A successful invasion of Ukraine will enliven global discord

When one nation prepares to invade another, it cannot be done with much stealth. Military personnel and equipment must be marshalled, plans drawn up. Satellite imagery and intelligence gathering is clearly showing that Ukraine is effectively surrounded by Russian forces, many of whom are participating in active military exercises.

Whether Russian President Vladimir Putin turns these war games into an actual conflict is still an open question, but after the chaos of the West’s evacuation from Afghanistan, no one is taking any chances. On Sunday, Prime Minister Scott Morrison followed many nations in moving Australia’s embassy staff in Kyiv to safer ground in Lviv, which sits close to Ukraine’s western border with Poland.

The ball is very much in Mr Putin’s court. With NATO unwilling to send in forces to defend Ukraine, Russia’s military would experience little initial resistance. But it’s the long game that would have the Russian leader hesitant. Over the weekend, US President Joe Biden again played his strongest card, threatening Mr Putin with “swift and severe” penalties if he were to invade.

It’s unclear how much of a dig they are playing. Russia’s economy was hit hard by sanctions when it invaded Crimea in 2014. But Mr Putin has done much to restructure his nation’s economy to withstand financial pressure from the West. It has diverted hundreds of billions in revenue from oil and gas sales into currency reserves that would give it an enormous financial buffer if it faced a new wave of sanctions.

It’s also unclear, if Mr Putin were to invade, how deep into Ukrainian territory Russia would advance. A recent former director for European affairs at the US National Security Council believes Mr Putin may be satisfied with taking another small chunk of Ukraine, as Russia did in 2014, that could include vital port cities on the Black Sea, although he does not rule out a full-scale attack on Kyiv.

And that goes to the heart of what is keeping many world leaders up at night. For all the West’s intelligence gathering and diplomatic efforts, Mr Putin is the master of inscrutability. What will play out in the coming days, weeks and possibly months is a long way from certain.

But a wider lens does offer some certainties. Under Donald Trump, the NATO alliance was put under enormous pressure, with the former US president regularly showing disdain for his European allies. It was an extraordinary attack on what has been a cornerstone of global security since the end of World War II. While the new Germany Chancellor, Olaf Scholz, has struggled to fill the shoes of his predecessor, Angela Merkel, on the world stage, the Russian threat has forced NATO members to reinvigorate the alliance while coordinating what is the greatest threat to European security for many decades.

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It is also obvious that China will be watching carefully. The West’s reaction to a Russian invasion of Ukraine will give Beijing a telling insight into the response it may get if it were to take more aggressive action against Taiwan.

Geographically, Australia is a long way from the troubles of Ukraine. Canberra is offering no military support to NATO and its contribution to possible sanctions would be minimal. But as a broader view reveals, what happens over the coming weeks could well ripple across the globe. If Mr Putin’s efforts to push back on NATO’s expansion, and a possible expansion of territory, were to succeed, he could well set the stage for a similar showdown soon enough in our neighbourhood.

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