Russia Taking Over Ukraine Could Be a Headache for Putin

Russian President Vladimir Putin is facing fierce resistance from Ukrainians in his quest to "demilitarize" the country but even if Ukraine surrenders to Russia, maintaining control of the country won't be easy.

Russia has claimed it has no plans to occupy Ukraine but Putin's comments ahead of the invasion raised significant concerns about his desire to expand Russia's territory. If Ukraine were to fall, rebuilding the country would come at a significant economic price and a hefty investment on Putin's part to squelch the underground resistance.

"Now, he'd have to stabilize Ukraine and it's a heck of a lot harder and costly to stabilize a country than destabilize it," Bruce Jentleson, a professor at Duke University and a fellow at the Wilson Center, told Newsweek.

Russia's ground forces are struggling to make significant advancements in Ukraine and Putin has relied heavily on Russia's aerial superiority. Airstrikes have leveled buildings, damaged power plants, bridges and highways, and the destruction is likely to only get worse the longer the war continues.

Parts of the Donbas region have been embroiled in conflict since 2014 and Michael Kimmage, a professor of history at Catholic University and fellow at the German Marshall Fund, told Newsweek, they've already been "wrecked and ruined." Adding the cost of rebuilding what was destroyed in the current conflict to that which was sustained in 2014 will be significant for anyone tasked with the rebuilding effort.

"Keep in mind that we're only two weeks into what will likely be a protracted, possibly multi-year conflict," Yuri Zhukov, an associate professor of political science at the University of Michigan, said. "This will be an order of magnitude beyond Russia's rebuilding efforts in Chechnya, in terms of sheer scale."

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Russia taking over Ukraine would require a significant financial investment and likely the commitment of troops to try to repress insurgents. Russian President Vladimir Putin is seen at the Bocharov Ruchei state residence after a meeting with his Turkish counterpart in Sochi on September 29. Vladimir Smirnov/Pool/AFP/Getty Images

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the North Caucus region tried to break away from Russia, sparking the first Chechen war in 1994. The city of Grozny became a battleground for the fight with 4,000 bombs falling every hour, according to the Independent, and a temporary ceasefire gave way to the second Chechen war in 1999. Putin, having become acting president after the resignation of former President Boris Yeltsin, recaptured the city in 2000 after aerial attacks decimated the city.

The United Nations once described Gorzny as the "most destroyed city in the world," and it cost billions of dollars of aid from Moscow to restore it. After the illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014, Russia spent tens of billions of dollars on infrastructure projects and that takeover came with very little resistance by local populations.

"It's hard to even begin to contemplate the costs of occupation for Putin," Jordan Gans-Morse, an associate professor of political science at Northwestern University told Newsweek.

The Ukrainian people are mounting fierce resistance to Russia's advances. Civilians have signed up to serve on volunteer battalions, answering President Volodymyr Zelensky's call to defend the country, and videos have emerged of even unarmed Ukrainians attempting to stop troops and military vehicles.

Zelensky accused Russia of underestimating Ukraine and said in a video address that Putin banked on Ukrainians being cowards in the face of war. However, he said the Ukrainian people wouldn't "consent to slavery" and if Russia were to take control of the country, the resistance is unlikely to die out.

Jentleson noted that Russia's installation of a puppet government would force insurgents underground, but that the resistance would continue on and wage attacks on Russians. Given the large base of support for future resistance, brutality on the part of the Russians may only generate "more recruits for the insurgency," Zhukov predicted.

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A man walks between houses destroyed during airstrikes on the central Ukrainian city of Bila Tserkva on March 8. Aris Messinis/AFP/Getty Images

Gans-Morse agreed that Ukrainians would mount a "formidable underground resistance" if it was needed, but he wasn't confident Putin could easily set up a puppet government. He called it "highly unlikely" that Putin could find thousands of Ukrainians to work as the local authorities and police forces that are needed to keep demonstrations and insurgents at bay.

Without local support, Putin would have to keep "tens of thousands" of troops in Ukrainian territory to "forcibly" maintain control. Deploying the troops to Ukraine could put him at a "greater risk" within Russia, according to Gans-Morse, because he also needs forces to help quell domestic unrest.

Maintaining control of all of Ukraine is also a significantly greater lift than Putin's takeover of Chechnya. Unlike Chechnya, which is relatively small, Ukraine is one of the largest countries in Europe, making maintaining control over an unfriendly local population even more difficult.

On top of needing money to rebuild and create a repressive apparatus, Putin's going to have to fund it while under some of the harshest economic sanctions a country has ever faced.

"None of this bodes well for Putin. But this does not mean that we should be sanguine about the potential outcomes of the conflict," Gans-Morse said. " The destruction Putin is likely to inflict on Ukraine as he grows frustrated is likely to be horrific."