Dear Partners in Thought,
As we go through an unprecedented event in European history, there is probably too much to read about the Ukraine invasion today. However, a summary of key points may be useful. Here is an attempt:
Russia lied from the beginning. When asked repeatedly about the rationale for so much military presence by the Ukrainian border (and then in Belarus) for weeks, Russia stressed time and time again it was not for an invasion. Just for military exercises.
Russia suffers from an existential crisis. It only exists today through its military and some key natural resources. While military spending represents a disproportionate part of its GDP, the latter is now the size of a large but not leading European Union member state.
NATO is purely defensive. While some, like economist Jeffrey Sachs, sensibly argued that the big problem, as stated by the Kremlin, lay with NATO’s eastward expansion, NATO – which is a defensive organisation – would have never had offensive plans against Russia.
NATO’s unexpected next steps. The next step for NATO, directly linked to Putin’s mistaken move, will be to welcome both Finland and Sweden, two pillars of earlier neutrality (only the Swiss will sadly remain “pragmatically” neutral in the West).
A conundrum for the West. While all Western countries and most of the world reject the invasion, military intervention at this point to defend and save Ukraine, a democracy – though indeed not a NATO member – is too hard. This is combined with the prevailing, though evolving, view that one did not want to “die for Kyiv”. It is a sad fact for many but the reality we know. Harsh targeted economic sanctions and military equipment support are the only option for now.
Putin’s thirst for a great legacy. At 69, and facing what he perceives as a declining Russia at many levels, Putin focuses on the past and ways to rebuild an evasive position and glory for his country and himself. The more he ages, the more memories of the fall of the Soviet Union reappear even if merely tactically helpful. And time is flying.
Not the right model for Putin’s Russia. The view of a gradually democratic Ukraine, however imperfect by Western standards, with closer ties to the West is now just unbearable for Putin – and not what he wants next door, also given the deep historical ties with Russia.
Putin is increasingly isolated. The Covid era made him literally distance himself from people and reality, relying on a clique of “yes men” going his way. The odd meetings with foreign counterparts and his security council or his televised speeches showed an individual losing his grip on reality (as also demonstrated by putting nuclear forces on high alert). A dangerous fact based on history. Any negotiated settlement of the crisis will therefore be very arduous and well past “not losing face”.
Russia’s population is buying the scheme “for now.” Like with the Russian security guard in our residence in Prague, and in spite of arrests of protesters in major Russian cities, Russian propaganda was able to distil the message that the Russian invasion was justified so oppressed Russian brethren in eastern Ukraine could be “rescued”. Putin still benefits from an image of an able and necessary leader who steered Russia well over the last 20 years – in a country that values strong leadership, even if urban centres are increasingly perplexed and its people have indeed “travelled” abroad.
A tactical win, maybe, but a serious strategic loss, surely. Putin and Russia may win now in Ukraine in spite of fiercer resistance than expected, but will lose strategically over the longer term. Sanctions will gradually cripple the Russian economy and its elite (as well as, sadly, its population) even if also harmful to the West and especially Europe. Putin’s decision to invade has done a terminal damage to Russia for generations to come and most notably its younger ones who wanted to belong more to a globalised world. Isolation and pariah status may be Russia’s future in the best of cases.
Putin’s axis with China is misplaced. While now being a likely unhappy junior member of what he perceives to be an anti-US/Western Moscow-Beijing axis, Putin does not realise that Western relations with Xi Jinping will markedly improve in the near future due to the former’s likely warmer entreaties as a result of “Ukraine”. Pragmatic China will always prefer to focus on the economy and its own leadership rise than getting lost in 19th and 20th century military adventurism in which it has nothing to gain (if it does not seize the moment to invade Taiwan, which would be too much of a Ukraine-like losing proposition).
The risk of spiralling into total war is real. If Putin starts expanding beyond Ukraine into former Soviet sphere states like Poland or the Baltic states, the Western response will be militarily. The possibility of triggering a direct NATO-Russian confrontation, involving the US, the UK, France, Germany, Japan and a host of nations, due to events going out of control is not small. It is therefore key to leave an exit for Russia even now and not corner Putin into more irrationality. If the worst happened and while the conflagration would be immense in our nuclear age, it is unlikely Russia would still keep existing as we know it.
Short of an expanded war, the adverse side effects are real for Europe. The flow of Ukrainian refugees into Poland and other Central European EU member states will be massive and require a very rapid coordination from the EU. Similarly, the status of Russian nationals residing in the EU will be reviewed and visas may no longer be available going forward. It is to be hoped that those Russian nationals who left their homeland for political reasons or are not de facto agents of Putin’s Russia will be allowed to stay and will not suffer from any undue local opprobrium.
The wild joker card is also an option. As Putin sinks further into irrationality in spite of the many comfortable justifications for it, many top oligarchs may sense that their wealth, families or sheer existence may be endangered, depriving them of many things the world offers, even if they rarely deserve it beyond total allegiance. Putin is only one man and his power architecture essentially depends on him being around.
In the end Putin may actually and unwittingly have helped build a stronger Ukraine – and a stronger NATO. The main tangible result achieved by Putin’s invasion, even if eventually successful and for how long it lasts, will have been to have strengthened the national identity of many Ukrainians and their resolve in not going back to a Soviet-like past. The level of Ukrainian resistance is a live case in point. If anything, the official desire to reunite a supposed family by force will have been very one-sided and delusionary, reflecting Russia’s stark issues about its own future. While not fighting Russia now, NATO is also getting stronger as a result of the invasion with increased support and resolve from all of its members, away from the Trump times. A line in the sand has been drawn, allowing the West to find its roots anew.