Key remarks arising from the “return of history” in Europe after one month

23-3-22

Dear Partners in Thought,

Putting aside, however impossible it is, the daily tragedies experienced on the ground in Ukraine (also hoping they are not becoming gradually mundane), here are few remarks one month into the invasion and the reactions of the world:

Waging large scale war is different today. One cannot play the global game and follow old “history” ways like invading countries ¬– all the more so in Europe. Globalization has changed the nature of war, even if it did not stop it as was hoped. Sanctions hurt terribly, and even if non-lethal, are effectively another weapon of gradual mass destruction as Russia could well be about to experience. Similarly, Russia can squeeze its oil capacity to drive oil price upwards as a response to sanctions, while war is now also waged in cyberspace with expected cyberattacks using former ransomware teams arrested by – and now working for –Russia itself.

War in Europe has a global impact. The economic impact of the war, even without escalations, is huge worldwide, only given Ukraine’s key “bread basket” role as a leading wheat producer in the global food supply chain (incidentally like Russia). Such impact will also be felt, at least in the short term, by Europe given its energy links with a soon-to-be-totally isolated Russian pariah state. And Ukraine, with half of its businesses that have closed doors, and so much war destruction, will have to be rebuilt, likely involving the international community and, it is to be hoped eventually, justified reparations.

Democracies do not wage wars among themselves in Europe. Britain, France and Germany no longer fight each other or build aggressive military alliances to achieve their own strategic goals. Only autocracies start modern unprovoked wars of a WW2 scale in the old continent.

The greatest test for democracy for decades. Democracy is a blip in the scope of human history. Were Russia to prevail in Ukraine, and the West fail to stop it by whatever realistic means necessary, the lesson would embolden the aggressor and quickly be learned by other large powers like China, and possibly a fast-changing India – not to mention smaller actors in their own world regions. Democracy needs to be strong to survive and flourish globally.

This war is about far more than military operations and their aims. The invasion of Ukraine is not just an unprovoked war against a sovereign nation, to rebuild an empire or to stop a gradual decline, but it is a war of autocracy (Russia, likely Belarus and hopefully no more world actors) against the Free World, in what is a defining moment for democracy and liberalism – this exacerbated by the war crimes committed by the Russian leadership in Ukraine.

Liberal democracies need to be realistic. To win the contest with an autocratic Russia the democratic and liberal West may also have to adopt Realpolitik and work with countries like Saudi Arabia, Turkey or China that do not share its ways of government, but know where their self-interest lies all the more in a globalized economy; the crisis also unexpectedly providing some often-challenged world actors a reshuffling of their own geopolitical cards.

Russia’s existential problem is rooted in its history. Russia has never been a “free” country in its history from the Czars to Lenin, Stalin, Brezhnev, Gorbachev, Yeltsin (even if then in “transition” mode) and finally Putin who has morphed autocracy and kleptocracy together in what is de facto a mafia super-state with nuclear weapons. As such – and given its deep roots – Russia will always be more inclined to follow “old history” ways to achieve its objectives.

The defining traits of Russia today. The major historical deviation of the Putin regime for Russia has been an osmosis between an autocracy – strengthened to avoid the perceived post-Soviet democratic chaos in the 1990s – and a kleptocracy serving the faithful few, while ensuring Russians were still supportive of “Don Putin,” by selling them a mixed dream of grandeur and limited consumer society, peppered with some exposure to non-Kremlin-threatening modern freedoms.

Tech has weakened autocracy. Controlling access to information to any (large) population in the age of the internet is not possible over the long term, even among usually soft autocracies that revert to old ways to suppress access to fact-based information, and channel disinformation via state media. It will be increasingly hard to hide the nature of the war and its many losses from the Russian people, while sanctions will hurt in their daily lives. It will also be interesting to see how many pro-war Z t-shirts are still worn in Moscow stadiums by likely tech-friendly youngsters in the coming months and years. On a related aspect, Big Tech should actually do more to curb Russian state propaganda on its media, a matter dealing with contents control that is always sensitive among the tech giants.

The Ukraine invasion is a game changer for the West too… For the first time, former Cold War enemies in Central & Eastern Europe are in the same camp as the West in an actual conflict. The West has grown in its definition. From an alliance, these countries have now become truly existential partners. The Transatlantic Alliance embodied in NATO and the need for a stronger, independent but “additional” European defense commitment, now fully supported by a “new” Germany, has been made unequivocal by the Russian invasion.

…while it is also a wake-up call. As it focused for decades on economic growth via globalization, and individualism was the letter of the day, the West and especially its younger generations (not benefitting from direct living historical memory of the last world conflict) forgot that seismic events like wars were not confined to other distant parts of the world, and that preventing them proactively mattered existentially. This is now over for good.

The nuclear wild card. When reflecting on the sanctions and a new, stronger Iron Curtain to come, some Chinese analysts said as a matter of fact that Russia could not be excluded from the world as it had the largest nuclear arsenal among nations. Such a reading would de facto mean Russia can do what it wants, as it has the largest arsenal and the world cannot take any risks with it. This approach is wrong, and the West is far more powerful than Russia – also in a senseless nuclear sense – while history showed Russia could also be invaded and its army is actually weak, as has been seen in Ukraine.

Not a conflict of equals. The Chinese and some others, who would also like to benefit from a reshuffling of world trading cards (like possibly India), while stressing the need for diplomacy, still seem to be unable to see or likely refuse to state (for practical reasons) that there is one aggressor in the Ukraine invasion – as if both Russia and Ukraine and its allies were responsible for the war, and that such an approach could lead to a better compromise.

The Russian energy card is not as strong as it looked. While Russia is today a key provider of oil and gas, especially to Europe, the world is not a long-term hostage to Moscow, even if power rationing may happen in the short term. Saudi Aramco is going to boost oil production. Talks with Venezuela will likely continue, in spite of domestic political concerns from Hispanic US legislators across party lines. Iran may also export energy once the nuclear deal is agreed. France will renationalize EDF, its main energy company, and is likely to launch a new nuclear program. Spain is promoting the decoupling of European gas and electricity prices to lower energy costs. Even Germany has signed a long-term gas agreement with Qatar. In order to simply survive, Moscow one day may even have to offer incentives to the world to accept its oil and gas, as may be the case when dealing with many smaller import-dependent and/or militarily close (and thus largely “neutral”) African nations today.

The other real test for Europe. Beyond the military and economic impacts of this war, Europe, and especially the frontline states such as Poland or tiny Moldova, are faced with the largest refugee influx since WW2. Such a drastic development caused by Russia (and clearly also used by the Kremlin as a weapon mirroring sanctions) will have to be managed carefully over the long-term, requiring coordination and funding at EU and Western levels. While welcoming refugees and allowing them to work, the best plan to ensure the smoothest transition across Europe will have to ensure most refugees can return to their homeland, as and when possible, to participate in its rebuilding.

A quick lose-lose position for Russia. By breaking the norms of interactions between contemporary developed societies in Europe, and then (fortunately) not winning a more practical “blitzkrieg,” Russia cornered itself in a lose-lose position via a likely Syrian war-like stalemate, unprecedented world sanctions leading to a stronger Iron Curtain, and the only recourse to the nuclear option to desperately try to tactically prevail – if only in the messaging.

War developments seem unclear at this stage. While there are many speculations in the West as to why Putin started this war against “Nazis, drug addicts and to save brethren from a genocide” now, there is also no clear visibility as to what the next steps will be. It is hard to believe that Russia could withdraw from Ukraine without gaining “something” to save face, while the potential for escalation is high – also through accidents, including directly with NATO countries and former members of the former Soviet family in the region. A third world war is not impossible, though still an unlikely scenario, all the more given the irrationality shown by the Kremlin and its abysmal risk-reward analysis on display to date.

Russians will decide in the end what they want for Russia. Regardless of their historical subservience to autocracy, and even if there is a growing opposition at home, Russians will need today to make a choice as to what society they want to live in. They control their destiny and indirectly the fate of the world (if Putin went nuclear) far more than the West would. An estimated 200,000 Russians, most of them intellectuals and young professionals, left the country and “voted with their feet” in the first ten days of the invasion. However, the only definite solution to the Putin question is in Russian hands at home. Similarly, if the Russians did not interfere with a lost Kremlin, after a period of time – either via a coup or a revolution they could foment and/or support – they will ultimately also bear the responsibility for any adverse development going forward, making it harder for the West to forgive them.

The only way to deal with Russia now. European history has told us that placating dictators and hoping for the best only creates “Munich” and does not alleviate the road to disastrous war later. There is nothing to gain from showing understanding for the Russian moves or pseudo-cause which will only be seen as weakness, like excessive diplomacy would. The West is stronger than Russia and should make it clear in its resolve to both Russian leadership and people (also as change could be triggered from within) that it will stand firm, while not being bellicose. Fear of conflict will only create greater conflict, all the more so in the nuclear age. Bullies only understand superior strength, and that may have to be firmly displayed.

What to expect now? As stated it is hard to predict how the war in Ukraine will develop at this stage, now that the Russians have failed to win a quick victory, and the Ukrainians keep fighting hard to defend their sovereignty one month into the invasion. As the very perspicacious Gideon Rachman aptly wrote in the Financial Times this week, there are “three options: a prolonged war; a peace settlement; or a coup in Russia. Expect the first, work for the second and hope for the third”, while knowing that the latter is challenging, as even his closest aides no longer physically approach the Russian leader in a way that started with the pandemic era, and might explain his further isolation and strange decision-making. Regardless of the winning option in the making, the West should not become, one month into the conflict, sleepily accustomed to the daily continuous news flow and accept it as a normal fixture to live with.

Russia cannot be relied upon. In spite of Western intelligence reports to the contrary, Russia stated numerous times over two months that its large troop movements near the Ukrainian borders were only for exercises before finally invading. One month into the invasion, Dmitri Peskov, the Kremlin spokesman (whose own daughter criticized the invasion on social media when she still could) explained that the Russian invasion had been to stop a Ukrainian one with its 120,000 troops ready on the “divide” and, in any case, were the last effort to respond to the West not addressing for 20 years the Russian concerns about a “militarized” and threatening Ukraine. The script of the reunification of the Russian people was abandoned while Peskov, the voice of Russia, was stressing the many Ukrainians wanting to work with the Russian army and making it clear that civilians had never been targeted as if in a parallel world and in spite of the numerous filmed proofs to the contrary. Confidently lying is now the official modus operandi of a Kremlin that is totally disconnected from world reality. This approach is also not conducive to producing any good faith diplomatic resolution to the conflict on the ground that would provide longer term guarantees to Ukraine and Europe.

What to do with Russia in the future? How to deal with Russia in a post-war scenario (putting aside the unavoidable subject of reparations – these not of the likes of returning Alaska) is going to be a major exercise for the West and the world that will require no Putin (in a Lindsey Graham scenario or not *) and a likely change in the autocratic and kleptocratic nature of Russia as we see it today. While it is likely, as the Russian opposition in exile states, that democracy would eventually happen in ways that would benefit the Russian population and indeed the world, this transition would require time and be likely more challenging in many aspects than the one experienced at the fall of the Soviet Union. The bleaker alternative for all parties, short of an always possible but still unlikely WW3, is a durable and worse Cold War than the one previously experienced though far more challenging for Russia itself.

Warmest regards,

Serge

*US Senator Lindsey Graham (a close friend of John McCain even if later too supportive of Donald Trump) vocally stressed the way out of the Ukraine-led world crisis would be to effectively assassinate Putin, this previously mentioned as likely the only way to stop the crisis quickly. While the US and Western governments do not officially and understandably support such a drastic development, the logic still holds. As the French saying goes, Lindsay Graham only said loudly what nearly everybody (in the West) thinks deeply and quietly.

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