When Napoleon executed Louis Antoine in 1804, a decision which turned the European aristocracy against Napoleon, an advisor reportedly quipped “It’s worse than a crime, it’s a mistake.” Former US Secretary of State Dean Acheson, an architect of the War in Vietnam reportedly quipped the same thing about Vietnam. A full-scale invasion and occupation of Ukraine by Russian forces would be a strategic blunder by Mr. Putin. Such an occupation would likely have very high costs with little chance of success. It would be worse than a crime. It would be a mistake.
Peace Is in Russia’s Best Interest
An occupation of Ukraine would be easy for Russia to pull off, but hard to sustain. Stephen Budiansky estimated that a successful occupation requires one soldier for every 40 civilians. With over 40 million citizens, it would take more than a million occupying Russian soldiers. With only one million active forces, and with many of those performing other functions, Russia would have to dip into its reserve forces, which would be economically taxing and difficult to sustain. Another obstacle is that polling suggests millions of Ukrainians would offer armed resistance. An unwilling populace is very difficult to govern, and can become a sinkhole of time and resources. Thousands of Russians and Ukrainians may perish in the guerilla fighting that would continue after the defeat of the Ukrainian military. Such a state of affairs would only further threaten the popularity of Mr. Putin’s governance. Though they are far from an impartial observer, the Atlantic Council has for this reason predicted that a Ukrainian occupation could spell the end of Mr. Putin’s regime. At the very least, it is a very real possibility that a full-scale Ukrainian occupation would be like the failures of the US in Afghanistan and Vietnam. Tactically, the Russian forces would dominate, but the likelihood of peaceful incorporation of Ukrainian territories into the Russian state is very slim.
Wars are the most expensive things that countries do, and the financial strain of an occupation would be another threat to Mr. Putin’s popularity. Due to a combination of declining oil prices and foreign sanctions, after the 2014 annexation of Crimea, Russia faced a financial crisis which led to a 30% drop in the Russian stock market. It is possible that foreign sanctions would be more severe this time around, and it is almost certain that the bulk of Ukraine would be far harder to incorporate into Russia than Crimea. It is likely that many of the nations of the world would turn against Russia in the event of an occupation. The most likely outcome of this would be a strengthened Sino-Russian alliance. However, given the imbalance between the populations and economies of Russia and China this would mean that Russia would play second fiddle and subordinate partner to Chinese interests on the foreign stage.
With all these downside risks, it is surprising then that there is very little for Russia to gain in such an occupation. While Mr. Putin has his own reasons for preferring territorial unification, and those reasons cannot be discounted, the economic benefits of occupation are low. In the modern world, territorial expansion has very little upside. The exceptions to this are where rare or useful resources are available. However, Ukraine’s top exports are corn and seed oil, and Russia is already their top trading partner. Crimea is valuable because it gives Russia sea access, but that territory has already been annexed. The combined cost of occupation and sanctions would likely swamp any economic gain from Ukrainian occupation. The surest path forward for modern nations to become rich is through international trade, integration into global supply chains, and increasing innovation through population growth and efficiency gains. It is unlikely that a full-scale occupation would advance these goals.
Peace is in the World’s Best Interest
It should go without saying that peace would be in Ukraine’s best interest. The loss of life and infrastructure that an occupation would involve would be disastrous for the development trajectory of Ukraine. However, an occupation would also be bad for the world at large. The West has little to gain in a conflict between Russia and Ukraine. In general, most nations have little at stake in the issue either way and a full-scale war in this region of the world would at best be a distraction from other interests and the prospect of global cooperation, and at worse a costly drain of resources. If Western nations wish to impose secondary sanctions by bullying mutual trading partners with Russia, then this would require deprioritizing other international goals for the sake of opposing Russia. If Western nations were successful in this effort, there would be almost no direct benefit to these nations. A Sino-Russian alliance would not benefit anyone except perhaps China, and given the interest of Western nations in maintaining their edge against China (whether that is wise or not), it would really be in the best interest of the West to make peace with Russia.
In short, it is in the interest of Russia, of Ukraine, and of the West to avoid a Russian occupation. Though it may seem like appeasement, it really is in the best interest of Ukraine and the West to make concessions to Russia regarding NATO in order to avoid a full-scale conflict. It would be in the best interest of Russia to avoid such entanglement as well. The best case scenario is that the nations of the world can find a way to help Mr. Putin save face without an invasion. The next best case scenario is that Mr. Putin engages in something short of an occupation.
The possibility that two armies filled with Orthodox Christians may soon begin killing each other should trouble the conscience of every Christian. We should pray for peace and hope that these rumors of war are nothing more than hysteria. In the event of a conflict, Christians should pray for its swift and peaceful resolution. It is in the best interest of all parties to find a way out of this conflict without bloodshed, and and we should remember that love of one’s enemies, as Christ preached, is a Christian duty. Let us pray then for the peace from above and for the salvation of all our souls.
Nicholas Sooy is a PhD candidate in philosophy at Fordham University.
Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in this essay are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.