Russian troops and tanks advancing on multiple fronts. Missiles raining down on Ukrainian targets. The United States and its NATO allies retaliating against Moscow with sweeping economic sanctions for a scale of military aggression not seen in Europe since the end of World War II.
As Russia’s invasion unfolds, the coming days and weeks are fraught with peril on a continent where conflict has a long, bloody history of spiraling out of control, military and foreign policy specialists said.
“It’s a perfectly horrifying situation,” said David Mayers, a Boston University professor of history and political science. “Who knows how this will play out? The ruthlessness of what [Russian President Vladimir] Putin is doing suggests that he won’t really stop at anything.”
Although Russia appears capable of inflicting heavy casualties, crippling Ukrainian infrastructure, and overrunning territory, many analysts question whether Russia can occupy the country over the long term.
“If Russia is determined to suffer some significant losses, which it will, it can still prevail and capture large parts of Ukraine. The question is: What will they do with that later?” said Mariana Budjeryn, a Belfer Center research associate at the Harvard Kennedy School.
“It might be optimistic, but I do not see how they succeed,” said Budjeryn, a native of Ukraine who visited her mother last week in Lviv, a major city in the country’s west.
In a chilling reminder of the Cold War, even the specter of nuclear weapons looms over the crisis. On Thursday, Putin referenced his country’s formidable nuclear arsenal in a dire warning to the United States and the West to stand back.
Russia “remains one of the most powerful nuclear states,” Putin said in a rambling speech from the Kremlin. “There should be no doubt that any potential aggressor will face defeat and ominous consequences should it directly attack our country.”
The United States and NATO have stated repeatedly that they do not intend to send troops into Ukraine. That shows the West’s deep concerns about a catastrophic escalation of the war, Mayers and others said.
Still, Putin’s “rattling of nuclear sabers is just breathtaking,” Mayers said.
“I cannot imagine, though, that anything like a nuclear war would take place,” he said. “That would be suicide for Russia, and Putin certainly recognizes that.”
In the meantime, the West continues to apply pressure from the periphery, imposing a wide range of economic sanctions and bolstering troop strength in NATO countries close to Ukraine. But so far, there has been no outright military response from the United States or any NATO member.
New sanctions announced by President Biden on Thursday include blocking exports of technology to Russia that benefit its military, and actions against more Russian banks and billionaires close to the Kremlin.
“Putin is the aggressor. Putin chose this war. And now he and his country will bear the consequences,” Biden said. The sanctions, he predicted, will “impose severe cost on the Russian economy, both immediately and over time.”
US Representative Seth Moulton of Salem, a former Marine Corps captain who deployed four times to Iraq, said the proximity of the conflict to the borders of NATO countries — Poland, Slovakia, and Romania, for example — ratchets up the potential for escalation.
“We have to be prepared for anything,” Moulton said. “By invading Ukraine, [Putin] is coming within inches of NATO countries with thousands of American troops.”
Budjeryn, the Ukrainian native, said she was impressed during her recent visit by the defiance of the country’s people, and how they continued to go about their business, even with humor.
“I left there last week rather optimistic. Spirits were high,” said Budjeryn, whose mother was discharged from a hospital to make room for possible war casualties. “I’m proud of this. This is the best you can do under the circumstances. There still was a glimmer of hope that there might be an off-ramp.”
Budjeryn now expects a protracted conflict, a prospect that fills her with rage.
“Part of it is because I feel helpless that in the face of such great danger, I feel small,” she said. “I feel I should be helping my country somehow, but nothing that I could do seems adequate.”
“The other part of the rage is the needless injustice of it,” she added. “What is most offensive is the lies coming out of the Kremlin, this contempt and the lies that are directed at people who are not a threat in any way to Russia.”
Moulton said he has never believed Putin intended to control all of Ukraine, the second-largest country in Europe behind Russia, but thinks Putin would use the invasion to weaken NATO and the West.
“Even if he achieves chaos, he wins. He will have undermined democracy and undermined a country that has moved to be aligned with the West,” Moulton said.
“I think that Putin has calculated all along that he doesn’t need to occupy Ukraine. But we have to ensure that if he does that, he’ll regret it.”
Those regrets can come from a determined insurgency supported by the West, a move that Moulton said has begun to take shape behind the scenes.
Jack Hammond, a retired Army brigadier general from Reading who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, said an insurgency will drain the Russians.
“The ability of the Russians to control a country the size of Texas, with a population of 40 million people, with less than 200,000 troops is a reach,” Hammond said. “Much as we saw in Iraq and Afghanistan, fighting an insurgency war after the initial victory was far more costly.”
“The Russians will be far more heavy-handed than we would ever consider, but they will not be able to contain the horrific video that will capture their atrocities,” added Hammond, executive director of Home Base, a Boston-based program that treats the invisible wounds of war.
With so many variables, analysts said, the contours of the crisis remain murky.
“How does Russia benefit from all this?” said Mayers, the BU professor, who specializes in the history of US foreign relations.
“If a great deal of damage is done to Ukraine, if many people feel disaffected and want to leave Ukraine, I don’t see how Russia can benefit by absorbing a country that is full of alienated people, and that will be very hard for Russia to police or placate,” he said.
Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.