After more than seven months of fighting and horrendous losses on the part of both the Russian attackers as well as the Ukrainian defenders, there is still speculation about what Vladimir Putin actually had in mind when he launched his “spetsoperatsiya.” And why he did so a few days after confirming that there would be no war and that, instead, at least some of the Russian troops amassed at the Ukrainian border would be withdrawn.
More baffling than Putin’s pretend diplomacy and predictable deception is his calamitous underestimation of the Ukrainian readiness to fight and suffer, his excessive confidence in the ramshackle Russian army, and his preposterous potpourri of reasons for attacking Ukraine.
Among them, to recapitulate, lest they are forgotten:
- The unavoidable reaction to NATO’s eastward expansion, although the last one was in 2004 and even if Ukraine’s membership, as Chancellor Scholz confirmed, was and is not on the agenda;
- Striking pre-emptively to avert an imminent Ukrainian attack;
- Paying back for the Western support in 2014 of the Maidan protests that felled the pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych;
- Preventing genocide in Donbas;
- Denazifying Ukraine;
- Toppling the Ukrainian government;
- Conquering Donbas and Ukraine’s southern regions along the Sea of Azov and the Black Sea;
- Restoring the Russian Empire and returning to Greater – or Holy – Russia all territories inhabited by Slavs.
This hodgepodge of ostensible reasons should give pause to those in the West who think that, somehow, Russia has a point, who warn of apparent red lines, the crossing of which would lead to escalation, and who plead for “negotiations,” “diplomacy,” “compromises on all sides” – anything to end the nightmare. What, given Putin’s jumble of goals and gripes, can reasonably be offered? And what assurances can be believed, given the Russian dictator’s history of brutality and deceits?
Perhaps Putin is not even particularly untruthful. Conceivably he is just a typical dictator, unwilling to invite counsel and intolerant of criticism. Niccoló Machiavelli held that “the first method for estimating the intelligence of a ruler is to look at the men he has around him.” Sage advice. The televised meeting of the Russian Security Council on 21 February was a pathetic spectacle. Three days before attacking Ukraine, Putin publicly humiliated his minions in a staged meeting of the Russian Security Council, revealed by the watches to have taken place earlier in the day. Afterward, he gave an irate, longwinded lecture about Ukraine, a country that had become “a colony with a puppet regime” with no historical right to exist.
Yet Putin utterly misjudged, missed his war aims, and lost strategically. The ramshackle nature of the vaunted Russian military was an unexpected revelation, and the crudeness of Putin’s rationalization a delicious one: Taking Kyiv in a few days would have required a better army and a worse enemy. But, of course, dictators do not admit blunders or setbacks; they threaten escalation and they spin the story, frantically insisting that all goes as planned whereas their opponents are in disarray.
Putin certainly did not expect that seven months after attacking:
- His strategic aim would have shriveled from victory to minimizing losses;
- His demotivated troops – supplemented by recruits from prisons and mercenaries from Syria – would be on the run in the Charkiv Region and stalemated in the Donbas;
- The World would recoil in horror after the discovery of yet more mass graves of Ukrainian civilians, some bodies with signs of torture and hands tied behind their back;
- China’s and India’s support of Russia would be decidedly cool;
- Russia would be trying to import North Korean rockets and artillery shells;
- The stalwart neutral countries Finland and Sweden would be joining NATO and the balance of power in the Baltic Sea shifting away from Russia;
- Ukrainian civilians would cheerfully climb over the rusted wrecks of Russian tanks in Kyiv.
He surely also did not envisage the International Court of Justice ordering Russia – in the absence of evidence in support of her justification for the aggression – to halt the invasion, or the United Nations General Assembly overwhelmingly to condemn Russia’s aggression, a vote opposed by only the skimpiest cohort of rather rickety supporters, namely Belarus, Eritrea, North Korea and Syria. Contrary to his assertions, the sanctions are not “chaotic, hurting Western economies and consumers more than Russians”, rhetoric encouraged by the Kremlin and pushed by far-off rightist and leftist parties – les extrêmes se touchent – across Europe.
Food price increases, to be sure, are not the result of sanctions, as foodstuffs are not embargoed, and because the upward push for prices began already last year as a result of drought and Covid-related supply chain problems. Today’s wheat prices are about the same as before the war. The price of oil increased already last year after the world economy recovered from the Covid-19 pandemic; yet they are about where they were before the war. Lastly, the price of gas has indeed shot up dramatically, yet not as a result of Western sanctions, but because Russia has purposely reduced deliveries to the West – as it were imposing sanctions on itself – and since it cannot store the excess production, flares vast amounts of gas, notwithstanding the environmental hazard this causes. Earning still handsomely from selling lower quantities at higher prices, Putin savours the chaos while he still can, knowing full well that it is Europe’s strategy to wean itself from Russian gas altogether. In this game of chicken, the world will not be a better place if the West loses nerve.
In the West – the wealthiest region on Earth – supporting Ukraine, sanctioning Russia and decarbonizing the economy is a wake-up call from an idyllic post-Cold War slumber. Finally, long overdue problems must be addressed forthwith: the unsustainably lopsided distribution of wealth and income, the lacking digitization of public services and the addiction to fossil fuels. Yes, higher energy costs cascade through national economies and cause prices to rise, which presents an opening to populist agitators and a dilemma for the European Central Bank: If interest rates are raised only a little, inflation will not be curbed, yet if they are raised significantly, the debt crisis of some countries will become more virulent. While indisputably serious, these challenges are manageable – still. It will help if the price signals for energy are no longer distorted, i.e. if the true, intergenerational costs of energy are thus allowed to trigger serious energy conservation as well as strategic decarbonization measures and if, in addition, low income earners are meaningfully supported through direct cash payments.
To stay the course in support of Ukraine’s just struggle, Western governments had better rise to the double challenge of, on the one hand, sustained financial and military support for Ukraine and, on the other, of targeted cash relief and significant energy conservation at home, accompanied by the narrative – conveyed with lucidity, urgency and authority – that Putin’s ruthless war is disruptive and expensive, yet that not denying him the fruits of his aggression would have incomparably higher costs.
It will be important, too, to assert that sanctions are actually working – and biting Russia hard. According to a detailed analysis undertaken at Yale University, over 1,000 international companies have pulled out of Russia which will impact some 40 per cent of the country’s GDP. Freezing sales has shattered Russia’s foreign-technology-dependent automotive, aviation and arms industries, and the value-added indicators have fallen by 62 per cent in the construction sector, 55 per cent in agriculture and 25 per cent in manufacturing. “Russian domestic production has come to a complete standstill with no capacity to replace lost businesses, products and talent.”
Despite humiliating battlefield setbacks, Putin’s grip on Russian society – notorious in any event for its stoic knack for suffering – is firmer than any of his predecessors' which suggests that the war will continue for some time. It also means that a cease-fire in the near future is as improbable as Russia’s confirmation of Ukraine’s right to exist as a sovereign country with a government elected by and accountable to the Ukrainian people. The open question is if all three protagonists – Ukraine, the West and Russia – will stay the course or if and when one of them buckles. Given the unwaveringly high morale in Ukraine, fighting for the country’s very existence, and Russia, being caught in a dictatorial strangle-hold, the West must maintain its resolve and unity. Defeatist pacifism – remember the shameful “Pourquoi mourir pour Dantzig?” agitation – must be rejected as it was in 1939.
The support extended to Ukraine in the past months – financial, humanitarian and military – is considerable. However, it is far below one percent of GDP. The list of countries with the highest GDP share of support to Ukraine, instructively, is headed by Estonia, followed in descending order, by Latvia, Poland, Czechia, Lithuania and Slovakia. Other rankings are: UK (9th), US (10th), Canada (11th), Germany (14th), France (28th), Italy (29th) and Australia (33rd). It has been said that 24 February 2022 marks the real beginning of the 21st century and that the previous two decades were still drunk on the illusions of 1989, namely the end of history and the onset of a unipolar world run by a triumphant liberalism.
Now is hangover time. Russia’s war – and Ukraine’s as well as the West’s reaction to it – will determine what the world will look like for a long time to come. The Russian Federation – a misnomer to begin with – is an empire in terminal decline. It is sitting on a pile of stranded fossil fuel assets and on a stockpile of unusable nuclear weapons, a losing formula that Putin, in his imperialistic hubris, ignored. Reinvigorating international institutions, reasserting the importance of a rule-based order and of multilateral cooperation to tackle transnational threats will be once again, quite like after 1945, the mission for the world – after Ukraine’s existence in security and freedom has been attained.