Calculations and miscalculations have been central to the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
To ensure a swift victory, Putin amassed significant numbers of troops in the months prior to the invasion, with estimates placing the number at 150,000 He also enlisted Belarus’s assistance so as to station troops for closer access to Kyiv. To prevent damage from short-term economic sanctions, such as those imposed after the 2014 annexation of Crimea, Putin also pursued a ‘Fortress Russia’ strategy, building up significant foreign currency reserves and slowly decoupling the Russian economy from the Western world.
These preparations seemed more than sufficient, as Russia is much more powerful than Ukraine in every metric. Economically, Russia’s GDP is 10 times that of Ukraine’s: standing at $1.48 trillion compared to Ukraine’s $155.5 billion in 2020. Militarily, Russia has a total population over 3 times that of Ukraine, a standing army 4.5 times larger than Ukraine, and with military spending of over 10 times higher than Ukraine. Since the beginning, the Russian invasion of Ukraine was not intended to be a fair fight, a factor which would have only bolstered Putin’s confidence.
However, Putin focused on hard power alone and by neglecting the importance of legitimacy, he failed to anticipate the global response to the invasion. Respect for a ‘rules-based order’ held and Russia was unable to make a convincing case for having acted in self-defence. The additional claim that Moscow acted in a way that exercised its ‘responsibility to protect’ also collapsed. The claims of a supposed genocide in Donbass with no credible evidence backing its existence only further weakened Russian credibility. Not surprisingly, in the UN General Assembly, the motion to condemn Russia passed with 141 votes for, and only 5 votes against.
Russia’s indifference to international laws and principles has made it a pariah among states. Western nations have been able to argue the case against Russia on moral-legal grounds — a fundamental reframing of the issue in terms of what is ‘right’ and ‘wrong’. This has persisted even against the backdrop of Russia’s continued threats of further escalation, the potential launching of a nuclear war, and even as the United States and the member-states within the European Union have appeared fractured in policy and ideology during recent years.
The economic response that Western nations were able to mobilize far exceed those imposed on Russia after its 2014 annexation of Crimea. As part of this, not only are almost 1100 Russian individuals sanctioned as a consequence, the imports and exports of entire industry sectors in Russia are also targeted (including media, technology, energy, and aviation). Russia’s foreign currency reserves held by its National Central Bank located within the European Union and other Western nations, with a value of at least $284 billion, are further frozen. Such actions are unprecedented against a member of the Security Council, with asset freezing of Central Banks having only been previously used against smaller nations such as Iran, Venezuela, and Afghanistan. It is estimated that the consequences of the Russian invasion will likely catalyse the onset of one of the most painful economic crises in Russian history, comparable to the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Putin’s realist calculations did not take sufficient account of the influence of legitimacy in international relations and demonstrated the West’s willingness to meet intolerance with intolerance. This is a warning against future escalations of the war, and is also a warning of the possible consequences in any further abuse of existing laws and norms.
Victor Liang is a fourth-year student at the University of Sydney, studying a Bachelor of Arts and Bachelor of Advanced Studies (Politics and International Relations, International Business). He is currently a Project Officer at the Australia China Business Council, an Editorial Assistant at the University of Sydney’s Journal of Chinese Tax and Policy, and a Programme Coordinator for the 2022 GIR Symposium. Throughout his studies, Victor has developed interests in political theory, business-government relations, and the applicability of these and surrounding ideas towards areas of interest, such as Australia-China relations.
Victor is an intern with the Australian Institute of International Affairs NSW.