Devastation unmatched in a European country since the end of the Second World War – and no end in sight. After ten months of what was expected to be a quick war, Russia’s regime seems to be banking on a sham annexation of four provinces in southern and eastern Ukraine, waves of missile attacks on infrastructure and civilians, plus recurring threats of nuclear strikes against any country that “attacks” the newly expanded Russian Federation, to solve a “problem” its stalled conventional military offensive failed to overcome.
Evidently the problem is the mere existence of a large East Slavic neighbour whose claim to independence, backed by the West in accordance with international law and the UN Charter, Russian President Vladimir Putin can’t abide. So much of a problem that, to solve it to his liking, Putin is willing to risk Russia’s international isolation, the disintegration of its army, the loss of its standing with China, the crippling of its economy and the alienation of the Russian people. In short, the ruination of Russia. And, one might add, his own life: it is an intriguing fact of Russian history that, when Russia loses a war or comes close to doing so, often its government either crumbles or is forced to accept major reforms to save itself. One worrying sign for the regime is that hundreds of thousands of men fled Russia rather than answer the Kremlin’s mobilization and be sent to the front.
But why should an independent Ukraine be a problem for Putin? For nearly eight years he held himself to relatively low-key (though at-times violent) “hybrid” warfare in the predominantly Russian-speaking parts of eastern Ukraine, beginning soon after Russia’s invasion and annexation of Crimea in 2014. But then he suddenly sends a 190,000-strong force against Ukraine targeting nearly all of its major cities, including Kyiv. And despite staggering losses of men and materiel and the potentially disastrous consequences for himself and Russia, Putin persists. It seems unfathomable.
Unravelling the situation is complicated by the widespread disagreement among involved parties and foreign policy specialists over Putin’s aims and concerns. Their attempts to explain what is in the 70-year-old Putin’s head often begin with one of his many different, frequently diverging and sometimes apparently irreconcilable pronouncements over the years. They then build a thesis around one such idea and, it seems, ignore inconsistent evidence. This approach confirms hunches and biases and produces a seemingly plausible theory, but hardly nurtures true understanding. It could also lead Western nations to commit grievous foreign policy errors.
Why did Russia Invade Ukraine? The Two Best-Known Explanations
A common theory holds that Putin’s primary concern was to prevent Ukraine from joining NATO, which Western powers have been considering since at least 2008. According to this view, Putin had long warned this would constitute an “existential threat” to Russia, as John Mearsheimer, a prominent international relations scholar at the University of Chicago, puts it, and was hence intolerable. “Putin’s pushback,” said Mearsheimer already during the Crimea crisis in 2014, “should have come as no surprise. After all, the West had been moving into Russia’s backyard and threatening its core strategic interests.” Putin has certainly played to this theory at times. “Ukraine joining NATO is a direct threat to Russian security,” he reiterated in his presidential address in February. “Russia has every right to respond in order to ensure its security. That is exactly what we will do.”
Adherents of this theory proposed that Putin’s fears could best be allayed through “Finlandization”: like Finland during the Cold War, Ukraine’s sovereignty and independence would be respected by all, including Russia, on the condition that it remain neutral and non-aligned as between NATO and the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). Prominent purveyors of this view include former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and current U.S. Senator Rand Paul. Avoiding war with Russia was, accordingly, within the reach of Western diplomacy. But, since the West failed to heed Putin’s warnings, he judged it necessary to invade – making the current war the West’s fault.
Why then, others ask, did Putin in recent years oppose NATO’s expansion not merely into Ukraine but anywhere into Russia’s so-called “near abroad,” when he previously seemed untroubled by such prospects? What changed? If Russia were a Western-style democracy ruled by the likes of deceased liberal leader Boris Nemtsov, would it be worried about Ukraine joining NATO, which admits only democracies? Unlikely (though not, given the foreign policy views of some Russian liberals, impossible). But today’s Russia is far from a democracy. Already seven years ago, Nemtsov was shot dead in broad daylight near Red Square, probably for campaigning against Russia’s 2014 intervention in eastern Ukraine.
Putin’s escalating anti-NATO rhetoric has coincided with Russia’s turn away from its fragile experiment with democracy and back towards authoritarianism, with Putin at the head. Putin’s real fear, this competing theory goes, is of a large and flourishing democracy on his doorstep, sustaining popular yearnings and agitation for the same in Russia. Proponents of this theory point out that Putin lashed out violently when Kyiv was about to sign an association agreement not with NATO but with the European Union. The threat, then, is not so much to Russia as to the undemocratic Putin regime, and is not so much NATO’s eastward expansion as the accompanying spread of democracy. Even Mearsheimer has conceded this point.
In Lost Kingdom, Harvard professor of Ukrainian history Serhii Plokhy argues that Putin’s essential orientation can be described as Russian-nationalist imperialism. One of its central elements is the subjugation of Ukraine, a policy extending back through the Soviet Union and Czarist Russia to Peter the Great and beyond. Plokhy concurs with the assertion by Zbigniew Brzezinski, former U.S. President Jimmy Carter’s National Security Advisor, that Russia cannot be both an empire and a democracy. If it wishes to be an imperial power, it can’t let Ukraine go free. It is noteworthy that members of both ultra-nationalist and liberal factions in contemporary Russia agree on this point.
If this second explanation is right, Putin’s real aim was not to coexist with even a neutral Ukraine but to subdue it and install a pro-Moscow regime in Kyiv that was authoritarian in substance and, much like its northern neighbour Belarus, would move Ukraine into Russian-led interstate institutions. No matter what he might have said, Putin would never have been satisfied with an offer of Finlandization, except perhaps as an interim measure to soften up Ukraine for its real fate. This explanation of Putin’s motives suggests the West needed to move beyond solely diplomacy and provide Ukraine with all the weaponry, intelligence, and financial and humanitarian aid it needs to defend its democracy and sovereignty against Russian tyranny and imperialism.
This is largely what ended up happening – although probably not by design, and few Ukrainians would agree the West sent “all” that was needed. If the West is indeed making it up as it goes, then should Putin escalate the conflict further, the West will again be thrown into confusion. Even more so if this second and more plausible theory of Putin’s motives and goals is incomplete.
A Coming Planetary Kulturkampf
More dangerous than a tyrant without ideas is one with a grand idea. What if Putin’s fundamental motivation goes deeper than fear of democracy? Some believe his invasion is premised on a grandiose conception of Ukraine as a major battleground in a wider “clash of civilizations” between the West and non-West. And he judged that now, a time of debilitating weakness and internal turmoil in the West, was the right moment to advance this planetary struggle. Putin’s grand idea is the ideology of “Eurasianism.”
This ideology (which some label “conservative”) was first formally set forth early in the 20th century by Russian thinkers such as Ivan A. Il’in, George V. Vernadsky and Prince Nikolai S. Trubetzkoy. It was more recently reformulated by historian Lev N. Gumilev and, most famously, philosopher Aleksandr Dugin. It posits a geographically sprawling Eurasian civilization notably “with a constant Russian core.” To this, Dugin says, “belong historically, organically and culturally not only the Slavs and not only the Orthodox but also other ethnicities (including the Turks, Caucasians, Siberians, and so on) and a significant portion of the population professing Islam.” As Russia expert Marlène Laruelle says, quoting Vernadsky, in Russian Eurasianism, “The Eurasianist movement aimed to put an end to the ‘cultural hegemony of the West’ by asserting the superiority of the East.” It seeks to replace the West’s unipolar world model with a multipolar one.
Putin began to sound such notes in a speech at the Munich Conference on Security Policy in October 2007. His talk of an essential, civilizational conflict between Russia and the West began in earnest in the early 2010s, revealingly formulated in a speech at the Valdai International Discussion Club in September 2013. In it Putin painted the West as simultaneously decadent, arrogant and aggressive, a contemptible corrupt culture to be shunned as well as a hegemonic adversary to be countered.
“Many of the Euro-Atlantic countries are actually rejecting their roots, including the Christian values that constitute the basis of Western civilization. They are denying moral principles and all traditional identities: national, cultural, religious and even sexual,” Putin stated. “At the same time we see attempts to somehow revive a standardized model of a unipolar world and to blur the institutions of international law and national sovereignty. Such a unipolar, standardized world does not require sovereign states; it requires vassals.”
The Valdai speech calls to mind the late Samuel Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, in which the Harvard political science professor proposed that following the Soviet Union’s collapse the old “rivalry of superpowers” would be replaced by conflict and possibly war over fundamental differences between civilizations and their cultures.
Putin’s similar-sounding pronouncements, placed in a self-serving context of Russian imperialism, are overlooked or downplayed by a sweeping span of ostensible political realists ranging from Mearsheimer to former Democratic U.S. Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard to former Trump White House aide Colonel (ret) Douglas Macgregor. This is troubling given how often Putin has voiced such thoughts and how many of his other policies and actions appear consistent with them. Perhaps the experts should take this view as seriously as they do the Russian autocrat’s ostensible fear of NATO expansion.
Putin’s thinking is clarified and, some say, largely shaped by the aforementioned Dugin. The highly influential contemporary philosopher invokes Huntington in articulating his own view of a titanic struggle between Western and non-Western civilizations. Russia, in Dugin’s mind, is non-Western. Dugin is our best guide to understanding the Russian President’s speeches and deeds.
For Dugin, whose philosophical development has leaned heavily on the anti-liberal existentialist aspects of German philosopher Martin Heidegger, the incompatibility stems from the liberalism at the heart of Western civilization. Or at least liberalism as Dugin sees it, which he regards as championing “freedom from” with no conception of “freedom for.” “There is,” writes Dugin in Putin vs Putin, “one point in liberal ideology that has brought about a crisis within it: liberalism is profoundly nihilistic at its core. The set of values defended by liberalism is essentially linked to its main thesis: the primacy of liberty. But liberty in the liberal vision is an essentially negative category.” Liberalism’s driving spirit is thus negation of anything that limits the individual: tradition, religion, family and even nature, including natural gender distinctions and human nature along with any resulting obligations and duties.
Dugin unleashes vitriolic if not hateful rhetoric in arguing that this spirit of negativity is most recently exemplified by Western liberals’ agitation for transgenderism and even transhumanism. This he denounces as “a fight for the rights of sexual minorities – perverts, transgender products of transgenic operations, homosexuals, freaks of all sorts – this fight is at the core of liberal policy.” By separating individuals from their connections and obligations to others, and to the collective human identity as such, Dugin warns, the way is even open to “transhumanism.”
Seen through this particular lens, Western liberalism is an existential threat to a certain conception of Russia: the nationalist-imperial conception. It rests upon cultural values of tradition, family, religion, self-renunciation and patriotism as framed by the Russian Orthodox Church as well as other world religions. It views itself as clearly superior to Western liberalism (though vulnerable to subversion by it), offering long-term cultural stability that, in turn, underpins Russia as an enduring world power. With the aid of a “strong centralized state,” declared Putin echoing Dugin in his speech at the September 30 ceremony to annex – illegally – Ukraine’s Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson oblasts, Russia “developed and strengthened itself on the great moral values of Orthodoxy, Islam, Judaism and Buddhism, on Russian culture and the Russian word open to all.”
Some will hear distinct echoes of the great Cold War dissident Alexander Solzhenitsyn, a Slavophile religious conservative who later in life became deeply suspicious of the “progressive” West. But Solzhenitsyn was quite unlike Dugin, opposed both to the broader, Eurasianist expansionism that aims to effectively reconstitute the geography of the former USSR and to the coercion of Ukraine into political union with Russia.
The Dugin-Putin outlook finds attitudinal similarities in certain Islamic, Confucian, Hindu and other non-Western, non-liberal civilizational and cultural strains, despite obvious differences in the nuts and bolts of cultural practices and beliefs. China’s Communist leaders, for example, have been stressing the need to combine socialism with revivified elements of China’s cultural tradition, especially its anti-individualistic or communitarian Confucianism. The regime also seeks to block penetration by Western mass culture on grounds of its moral depravity.
This is not enough for Dugin, who warns that liberalism is universalist, its ultimate target all humankind irrespective of differences in religion and culture. This implies that the West, led by the U.S., is inherently world-hegemonic in aspiration, constantly exporting not only hamburgers and pornography but the pernicious idea of “making the world safe for democracy.” Accordingly, relations between West and non-West are a zero-sum game, peaceful coexistence a false hope. If they wish to preserve their distinctive cultures, non-Western nations must become actively anti-Western and, to succeed, must join forces to beat back Western imperialism, including by war if necessary.
For Russia this emerging global Kulturkampf entails creating a Eurasian empire encompassing as much of the former Soviet Union as possible. Above all, Ukraine. Scene of extensive meddling by Western governments, intelligence services, non-governmental organizations and other liberal forces, to the point of upending at least one of Ukraine’s previous elected governments, Ukraine must in Dugin’s view be compelled to unite with Russia by any means necessary.
Ukraine offers strategic positioning (guarding Russia’s cherished Crimea), a huge land area, a population of nearly 45 million, a pre-war annual GDP of approximately US$200 billion, a vast and profitable agricultural sector, significant mining and heavy industries, a Christian culture and a well-educated population. Without Ukraine, an imperial Russia would be too weak to withstand the West’s cultural subversion and geopolitical aggression.
From Pussy Riot to “Pure Satanism”
As his Valdai speech shows, Putin too has criticized what he claims is Western liberalism’s moral nihilism and has put himself forward as a champion of Russian Orthodox conservatism. He has created the Eurasian Economic Union and the CSTO as alternatives to the EU and NATO. And following unsuccessful attempts to persuade Ukraine to join the EEC and CSTO, he is now seeking to subjugate Ukraine by force of arms. Jordan Peterson suggests, without elaboration, that Putin is even willing to see Ukraine utterly destroyed by war rather than have it absorbed whole into a degenerate West. To justify subjugating Ukraine, Putin fallaciously argues that Ukraine historically was essentially one with Russia. Or, as Ukrainians put it, he denies their very existence as a people and nation.
Again, echoing Dugin, Putin speaks approvingly of a multipolar world yet denounces the West, headed by the U.S., as an implacable enemy seeking to establish and maintain a unipolar world. “What, if not racism,” he asked rhetorically in his “annexation” speech, “is the peremptory conviction of the West that its civilization, neoliberal culture is an indisputable model for the whole world?” On the ideological front Putin, urged on by Dugin, Russian Orthodox Patriarch Metropolitan Kirill and other influential Russian nationalists, stepped up his rhetoric extolling the world-historical mission of Russia and her Church to redeem humankind from the West’s “soulless materialism and decadence.”
Accordingly, Putin has sought to weave closer ties with China, Iran, Syria – any anti-Western country seemingly will do – plus some political factions in Western countries. All this, arguably, for the purpose of rolling back the West’s global influence while subverting its Enlightenment liberal-democratic inheritance. Putin has held face-to-face meetings with China’s Xi Jinping, including one in Beijing on February 4 that resulted in a lengthy joint memorandum in which the duo stated there would be “no limits” (emphasis added) to their strengthened partnership, and another where they “voic[ed] their shared opposition to the ‘further enlargement of NATO’.”
Notably, Putin aligned himself with the Chinese Communist regime’s insistence that “Taiwan is an inalienable part of China.” The two sides also asserted a kind of joint hegemony over their “common adjacent regions” and pledged greater cooperation to “counter interference by outside forces in the internal affairs of sovereign countries,” diplomatic code apparently covering Western efforts to support democratization in, say, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Belarus or Vietnam.
The sincerity of Putin’s professions is unknown. It’s possible he is indeed a brutal, power-hungry, kleptocratic tyrant (he was a KGB agent for 16 years, after all, and later headed its successor agency the FSB) who nevertheless wishes to think of himself as motivated by noble ideals, as Carleton University professor of political science Waller R. Newell suggests. The latter dimension is hard to reconcile with the scale of destruction Putin tolerates and sometimes encourages even in southeast Ukraine, where he was ostensibly attempting to protect the cultural and language rights of Russian-speaking Ukrainians and, latterly, to incorporate the area into Russia.
Putin continues to advance and further explicate this worldview, however. In his “annexation” speech, Putin declared that “the world has entered a period of revolutionary transformations” in which Russia is fighting against “the dictatorship of the Western elites” and the “complete renunciation of what it means to be human, the overthrow of faith and traditional values.” Western liberalism, he said, is “a religion in reverse – pure Satanism.”
Even if Putin and Xi don’t believe a word of their “clash of civilizations” rhetoric but are merely exploiting it, there is an “it” to exploit. The concept exists and has proved appealing in numerous countries. In his 1995 essay Forgetting We Are Not God, famed Czech poet, philosopher and political leader Vaclav Havel argued that many people in non-Western societies, while envying our prosperity and individual liberty, nevertheless find our culture’s godlessness, materialism, moral and spiritual impoverishment repugnant and do not want it emulated in their own societies. Havel was politically on the left, so American progressives could not shun him as they did Solzhenitsyn for presenting similar ideas in his famous 1978 Harvard address, A World Split Apart. Interestingly Brzezinski, a lifelong Democrat, in his book Out of Control set forth in greater detail a similar argument.
While Putin’s international infamy stems in part from his regime’s crude and brutal acts against opponents and critics, he has also proved capable of symbolism. According to Boston College humanities professor Martha Bayles, Putin’s arrest of the band “Pussy Riot” for mocking his authoritarian rule inside the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in 2012 “reinforced his posture as a valiant, lone knight defending family, faith, and community against Western infidels intent upon destroying the morals of decent people and luring the young into cesspools of depravity or whirlpools of gender fluidity.”
Importantly in Bayles’ view, the world’s dictators took note that, while outraging Western liberals, the move “resonated with millions of socially and religiously conservative people around the world, including in the United States.” Peterson and American foreign affairs specialist Walter Russell Mead think the same basic point holds today.
There is, in other words, a large global constituency for Putin’s claimed beliefs. Pointing out their utter hypocrisy – Russia is a prodigiously corrupt society with a deeply troubled culture – does not negate or even seriously diminish their allure or motivational force, nor lessen the danger they pose to the West. These ideas have helped propel Russia, China and Iran along the paths of their imperialist ambitions and have facilitated the three countries working together against the West, while drawing dozens of lesser countries into their orbit, including North Korea, Cuba and even Venezuela. Lately, even democratic and peaceful India seems more inclined to cooperate with Russia than with the EU and the U.S. Indeed, Russia’s exports to India and other non-Western countries have soared, severely undermining the effectiveness of Western sanctions.
Clearly, we must inter U.S. political scientist Francis Fukuyama’s famous proposition that the world had reached the “end of history” because Western liberal democracy had peacefully vanquished all serious opposing ideologies, annulling any instigator of further global conflict, a claim that seemed plausible in the 1990s. The idea lingers in common expressions of incredulity at Russia’s invasion of Ukraine: “We’re in the 21st century – this can’t be happening!” Oh, but it is.
How Should the West Respond?
The stakes are clearly enormous – and not merely for Ukraine and her immediate Western neighbours. If Putin’s “pure Satanism” speech three months ago remotely reflects his beliefs, then the West would be gravely mistaken to view Russia’s “special military operation” against Ukraine as a self-contained event that if resolved in Russia’s favour could satisfy Putin’s ambitions. Instead, it is merely a stage in a titanic struggle that can only end in one side’s defeat. If Russia and its friends of convenience are intent on destroying or at least crippling the West, then Ukraine is now the wheel around which the West’s fate turns. And Ukraine is doing almost all the hard work of halting Putinism/Eurasianism.
Yet “Putin’s fear of NATO” theory has proved so impervious to contradictory evidence and unfolding events that Ukrainian neutrality has reappeared in recent proposed “peace frameworks” aimed at prodding the two sides to start negotiating. Under such a scheme, the Putin regime is to be placated with something that isn’t driving its policies and doesn’t come close to satiating its ambitions, while Ukraine (and the West) are to be left worse off than before the war began. Portions of such a scheme were recently advanced by U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Gen. Mark Milley, who last year presided over the disastrous American rout in Afghanistan.
These renewed suggestions of Finlandization have received spirited pushback, coupled with attempts to explain what is really at stake. Jan Lipavský, Czechia’s foreign minister, recently scoffed at the “fear of NATO” theory. The Ukrainians, he noted, are not only “fighting for their own survival,” the country “is also protecting us” from a dictator who wants to “destroy the principle that the borders of states are not changed by brute force.” The West should not “dictate to Ukraine with other conditions for peace,” Lipavský said. “Freedom is not for free.”
Mike Pompeo, the respected former U.S. Secretary of State in the Trump Administration and an army veteran, considers the fear-of-NATO theory downright “silly.” As Pompeo pointed out in a speech during the summer, “In 2005, Putin declared the demise of the Soviet Union as one of the greatest tragedies in history. In 2007, he enunciated his rationale for conquest in terms that would be familiar to dictators who ruled Europe almost 90 years ago.” Putin, in other words, wasn’t looking for a mere concession over Ukraine, and he wasn’t going to stop at Ukraine; the West must shape its response accordingly. “By supporting Ukraine, we prevent larger European conflict,” Pompeo argued. “By helping Ukraine, we prevent Russia’s reconstitution of the Soviet Empire.”
Prominent Republican Senator Tom Cotton, a combat veteran and author of the newly published book Only the Strong, also rejects the “fear of NATO” theory. The general cause of the war, he stated in a recent podcast with the Wall Street Journal, is Putin’s goal of “reassembling the greater Russian empire.” In Cotton’s view it was the failure of American deterrence – specifically the weakness repeatedly signalled by the Biden Administration – that “tempted Putin to go for the jugular in Ukraine.”
Why, then, is a never terribly persuasive and now almost ludicrous theory still put forward as a possible peace strategy? Could it be simply a desperate aversion at all levels of Western society to confronting the implications of the war’s more likely nature? After all, a titanic struggle between incompatible global systems implies the need for titanic means. Defending the West should thus demand Western “boots on the ground” in Ukraine, aggressive diplomatic pressure on Western-oriented nations worldwide to contribute meaningfully (much like the U.S. diplomatic campaign after 9/11), with all the costs and risks that entails, higher defence spending and larger militaries in all countries, and still-tougher (and mutually damaging) sanctions against Russia.
All of this could quite likely bleed into open warfare beyond Ukraine’s borders involving NATO countries, in turn escalating the threat of Russia using nuclear weapons. Deliberately setting out in this direction would strike most Western voters and policymakers as madness. Vast swathes of society would probably refuse to participate – like many of Russia’s “mobilized” men. The raging controversies could paralyze or even begin to disintegrate Western countries. That is how a “clash of civilizations” scenario is probably regarded around cabinet tables, at corporate boardrooms and in diplomatic halls – if it is discussed at all.
Much like the aftermath of 9/11, an open clash of civilizations would exacerbate existing clashes within Western civilization, which even the West’s limited assistance for Ukraine has laid bare. Setting aside the merits of the conflicting positions and the possible motives of those who hold them, commentators of various political stripes, such as populist-conservative Tucker Carlson and liberal Francis Fukuyama, have pointed out that populations have grown more suspicious of governments and institutions, less willing to take their word for it. Suspicions are not always founded upon wisdom, however, for millions appear to have no idea what is really at stake.
The general character and ethos of modern democracies prioritizes material prosperity and physical safety and comfort. Democratic peoples tend to be pacific if not downright pacifist. Recent polling has revealed that only small minorities in most European countries are still willing to die for their own country – much less “for” Ukraine. Poorly armed Canada, its military embroiled in its worst-ever recruiting crisis, isn’t far behind. But anti-war sentiment is high even in the U.S. This helps to explain the extreme risk-aversion of leaders in many NATO countries, including the widespread fear of doing anything in assisting Ukraine that might lead to escalation – like sending troops to Ukraine.
Putin plays on these fears with transparent cynicism; yet many take his threats regarding nuclear weapons at face value. This was perhaps best illustrated by NATO members’ treatment of Poland’s suggestion early in the war to send modern Polish MiG-29 fighter-bombers to Ukraine, which they rejected immediately after Putin raised the spectre of retaliatory nuclear strikes (a similar plan mooted in July using new European jets was also aborted, although discussions recently started yet again).
Western elites have done a generally poor job of justifying their Ukraine policies. Instead of carefully building public support through convincing arguments that make sense and stand the test of events, they spout clichés and bromides that are inadequate to the task when not clueless, hypocritical or self-serving. Does, for example, the prospect of millions of Germans shivering in the dark while much of German manufacturing is idled due to a lack of natural gas really prove that what Germany needs are even more wind turbines? Does a G7 leader really have moral standing to preach on behalf of freedom and human rights for Ukrainians after himself suspending the normal rule of law and civil liberties in his own country? Perhaps the war in Ukraine should not provide a forum for the continuation of domestic partisan politics by other means.
A Plausible Path to Victory
Are the fears and risk-aversion reasonable? Perhaps full-scale warfare need not be unleashed by our mere recognition and acknowledgement of what the war is truly about. Initially it seemed naïve if not delusional to think Ukraine could survive much less prevail without direct military involvement by the U.S. or multiple other NATO members. Russia had penetrated the country from three directions, gobbling up whole provinces and numerous mid-sized cities, reaching the environs of Kharkiv and all-but surrounding Kyiv. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky was said to be targeted for assassination. In late spring Russia launched a new offensive in eastern Ukraine aimed at creating a giant “cauldron” to trap much of Ukraine’s army. Besieged Mariupol fell. In late June, Ukraine came within one to two days of running flat out of artillery ammunition.
But then things began to change. Russia’s occupation of Ukraine peaked in late March at about 163,000 square km or 27 percent of Ukraine. It dropped to about 114,000 square km in April, then rebounded to about 125,000 square km in August. But in late August Ukraine sprang daring twin-offensives in the northeast and southeast and has held the initiative ever since. Russia has so far lost about 75,000 square km and, following its retreat from Kherson in mid-November, held less than 80,000 square km (of which about half is Crimea). Its army not only crossed to the east bank of the wide Dnieper River, but then retreated another 20 km to be farther from Ukrainian artillery. Now Russia is reportedly preparing fixed defences all the way down at the isthmus into the Crimean Peninsula.
Ukraine’s battlefield success is already having geopolitical effects. Beijing’s backing of Moscow appears to be weakening at the sight of a badly faltering Russian military offensive. India is visibly more restive with the Kremlin now than it was a few months ago, and Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan, if not yet cooling on Russia, is clearly not warming to Putin either. Iran’s ruling clerics, faced with civil unrest on a scale not witnessed at least since 2009, have turned their attention inward. Kazakhstan, a former member-republic of the U.S.S.R. and supposedly still within the Russian Federation’s sphere of influence, nevertheless has refused to back Putin’s war on Ukraine.
“By aiding Ukraine, we undermined the creation of a Russian-Chinese axis bent on exerting military and economic hegemony in Europe, in Asia and in the Middle East,” Pompeo said in the speech referenced above. “Indeed, by empowering Ukraine, we demonstrate to China the cost of invading Taiwan.” Owing partly to its worsening isolation, partly to its punishing losses, and partly to increasing economic shortages and bottlenecks, all contributing to rising internal political pressures, Russia might prove unable to sustain the war. Then it might be forced to the negotiating table on terms favouring Ukraine and the West.
Cotton also believes Russia now can be handled without committing Western militaries to the fight. “What we should do is allow Ukraine to continue to show the bravery and skill that is shown on the battlefield by getting them the weapons that they need in a timely fashion so they can win their own war with the simple objective of getting Russian soldiers off of Ukrainian soil,” he stated in the same podcast referenced above.
Despite the continued pummelling of Ukraine’s energy infrastructure and civilian targets by Russian missiles, it seems increasingly plausible that Ukraine could beat Russia outright on the battlefield. Ukraine may merely require the West to continue supplying a range of military goods (including advanced armaments), up-to-date intelligence, diplomatic support, financial aid and humanitarian assistance. Given Ukraine’s acute need for anti-aircraft missiles and artillery ammunition, that will mean somewhat more than the “piecemealing” of key weaponry that Lieutenant-General (ret) Keith Kellogg has accused the Biden Administration of.
And while that will still seem like a lot to the terminally risk-averse or indifferent, it represents a fraction of the West’s 40-year-long global struggle throughout the Cold War. In that context, saving Ukraine amounts to an economy of force. Ukrainians, pointedly, do all of the fighting and dying, endure the war’s incredible social costs, including millions of displaced and homeless people, and suffer nearly all the material damage, including the near-levelling of major industrial facilities and several cities (although the damage to European economies and populations is also significant). But Russia remains entirely tied down and loses additional men and equipment daily.
In this light, helping Ukraine prevail seems a singular opportunity for the West to defend itself against an increasingly belligerent anti-Western political front. Many, including the aforementioned Carlson on the right and Gabbard on the left, have berated the Ukrainian ruling elite for its corruption and “authoritarian” tendencies and called for an end to military and financial aid. But the U.S. spent more than US$2 trillion on each of its wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. So far it has spent or committed slightly over US$100 billion for Ukraine. These figures make a mockery of those who cite the high costs of helping Ukraine as a reason for scaling back aid or forcing Ukraine to negotiate an unfavourable peace with the Putin regime.
Perhaps we Westerners should instead acknowledge the enormous sacrifice the Ukrainian people have been making in defence not only of their own freedom but also, as Zelensky reminds us, of Western civilization. Such a recognition should make it worth bearing the suffering – far lesser, but still substantial – which we could incur by giving Ukraine, as Prime Minister of Finland Sanna Marin recently said, “whatever it takes” to win.
In return for their sacrifice the Ukrainians will, we must hope, get to keep their country – ideally, all of it. They could also expect to be showered with reconstruction aid and investment (the damage as of late July was estimated at US$750 billion), and at last allowed to forge their long-sought economic, diplomatic and military integration with Europe. The West would continue to help Ukraine grow from the decidedly imperfect democracy it has been since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 into a viable and prosperous democracy true to the aspirational principles of the 2014 Revolution of Dignity, for which thousands of Ukrainians have paid with their lives.
One way or the other, Putin must be confronted and stopped. As Pompeo puts it: “America and the nations of the world cannot continue the pretense that the war in Ukraine can end in a negotiated peace, which mollifies Russia. For such a peace cannot be negotiated with Vladimir Putin. Ukraine must win this war. It must win this war decisively if it is to realize peace, independence and freedom.” This is not merely because Putin’s cause is unjust, because he is anti-Western, or because Ukraine is a democracy and a victim of invasion. It is because of the nature of Putin himself.
Here it is worthwhile recalling the insights of Winston Churchill regarding the mentality of dictators in a 1937 magazine article: “Dictators and those who immediately sustain them cannot quit their offices with the easy disdain – or more often relief – with which an American President or a British Prime Minister submits himself to an adverse popular verdict. For a dictator the choice may well be the throne or the grave. The character of the men who have raised themselves from obscurity to these positions of fierce, dazzling authority does not permit us to believe that they would bow their heads meekly to the stroke of fate. One has the feeling they would go down or conquer fighting, and play the fearful stakes which are in their hands.”
Westerners should also see this war as an occasion for serious stock-taking. What is true and what might be false in the social views of traditionalist people in non-Western countries? Our challenge is to examine afresh, in light of their misgivings about us, our current social orthodoxies – albeit from a Western-democratic standpoint. It is surely a pipedream to envision the clash of civilizations becoming a friendly rivalry of civilizations. Yet failure to take up the challenge at all would leave unattended and thus undiminished the anti-Western antipathy simmering around the world that tyrannical types like Putin and Xi can continue to exploit for their own ends.
Borys M. Kowalsky holds a PhD in Political Science from the University of Toronto and is a former secondary school and college educator who focuses on research, writing and lecturing in the history and philosophy of art, political philosophy and contemporary social, political and educational issues.
Source of main image: Shutterstock.