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How far will Putin go?

Daniel Aniel/AFP/Getty; Wolfgang Schwan/Anadolu Agency/Getty; Twitter/@holmescnn

Invading Ukraine is the easy part for Vladimir Putin, says John Nagl in Foreign Policy. It’s the occupation that may well prove his undoing. Not only is Ukraine a vast country with numerous big cities, it also has land borders with Nato members and a long coastline on the Black Sea – providing ample opportunity for foreign powers to arm insurgents. The “usual ratio” of one occupying soldier for every 50 locals means a minimum of 800,000 Russian troops – virtually their entire army. And most Russian soldiers are miserable conscripts who didn’t manage to bribe their way out of military service. Keeping up morale during a drawn-out insurgency won’t be easy. Russia has been here before: when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979 it faced nine gruelling years of Western-backed resistance. The failed occupation even contributed to the USSR’s collapse. The parallels with today “should cause Putin to quake in his boots”.

The only reason to believe Putin might show restraint in Ukraine, says Mark Galeotti in The Moscow Times, is that he would weigh up the risks and ease off. Problem is, there’s nobody giving him straight advice. When Putin gathered his Security Council in a televised meeting on Monday, it was like “King Lear meets James Bond’s Ernst Stavro Blofeld”. Most telling was when foreign intelligence chief Sergei Naryshkin began giving his view on the independence of Donbas. His support wasn’t sufficiently full-throated, so Putin humiliated him in front of the other grandees like a “schoolboy singled out by the principal”. This was one of the most senior figures within the government – a member of the “fabled siloviki who are meant to represent Putin’s trusted henchmen”. Does anyone think Naryshkin and the others would dare offer “alternative perspectives”? As a former Russian intelligence officer once told me, “you do not bring bad news to the tsar’s table”.

How the West reacts to the invasion will set crucial precedents about what is acceptable in 21st-century geopolitics, says Jeremy Cliffe in The New Statesman. The coming days will “shape China’s thinking on its own designs on Taiwan”, for example. To assert its “resolve and mettle”, the West must hit Russia with “crippling penalties” targeting Putin’s kleptocratic regime, and provide “massive, open-ended military and humanitarian support” so Ukraine can mount “such fierce resistance” that the Russian leader comes to regret his decision. The world is at a “turning point”. To decide where it leads is the task to which our leaders must now rise. “History will be unsparing on those who fall short.”