Learning to live with a superpower gone rogue

In this handout photo taken from video released by Ukrainian Police Department Press Service, Milita

Russian helicopters fly over the outskirts of Kyiv, Ukraine, as world leaders decried the start of an invasion that could cause massive casualties and topple Ukraine's democratically elected government - Credit: AP

As Russian forces swarm across Ukraine, MARK NICHOLLS looks at the longer-term fall-out from Vladimir Putin’s invasion

There is a generation that would have awoken on Thursday morning with a Cold War shiver running down their spines.

As graphic TV pictures showed columns of Russian tanks and military vehicles crossing into Ukraine, the scenes would have triggered flashbacks to the expansionist Soviet era: of the ill-fated invasion of Afghanistan on Christmas Day 1979; and the unforgettable images of tanks on the streets of Czechoslovakia in 1968 and Hungary in 1956. 

But this is 2022. 

That such a flagrant, deadly, act of unprovoked aggression can be co-ordinated from Moscow on a peaceful state in this modern era, has shocked the world. 

It is 'War in Europe', a headline we hoped to never see again.

But this invasion by one European state on another has plunged global peace into turmoil, and as French president Emmanuel Macron so succinctly stated, is “a turning point in the history of Europe”.

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Within 24 hours, hundreds of Ukrainian citizens and soldiers were dead and injured, the country's military and strategic targets sustained missile strikes and the Russian army sat on the outskirts of Kyiv. 

Whilst assembling 200,000 troops on the Ukraine border over the past few weeks, Russian president Vladimir Putin had continued to deny there would be an invasion. 

Fervent acts of diplomacy, warnings and in recent days sanctions, were deployed in an attempt to de-fuse what many were fearing would be an unprecedented act of 21st century aggression. 

But all that came to nothing as at just before 6am Moscow time on Thursday, in a televised speech, Putin announced a “military operation” in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region, parts of it have been occupied by Russian-backed rebels since 2014. 

Within a couple of hours, Boris Johnson was chairing an early morning session of the Cobra committee, global leaders were aghast, reacting with horror at the invasion, and as the day progressed images of tanks, shelling, strikes on strategic military and transport hubs, and even civilian buildings emerged. 

It was evidence that this was not the defensive measure Russia had portrayed in the build-up, but a merciless attack on the 44 million-strong country of Ukraine.

The spread of attacks, the invasion from all points of the compass, queues of traffic as people sought fuel to flee, and citizens cowering in metro stations portrayed the true picture – a smaller nation under attack and already becoming fearful for a future under an aggressive, expansionist regime. 

Economic sanctions were imposed by the UK, the United States and the European Union to hit Russia’s trade and financial network, with the assets of Russian banks and the powerful oligarchs frozen. 

While the UK urged for the SWIFT banking system - the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication global messaging system for financial transactions that connects banks in more than 200 countries – to be switched off to choke Putin’s economy, there was resistance elsewhere in Europe and a puzzling hesitancy as to why this was not being activated.

Reassuringly, sport took decisive steps, stripping St Petersburg of the Champions League final and Russia of its F1 race. 

Meanwhile, Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy accused European leaders of inaction. 

While the impact on Ukraine citizens was immediate and terrifying, the longer-term consequences for this eastern European state - one that had been looking to NATO rather than Moscow for its defence - and the broader European and global community, were less clear. 

As always in time of conflict, oil prices soar and stock markets plunge, and that volatility is likely to continue, given the manner in which Vladimir Putin tore up the delicate agreements and treaties that are pivotal in keeping global peace intact. 

Indeed, he signalled his tanks and troops to surge into Ukraine at the very moment that the UN was discussing the crisis and consequences in a special session. 

Of course, in this era of social media and fake news, verifying the accuracy of accounts and claims was not always easy. 

But the CCTV images of Russian vehicles crossing border posts into Ukraine was undeniable, as were the plumes of smoke billowing into the air from military bases across the country. 

Putin, however, remained oblivious to western threats of sanctions as the tanks rolled into Ukraine, warning that anyone “who tries to interfere” would face consequences. 

This invasion will also send a shudder through the Baltic states – Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia – and other eastern European countries, though they are already NATO members and as such, receive the protection that offers. 

Intelligence sources have suggested that despite its military superiority, Russia may not be able to rapidly overwhelm Ukraine, leaving the prospect of a “long and serious” conflict. 

There will be resistance with inevitable bloodshed and Ukraine citizens have even been urged to arm themselves with Molotov cocktails, but many will flee and become homeless refugees. 

A key question is, what can NATO and western Europe do to help Ukraine beyond freezing Russia out with even tougher economic sanctions?

The answer is very little – military intervention is a limited option as that will only escalate an already incredibly volatile situation and Russia already controls the airspace with its superior air power. 

Locally, South West Norfolk MP Liz Truss as the foreign secretary has had a forceful role in the diplomatic negotiations with Russian officials, while US president Joe Biden said Putin had “chosen a premeditated war that will bring a catastrophic loss of life and human suffering”. 

Former head of the British army, General the Lord Dannatt, who was chief of the general staff from 2006 to 2009 and lives in Norfolk, describe the invasion as “a dark day for Europe". 

He said Russia must be made to pay for the unprovoked attack, but he did not expect the West to become involved militarily, as Ukraine is not a member of NATO. Instead, he said, it should respond with tough sanctions, along with making it clear any further expansion beyond Ukraine would not be tolerated.

But sanctions, which have been imposed on Russia for various reasons on eight occasions since the Second World War, may also have limited impact. 

Putin’s endgame is unclear. What seems likely is that Russia will implement a 'friendly' puppet regime in Ukraine upon seizing Kyiv, but that will not bring peace and stability in a nation that has experienced years of post-Soviet democracy. 

Ukraine will not give up and will defend itself against an overpowering enemy, though militarily, it is likely to be left alone to defend itself, albeit with some western aid and weapon support.  

From the events of the last few weeks, the massive Russian troop build-up on the Ukraine border, and Thursday’s invasion, will trouble the face of European history for a generation and more. 

Russia has shown itself to be an aggressor nation under Putin, ignorant of diplomacy and international law, as it seemingly seeks to re-absorb former Soviet states into the greater Russian landscape. 

Lighting up buildings yellow and blue and people changing their social media profile photos to the Ukraine flag, as well as courageous Russian anti-war protests, all show solidarity but are unlikely to halt the Russian advance and ease the suffering of the people in the paths of tanks, missiles and bullets. 

For everyday life across Europe, there will be an impact on us all – there will be energy insecurity in an already unstable energy landscape, rising fuel and living costs and heightened risk for travel and international collaboration.

Implementing sanctions will not divert Russia from its military goals. Putin will have calculated the cost and while analysts point to the potential impact, the Russian president’s volatile rhetoric shows that he cares little for what the rest of the world think. 

This bodes badly for the future – a future where there is apparently no restraining a now 'rogue' superpower such as Russia.