Just over a week after it began, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine looks like the tale of two wars. For Russian President Vladimir Putin, the past week has hardly been reassuring. Between the poor performance of the Russian military on the ground and the existential shock of Western sanctions on the Russian economy, this seems to be proof that he was suffering from a serious case of war optimism.
For the West, it is rather the opposite. Despite outrage over Russian attacks on Ukrainian civilian targets, the surprisingly tenacious fight by the outnumbered Ukrainian military has become a famous cause, while the heroic political leadership of President Volodymyr Zelensky has made him an inspiration. And despite the shock of the war, the West’s response – from economic sanctions to belated military aid to Ukraine – has begun to fuel euphoric feelings that a long-awaited historic turning point has arrived.
It’s still early days and there’s plenty of room for reversals in the days, weeks and months ahead, not to mention years. But already a number of takeaways have emerged and with them some caveats that are worth highlighting.
Putin is isolated and exposed. As Howard French put it in his WPR column this week, in just eight days Putin has transformed himself into “the most toxic man alive”, joining the ranks of past and present global villains like Saddam Hussein and Bashar. al-Assad. In addition to the opprobrium he received from the Western media, the community of nations massively rebuked him at the UN General Assembly this week, even though he was able to veto a similar measure. to the Security Council. His closest friends have been quick to distance themselves from him, and the states that have balanced and covered him in the past are keeping him at bay.
More important in the long run than his current isolation is what Putin revealed about himself last week. Touted by some in the West as a strategic mastermind, he has instead shown pride or incompetence when it comes to the fundamental strategic calculus of any war: whether its benefits will outweigh its costs. Instead of a quick, easy and inexpensive victory, Putin engaged in a costly and bloody war of attrition, while simultaneously turning his imagined Western encirclement of Russia into a veritable state of siege. Equally important, the elevation of the Russian military into a formidable modernized combined arms force has been exposed as a myth, as has Russia’s seemingly sanctions-proof economy, depriving it of two important tools of deterrence and restraint. .
But perhaps Putin’s greatest self-inflicted loss this week was that of his “strategic ambiguity,” the lingering doubt about his motives and intentions that had provided cover and plausible deniability for Western governments and business interests. to continue doing business with him, even after the Georgia war of 2008 and the annexation of Crimea in 2014. Putin the pragmatist, Putin the opportunist and Putin the incrementalist are no more. In their place now stands Putin the bloody threat to Europe.
Nonetheless, the West must be careful not to exaggerate or misinterpret Putin’s current pariah status, which will likely fade over time. Equally important, anti-Putinism should not be confused with pro-Westernism. Many governments currently insulting Putin and his invasion of Ukraine share or at least sympathize with his ultimate goal of weakening or replacing the US-led order, foremost China. And this is even more the case for their audiences. Coverage of the current crisis by American partners like Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates suggests that the United States will have difficulty forging a coalition to contain Russia, let alone China. And the notable abstentions this week from the General Assembly resolution condemning the invasion – India and South Africa – make it clear that President Joe Biden’s definition of a global standoff between democracy and autocracy is irrelevant.
Putin the pragmatist, Putin the opportunist and Putin the incrementalist are no more. In their place now stands Putin the bloody threat to Europe.
The West is united and impactful. The past week has seen nothing less than a revolution in European military affairs, but also in the transatlantic partnership. Germany eventually agreed to increase defense spending to meet NATO’s 2% of GDP target, while dropping its objections to sending lethal weapons to an active conflict zone. The European Union has mobilized a mechanism to coordinate and reimburse the delivery of arms by Member States to Ukraine. The United States and NATO quickly deployed forces to Eastern European member states to reassure them of a potential escalation, while deterring any further escalation or provocation by Putin.
All of this is as understandable as it is shocking to long-time observers of the debates on European security and transatlantic relations: war changes everything, and above all, it concentrates minds and subordinates second-order debates to the urgency of action. . Yet given that the unity and cohesion of the West’s response was still a matter of speculation and real concern just two weeks ago, its ability to rise to the occasion comes as a welcome surprise.
But here too, euphoria should not stand in the way of a lucid analysis. Increased military spending does not necessarily mean better defense capabilities – and certainly not overnight, given the alarming state of Germany’s armed forces. Nor does it mean a better coordinated European defence, which lacks not so much spending as it does harmonized budgets which avoid duplication and a collective strategic vision which directs spending towards the capabilities which will really improve the capacity of the Europe to project its strength and defend its interests. It could be on the way in the form of the EU’s next “Strategic Compass” document, but for now, many divisive debates are yet to come.
Meanwhile, NATO’s role as a safety net for Europe has been strengthened to a degree that defies hyperbole. This means that as long as the war and the broader standoff with Russia lasts – in other words, for the foreseeable future – American military, diplomatic and political resources will be far more committed to Europe than the Biden team and the most of the Washington foreign policy community. had hoped or expected.
Economic sanctions can be WMD. As promised by Biden before the invasion, and to a degree that surprised economic and political analysts, US and European economic sanctions began to escalate in response to Russia’s initial deployment of “peacekeeping” forces. in Luhansk and Donetsk. They quickly climbed after the general assault on the Ukraine to include most of the margin that was left for climbing. Equally important, their impact on the Russian economy was instantaneous and devastating. Although the threat of sanctions has not deterred Putin from invading, their rapid imposition and effect as a punitive response should now strengthen the deterrent effect of this threat in the future.
The fact also that many of Washington’s Asian allies and partners have joined them in imposing their own sanctions or are quickly aligning themselves with those imposed by the United States and Europe reveals the weakness of the argument that the American commitment to European security comes at the cost of meeting the challenge posed by China. On the contrary, it has crystallized to an unprecedented degree the recognition that the European and Asian theaters of strategic competition are intimately linked. Far from emboldening China, the current crisis will in all likelihood provoke some soul-searching among Chinese strategic and political circles about their apparent conclusion that the United States and the West more broadly are paper tigers in terminal decline.
But while economic sanctions can bite, they don’t win wars. As Erica Gaston explained in her WPR column several weeks ago, targeted sanctions rarely achieve the strategic objectives for which they are deployed. And as the cases of Iran, North Korea and Cuba have amply demonstrated, even draconian sanctions such as those now targeting Russia do not guarantee state collapse or even capitulation.
Moreover, the costs of the sanctions, although for now visible only in Russia, will ultimately be shared by the West. While American public opinion appears supportive of the sanctions, that could change as their impact on the cost of living begins to be felt more strongly, particularly at the pumps.
All of these takeaways and caveats lead to what is perhaps most important: the danger of war jingoism. As I mentioned above, war changes everything, but perhaps most importantly it changes the ecosystem in which natural selection operates on competing ideas and political proposals. Its logic favors an escalation to the extremes that only lucid vigilance and political restraint can contain. We have already seen this escalation to the extremes in Putin’s nuclear saber attacks, but also in the calls for Washington and Europe to arm a possible Ukrainian insurrection. It might make geopolitical sense, but it would come with serious humanitarian costs. And its historical record has been mixed, while leading to unintended consequences even if successful, such as for the United States in Afghanistan in the 1980s, but also Iran in Iraq in the 2000s.
So does the sudden adoption of a Cold War logic of implacable enmity and irreconcilable differences between the West and Russia, which, admittedly, now seems inevitable and, in many ways, is already taking shape. . But decoupling is difficult to configure in a globalized world, which means that achieving it could very well come at the expense of the international order that the United States and the West hope to preserve. Besides, as noted by Nikolas Gvosdev, because of its natural gas and energy needs, Europe – and therefore the United States – “can maintain long-term sanctions against Iran or Russia, but not both”. Needless to say, all of the above is even more true for China.
In other words, the United States and the West will ultimately have to make choices and set priorities. But it’s also not too early to start considering ways out of the immediate crisis as well as how to handle the long-term confrontation with Putin’s Russia that now seems inevitable. Neither will be easy, and in the short term the West will be forced to accept ugly compromises, the kind we have already seen from decades of conflict in the Middle East and Africa, between what it must do and what it can do — to alleviate the suffering of the Ukrainian people, to stop and reverse Putin’s expansionism and to consolidate the foundations of a world order which suddenly seems threatened with being overtaken by the events.
Judah Grunstein is the editor of World Politics Review. You can follow him on Twitter at @Judah_Grunstein.