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Friday, April 19, 2024
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Even if Ukraine wins, the West will lose

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LET’S suppose that Ukraine and its Nato allies defeat Vladimir Putin and drive his army back to Russia by force of numbers and technological superiority. What would the future hold for relations between the West and a Russia which then allied more closely with countries such as China, Iran and even India?

A defeated Russia will still have a seat on the UN security council. It will continue, along with China and Iran, to oppose the West’s liberal world order. The Europeans will depend on Russian mineral exports for decades to come. They will still need to co-exist with their hostile neighbour.

Ukraine can join the EU and Nato but Kiev will still have to contend with the Russian-speaking separatists in eastern Ukraine who were waging war against the government for years before Putin’s invasion.

And Russia will still have nuclear parity with the United States; it will yet be a superpower, damaged obviously, but all the more dangerous for that reason, especially with Iran’s implacable mullahs now included in the nuclear mix.

Victory in Ukraine, which the West’s elites increasingly assume, is likely to be pyrrhic at best and no solution to what is at stake in this conflict – the survival of what we call liberal values and soft power against the authoritarianism of its foes led by China and Putin. Winning in Ukraine may not be worth the consequences.

One of the ironies here is that our own societies are growing markedly less liberal, with President Biden denouncing any who do not share the Democrats’ intolerantly Left-wing worldview as semi-fascists, and US domestic cohesion disintegrating alarmingly fast. What’s the essential difference between Putin’s authoritarianism and Biden’s or the EU’s?

Putin doesn’t believe Nato is supporting Ukraine to save its democracy. He thinks the US is actively aggressive towards Russia, fighting a proxy war for Ukrainian admission to Nato and the ability to deploy US troops and missiles on its border less than 500 miles from Moscow.

Although it has the appearance of an ad hoc war in response to the Russian invasion, the US appeared to have wanted it or was at least prepared to risk it to damage Russia’s world power status. Why else did Biden deliberately ignore Russian demands for talks about the stationing of Nato forces aimed at Russia in east Europe and renunciation of Ukraine’s inclusion in Nato?

The argument is made that Putin and his generals are an anachronism, a hangover from the last generation who grew up with a Soviet mentality. After them a new Russia will arise. However, if this is Biden’s hope, there is no reason to believe their successors will be less nationalist and more willing to abandon the ingrained psychology of hundreds of years of tsarism and a century of communism which underlies Putin’s thinking.

Mikhail Gorbachev, whom the West has covered with praise at his death, was a Russian nationalist first. He helped Ronald Reagan to end the first Cold War, but it was never his intention to weaken Russia to the extent that it was no longer the equal of the United States under the likes of Biden, whose mediocrity would have fitted well in the pre-Gorbachev Politburo.

Here from Foreign Affairs is an interesting précis of how things stand: ‘Western policymakers appear to have reached a consensus about the war in Ukraine: the conflict will settle into a prolonged stalemate and eventually a weakened Russia will accept a peace agreement that favours the United States and its Nato allies as well as Ukraine. Although officials recognise that both Washington and Moscow may escalate to gain advantage to prevent defeat, they assume that catastrophic escalation can be avoided. Few imagine that US forces will become directly involved in the fighting or that Russia will dare use nuclear weapons.’

These are large assumptions – echoing the miscalculations of 1914 and 1939 – that are questioned by Professor John Mearsheimer in the accompanying article which says that ‘given each side’s determination to achieve its goals, there is little chance of a meaningful compromise’.

Mearsheimer speculates that to avoid losing, the US ‘might join the fighting either if it is desperate to win or to prevent Ukraine from losing while Russia might use nuclear weapons if it is desperate to win or faces imminent defeat which would be likely if US forces were drawn into the fighting.’

The war is currently at a stalemate despite a limited Ukrainian offensive around Kherson, which the Russians hold. There are two ways of looking at this. One is that Putin has captured as much of Ukraine as he wants and expects European support for the war to collapse this winter as his reduction of energy exports makes life intolerable politically and economically. Without full Nato support, Ukraine loses. The other is that his army has reached its limits, will run out of recruits over the next few months and is being held at bay by the Ukrainians until the Russian position becomes untenable and the army is forced to retreat. A Pentagon report quoted by US media said Washington believes that because of Russian losses, Ukrainian and Russian forces are now near parity although Ukraine’s population is much smaller.

Mearsheimer does not rule out a change in the US policy to stay out of the fighting. This would allow ground intervention by Nato and the imposition of a no-fly zone. ‘One can easily imagine US officials believing that their country’s credibility was at stake and convincing themselves that a limited use of force would save Ukraine without prompting Putin to use nuclear weapons,’ he writes.

This is the prospect that towers over everything else. Would Putin use tactical nukes, and how would the US respond to such an escalation that could lead to the unleashing of more deadly nuclear weapons? Might President Zelensky use missiles and artillery supplied by Nato to attack civilian targets in Russia itself to force an escalation with Putin that would oblige the US to either intervene or leave Ukraine to suffer the consequences on its own?

There are many scenarios for the way this ends, but the bottom line is that what the US has at stake in Ukraine is its pride whereas Putin believes it is Russia’s existence that is in play.

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Donald Forbes
Donald Forbes
Donald Forbes is a retired Anglo-Scottish journalist now living in France who during a 40-year career worked in eastern Europe before and after communism.

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