Putin’s strike on Ukraine is testing the US and NATO – and a shocking reminder that tough talk doesn’t always work

It took less than 24 hours from the time Russian President Vladamir Putin announced the invasion of Ukraine to the emergence of predictions that the country’s fall, and its rapid fall, was a fait accompli.

But after weeks of theorizing about Putin’s strategic objective; whether it was just about stopping Ukraine joining NATO, or something more; about his military capability, and assessments of whether Ukraine’s capabilities had improved in the last decade, it was not just the speed of Russia’s attack but its widespread nature that came as a shock.

This was no assault confined to a couple of eastern regions but a comprehensive attack from all directions designed to wipe out any military resistance quickly and, presumably, overthrow the government.

There was talk in that first 24 hours of resistance. And there was still talk after that of resistance in western Ukraine that might make Putin’s occupation more costly or contested, particularly if it was being supported by ‘the West’.

But Ukraine has been left to fall by the United States and NATO.

The nature of Putin’s strike has made very clear his strategic intentions: Ukraine’s expected rapid collapse, and the fact the US and NATO were not able or willing to do anything about it, is what makes this such a profound turning point in Europe.

If Putin’s aim was to demonstrate declining United States power and influence, it is hard to imagine a more effective way of doing it. And it happens at a point in time when other powers in Europe are divided and weak.

US President Joe Biden, left, and Russia's President Vladimir Putin, right, meet at the start of the US-Russia summit
US President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin.(PA: Denis Balibouse)

A new testing point in Europe

In particular, the public debate in Germany about lack of preparedness or capacity to do anything about Ukraine has been bitter, even if Germany has ultimately been the country that has provided the most significant sanction with its decision to halt the massive Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline .

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz on Thursday said that “Putin should not underestimate NATO’s determination to defend all of its members”.

“That expressly applies to our NATO partners in the Baltic, in Poland, in Romania, in Bulgaria and in Slovakia. It applies unconditionally. Germany and its allies know how to protect themselves.”

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