Opinion | What Russia has done in a month, will take lifetimes to undo


Mikhail Klimentyev, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP

Russian President Vladimir Putin chairs a meeting with members of the government via teleconference in Moscow on March 10.

By Harsh Hiwase, Staff Columnist

The Cold War has imprinted a permanent image of Soviet enmity in the minds of the Gen X and Baby Boomer generations, and rightfully so.

The west was in constant tension with the USSR through the countless proxy wars, with real threats of armed conflict escalating to nuclear levels. The American people had no reason to trust Soviet ideologies, discoveries or people. The feelings were mutual for Russians who had no reason to trust the west after years of disagreements.

The Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, indicating the end of the long drawn out rivalry after almost 50 years. At this point, the United States began to explore ways to collaborate with Russia and its vast quantities of resources. The United States has spent the last 30 years trying to strengthen diplomatic relationships with Russia — cautiously.

American and Russian policy enabled collaborations on scientific research, space exploration, global counter-terrorism and even climate preservation. Despite the hesitance to trust an old foe, both countries have tried to create a working relationship with one of the other world superpowers to make economic and global progress.

Born in the new millennium into Generation Z, I don’t disagree with Russian ideologies as much as previous generations. The post-Cold War era saw Russia as an energy giant that is capable of using its powers and influence to do the right things.

But Russian leader Vladimir Putin has undone the past 30 years of progress in the last 30 days, and I don’t think the Russian reputation is salvageable. The invasion of Ukraine has been built on flawed Soviet-era ideologies, executed through falsehoods and sustained using unethical threats. The country that could have tapped natural resources and rising connectivity with the international community to prosper, has now proven to everyone that it can never be trusted.

Putin launched a “special military operation” on Feb. 24 to send Russian troops into Ukraine and take control of the country. Putin claimed this was to protect people from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and save the people of Ukraine from the abuse and genocide from the Nazi regime of Kyiv. Experts rightfully pointed out that these lies were just a pretense for Putin’s true intentions — reclaiming Ukraine as part of Russia. Putin’s Soviet-era views are that Ukraine and Russia should be one people under one ruler and one collective state that needs to be reunified.

Putin’s attempt to consolidate power is a violation of Ukraine’s autonomy. By sending military force into civilian regions of Ukraine, conducting strikes targeting residential areas and flouting ceasefire agreements, Putin is undermining the Ukrainian government and people.

In our interconnected world, I don’t think it’s wise to bully sovereign nations and expect to get away with it. The Russian invasion echoes the illogical belief that Putin can take what’s not his and be spared from the consequences. I believe the international community will hesitate before collaborating with Russia in the future because they could fear facing a similar fate. The world may take years to forgive Putin and trust Russia again after the invasion.

The buildup of Russian troops at the Ukrainian border began almost a year before the invasion. Russian troops appeared in Belarus — a Russian ally bordering Ukraine — as early as spring 2021, and by last November there were at least 100,000 troops on the border. Belarus plays a crucial role as a strategic location for Russia to station troop. The strong cooperation with Belarus has allowed Russia to potentially place nuclear weapons very close to the Ukrainian border, at the ready for deployment.

This all seemed to point to an impending invasion. Russia responded to concerns by claiming that the troops and equipment were only there for training exercises — ultimately a lie. In late February, just a few days before the invasion, Russia claimed that it would pull back troops — also ultimately proving to be false. After about a week of fighting, Russia and Ukraine came to an agreed ceasefire to allow civilians to evacuate from some Ukrainian cities, guaranteed by The International Committee of the Red Cross. Russian troops, who continued to shell the Ukrainian cities of Mariupol and Volnovakha, broke it.

Russia has shown time and time again that it can’t be trusted. Putin’s falsehoods constantly deceive the international community and impede progress in conflict resolution. These sort of tactics are typically used by terror groups whose objective is primarily to intimidate or coerce civilian populations to influence government policy by mass destruction. The international community is less likely to engage in diplomacy with Russia after this because there is a good chance that Putin will not hold up his end of any deal.

Putin has reached a point of no return where there is no foreseeable way to forgive Russia for the invasion. The attacks on civilian infrastructure such as residential buildings, schools and even hospitals would seem to constitute war crimes that Putin and his cronies will have to pay for.

Regardless of the war’s outcome, Russia’s image is tarnished in the international community. A successful invasion would establish Russia as an immoral bully, and a failed one would show Russian military weakness.

Most importantly, Russian national unity is threatened. The Russian people aren’t fully supportive of Putin’s invasion, especially since they suffer the consequences of economic sanctions. Only about 58% of the population supports the invasion, a silent majority which is likely to decrease as the quality of life for Russians deteriorates with the falling ruble. It is also important to recognize that many Russians are afraid of speaking out against Putin. A recently passed law could imprison Russians for up to 15 years for comments that discredit the military. The true level of Russian dissent is likely much greater than surveys suggest.

The Russian people will soon begin feeling the heat from the war their president has unwillingly brought them into, hopefully enough so for them to take action and stop him. Despite Putin quelling the ongoing protests, the power of the masses always finds a way to topple an authoritarian regime. I just hope it’s sooner rather than later.

Harsh Hiwase writes about ethics and stands in solidarity with Ukraine. Write to him at [email protected].