As we noted in January, Vladimir Putin “is an autocrat and a liar.” We now have been reminded that he also is a war criminal. Since Russia invaded Ukraine last week, that much is clear, but otherwise uncertainty reigns—and the risk of further, dangerous escalation remains high. When the Biden administration began warning over a month ago that an invasion was imminent, many commentators were skeptical, and the international response was generally hesitant. The first round of sanctions imposed by the United States and its allies was notably tepid. Now, amid the fighting, American politicians are pinning Ukrainian flags to their lapels and the names of faraway cities are on everyone’s lips. Enthusiasm mingles with confusion. Reporters on the ground relay the latest updates and governments release new statements amplifying their support for Ukraine and disapproval of Russia, while on social media there are TikTok clips teaching Ukrainians how to repurpose Russian equipment, tweeted maps of troop movements and lines of attack, footage of tanks rolling down highways, and photos of civilians in Kyiv and elsewhere, including elderly women, preparing Molotov cocktails. Dramatic video updates from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who declined an offer by the United States to be evacuated so that he could stay with his people and fight, have inspired people across the world.
It was that decision by Zelensky, and the surprising effectiveness of Ukrainian defenses, on which so much has hinged. The Ukrainians’ genuine heroism has meant that Vladimir Putin’s initial plans for a swift victory seem to have decisively failed. As the military historian Edward Luttwak described it, “The once patient hunter turned reckless gambler persuaded himself…that Zelensky would promptly flee, that his government would then collapse as ministers rushed off to escape arrest, that the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Air Defense, long starved of funds in any case would dissolve, so that Russian forces would advance unopposed to quickly seize every city, with Kyiv’s population obediently awaiting Russian rule.” That, clearly, didn’t happen, and Putin now faces a costly, prolonged struggle in Europe’s second-largest country by land mass. The prospect of his being stymied or even defeated has led the United States and its European allies to punish Russia with a barrage of further sanctions.
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