Dear Partners in Thought,
As the Russian invasion of Ukraine enters its sixth month, it is worth stressing a few facts and considerations in the midst of a still regular, but now reduced, news flow. As time goes by and the new normal sets in, the Western media are also now more focused on the issues of the day such as climate change-related heat or other daily concerns—rising inflation, energy prices and food scarcity as if the latter three are somehow rootless.
- The winner is not clear but…
By not winning outright, Russia has already “lost.” However, the fight is going on and may be a long game in the making. While the protracted and exhausting game may at first glance seem to favor Russia—having made a few wins in the East and now wanting to annex more territories in the South to link Crimea to the Donbas—its military resources are depleted both in terms of manpower and equipment. At the same time, Ukraine, having suffered a few setbacks in the Donbas, is now using pivotal new long-range US rockets, inflicting heavy damage to Russian supply lines, ammunition depots and massive but outdated artillery. At this stage it is hard to predict how the war will unfold, while more analysts are betting on an embattled and theoretically weaker Ukraine eventually winning, given the deep systemic Russian flaws at play, and the natural advantage given to the defenders of their land—all borne out by facts on the ground. However, in order to win, Ukraine will have to get not only more efficient weapons, but also more troops trained (the West, like Britain. being key now) and start launching large scale counter-offensives in such areas near strategic Kherson.
- The West’s resolve is not the strongest but…
The West wants to support Ukraine and the rule of international law, but is not keen on waging a war against Russia—despite effectively doing so by sending weapons and ammunitions (albeit in a way that seems at times reserved). The West therefore does not know where it stands, and is still somewhat afraid of eventually facing Russia militarily (even if the latter proved to be very inadequate, though very nuclear strong) while struggling with the impact of their own sanctions and trying to keep some gas (and grain) flowing. The West is still digesting the failure of peace through trade, exemplified by Angela Merkel, and now paying for it by having trusted and allowed an always undemocratic and unpredictable Russia control its energy future. However, while the West could be much stronger and stress the direct military option more (predictably unpopular at home), it has still managed to strengthen itself in rallying together—as seen with a stronger NATO welcoming former, traditionally neutral, now new-cold-war frontline countries, like Sweden and Finland. The EU green parties have also shown resolve, notably in Germany, to sacrifice temporarily both of their coal and nuclear energy policies on the altar of support of Ukraine and what it stands for – all while an EU-level energy transition should take place in order to break the costly dependence on Russia and also in the context of the now unavoidable fight against climate change. However, such a resolve is also dependent upon political leadership at the country level, especially among leading Western countries—domestic events like the unexpected resignation of Prime Minister Draghi following the “betrayal” of his Five Stars and League coalition partners (incidentally Putin’s Russia’s old friends), may have an adverse strategic impact.
- The West may also get tired but…
The West may get tired, over time, in its support of Ukraine, even if it could always be more decisive, while the long game may favor Putin (or not according to Richard Moore, the head of MI6). The streets of the West will gradually focus more on the long-forgotten rising inflation, and the price of petrol/gas at the pump, than what is happening in Ukraine—as seen in parts of America—regardless of the values, principles and geopolitics at play. Communication from Western governments, to explain the rationality of unwavering support of Ukraine to their own populations, will be key. There is also a need to reconcile the gap between promises and action on financial aid to Ukraine made by the EU, which has only disbursed EUR 1bn out of the EUR 9bn pledged in April, while the US has already disbursed USD 4bn to Kyiv, and plans to send another USD 6.2bn in September. The European gap is also linked to domestic reactions to rising inflation (directly attributable to Putin’s energy and grain blockage backlash) even if some of it is naturally Covid era-related. And Putin is obviously betting on the populations of the West to put pressures on their governments to focus on the economy, away from the geopolitics and moral principles, reflecting in some ways what the recent Biden trip to Saudi Arabia has been—even if linked to the Russian invasion. It is also key for Ukraine to ensure that side problems, like arms smuggling, are properly and publicly managed, as it would be a trigger or an easier excuse for reduced Western support, on the back of a challenging but practical admission that Ukraine had always been a very corrupt “environment,” and new cold war borders have now been redrawn and should be lived with.
- Russia is delusional – no, but…
The Kremlin is living in a parallel world in 2022. It behaves as if nothing abnormal had really happened in its forcefully returning territories à la Peter the Great. Bravado is back center stage at the Kremlin, which is re-stressing the initial invasion “rationale” that Russia is fighting to remove the Ukraine leadership, so as to “de-Nazify the state;” as if the first initial statements had not been crazy enough at all levels— including when dealing with President Zelensky who is notoriously Jewish. When all is said and done, Putin’s move made Russia i) a war crime-ridden pariah state for at least one generation, and certainly until he is gone from the Kremlin; ii) a perceived much weaker military power with command issues, troop deficiencies at many levels, and obsolete equipment on display and iii) a gradually-isolated and economically-suffering country with ties to shaky democracies and dictatorships, that will also suffer from their indirect support of Russia. Peter the Great would not be too happy about these developments, not to mention seeing the new Czar needing Iran for drones. Moscow today also benefits more from anti-Western rather than pro-Russian support, with China being the lead example of an early fair-weather friend caught—if not trapped—by the surprise invasion, but which still needs globalization, and claims that national sovereignty matters (except naturally for Taiwan, which explains the enduring “friendship” in the east China seas that currently annoys Japan). Putin today is facing the key challenge of maintaining the integrity of the Russian army, and wants to stay away from what would be a deeply unpopular—but required—mobilization, that would also stress nation-wide the collapse of his “limited special operation.” The most militarily cost-effective option for Putin, while maintaining ongoing economic pressures and cyberattacks on the West, would be to declare victory when and if Russia controls the Donbas (so forgetting the South and its “link rationale”), and start multilateral negotiations to end the war just as the West is pressured on the energy front as Winter comes.
- Sanctions are a challenging tool – for all
Sanctions—which made sense for the West and the world, in order to punish unacceptable old geopolitical ways, all the more so in Europe—may also hurt the West, without impacting Russia, as the Kremlin does not really care about what is happening to its own population in the way that Western governments would need to. As shown in the domestic support for Putin, the Stockholm syndrome is powerful, and what matters to the Russian people, all the more in non-urban areas and with few connections to the world, is national pride (however flawed), rather than the quality of daily life. The Russian people, however, also live in the 21st century and may grow tired—by the combination of an ever-going war and, indeed sanctions—though they seem ill-equipped for societal change-making from the grassroots, in the controlled environment that always was Russia. It is clear that Putin is betting on the economic pain resulting from food and energy shortage, and rising inflation to force the West, especially the EU that is also more on the frontlines, to advise Kyiv to negotiate an end of the war on good terms for Moscow—so far without results, though it is early days, and recession and shortages are only starting (even if a “complex” geopolitical actor like Turkey just led Moscow to soften the blockade imposed on Ukrainian Black Sea ports grain exports, via a UN-sponsored agreement in Istanbul).
- The neutral developing world is suffering – and may further do so
Apart from India, that still benefits from its high-wire exercise between the West and Russia, the less wealthy world, which did not initially condemn Russia at the UN for many different reasons, is hit very hard by food shortages—especially on the African continent. Many countries, having perennially suffered from war and civil strife, are clearly not interested in the multiple political aspects of an unusual large-scale war in Europe. One of the unexpected developments of the conflict may be a Western handling of the neutral developing world in a more tactical way than it has done so far, even if a new cold war with China, if it developed further, may soften the process. The recent collapse of the Sri Lankan government, with all its violent features, illustrates what could be a wider crisis among developing countries that suffer from the rising energy prices, food shortages and costs, and much stronger US dollar—all by-products of an invasion from another time in the heart of far-away Europe. It is, however, also possible that many of these developing countries and their peoples gradually feel that the roots of their problems lie with Russia’s initial war move, which may not create the best of future relationships with an ever-isolated and less-appealing Russian partner. The recent UN deal, brokered by Turkey, to reopen the exports of Ukrainian grain doubtless results from Moscow’s realization, that many of these “neutral” countries (and even partners) were deeply suffering from its war blockades globally. And, of course, some countries may welcome the start of a new cold war, that brings more geopolitical clarity—like Iran supplying Russia with drones; the latter example not being a strong point for the Kremlin and its military wherewithal.
- Russia may not be as tough as it shows (with history eventually repeating itself)
While many Russians suffer from historical and enhanced Stockholm Syndrome, it is still not clear that a long war would not create conditions for domestic reactions at some point. It is, however, an increasingly-challenging (if not impossible) scenario, as many of the urban, educated Russians have fled Russia (especially academics and tech specialists)—no longer wanting to stay in such an autocratic environment, thus indirectly helping Putin deal with reduced natural opposition, but also hurting Russia at its value creative core. While Putin and his self-centered inner circle seem to control Russia, and bet on its ancestral resilience, the latter—possibly not oblivious to popular sentiment—may at some point find the costs of Putin’s new cold war strategy no longer acceptable. Some of the key oligarchs, who may seem obedient so far, but have likely suffered greatly financially and leisurely globally, may start plotting, even if the Kremlin risk-management measures are likely in full force. On a closer look, time may not actually be on Putin’s side, as he finds himself increasingly alone in the Kremlin. Back in 1917 another war helped bring down another Czar.
The situation is Ukraine is unclear, and the above facts show a disconnected—and at times incoherent—picture. The outcome of the war could go anywhere. Resolve is still the key ingredient to beating Russia, or bringing it to the negotiating table on acceptable terms.