Dear Partners in Thought,
In our last post, the key points of regime change led and/or supported by the Russian people, the need to avoid weakness in dealing with the Kremlin, and the plan to redefine a new Europe – eventually comprising another democratic and liberal Russia – were stressed.
While “lessons”, “key facts” and “remarks” were made in the midst of a deluge of news over the last six weeks following the Ukraine invasion, seven key reality checks are worth noting today:
The world is not the West after all. Even if the West was united and well-heard (including pro-Russia Orban’s Hungary and traditionally Serbia, however vacillating), the whole world did not follow its unanimous condemnation of the Russian invasion. Many countries stayed neutral for geopolitical reasons, or because it was not their fight, had close trading or political ties to Russia, or simply wanted to follow an old-fashioned and easier-to-live-with non-alignment. China, India, Brazil, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Indonesia, Vietnam, Iraq and Turkey, a NATO ally (though admittedly a key and needed mediator) did not condemn Russia at the UN. China staying neutral, even if playing a high wire act like with the EU, is obviously not what Putin’s Russia wanted, but is led by following its economic self-interest while not siding with the US mega-rival. 25 African countries did not vote or stayed neutral, including South Africa, partly on the grounds of the Soviet support in the old apartheid fight, or as Russian wheat was key for their citizens like Zimbabwe. The divide was often along soft-to-hard autocracies vs. democracies more than on geographic lines, and was often tainted by the potential opening of war- and sanctions-resulting trading opportunities as in the case of Modi’s India. The Ukraine invasion opened the road for a redefinition of the world order, possibly along the lines of a dual cold war with Moscow and China leading the anti-West camp with different battlefields and agendas.
Ukraine and Europe are far away for many people. Many residents of countries in the Middle East, Africa or Latin America – some ravaged by previous wars and strife – are not reacting to a war in Europe which is not their problem, and for people who did not care about their own similar issues in the past. Putting aside geopolitics and alliances, the Ukraine war is perceived at times as an ethnocentric matter to many in the non-Western world, or a white people’s problem. This feeling of non-interest can easily graduate to anger when some countries suffer from wheat supply – and therefore bread – shortage, leading to riots like in Egypt, allowing for some repositioning of relationships: in this case with Saudi Arabia. However, while the crisis brought its fair share of neglect in the non-Western world (apart from Taiwan and Singapore, and of course Westernized Japan), it also created some never-seen developments such as the previously unheard-of meeting in Jerusalem between an “open-minded” Israel wanting to play “Western” mediator, the UAE (even if having hosted al-Assad just earlier), Egypt, Morocco and the US to deal with the war in Ukraine and its consequences. At the same time, horrendous crises like the Afghan famine and resurrected Taliban treatment of girls and women barred from schools have been sadly eclipsed, leading understandably to more resentment locally from those who suffer or help there.
The basis of peace plans seems unsound in its structuring. Putting aside whether Russia can be trusted, which is a fair question based on tested experience, it is not sure that peace plans based on guarantees provided by the US, France, the UK and Germany amongst others to preserve Ukrainian independence would ever realistically be given if Ukraine never joined NATO. At the very best, Ukraine, which could join the EU, would benefit from an implicit though not formal guarantee. The danger of such a peace plan would be to provide yet again too much recognition to an aggressive Russian behavior all the more in the context of a continuing Putin leadership. The focus of stopping the conflict may not be enough for some in the West to potentially get into a new one in the future on a similar basis seen with the current invasion. Similarly, the potential acceptance of forced neutrality by Ukraine, not only being a blow to standard sovereignty, may reward and embolden an aggressive Russia that would see its unacceptable means justify its ends whatever they may be.
The refugee influx may likely be even more tragic in the medium-term. It is unlikely that the 4 million refugees moving Westward will continue to be welcome with open arms as weeks and months go by, all the more in Poland where there are already nearly 2.5 million. Western financial assistance, especially from the EU to the EU member states on the frontline, will be key. While most of Europe will bear the brunt of the refugee influx, not all of Europe or other parts of the world will face the same issue. The US, which plays a key role in the crisis but is much farther afield – indeed a key advantage in any European war scenarios – is not facing the same problems as it only provided 100,000 visas for people with relatives already on US soil, this small number also explained by the fact that refugees usually wanted to stay near Ukraine. While Boris Johnson is very firm in the British stance against Russia, only very few visas were granted to refugees, this officially due to administrative issues. Countries like Switzerland where many citizens have offered rooms and beds to refugees saw little take-up due to the distance from Ukraine and the local cost of living, this even though many refugee assistance programs were ready since the Syrian war. It is likely that host countries neighboring Ukraine will get tired at some point of their status, this even with EU financial assistance, while refugees themselves will not only comprise law-abiding guests or simply wanting to leave and return to Ukraine at some point. Another issue, largely unmentioned, is the brain drain for the Ukrainian economy combined with a permanent population loss that would have a multiple societal impact.
Energy is the other battlefield that needs total European commitment. While nothing can distract from the destructions, losses of life and indeed war crimes committed by Russia in Ukraine, the other battlefield especially for Europe is energetic. European countries need to be ready to restructure their energy supply routes away from Russia (a subject that will redefine the geopolitical cards with countries like Iran and its needed oil). The subject should no longer be to pay in Euros or Rubles but to stop trading with Russia, which needs these proceeds to fight its very expensive war in Ukraine and potentially other conflicts in the East (while the EU provided EUR 1bn to assist Ukraine in the war, it had paid EUR 100bn to Russia for its oil and gas in 2021). While this strategic change will be costly and might create temporary shortages, the reshaping of energy supply is key and the US and other allies should assist Europe as it goes through a painful transition. This change has taken too long already even if all parties knew that it would be bound to happen. And then the other key challenge when Europe has secured its warmth is food security notably in relation to wheat as seen across the world like with Egypt and given the Ukrainian and Russian “wheat granary of the world” and the rising wheat prices since the invasion. One drastic way to deal with both key strategic issues, and if willing to indulge in unacceptable dark humor in such a tragic time, would be to find a nuclear safe way to yet invade and temporarily occupy and “train” a gradually reforming Russia which would solve many problems in one go and this time perhaps bring a quicker democratic process to the land of the Czars.
The Russians now seem to support the war and Putin. Latest Russian polls from Levada, that can be questionable, have shown an increase in the approval ratings for the war and Putin and condemnations of the West. From 69% to 83% the Russian population “would seem” to back the Kremlin and its fights against the Nazis and the US biochemistry laboratories in Ukraine while showing anger at the West generally, something the sanctions should exacerbate when they are finally felt. The opponents to the war have either left or stay quiet at this stage (15,000 arrests were made) while the state propaganda machine reinforces the general population feelings in what is not a revolution but an involution or a devolution characterized by a political and economic return to a Soviet-like era. Sanctions may change these feelings or reinforce them but have not yet drastically have the expected impact on the Ruble or daily Russian life even if signs of a downturn are seen. There seems to be a comforting rallying around the flag in what may also be perceived as desperate times when patriotism of a nation under siege from the West, thus also justifying the preemptive war, is a natural and easier recourse. Such a development dampens the possible regime change that would help stop the current game, even if a coup would most likely be required so led at the top with the population, most likely in Russia, rallying around the flag again though this time behind the new regime.
A new world order may be redefined along a dual cold war. The Ukraine invasion – which was the first classical and unprovoked military aggression of a sovereign country in Europe since WW2 – will in the short-term, lead to a US-led West and EU facing Russia and its few allies like Belarus against a backdrop of many non-aligned and neutral nations that stayed aside for their own reasons. This cold war will be reminiscent of the 20th century version of such rivalry between the West and the Soviet Union and their allies, with the risk of military confrontation very likely. One of the show-stoppers of such a scenario will be linked to Putin’s longevity in the Kremlin and the likelihood of regime change. The other cold war, already in motion prior to Ukraine, will directly pit the US and China and be focused on world supremacy – while the latter will keep combining an autocratic but socially-accepted regime at home, and a thriving economy still dependent on an old but now fragile globalization. While the other cold war should not involve military means (short of a Taiwan invasion following an emboldening Ukraine scenario to be well delivered), the principle of globalization, combined by the impact of a new Iron Curtain with the more classical twin, would be endangered at the risk of being left behind, with countries looking first for autonomy at all levels. With such a novel cold war scenario II, globalization would then become more Western-centered and China-focused with two worlds oddly developing in parallel with little inter-action. The two cold wars, different in nature and their occasional tactical links, would be a US-EU West led contest between Russia and China respectively and their respective cold war partners. It would also embody the fight of democracy vs autocracy in the 21st century.
Having raised the seven reality checks, it is good to take a view on where the players are today and stress the obvious fact that nobody wants to recognize.
Where we are now. As the war in Ukraine has reached its sixth week, losers and winners can already be seen. From a victimized loser, Ukraine is emerging an unexpected winner as the odd champion of democracy and liberalism even with a patchy biography in these two fields. The war has cemented the likelihood of its EU membership which even Russia would likely have to accept. The biggest loser is gradually becoming Russia on military, diplomatic, economic and even more so existential terms. A now stronger Europe has naturally joined the winner’s camp by showing a unity of “views” while expectedly remaining cautious not to foster WW3, while Germany showed a new military self and Italy rose to the occasion in spite of trade links with Moscow. The US looks like the real winner, strengthening its role as the clear leader of the West and energy beneficiary of the European resupply lines game, while taking necessary risks with global peace with a needed hawkish stance to face Russia. China sits aside from the winner-loser camp in a quasi-parallel world through an “understood” neutrality driven by economic and social self-interest that is still marginally stronger than its desire to overtake the US through an ill-fated axis with a lost Russia under Putin.
The Siberian cat in the room (pun indeed). One development that neither the West or Russia want to recognize is that the US and to some extent the EU are de facto at war with Russia. WW3 in a different, subtler and yet less non-directly lethal mode has started between the West and Russia. The West is increasingly providing, even if too slowly, all the military equipment and assistance to a newly reborn Ukraine to face and defeat Russia so it can fight for its independence, democracy, liberalism, human dignity and indeed the West.