It is sometimes said of the war in Syria that there aren’t even any bad ideas for resolving the conflict, let alone good ones. The war in Ukraine is quickly approaching a similarly intractable state. This is how it looks through Russian, Western and Ukrainian eyes.
From the moment the USSR began to implode, Russia’s strategic outlook steadily deteriorated. Beginning in 1999, thirteen former members of the Soviet bloc have now joined NATO, including neighbouring Poland and the three Baltic states: Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia. It’s former sphere of influence in Eastern Europe, to which it is unentitled according to the United States which claims Central and Latin American as its own, has all but disappeared.
Unsurprisingly, since 2008 President Putin and Foreign Minister Lavrov have openly stated that NATO’s further eastward expansion is an existential threat to Russia: enough is enough. The line was drawn at the accession of Georgia and Ukraine, and wars have now been fought against both countries to entrench the status quo.
This should come as no surprise to anyone in the West. Former cold war diplomat and author of the containment doctrine George Kennan predicted this response twenty-five years ago, as have subsequent realists including more recently, Henry Kissinger and John Mearsheimer. Even Joe Biden warned of the dangers posed by NATO’s expansion into the Baltic states.
However, NATO membership is only part of the concern facing Russia’s strategic planners.
US sponsorship of the 2014 coup against a pro-Russian Ukrainian president, Western military training and arms sales to the country, eight years of deadly attacks on ethnic Russians in the Donbas region, NATO’s deployment of intermediate-range weapons in Poland and Romania, the proliferation of US-controlled biological “research” facilities in Ukraine, and the future integration of the country into the EU are developments which all head in the same ominous direction.
In Russian eyes, Ukraine has moved from a close and friendly cousin to a hostile pro-Western proxy: a de facto and possibly one day, de jure member of the world’s most powerful, anti-Russian military alliance. This is a direct threat to Russia’s legitimate security concerns and cannot stand.
For years, Moscow’s concerns were either rebuffed or ignored. Diplomacy didn’t actually fail: it wasn’t tried. Russia fought wars against Chechnya (2000) and Georgia (2008) without generating much concern in the West, let alone military aid. Why would it expect reactions to an attack on Ukraine to be so different, especially after its incorporation of Crimea into the Russian Federation (2014) only produced a raft of tolerable sanctions?
Without a face-saving off-ramp for Putin, a “demilitarised and de-Nazified Ukraine” will result in mass civilian casualties and the destruction of several Ukrainian cities a la Grozny (1999-2000). Whilst the Western narrative blames the attack on either the irrational violence of a psychologically-disturbed leader or his attempt to reconstruct the Soviet Union, for Russia’s political elite a hostile pro-Western Ukraine is an existential struggle which must be fought against to the bitter end.
This is a major global crisis and ordinary Ukrainians are going to suffer from the absence of a regional security architecture which should have been negotiated and settled three decades ago. This is where the origins of the crisis can be found.
Although the Western media patriotically refuses to even acknowledge, let alone understand how Russia perceives its security outlook, we should not forget that it has much more at stake in Ukraine than the US and its Western allies do. Disbelief and outrage in the West at the ferocity of the Russian attack is not just a reaction to disturbing images of war and fleeing citizens. It is also a direct consequence of refusing to see recent history through Russian eyes. Censoring Russian media, an act which betrays an extraordinary lack of self-confidence in the West, will only exacerbate this blindness.
A nascent anti-war movement in the country has lost momentum and failed to overwhelm patriotic sentiment supporting Putin’s war. This could change as economic sanctions bite, but opinion polls, which are not always reliable, indicate that the general public remains behind the Kremlin for the time being.
Many Russians will look at the West’s horrendous crimes in Palestine, Serbia, Yemen, Iraq, Libya and Afghanistan, and wonder who in London, Washington or Canberra is in any position to condemn Moscow for protecting Russia’s strategic position in Europe, let alone pass moral judgement.
If they can source the information, they would be horrified by the bombing of the children’s hospital in Mariupol on 9 March, which is prima facie a war crime. At least seventeen people were injured and scores were trapped under rubble. President Zelensky accused Russia of “genocide”.
Before accepting this crime as an illustration of the callous perfidy of the Russian character, or some deformation of the Russkaia dusha (Russian soul), Russians would remind Washington and Kyiv of the sacking of Fallujah General Hospital on 8 November 2004 by US and allied forces, a clear violation of the Geneva Convention which says medical establishments “may in no circumstance be attacked, but shall at all times be respected and protected by the Parties to the conflict.”
Or they might raise the US attack on the Médecins Sans Frontières trauma hospital in Kunduz on 3 October 2015, killing 42 people: after which an internal Pentagon enquiry failed to lay any criminal charges against the perpetrators.
These attacks follow a pattern of deliberately targeting hospitals during the Vietnam War and more recently in Gaza. Are these crimes which reveal the “genocidal” nature of Western values?
NATO will not get involved directly in the war, and never intended to. There will not be a no-fly zone over Ukraine, which would be a declaration of war against Russia. Even Poland’s proposal to supply Kyiv with old Russian-made MIG fighters by sending them via Germany has been vetoed because it was considered too provocative.
Washington is happy for Putin to bleed Russia dry, both on the battlefield and as a consequence of harsh economic sanctions. If a very high price is paid by Ukrainians along the way, so be it.
The US has only shown interest in Ukraine as a forward base to encircle and destabilise Russia. It has little interest in promoting liberal democracy or the human rights of Ukrainian citizens. Some in the Deep State see the conflict in Ukraine as both a pathway towards regime change in Moscow and the destruction of Russia as a strategic adversary. Both are costly fantasies which are likely to drive Putin to even greater levels of violence in Ukraine and further domestic repression, at the same time pushing him into the arms of the Chinese. How is this in the interests of the West?
Any successful defiance of Washington’s will must incur severe punishment. Economic sanctions of unprecedented severity are hurting not only the oligarchs, but also the Russian middle class accustomed to decades of consumer capitalism. Despite conceding that it is almost impossible, sanctions are a collective punishment imposed on the Russian people for not removing Putin.
There will be shortages of goods and significant job losses. Who will they hold responsible? Sanctions can backfire, galvanising a population behind their leader. In a democratic polity, blame is passed up through the chain of command to accountability, but Russia has a very different political culture based, in part, on a well-founded siege mentality.
Putin hoped that a $620 billion war chest stashed in Western banks would insulate Russia from the worst effects of sanctions, however some of this money is now frozen and therefore inaccessible. The war is effectively being funded by energy sales to Western Europe, opposed by the Americans and the British but, significantly and out of self-interest, not continental Europe.
Economic sanctions can also blowback on the West, and not just in the form of higher food and petrol prices. Economic growth, inflation and the stability of the crisis-prone global financial system will also be adversely affected.
At least initially, Western financial and trade sanctions will play into Putin’s victimhood narrative. It is worth noting that sanctions imposed on Cuba, North Korea, Venezuela, Iran and Iraq, some for decades, have been conspicuously unsuccessful in inducing political change in those countries.
Putin’s attack on Ukraine has been a gift to trans-Atlantic solidarity, averting for the time being any independent European response to the crisis. Continental proposals for a peace brokered by France or Germany would be vigorously opposed by Washington, which since the 1950s has feared an independent European voice in the region’s security. Putin’s invasion has secured the allegiance of European states to NATO and, in Wolfgang Streeck’s words, the EU as the “economic auxillary of NATO”. In the short, medium and possibly the long term, Ukraine will not gain entry into either institution.
The prognosis for Ukraine is bleak.
President Zelensky knows NATO will not rescue him and has all but lost interest in joining the alliance. He is desperate with very few options beyond impressive video appeals which draw tremendous applause in Western capitals and on social media, but little else. A revivified Ukrainian nationalism can only take him so far.
His armed forces have fought bravely and made life very difficult for invading Russian forces, which seem unprepared and surprisingly disorganised. He has received extraordinary global support – of the kind Palestinians, Kurds, Syrians and Yemenis could only dream of – though most of it is symbolic and is, in many cases, driven by latent Russophobia and racism. How else can the punishment of Russian Paralympians be explained? Why are Ukrainian refugees greeted so warmly compared with their Syrian counterparts?
A long-term occupation of Ukraine is all but impossible even with half a million Russian troops. It would be a bonanza for insurgents from every dark recess on the planet, incited and funded by the CIA as they were in Afghanistan. Reinstalling a corrupt and compliant puppet like Viktor Yanukovych will not be seen as legitimate either inside or outside the country. If Zelensky survives the fall of Kyiv, he will make the costs of occupation intolerable and infinitely worse than anything Brezhnev bore in Afghanistan.
Very few analysts have considered the implications of a defeat for Russia in Ukraine. The image of a humiliating withdrawal of the Red Army in 1989 will not be lost on Putin or anyone else in his inner circle who might replace him. This is very bad news for Ukraine because it will encourage the Russian President to seek a total military victory in the few short weeks he can sustain a military campaign. A pre-emptive surrender would save lives and trigger negotiations on a troop withdrawal, possibly a cordon sanitaire or DMZ, the status of Donbas and Crimea, reparations and the return of over two million refugees and the internally displaced.
Putting aside his Churchillian rhetoric to the British House of Commons, it is not clear whether Zelensky or the Ukrainian people have the stomach for a protracted, destructive and heart-breaking struggle against a more powerful neighbour which feels it is fighting for survival against the rising tide of modern history.
All the options look terrible, but priority must be given to terminating the violence instead of settling ideological scores and playing last century’s geopolitical games at the cost of vulnerable and innocent civilians.