraw from regions around the world has likely fed this view that countries like Russia can do as they please.
Most western countries called for citizens to leave Ukraine and moved diplomats out of Kiev. This was a message that targeting Kiev was basically going to happen without any presence of western diplomats to challenge the attacks. The presence of diplomats of course would not stop attacks on Kiev, but having them so visibly depart showed that Kiev was being quietly abandoned. The movement of embassies out of Kiev to Lviv is part of this process of abandonment even before the first shot was fired. NATO also relocated staff out of Ukraine and a dozen airlines cancelled flights. Russia understood that when it launched attacks on Ukraine that the air was open and the capital open to these attacks because the international presence had already signaled with its feet that even though it objected to war, it wouldn’t do much to get in the way of war. This is a dangerous precedent. It means any country wanting to invade another can openly build up its forces, create a fictional reason for the conflict, recognize parts of the other country as new countries and then launch unprovoked attacks. The international community will respond by withdrawing even before the attack begins.
Now the international community has one more chance to actually do something. Sanctions are not doing something. Sanctions are how western countries respond when they don’t want to actually stop a bad activity. The small amounts of military hardware sent to Ukraine over the last years has not enabled Ukraine to really have the defenses it needs. There was no real discussion about how Ukraine would defend itself. Ukraine also didn’t seem to believe the war was really coming, despite warnings. This is because an unprovoked attacked on a peaceful state like Ukraine is not an everyday event. However the increasing attacks by Iranian-backed groups such as the Houthis, using drones, to attack peaceful places like the UAE, shows that there is impunity. No one punished the Houthis and in general no one stands up to Iran. The world now knows that nothing will be done anywhere to stop these kinds of unprovoked wars.