Ukraine is once again under the beaming spotlight of global media attention. The Russian invasion is dominating news cycles and social media feeds across the world. It has already been called a defining moment in European history by many, including the EU chief diplomat Josep Borrell. This bold assertation is not wrong. Putin’s ruthless and reckless invasion of Ukraine has seen the first major war of conquest on the European continent this century; it has also seen traditionally pacifist forces – such as the EU, Germany and Sweden – immerse themselves in this foreign conflict. Most profoundly however, it has led to the unprecedented ostracization of Russia from the international community, and has brought worries of a NATO-Russia confrontation ever closer to the fore. At the time of writing, Ukraine is standing firm against the Russian onslaught, holding major cities Kyiv and Kharkiv. However, Russian missile and air attacks are becoming increasingly indiscriminate and the key southern city of Mariupol is under siege. Due to the rapidly changing conditions on the ground, this article will avoid becoming a commentary of the ongoing war. Instead, this article aims to show that this invasion fits into a pattern of Russian resurgence on the world stage. But, at the same time, the invasion shows how Russian President Vladimir Putin is becoming increasingly ruthless and reckless in commanding this resurgence.
The Britannica dictionary defines raucous as ‘behaving in a very rough and noisy way’, whilst the Merriam-Webster dictionary defines it as being ‘boisterous and disorderly’. The actions of Putin’s Russia perfectly fit these descriptions. Under Putin, Russia has noisily sown disorder within the post-Cold War global order, often launching rough and boisterous campaigns in an effort to return Russia to its historical Great Power status. From this, it can be said that the Russian invasion of Ukraine is the latest chapter in Russia’s increasingly ruthless and reckless raucous resurgence.
This raucous resurgence came crashing into plain view with its invasion of Georgia in 2008. Georgia, a former Soviet Republic, was becoming increasingly pro-Western and estranged from Moscow. This issue was only exacerbated by the existence of pro-Russian separatist ‘republics’ within its borders, with Russian peacekeepers stationed there. Russia, displeased with Georgia’s estrangement from Russian influence, and especially with NATO’s public intention to expand into Russia’s backyard, set a trap. After months of provocations from Russian proxies, Georgia attacked the pro-Russian republic of South Ossetia – to which Moscow responded decisively. Within 5 days, despite tactical military flaws, Russia had achieved its strategic-political objectives of entrenching permanent dominion over the ‘republics’, and shattering any Georgian hopes of NATO membership (Kilcullen, 2020, p.146-147).
This was then followed by a similar situation in Ukraine in 2014 with the start of the Russo-Ukrainian War. This crisis erupted in late 2013/early 2014 with the success of the Euromaidan (pro-EU/Western) movement, that ousted the pro-Russian regime and introduced the pro-Western government we see today. Amongst the chaos, Russia annexed the Crimean peninsula in March 2014 and threw its weight behind Russian separatists in the War in Donbas. The War in Donbas saw heavily armed pro-Russian rebels, with Russian support, seize portions of eastern Ukraine in the name of the respective Donetsk and Luhansk ‘people’s republics’. This intervention was particularly significant. It was Putin’s boldest, most ruthless and most reckless move yet. It saw Russia brazenly disregard international norms by illegally annexing territory, and the ensuing War in Donbas (prior to the recent escalation) claimed the lives of over 14,000 people.
Following this, in 2015 Putin reintroduced Russia as a major player in the Middle East with his controversial intervention on the side of Bashar al-Assad’s government forces in the Syrian Civil War. This intervention was certainly raucous. From bringing US and Russian troops/mercenaries into direct contact with one another, to Russian extreme heavy-handedness against civilian targets, Russia’s war in Syria was certainly a symbol of rough and disorderly behaviour.
The list goes on. From Russia’s expanding control in former Soviet republics such as Armenia, Kazakhstan and Belarus, to its growing influence in Africa, to the launching of chemical attacks and subversion campaigns in Western countries (Radin, Demus & Marcinek, 2020, p.1-2); there is no shortage in rough and disorderly Russian behaviour in its raucous resurgence on the world stage.
But, for Putin, there remained some painfully embarrassing unfinished business. His intervention in Ukraine had not exactly gone to plan. The only real long-term success of the campaign was its first step: the annexation of Crimea. The other political objectives, securing the Donbas region, and preventing Ukraine from becoming a strong Western-leaning state, both remained elusive. Instead, Russia found itself immersed in something of a ‘forever war’ which (prior to February’s escalation) claimed the lives of around 5,700 Russian separatists – with an unknown number of this being Russian volunteers, contractors, and active duty military personnel (Bellal, 2016, p.302). To make matters worse, this war tarnished Russia’s international reputation – namely through the downing of the Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17, and the subsequent squeeze of Western sanctions hamstringed the Russian economy.
So, in the face of these heavy costs, what did Putin have to show for his Ukrainian gamble? Not much. The separatist ‘republics’, the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics, respectively, are weak, disorganised and have since been shown to be dependent on Russian support and protection. So, for Putin and similar Russian nationalists, something needed to be done to save Russia’s reputation.
Despite Putin’s pre-invasion ramblings concerning a perceived lack of Ukrainian statehood, Russia’s invasion is more about Russia than about Ukraine. Ukraine has become something of a symbol of Russia’s historical failures and shortcomings through the country’s rejection of Putin’s imperialistic ‘Russian World’ discourse. It symbolises how the Ukrainian people seek an independent and democratic way of life – and, by extension, wish to push out the autocratic influence of Russia.
Russia’s weakness has been further exposed by this invasion. The allegedly world-leading Russian war machine has been ground almost to a halt by the stern resistance of the outmanned and outgunned Ukrainian armed forces. Adding on this, through the awe-inspiring resistance of Ukrainian civilians and the poor morale of Russian forces, Russia’s ‘special military operation’ to ‘liberate’ Ukraine from ‘Nazis’, has been exposed for what it really is: a desperately ruthless and reckless attempt to restore Russia as a ‘Great Power’ once again. What makes this increasingly worrying, however, is that with these continued failings, Putin’s Russia seems to be becoming more and more desperate. There is no hint of a Russian withdrawal, attacks on civilian targets are now commonplace, and Putin is seemingly content with keeping the nuclear option on the table.
This brutal invasion at first glance seems to be a bold shift in Russian foreign policy. However, it fits into a pattern of Putin’s behaviour over recent years. A pattern where he seeks to return Russia to its former glory – an identity which was taken from it in what Putin has described as the “greatest geopolitical disaster of the 20th century”: the dissolution of the Soviet Union. A more worrying fact about this pattern of raucous behaviour, however, is its increasing ruthlessness and recklessness. If this pattern continues, it seems that the Russian war in Ukraine may descend into even darker depths of depravity and violence, as Putin’s failing invasion continues to become more and more desperate. Perhaps most concerning of all, Putin may eventually utilise the most reckless and ruthless weapon known to humanity. After all, Putin and his supporters have often repeated the question: Why do we need a world without Russia in it?
Bellal, Annyssa (2016). The War Report: Armed Conflict In 2014. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Kilcullen, David (2020). The Dragons and the Snakes: How the Rest Learned to Fight the West. London: Hurst & Company.
Radin, Andrew, Alyssa Demus, and Krystyna Marcinek (2020) Understanding Russian Subversion: Patterns, Threats, and Responses. Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation. Retrieved from https://www.rand.org/pubs/perspectives/PE331.html