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How to Make Sense of Russia’s War on Ukraine Right Now

Why would Vladimir Putin start a war in Ukraine?

Putin wants democracy to fail, not only in Ukraine but across the West too, Anne Applebaum writes. “He wants to put so much strain on Western and democratic institutions, especially the European Union and NATO, that they break up. He wants to keep dictators in power wherever he can, in Syria, Venezuela, and Iran. He wants to undermine America, to shrink American influence, to remove the power of the democracy rhetoric that so many people in his part of the world still associate with America. He wants America itself to fail.”

Is this World War III?

Not likely, but it might be practice, writes Tom Nichols. What’s more, Uri Friedman writes, “Putin’s actions have opened our eyes to how dependent we all are on the whims of one man and his nuclear arsenal—or even the missteps or miscalculations that fallible, emotional, semi-rational human beings make when moving quickly in crisis.”

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So what would start a world war?

If Putin attacks a NATO country, other NATO countries are pledged to come to that country’s defense, enlarging the conflict. Read more.

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How can Putin be defeated?

Through a combination of three main ways: sanctions against Russia, military support, and a strong European alliance to secure the Ukraine-Russia border, Eliot A. Cohen writes: “The Western objective must be to leave Russia profoundly weakened and militarily crippled, incapable of renewing such an onslaught, isolated and internally divided until the point that an aging autocrat falls from power.”

Evidence suggests that these strategies are already helping Ukraine, Cohen writes. “The failure of almost all of Russia’s airborne assaults, its inability to destroy the Ukrainian air force and air-defense system, and the weeks-long paralysis of the 40-mile supply column north of Kyiv are suggestive. Russian losses are staggering.”

But Tom McTague suggests that other strategies may be promising, too: Read him on why Putin needs an off-ramp.

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Do sanctions work?

Not always: Annie Lowrey talked with the historian Nicholas Mulder, whose work shows that “sanctions have often failed to achieve their desired political outcome, for all the damage they cause.” And no sanction comes without collateral damage, Conor Friedersdorf writes.

But the sanctions currently employed against Russia could be effective. “The only question is whether they might do more damage than Western governments might wish,” David Frum writes. “They could potentially bankrupt the entire Russian banking system and push the ruble into worthlessness.”

Moreover, sanctions against Russian oligarchs do seem to be working, at least insofar as some of Russia’s most powerful oligarchs are now calling for an end to the war, the sociology professor Brooke Harrington writes. “The wealthiest Russians are far better placed than the average citizen to communicate to Putin how his invasion is devastating his own country. And the lavish lifestyles that oligarchs and their families lead mean they’re highly vulnerable to external pressure.”

How will average Americans be affected by the war?

Sanctions and supply-chain disruptions will increase the price of goods, David Frum writes.

But the war will affect sports, entertainment, and even space. Various Russian teams have been suspended from international play, May’s Champions League final has been moved from St. Petersburg to Paris, and the Formula 1 Grand Prix, set to take place in Sochi in September, has been canceled, Yasmeen Serhan writes. Russia has also been disinvited from this year’s Eurovision Song Contest. And Marina Koren reports that the director of Russia’s space agency has suggested that the sanctions could affect its cooperation with its International Space Station partners.

Overall, the Russian economic blackout may spur futures for clean energy, increase Russian reliance on allies such as China, and reconfigure agricultural-trade boundaries in the Middle East, Derek Thompson writes.

Is the war to blame for rising food prices in the U.S.?

Many factors—including COVID-19 and labor shortages—are to blame, but yes, war is one reason. Conflict will block ports and prevent crops from being planted, which will in turn cause price increases, David Frum writes. “The upheaval will touch every food consumer on Earth, even those living in food-secure countries such as the United States. Food prices are set in efficient global markets. All countries face similar prices, whether they are sellers into those markets or buyers from those markets. If the price goes up for anyone, it goes up for everyone.”

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Why are some Republicans siding with Putin?

Although most Republican leaders have denounced Putin, some members of the party’s base—including Marjorie Taylor Greene and Matt Gaetz—have not. They may be acting out of shared values, allegiance to Donald Trump, or fraught self-image, Tom Nichols writes.

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What is Russian public opinion about the war?

It’s difficult to tell how everyday Russian citizens think, because the Kremlin has made it illegal to call this a war or spread information counter to the official Russian narrative. But many Russians support Putin, writes Olga Khazan, who has been watching Russian state TV. “Russians, with dwindling news options, tend to buy what their government and its media allies are selling. Russians with Ukrainian relatives buy it … The alternative—that the invasion is not justified, that Russians are the aggressors—is too horrific to entertain.”

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What should I read to learn more?

Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism is as timely as ever. And these nine books offer context about Eastern Europe’s past and present.

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How long will this last?

A long time, Yasmeen Serhan writes. “If conflicts in places such as Ethiopia, Palestine, Kashmir, Syria, and Yemen have proved anything, it’s that wars are easy to start, but are also brutal, intractable, and difficult to end.” This assumes the war stays in Ukraine. “The other, perhaps greater, risk is that Russian aggression could spread even farther afield, to the Baltics, which would not only draw NATO into a potential conflict, but also fundamentally threaten the post–Cold War order.”

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How will it end?

In one of five ways, according to Paul Poast, a professor of foreign policy and war at the University of Chicago: “a disastrous quagmire or retreat for Russia; violent regime change in Kyiv; the full conquest of Ukraine; the beginning of a new Russian empire; or a chaotic stumble into something like World War III.”


What other questions do you have? Send them to ukrainefaq@theatlantic.com.

Nancy Deville, Aithne Feay, Elizabeth Hart, and Yuri Victor contributed to this report.



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