(CNN)Just as diplomats at a last-minute United Nations Security Council meeting were pleading for peace, Russian fire began raining down on Ukraine.
On a haunting night, marked by an address from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky that felt like a eulogy for a democracy, decades of peace between nations on the European landmass ended with loud blasts in multiple Ukrainian cities. Within hours, livestream video showed a column of military vehicles streaming into the country from Belarus, where Russian troops had been massed. And thunderous explosions soon boomed over the capital Kyiv, as air raid sirens wailed, heralding a dangerous new crisis for a world already rocked by turmoil.
President Vladimir Putin’s long-feared assault will reverberate far beyond Russia and its democratic neighbor. It will bring consequences including painful spikes in already high gas prices for Americans struggling to navigate out of a once-in-a-century pandemic. And it may rekindle a Cold War that had once seemed a relic of history, creating a precarious new standoff between the US and Russia, the world’s largest nuclear powers. President Joe Biden will unveil the most punishing set of sanctions ever imposed against Russia when he addresses the nation later Thursday.
“(The) invasion has begun,” Anton Gerashchenko, an adviser to Ukraine’s interior minister, told reporters, describing missile strikes on airfields and military headquarters in Kyiv, as CNN teams on the ground witnessed blasts and artillery fire elsewhere at the start of a conflict the US has warned could cost thousands of civilian lives.
Putin, in an unscheduled televised address dripping with false claims about genocide perpetrated against ethnic Russians in eastern regions of Ukraine, declared an operation to “demilitarize and denazify Ukraine.” His malfeasance recalled the dark maneuvers of dictators in the 1930s that pitched the world into war. His reference to Nazis raised the idea of political purges and suggested a mindset seemingly verging on paranoia.
It was the surreal moment when a leader traumatized and obsessed by the collapse of the Soviet Union, which he witnessed as a rank-and-file KGB officer in former East Germany, launched a battle to avenge forces of history and erase the freedoms and democracy of a people of an independent, sovereign nation.
Ukraine is a former Soviet republic that went its own way after the collapse of communism — and gave up nuclear weapons in exchange for now-violated security guarantees from Moscow. It yearns for a future in the West, but Putin sees its quest for democracy as a threat to his own autocratic rule and wants to ensure the country never attains its dream of membership in NATO.
America suddenly faces a dangerous new crisis
Apart from the challenge to the US-led world order and what was once known as the free world, Americans will pay a price for this attack, though they are not, like the people of Ukraine, coming under fire.
Higher gas prices and inflation are certain. Oil raced above $100 a barrel almost as soon as the Russian assault started.
And since Putin had been demanding pullbacks from NATO in ex-Soviet satellite statesthat had joined the organization, this is America’s crisis too. The United States will not send troops to fight Russia directly in Ukraine, given that as a non-NATO member, Ukraine does not enjoy the alliance’s mutual defense guarantees. But it is almost certain that Washington will have to send troops back to bolster its European allies and to bases they began to leave 30 years ago. The Baltic nations of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia look suddenly vulnerable and, unlike Ukraine, are NATO members the US is treaty bound to defend. There is also the possibility of a US-funded insurgency in Ukraine, raising the risky prospect of a new proxy war between Washington and Moscow.
More broadly, Putin’s attack on Ukraine is another challenge to America’s global power and the concept of a free and democratic world that multiplies its influence. Liberal democracy now faces a fearsome challenge, not just from a revanchist Russia but from a rising, authoritarian super power in China. And unlike during the Cold War, when all parties stood firm in the face of a 40-year struggle against communism, America’s own democracy is reeling, threatened by a former President who tried to cling to power.
In a sign of the shattered fabric of US national unity, ex-President Donald Trump, fresh from declaring Putin a “genius” on Tuesday, quickly called into Fox and lied that a “rigged election” in the US saddled Americans with an illegitimate President and emboldened the Russian leader — over whom he himself always fawned.
A poignant address
The true nature of the Russian assault, and its significance for the rest of the world, shone through a poignant address by Zelensky, who said he had called Putin earlier and got only silence on the line.
Pleading with the people of Russia in their own language, Zelensky said: “You are being told this fire will free the Ukrainian people. But Ukrainian people are free.”
The Ukrainian President, a former comedian now charged with narrating a national tragedy, told Russians, “We want to determine our history by ourselves. In peace, calm and honesty.” And in a chilling aside, hours before guns again rang out over a continent stained with the blood of millions lost in tyrants’ wars, Zelensky noted the lesson that localized battles rarely stay that way in a region cursed by history — a point underscored by the tens of thousands of US graves in Europe from two world wars. “This step can become a beginning of a great war at the European continent,” he said.
Former US Defense Secretary William Cohen, speaking to CNN’s Anderson Cooper, made a similar point. “Starting a war in a dry place, so to speak, can set off a wild fire,” he said.
A risk for Putin
The extent and duration of the operation led by tens of thousands of Russian troops massed around Ukraine is not yet certain. But its purpose is clear. One autocratic Russian leader has made the choice to deprive millions of Ukrainians of their right to make their own decisions about their country and its future. Their obvious preference is not to be ruled by Russia.
A senior US official familiar with the latest US intelligence said that the early assessment was that this was the start of the full Russian invasion long predicted by the United States.
Putin has long chafed against what he sees as disrespect from America following the Cold War and NATO’s eastern expansion to encompass ex-Soviet allies like Poland, Romania and Hungary. This explains why the conflict might be located in Ukraine, but it’s also a broader challenge to Washington.
In the early fog of war, it is too early to tell the extent of resistance the Russians would face, if they would topple the government in Ukraine, or if the illegal invasion could cause an insurgency that could kill Russian troops and create conditions that could challenge Putin’s regime.
One Russia expert, former senior CIA officer Paul Kolbe, said that the invasion of a nation that is larger than France or Germany could eventually create an unsustainable situation for the Russians and was an enormous gamble.
“Putin is going to try to swallow a porcupine here and it is going to be hard for the Russian bear to digest it,” Kolbe told CNN’s Erin Burnett.
This is a conflict that is going to extend over months and years whether the invasion goes well for Putin or not. He is going to change the shape of Europe and is going to set enduring lines of conflict within Ukraine and on the borders of Ukraine with the West,” he added.
Moments before the assault started, diplomats had gathered in the UN Security Council chamber for a meeting chaired, in a bitter quirk of the world body’s schedule, by the Russian ambassador.
UN Secretary-General António Guterres made a last-ditch plea for invasion orders to be countermanded.
“I have only one thing to say from the bottom of my heart. President Putin, stop your troops from attacking Ukraine. Give peace a chance. Too many people have already died.”
It was already too late.