The more events proved them to be wrong, the stronger their defences became against admitting this to be the case’ – Norman Dixon (On the Psychology of Military Incompetence)
In my last piece for Pearls and Irritations I argued that the conflict in, or more accurately, over Ukraine was rapidly accelerating the transfer of the balance of power from West to East. The progress of events associated with the conflict has resulted in a re-evaluation of this assessment. What we are witnessing is the self-inflicted demise of the West as a major power bloc.
The belief in a series of delusions by Western leaders and governments is the driving force behind this demise, with the conflict in Ukraine being the focal point.
The first delusion was that Ukraine could be bought into the Western sphere of influence without a violent reaction from Russia. There is a long history of senior Western officials warning against NATO expansion into Ukraine and Georgia, including by the current CIA Director Williams Burns, when he was Ambassador to Russia. Two wars against NATO expansion have already been fought, the first in Georgia in 2008 and the second the Russian annexation of Crimea and support to Ukrainians in the Donbass who opposed the vehemently anti-Russian post-coup Ukrainian Government from 2014. The crisis leading to the current war (which maybe considered the third war against NATO expansion) was ‘wilfully precipitated’ by NATO and Western Governments according to the former US Ambassador to the Soviet Union, Jack Matlock. Despite the well documented actions by Western powers, and the US in particular (as explained in detail by John Mearsheimer and Scott Horton), Western leaders still describe Russia’s actions in Ukraine as ‘unprovoked.’ Whilst it can be argued as to whether Russia’s actions are justified, such an ahistorical representation of events is but a mechanism to absolve Western leaders of their responsibility for current events and mislead the ill-informed.
Whilst showing signs of weakening, the second delusion is that Ukraine can win the war against Russia. Russia effectively ‘won’ on 24 February 2024 when the ‘Special Military Operation’ was launched. What remained uncertain, both at the time and now, is the final end state. Specifically, how much territory does Ukraine lose, how many casualties result and the extent of damage to Ukrainian infrastructure.
Yet ‘experts’ still cling to the narrative that Ukraine can somehow ‘win.’ If Ukraine can hang on for just a few more months the ‘pendulum will begin to swing in their favour’ and partisan activities will provide the ‘precious time it needs to build the force it needs to eventually clear the Russians from its territory’ being examples. These fanciful prognostications are based on hope rather a coldly analytical evaluation of events on the ground and the capabilities of the opposing sides.
The best and only hope that Ukraine had to defeat Russia was early on in the conflict when Russian forces were spread thinly, over-extended with vulnerable supply lines and incomplete Air Defence coverage. At this point Ukraine retained its substantial military capability and had taken relatively few casualties. The fact that it didn’t launch a significant counter-offensive implies that either Russia’s scheme of manoeuvre was successful in fixing the Ukrainian forces in place and/or the Ukrainians were incapable of implementing offensive operations on a large scale.
Months later, with Ukraine suffering up to 1000 casualties per day and its military infrastructure having been progressively and methodically destroyed, the pre-conditions do not exist for Ukraine to launch a counter-offensive. Ukrainian officials have called for 1000 artillery pieces, 300 multiple launch rocket systems and 500 tanks from its allies, just to achieve ‘parity’ with Russia. This would require an order of magnitude increase over and above the incredible amount of support already provided to Ukraine, which has already strained NATO inventories. It is extremely unrealistic to believe that such a level of support can be provided let alone the supplies needed for a lengthy war of attrition. To take just one example, the annual production of artillery ammunition in the US would last just 10 days to two weeks of combat in the Ukraine. Ukraine is also running out of the personnel required to generate a force of the scale necessary to launch a counter-offensive as noted by former CIA Agent Larry Johnson. The logical conclusion is that Ukraine does not have the capability now, nor will it in the future, to successfully launch a significant counter-offensive, nor does it have capability to prevent Russia from achieving its objectives.
The third delusion is that sanctions, the West’s primary response to Russia’s invasion, would be effective in either pressuring Russia to cease its campaign in Ukraine, to weaken Russia, to isolate Russia or to overthrow the Russian leadership. Whilst the sanctions have had a substantial effect on the Russian economy, the sanctions storm has been weathered with the Ruble being the best performing current this year, inflation falling, profits from energy exports surging and President Putin having near record popularity. The latest inane sanctions proposals aired at the G7, banning the export of Russian gold and putting a cap on the oil price, highlight how desperate if not farcical Western attempts at sanctioning Russia have become.
Whilst the sanctions are failing against Russia, they have been extremely effective in exacerbating the already deteriorating economic circumstances in the Western world, a fact which even the most rudimentary analysis of the sanctions would have highlighted. The sanctions can best be described as an own goal. With the UK suffering the greatest fall in living standards on record, Germany’s top union official warning of the permanent collapse of major industries due to the price of natural gas, one Government having already collapsed (Bulgaria), inflation out of control, supply chain disruptions and food and energy price rises creating real pain for economies that had not yet recovered from the COVID-19 triggered economic downturn the West, and much of the developing world, is primed for major political and social convulsions.
Yet despite the prospect of another military debacle in Ukraine, just a year after the humiliation of Afghanistan and the most severe economic recession/depression since the Great Depression looming, Western Governments appear incapable of changing direction. At every opportunity they double down in their efforts to weaken Russia, and increasingly to contain China as well. No matter how ineffectual their policies are the only way is forward. There is no reverse gear. The quote by Norman Dixon at the head of this article describes the situation perfectly.
This is the net result of an ideological fixation where the world can only be viewed through the prism of the world as Western leaders want it to be, rather than the world as it is. There is a distinct lack of pragmatism on display, which has directly led to the current global crisis. As noted by Singaporean diplomat Kishore Mahbubani this is a crisis that could have been avoided by reaching a compromise with Russia. Meanwhile non-Western countries are unimpressed. Alternative institutional arrangements, trade agreements and security architectures are slowly but surely being developed and enlarged with multi-polarity at their core.
These delusions are leading to the demise of the West as a major power bloc. The coming defeat of the Ukraine will permanently damage the credibility of both the US and NATO. Major European countries will partially de-industrialise due to structurally higher prices for energy and resources in perpetuity that will render them uncompetitive. The underlying economic stresses, exacerbated by sanctions, will lead to political dysfunction. National self-interest will return as a major force in politics with the potential for current institutional arrangements such as the EU and NATO to be fundamentally weakened if not dismantled. The coming convulsions will result in an economically weak and politically fractured group of countries whose individual interests are more compelling than any collective interests.
Unfortunately, the die is largely cast. The direction of the general course of events is set, but the detailed outcomes are not. Thus, now is not the time for a nihilistic Australian foreign policy, such as the doubling down of our alliance with the United States and dalliances with NATO. Now more than ever we need an independent foreign policy before Australia’s entanglement in the vortex that is the demise of the greater Western world becomes irretrievable.