Ukraine defeat would smash the West’s global reputation.

Feb 2, 2022
Russian President Vladimir Putin
(Image: AP/Mikhail Metzel, Sputnik)

Putin won’t go home without concessions from NATO, but that would involve a climbdown by the alliance that would damage the West’s reputation.

As tensions in Europe increase, we should reflect on where these tensions leave our national interest — especially if their outcome is direct Russian military intervention in Ukraine.

We need to focus on two things: that the United States and the West risk emerging weaker and that China will probably emerge stronger. It will be cold comfort if a third outcome is that Russia is weakened economically because of intensified – and severe – Western sanctions.

The crisis won’t just go away. The loss of the Soviet Empire and the West’s subsequent triumphalism are central to Russian leader Vladimir Putin’s world view. This view hardened after Ukraine’s ‘‘Orange Revolution’’ in 2004 – seen in Moscow as stimulated by the West – and when, at Bucharest in 2008, NATO leaders left the door open to Ukrainian accession to NATO.

The events of 2014 that led to the Russian quasi-occupation of the Donbas area in south-eastern Ukraine and the annexation of the Crimea caused a further deepening of the divisions between Russia and the West.

Putin is driven both by the need to make Russia great again and by Russia’s centuries-old strategic requirement that it directly or indirectly controls what it terms its ‘‘Near Abroad”– effectively the states of the former Soviet Union. Putin also knows that Russian tradition gives short shrift to leaders who are seen to be losers.

Given Putin’s demands of the United States and NATO last December – of which the most important was that Ukrainian and Georgian membership of NATO be abjured – and his deployment of significant military assets along the Russian border with Ukraine (and in Belarus), it is hard to see a political leader of Putin’s skill, ruthlessness and sense of self-preservation climbing down without a package which he can feasibly describe as a win. If he is able to do this, the West loses. There can be no win-win.

Some, particularly in continental Europe, argue that Putin may be bluffing. They note that Western responses to Russian military action would involve costs for the Russian economy which would not be sustainable, and that the idea of a drawn-out war has little appeal to the Russian people.

But Putin is nothing if not shrewd. A year into the Trump administration, some serious Russian thinkers saw the United States as undergoing its worst crisis of governance since the Civil War. Now Americans are themselves debating the possibility of internal conflict. President Joe Biden is hurting domestically and the US retreat from Afghanistan has lowered American credibility with friend and foe alike. In stepping up the pressure on Ukraine, Putin would have factored in this American dysfunction.

And NATO is not in a good place. As it frees itself from its moorings in Europe, Britain has its worst government in living memory. Germany has long had a different view from most of NATO on dealing with Russia – partly driven by its economic interests – and it is adjusting to life without Angela Merkel. French President Emmanuel Macron is running for re-election and aspires to be Europe’s pre-eminent leader. The states of the former Soviet empire are plain frightened.

With his opposition so fractured, one has to agree with the view expressed privately by one experienced British observer of Russia that Putin might be gambling, but he is not bluffing. Putin needs enough of a win to allow him to go home. The options that would allow him to do this would be read as a NATO climb-down because they would all involve a NATO retreat from the status quo.

If Putin does go for regime change in Ukraine through military means – and gets it – NATO will be perceived as having lost and the West’s global reputation will take a big tumble.

Even if Putin were to accept a glass-half-full result (such as a moratorium of, say, 20 to 25 years on NATO membership for the Ukraine), NATO would be seen as emerging with a glass half empty and as having conceded to Russian bullying.

A limited Russian invasion, say one linking the Russian-controlled Donbas area in the south of Ukraine to the Crimea via the Azov Sea littoral, would not give Putin the satisfaction of a quiescent Ukraine, but it would still be a blow to Western prestige.

Soon after Biden’s inauguration, the Americans let it be known that they wanted to neutralise difficulties with Russia to concentrate on the China threat. Such sentiments, suggesting possible concessions to Russia, would have been welcome news to Putin. But now, to China’s advantage, the chances are remote of Biden being able to take his eyes off the Russian ball to sharpen his concentration on the Indo-Pacific.

China is also in a position of strength with Russia, which needs at least Chinese acquiescence in its Ukraine policy and Chinese economic ballast should the West impose sanctions.

If the United States emerges the perceived loser in the current stand-off with Russia, its reputation as a partner will be lessened, not only in Europe but globally – including in the Indo-Pacific. The conceptual framework for mini-lateral groupings such as the Quad, AUKUS and the Anglosphere’s Five Eyes (as a policy grouping) will be eroded.

Although these groupings have evolved to share strategic burdens between America and its allies, at bedrock they depend on a strong America. And if the West is seen as having ‘‘lost’’ Ukraine, or having been badly diverted by it, China might seek to take advantage of perceived weakness to push the envelope on Taiwan.

If Ukraine is not sorted out satisfactorily, Australia’s aspiration for greater strategic involvement by the Europeans in the India Pacific is less likely to become a reality.

We are not players on Ukraine. Even in the charged atmosphere of a federal election campaign, we should avoid hyperbole. We look silly and it gets us nowhere. But we are ideologically part of the West and must contribute to Western unity through adherence to Western sanctions policy.

In dealings with South-East Asia and India, there is no merit in our going on a rampage of condemnation of Russia. Some of these countries – particularly India and to a lesser extent Indonesia – have good relations with Russia.

Rather, our argument should be that acquiescence in Russia’s actions encourages an international climate conductive to offensive military action by one country against another. Most of our interlocutors will get the point.

We need to understand – and maybe argue – that Europe, and that includes Britain, must prioritise Europe. There is a strong case that over the longer term the West’s management of China is better served by a cohesive Europe than by the Europeans being bit players in the Indo-Pacific. Let us also not forget that the much-heralded triumph of AUKUS involved a breach between the United States and France. This was not in our broader interest.

Finally, perhaps most important and hardest to accept, we must carefully monitor American capacity and will in Europe. The West is not threatened by Russia as in the days of the Cold War, but it cannot afford the perception of defeat. If this occurs, the losses for the West will not be restricted to the Atlantic theatre and many of the foundations of Australian external policy will need reappraisal.

This article was first published in Asialink and The Australian Financial Review and is reproduced with permission.

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