The United States should not panic if Russian President Vladimir Putin attempts to annex or occupy Ukraine. Just as the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979 marked the beginning of the end of the Soviet Empire and the Cold War, Russian aggression against Ukraine today would diminish its threat to the United States and cripple if not destroy President Putin’s rule. To paraphrase from Talleyrand’s condemnation of Napoleon’s murder of the Duc d’Enghien, “It would be worse than a crime, it would be a blunder.”
Annexing or occupying Ukraine would cost Russia billions of dollars in infrastructure and other spending to prop up its economy. The cost of a single land bridge from Crimea to the Russian mainland costs around a staggering $10 billion.
Further, Russia would confront a restive population (comparable to Muslims in Chechnya) consisting of Ukraine nationalists (who remember Stalin’s genocide by starvation) and Crimean Tartars (whom Stalin deported en masse during World War II). Restive people fuel chronic revolts that are costly to suppress. At present, Russia is forced to occupy Chechnya militarily and to provide it enormous financial subsidies to maintain control over a seething Muslim population.
Similarly, the Soviet Union expended hundreds of billions of dollars to suppress revolts or upheavals and to propitiate hostile populations among its Eastern and Central European satellites before the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Think of the uprisings against Soviet rule in East Germany in 1953, in Hungary in 1956, and in Czechoslovakia in 1968, among others. Indeed, the costs of controlling the embittered populations there bankrupted the Soviet Union, and contributed to the disintegration of the Soviet Empire in 1991.
The magnitude of the Russian costs of annexing Ukraine can also be deduced from the $4-6 trillion of occupation expenses incurred by the United States in Afghanistan since 2001 and in Iraq from 2003 to 2011. (The costs of the latter are escalating with President Obama’s recent deployment of 300 military trainers and 275 marines to guard the United States embassy).
Every dollar Russia would be required to expend in Ukraine to subsidize its economy would be a dollar not spent on weapons or military training that could be employed against the United States. Every Russian soldier deployed in Ukraine to suppress or contain its disgruntled population would be a soldier not deployed against the United States. Why should we discourage Russia from a fool’s errand (comparable to our Vietnam War) that would detract from is ability to threaten the United States?
The neoconservatives retort that if Russian aggression against Ukraine were unchallenged by the United States, it would be emboldened to seek conquest of Eastern or Central Europe and perhaps elsewhere. But that would be a nightmare for Russia, not the United States.