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Putin expected misery and destruction, perhaps not a stronger NATO

The military alliance that Russia has despised for years has been revitalized and is in the process of gaining two new members — largely thanks to Putin.
Photo illustration: Vladimir Putin between blue and yellow colored shapes.
Putin’s war of aggression against Ukraine has led to some unintended consequences.MSNBC / Getty Images file

When Finland and Sweden recently announced an agreement with Turkey to join NATO, it highlighted just how ill-conceived Russia’s war on Ukraine has been from the start. Previously, the two Nordic countries had been stalwarts of neutrality, if not somewhat suspicious of the American-led alliance. But Russian President Vladmir Putin’s war of aggression against Ukraine changed all that. Finns and Swedes turned pro-NATO virtually overnight, sparking a scramble from their governments to join up as soon as possible. Admitting new members requires unanimous agreement from all the existing member states, which Turkey initially refused to grant. But after Finland and Sweden caved on a few critical points, the way is clear.

Putin’s war has to be the most purely stupid foreign policy action at least since George W. Bush’s senseless invasion of Iraq.

It all illustrates that Putin’s war has to be the most purely stupid foreign policy action at least since George W. Bush’s senseless invasion of Iraq. Russia’s military is battered, its economy is in ruins, its enemies are united, and its strategic prospects are worse than at any time since the summer of 1942 —and it’s entirely Putin’s fault. A worse self-inflicted wound is hard to imagine. On its current course, the future for the Russian people looks grim indeed.

On the military front, Russia’s vaunted reputation has been shattered, as a poor country with a quarter of the population of Russia has fought it to a standstill. A military alliance that it has hated for years, and that had been slowly fading in relevance, has been totally revitalized and is in the process of gaining two new members, one right on the Russian border. Hawkish anti-Russian voices the world over have been validated in the most convincing possible fashion. Over the short term, Russian forces seem to be nearing exhaustion from the bitter fighting with Ukraine, and over the medium term, more serious problems await, thanks to being cut off from the supply of Western-made computer chips and software.

The Russian economy is in shambles. The United States is so rich and powerful that it barely noticed trillions of utterly wasted military spending during the war on terror, but Russia’s economy is being ground to pieces under the weight of military losses and Western sanctions. Recently it defaulted on a debt payment for the first time since the Bolshevik revolution. A recent Russian economic report shows plummeting purchases of consumer goods, industrial producer prices and business confidence.

Meanwhile, the war has sparked a pell-mell stampede among the customers of Russia’s largest exports by far, namely oil and gas, to get off fossil fuels. Across Europe, crash installations of wind, solar and natural gas import terminals are proceeding at all possible speed. It may take some years, but the continent has learned the hard way what funding the Putin regime enables.

It’s important to note that it’s not just Russia that is hurting. The suffering is worse by far in Ukraine. The eastern portions of the country have been reduced to rubble from indiscriminate Russian shelling and bombardment, and reportedly tens of thousands of civilians are dead along with thousands of soldiers. Hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians have reportedly been deported to the Russian interior, in what looks very much like a Stalin-style cultural genocide.

Russia’s economy is being ground to pieces under the weight of military losses and Western sanctions.

In towns recaptured from Russian occupation, reporters have found gruesome mass butchery of civilians. Amnesty International recently published a report finding that Russian forces deliberately struck a theater full of women and children in Mariupol (“children” had been written in huge letters outside the building), killing perhaps 600. A few days ago, Russian forces hit a crowded shopping mall in central Ukraine, killing at least 18.

In the rest of the world, especially in the Middle East and Africa, Putin’s war has spurred food shortages, largely because both Ukraine and Russia are among the largest food exporters. Other casualties include numerous Kurdish activists who had previously sheltered in Finland and Sweden. Turkey extracted many grim concessions in return for its support for those nations’ NATO bid, and among them were the lifting of an arms embargo on Turkey, an end to Swedish funding of certain Kurdish groups, and promises to consider extraditing Kurdish activists (which Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan insists are terrorists) to Turkey. (The Biden administration may also sell Turkey some F-16 fighter jets.)

But again, the fault for that lies entirely with Putin. That is simply what tends to happen when big power wars get started and smaller countries have to run for cover. Finland and Sweden felt they needed to get under the NATO nuclear umbrella, and when faced with a feral dictator on the doorstep, it’s hard to blame them — particularly Finland, which was a colony of Russia for centuries, just like Ukraine.

For all that destruction and misery, Putin has accomplished … a tenuous occupation of a few thousand square miles of Ukraine that are smoking ruins because of what he’s done. It will cost billions to restore them to anything like functioning communities, let alone prosperous ones. Seldom in human history has a great power gained so little at such great cost. It shows Putin is not some hard-bitten “realist” but is a hard-line imperialist, by his own admission obsessed with preposterous dreams of Peter the Great, and in his declining years very well might take his country down with him.