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Commentary: Could Ukraine be the beginning of the end for Putin?

NAOYA YOSHINO, Nikkei political editor

 

TOKYO — “Europe and America are united in our support of the Ukrainian government and the Ukrainian people. We’re united in imposing a cost on Russia for its actions so far.”

 

These remarks were delivered not by U.S. President Joe Biden on the current war in Ukraine, but by President Barack Obama about eight years ago.

 

Obama was at the emergency meeting by Group of Seven leaders in The Hague following Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014. The gathering marked the end of the Group of Eight framework including Russia, which officially launched in 1998.

 

“I believe ultimately that by working together, that China and the United States can help to strengthen international law, respect for the sovereignty of nations, and establish the kinds of rules internationally that allow all people to thrive.”

 

This remark, too, came from Obama, during his meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping shortly before the G-7 gathering. Xi made no promises, urging instead for “fairness” in resolving the Ukraine conflict.

 

In many ways, the current invasion parallels the 2014 annexation. The U.S., Europe and Japan failed to come together to ensure that Russia suffered the consequences, while China watched from the sidelines.

 

Russian President Vladimir Putin spotted an opportunity in this lack of unity, deciding to go ahead with the current invasion nearly eight years later. But there are signs that things may go differently this time around. The U.S. Japan and Europe closed ranks by agreeing to shut certain Russian banks out of the SWIFT international payments system.

 

Without access to SWIFT, companies operating in Russia cannot settle international transactions and could face major disruptions to operations.

 

The ruble has plunged in value, reaching new lows against the dollar. The Russian central bank has responded by jacking up its key interest rate to 20% from 9.5%. But it still faces an uphill battle against inflationary pressures from a weak home currency.

 

The economic crisis could deal a major blow to ordinary Russians, stoking frustration over Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine. Anti-war sentiment is already growing inside and outside Russia as brutal attacks by its forces go viral on social media.

 

Putin has flashed the nuclear card in the past weeks, likely both as a warning and a diversion. But the rest of the world sees in the reckless threat the desperation of an increasingly beleaguered leader.

 

The U.S., Europe and Japan hope that their sanctions will help bring a swift resolution in Ukraine. But predictions vary dramatically, from protracted war to unrest in Russia and the eventual toppling of Putin.

 

A senior Japanese government official likens the Ukraine war to the Soviet Union’s 1979 invasion of Afghanistan.

 

The former has been driven by fear of NATO expansion up to Russia’s borders, while the latter was motivated by alarm over Islamist militants in Afghanistan and suspicion that it was growing closer to the U.S.

 

In both cases, Moscow invaded countries considered to be strategically critical in order to ensure the continuation of the status quo.

 

The Soviet Union ultimately retreated from Afghanistan after a decade of fighting that left more than 14,000 Soviet troops dead, contributing to the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

 

Putin failed to anticipate a strong response from democratic nations to his invasion of Ukraine. This points to the arrogance as well as limitations of his autocracy. He now faces a treacherous path with his own fate at stake.

Is this the beginning of the end for Putin? The world’s democracies — Japan included — are pondering this question and bracing for a change in the world order tied closely to this regime.

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