How the Russian Threat to Ukraine Is Like COVID
The timeline, once again, may be longer than expected
Everyone is wondering: will Russia invade Ukraine again? I don't know. Putin invaded Crimea in 2014 and Georgia in 2008 quickly and covertly, while the West wasn't looking. Unlike those actions, the current buildup of well over 100,000 Russian troops is ostentatious and has been going on for months. The United States and European countries have vowed a strong response of sanctions, including the cancellation of the Nord Stream II pipeline, if Ukraine is once again invaded.
The COVID-19 pandemic may provide an analogy for thinking about the Russian threat to Ukraine. At the outset of COVID-19 in March 2020, everything was shut down. Some thought that the threat might pass in a few months. Labor Day 2020 was set as a potential reopening date for offices like The New York Times as well as Broadway. Labor Day came and went, and those reopenings did not come to pass. Office reopenings are perpetually delayed, and Broadway canceled performances last month because of the Omicron surge.
Even if the Russian invasion never happens, the Ukraine crisis may turn out like COVID. The threat will remain; it may ebb and flow and never really end, just like the threat of COVID never has really ended. Instead, people will live with it.
There is a divide between how the U.S. and Ukrainian governments see the Russian threat. The Biden Administration had been focused on China and Afghanistan as foreign policy issues until late 2021, but Ukrainians have been living with the Russian threat for eight years.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has continually brushed off U.S. warnings of an imminent invasion. “What’s new? Isn't this the reality for 8 years? Didn’t the invasion start in 2014? Did the threat of a large-scale war appear only now? These risks existed…they haven't become bigger. The excitement around them has grown," he said in late January. (He continued to bat down U.S. warnings this weekend.) A Ukrainian journalist, Myroslava Petsa, tweeted: Ukrainians "have somehow managed to simply carry on during all these 8 years. But the fear is here. Always. For everyone and everything one loves. One day fear becomes your invisible companion and you learn to live with it."
In addition to the differences between the Ukrainian and U.S. governments, there is also a divide between military and political analysts of Russia. Military analysts like Michael Kofman see Russia's military buildup as unsustainable; and therefore believe that Putin will have to act soon. Analysts of Russian politics, like Mark Galeotti, on the whole tend to be more optimistic that a political solution can be reached, and that Putin's military posture may be a bargaining chip.
It's impossible to say which of these groups is correct. Even if Putin does not launch a full-scale assault on Kyiv, other scenarios are possible, like a military operation in Eastern or Southern Ukraine. Again, the COVID analogy is salient. While many COVID predictions didn't come to pass, other disruptive scenarios did happen. In summer 2021, many schools reopened, Broadway reopened, and tens of thousands of people cheered, unmasked, in stadiums for their favorite NFL teams. Numerous experts predicted a surge in COVID cases. But cases actually fell. However, while a new COVID variant was predicted, few thought that a variant could cause both disruption by making so many people sick, while also being much milder than previous variants.
As with COVID, it seems likely that the Ukraine crisis will go on for a while -- months, and likely years. Putin, who is 69, isn't going anywhere -- unless he is incapacitated or dies prematurely. He regards Ukrainians and Russians as "one people" and told former U.S. President George W. Bush that Ukraine was "not even a country." Ukraine has rejected this embrace and the denial of its sovereignty. With pro-Moscow Crimea annexed as a part of Russia and the country's East invaded in 2014, Ukraine's political orientation is firmly away from Putin -- and towards the West. The West, meanwhile, isn't about to let Ukraine into NATO or the EU. Those central conflicts won't be resolved anytime in the foreseeable future.
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