Ukraine: A victory narrative will be hard to maintain for Europe and America

Apr 5, 2022
Peace Dove Ukraine Russia Europe.
Irrespective of the peace deal, a modus vivendi between Russia and Europe will need to be found if long term stability is to be reestablished. Image: Wikimedia Commons

Wars end. The peace settlement between Russia and Ukraine will determine whether President Putin or President Biden achieved his policy aims in the war. It seems unlikely that America will be able call it a win.

The White House must be full of hope, if not jubilation, as the European allies have been rallied behind US leadership, the cause of democracy paraded, and Russia, a perceived strategic competitor, was crippled through sanctions. All key elements of Biden’s foreign policy agenda.

Luck’s a fortune in international affairs and the Russian aggression gave President Biden an unexpected opportunity to assert US leadership and mount a democratic crusade against autocrats. Yet, this appearance of success is misleading.

It will be Ukraine and Russia that negotiate the terms of the peace. Any settlement to which Russia will agree is likely include recognition of the Donbas republics, Russian sovereignty over Crimea, and/or the neutrality of Ukraine. The Ukrainians won’t be overly sensitive to western preferences as they seek to preserve the remnants of their nation. A bad outcome for Biden.

After prosecuting the sanctions and the massive military support to Ukraine beneath the banner of Ukraine’s sovereign rights and the inviolability of Ukraine’s territorial integrity, any peace deal along the above lines would be a defeat for NATO and EU war aims.

Irrespective of the peace deal, a modus vivendi between Russia and Europe will need to be found if long term stability is to be reestablished. Following a cessation of hostilities, sanctions will no longer be required to weaken Russia’s military efforts.

Sanctions will, however, continue to imposes hardships and costs on Europe, and much of the rest of the world. Past practise indicates that America won’t willingly lift sanctions once imposed, and Biden’s visceral hatred of Putin will make him reluctant to even contemplate it. American and European economic interests could significantly diverge post conflict.

Ukraine’s proximity made tight relations between the members of the EU and NATO strategically imperative, and close alignment with US power became unavoidable. This pragmatic transatlantic unity might prove illusory and transitory as the Russian threat recedes, and the geopolitical and economic consequences of the war and the sanctions gain prominence.

The Europeans also know that Biden’s trans-atlanticism could be a transient phenomena, and that the midterm and the 2024 presidential elections could bring a seismic change in US policies. The world might be at Biden’s inflection point and laden with unresolved possibilities, but the medium term future will depend critically on the Ukraine peace settlement.

That many important developing countries failed to condemn Russia, or adopt sanctions, revealed a deep global division over priorities and values. This group is best classified as post-colonial. It includes India, Pakistan, South Africa, Uganda, Vietnam, and Bangladesh, and along with China, accounts for close to half the world’s population. The potential for African, Asian, and Latin American states to retain Russian ties and to share key interests with China must now be a problem for Biden.

Russia might just weather the sanctions regime, if Putin can retain power and find replacement markets for trade in Africa, Asia, and South America. If not, Russia’s influence would be significantly reduced in the Middle East, Sahel, sub-Saharan Africa, and in Latin America, where it has been active in supporting regimes in Libya, Central African Republic, Mali, and Sudan, and Venezuela, and instability and regional tensions could worsen.

Rather than being chastened by events surrounding Ukraine, China has probably learned valuable lessons, and not those for which Biden might have hoped. The strength that America and its allies can amass, but also their limitations, is now known by China. China knows what to expect and prepare for.

Of course, China would be concerned were Russian instability to grow and spill over into Central Asia, causing problems for the Belt and Road initiative and disturbing matters in Xinjiang. If Putin were ousted and Russia to move toward the EU it would be a strategic setback. China has a strong incentive to, covertly or overtly, support, and rally support for, Putin.

China will be resolved to make more extensive military, economic, and diplomatic preparations for a contingency in East Asia. It will look to maximising its resilience to the types of sanctions applied to Russia and ensuring its domestic economy and its financial systems are robust. Enhancement of China’s nuclear deterrent, protection of its currency and foreign reserves, stockpiling of critical supplies, and building economic dependencies can be expected.

If Biden expects to transfer allied unity to a confrontation with China he will fail. China is not Russia and it does not directly threaten the Europeans in the same way. The China-Europe economic relationship is far deeper, more varied, and codependent.

A miscalculation on the part of a Biden Administration riding a wave of triumphalism will be feared by the Europeans, and there will be little enthusiasm for another crusade behind a rejuvenated hegemon while the Russian threat remains, and the stuttering economic recovery hinges on trade with China.

The peace deal that looks inevitable will undercut any narrative that collectively the democracies have bolstered the rule of law or the principles of sovereignty or territorial integrity. If Russia, through the crime of aggressive war, manages to separate the Donbas republics, gain legitimacy for Crimea, and dictate Ukraine’s security policy, Putin will have dealt a heavy blow to the post-WW2 global institutions and norms. He will have reestablished the reality of great power spheres of influence.

Many states will reflect on the impotence of the US before Russia’s nuclear deterrent. They will weigh the enormous costs of the conflict for Ukraine of relying on Europe and NATO to hold off a great power assault. The leadership pretensions afforded by America’s enormous military might have been pricked.

There is, in theory, a possibility that the Ukrainians will expel the aggressors. But it’s unlikely. More probably a gloom will settle over the Whitehouse when it realises after the war that none of its key objectives have been advanced.

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