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Russian President Vladimir Putin has all the tools at his disposal to cause destruction on a scale not seen in Europe since the Second World War.SPUTNIK/Reuters

On Day Six of the invasion of Ukraine, the conventional wisdom was that things were not going according to plan for Russian President Vladimir Putin. That his military advance was behind schedule. That so much Ukrainian resistance had not been expected. That such a strong response from the West had not been anticipated. That sanctions were damaging the Russian economy. That Mr. Putin, that cold calculator of his own interests, had miscalculated. That he had cornered himself.

We wrote as much yesterday.

But we also said that being cornered will not necessarily cause Mr. Putin to back down. Quite the contrary. It may simply push him to up his level of commitment, and violence.

In 1519, when Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortes landed in Mexico, his first act was to set fire to his own ships. In ancient Rome, after crossing a river, generals would sometimes burn the bridges behind them; their followers would then know there was no turning back.

When Julius Caesar began a civil war by leading his army into Italy, he passed the point of no return when he defied the Roman senate by crossing the Rubicon River. He hesitated at its banks, knowing that once on the other side, “the whole issue is with the sword.” Then Caesar crossed. “Iacta alea est,” he said. “The die has been cast.”

Mr. Putin did not have to cross the Rubicon. He did not have to invade Ukraine. But having done so, no one should underestimate how far he is now willing to go, or how much force he is ready to use.

Ukrainians say they have no choice but to fight Russia. Yet they did choose courage

Russians were told they’re fighting for a noble cause. How long will that fiction last?

The Russian leader has all the tools at his disposal to cause destruction on a scale not seen in Europe since the Second World War. What his military has done so far may shock the average Canadian TV viewer, but it has been mild by recent Russian and Soviet standards. His forces have the weapons to do more, and far worse, and a history of using them.

Mr. Putin is a nostalgist for the Soviet Union and the lost Russian Empire. And in more than two decades in power, he has successfully used force, overt and covert, to keep Russians quiescent, and to recover pieces of that empire.

In Belarus in 2020, a popular uprising was crushed with Russian help. Today, that former Soviet republic is the staging ground for the main Russian advance on Kyiv, putting it somewhere between a subservient client state and a part of Russia. The former Soviet republic of Kazakhstan, where Mr. Putin’s security services helped to repress an uprising last year, has similarly been pulled ever further into Moscow’s orbit.

During the Second Chechen War, in 1999-2000, the Russian military flattened the city of Grozny. In a territory with barely more than a million people, thousands died and several hundred thousand ran for their lives.

And then there was the civil war in Syria. The level of indiscriminate military force applied by the al-Assad regime, in concert with the Russian military, was extensive enough to level major cities. The United Nations says that out of a pre-war Syrian population of around 21 million people, more than 13 million were displaced, including almost seven million refugees.

Over the past week, 600,000 Ukrainians are believed to have fled the country. Estimates are that, if the war continues, as many as four million Ukrainians could become refugees. But based on the Syrian experience, that may be an underestimate. Ukraine has as many people as two Syrias.

The West has to be prepared for a long conflict. It is possible that Ukrainian volunteers, using rifles and Molotov cocktails, will defeat Russian armoured divisions armed with artillery pieces and cruise missiles that can strike from over the horizon.

And it is possible that opposition within Russia, including Russian soldiers refusing to shoot at civilians who look like their relatives back home, will topple Mr. Putin’s regime. These are not impossibilities.

But the history of the Soviet Union, during its most successful and brutal phase, was that terror could always triumph. It crushed all dissent in Stalin’s empire, at the cost of millions of lives in Ukraine. When it “liberated” Eastern Europe in 1945, it installed regimes that no one wanted, and no one dared question. We need only look to history, and Mr. Putin’s words and deeds, to see what may yet be.

Ut est rerum omnium magister usus,” is how Caesar put it. Experience is the teacher of all things.

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