Sergey Poletaev: Russia, Ukraine, the EU and the US have something in common – their illusions were shattered in 2022
The Russian military offensive in Ukraine has set in motion a chain of events that has led to a global upheaval – in political and economic terms – comparable to world wars. We are probably in the initial phase of this conflict, and more players will become involved over time, but some conclusions can already be drawn.
The past year has been one in which postmodernism collided with the real world. Almost all of the direct and indirect actors in the Ukrainian crisis built their domestic and foreign policies on theoretical, highly ideological constructions. And the more the wishful thinking, the tougher the consequences now.
Let's take a look at the main players.
Our first and foremost illusion was about the contractual commitments of other parties. All through the post-Soviet era we had tried to resolve the Ukraine issue peacefully on the assumption that this would be better for all.
The idea was that the West – especially the part bordering the leading nuclear power – would get a predictable security situation and clear rules of the game, together with a high degree of influence over Kiev. Western Europe would, in addition, preserve and strengthen its ties with Russia as its main resource base and also gain access to its extensive market. Ukraine would have the possibility of a soft integration into greater Europe while maintaining deep economic and cultural ties with Russia. Meanwhile Moscow, apart from its further gradual integration into the Western and primarily EU-led system, would maintain influence over Ukraine and enjoy the guarantee of friendly policies from Kiev towards both the Russian state and the multi-million ethnic Russian population in Ukraine.
However, the entire history of post-Soviet Ukraine is a history of backward movement (which will be discussed below). This state of affairs has been irreversible since 2014, and the consistent ignoring of this fact and attempts to override the inevitable process – via agreements with Kiev and the West – have led us to the current military campaign.
What exactly went wrong at the end of February last year is something we will not know for some time. However, if Moscow had the goal of solving the Ukrainian problem according to the 2008 Georgian scenario – with little blood and within a few days – this objective has obviously not been achieved.
The fact is that the 30-year old anti-Russian outpost turned out to be very strong and ready to fight even at the cost of its own destruction – again, contrary to common sense, as it is understood in Moscow.
Hopefully, Russian illusions have been dispelled definitively and our political and military leadership is no longer relying on rational behavior from both the West and Kiev. However, so far, the course of the military offensive suggests rather the opposite.
Right now, offensives are being carried out only in the Donbass, and not along the entire front, but in localised areas – mainly by the forces of the Wagner private contractor group and the former local militias. There is a sense that during 2022 we didn’t really know what to do next, as if we were waiting for the enemy to get fed up before we did, and finally start to negotiate for real.
Our second illusion concerned the combat capabilities of the army. The actions of the Russian Armed Forces are generally criticized in patriotic circles. But it should be understood that, for some time now, our army has not prepared for a large-scale land conflict with a front line of a couple of thousand kilometres, with the need to conduct combined armed operations on the level of World War Two, backed up by the mobilization of hundreds of thousands of men. This will not change overnight. And although the shortcomings identified in the actions of their Armed Forces, and their leadership, are recognized and somehow being addressed, we do not yet see a full-scale offensive with the decisive goal of defeating the Ukrainian Army. Perhaps we will this year. Perhaps the army is just now preparing rather than waiting.
The main illusion of the US in the post-Cold War era has been a belief in its complete control (or at least dominance) over what goes on in the world, and hence the notion that the interests of its counterparts is determined in Washington, and only in Washington. Put simply, things will be as I want them to be, and if not, I have sufficient means to cajole and punish those who disagree.
In many ways, this inflexibility has led to the current crisis: it was impossible for US elites to reach an agreement with Russia – while saving face and even benefitting economically and politically. Even though Moscow seemed prepared to compromise.
The situation is similar all over the world: everywhere the United States acts on the principle of “Might goes before right.”
In the Middle East, such behaviour has already led to a sharp weakening of America’s position; the prospect of conflict with China has become almost irreversible, and Washington has laid time bombs under its relations with allies in Europe and Asia that are likely to go off in the coming years.
Since the Second World War, the United States had been building a global system, a kind of new type of empire. Washington has consistently taken control of political and economic processes in the world without much resistance – on the contrary, everyone has sought to integrate into this system, some gaining markets and access to cheap money, some obtaining a security umbrella and an opportunity not to spend money on their armies, some getting their hands on the latest technology.
The US itself skimmed the cream off all this, and after several generations the American political class became convinced that such a system was not the result of painstaking work and consideration of partners’ interests, but some kind of birthright, which at times became a burden. Hence, the more hysterical American foreign policy has become and the more it has attempted to force others to bend to its will. Consequently, it has undermined the global US-centric system.
Washington still has a solid margin of safety, its base remains large, and alternative global institutions are only just beginning to take shape, so do not expect any noticeable change in US policy in the coming years, especially as internal divides are more likely to increase the foreign policy strain.
The second American (as well as Western European) illusion is that a military conflict, on the scale of what’s happening in Ukraine, can be won without direct involvement. Yes, the Ukrainian military is holding up quite well, but Russia has so far engaged only a small part of its military resources in the operation, and the degree of escalation on our part is now determined by political decisions, not military and mobilization capabilities. If we are willing and ready, we can increase the onslaught many times over, to which it will be extremely difficult for the West and the US to respond without directly engaging their forces (at least air defence and air force) in the conflict. However, President Biden has repeatedly stressed that he will not intervene as long as he’s in power.
Western Europe's main illusion is that its well-fed prosperity of recent decades is its own achievement and that it’s based on a set of abstract values. In reality, its wealth has rested on two pillars: the American military, political and economic roof and cheap resources, primarily Russian.
A lack of concern about its own security and the impossibility of internal conflicts, on the one hand, contributed to an unprecedented economic boom, a true golden age, and on the other hand, led to the degeneration of Western European elites and the political class, who sincerely believed that this would always be the case and that all it took was cultivating values and striving to spread them to the rest of the “backward” world.
This explains Western Europe’s stubbornness on the Ukrainian issue – which borders on fanaticism. The EU, and its allies, accepts the most vicious anti-Russia sanctions with the greatest fervor, and with no regard for any damage.
The bloc is deprived of a major market, of its most important resource base, and is being driven into near-colonial dependence on Washington, which, unlike Western Europe, has real military power and control over political and economic processes globally.
Since the West's attempt to shock and awe Russia economically failed, Western Europe's leaders are at a loss: the same people, a couple of days apart, can talk about the need for a military victory over Moscow and the need for a diplomatic dialogue – without seeming to understand much about what “military victory” and “diplomatic dialogue” mean.
The prospect of years of high energy prices and the resulting de-industrialisation and falling living standards, the likelihood of a trade war with the US in a global recession, the possibility of subsidizing a ruined Ukraine for an indefinite number of years, the specter of hundreds of billions in losses from lost accumulated investments in Russia should be sobering, but have not yet led to any solutions. Because there is simply no one to make and implement them.
Plus, the long-standing problems of the EU, which it has brushed under the carpet in recent years – such as the migration crisis and the constant concern about southern Europe’s economic stability – remain.
Ukraine's main illusion is the belief that it is possible to build a mono-ethnic state hostile to Russia within its post-Soviet borders with a significant Russian population, and the belief that such a Ukraine will be tolerable to both the West and Russia itself.
Ukraine is not Poland, and the attempt to tilt decisively to one bloc has led to a civil conflict, each side supported by the West and Russia respectively. After this conflict escalated into open conflict in 2014, Ukraine started to turn from an anti-Russian outpost into a weapon, a kind of kamikaze drone of the West against Moscow.
Admittedly, this was partly successful: both the Ukrainian armed forces and the state as a whole withstood the February blow, recovered, and with Western support, inflicted a series of painful defeats on Russia by the autumn.
The military successes, however, are not strategic, and the price is the death of the Ukrainian economy. According to various estimates, up to a third of the (pre-February 2022) population has fled the country. Meanwhile, production was cut in half even before the Russian strikes on energy facilities started in October, and by the New Year, according to official Kiev statements, it was down by 70 percent. This means unemployment, empty coffers, further impoverishment of the population and mass closures of businesses.
Yes, the West now serves as a powerful rear for Ukraine, at considerable cost, but it avoids getting directly involved in the fighting, shifting all the burden and hardship to Kiev. Whatever the end of the hot phase of the conflict, it appears that a devastated Ukraine will have to deal with the consequences on its own, and the further it goes on, the harder they will be.
However, even if some among the Ukrainian elites can guess how they are being used, they cannot stop. The Western control is too tight, the ideological pumping is too great and things have gone too far.
Ukraine is now a zombie, a dead man walking, and it will continue moving as long as the West supports it. Nevertheless, even as it is, the Ukrainian military is capable of fighting for years, especially given the current sluggish course of the conflict.
The West can withdraw support for Ukraine only in one scenario: if Kiev’s army is defeated and physically incapable of fighting, or if Ukraine physically shrinks enough to lose its strategic significance. Any ceasefire would only postpone the conflict for the future, and there should be no illusions about that.
The conflict has so far only escalated. For both Russia and the West it is existential, and neither side is inclined to compromise. All the more surprising is that the hostilities have so far been relatively localized, limited to one Ukrainian theater, and even there in a measured and positional manner. The parties seem to be focused on how to learn to live under the new conditions, which means that figuring out the new world order could happen relatively peacefully, without turning into major battle with the risk of a nuclear disaster.
The initiative in this process will be taken by whoever accepts reality first, understands their place in it, and acts accordingly. This applies not only to the above-mentioned participants in the Ukrainian crisis, but also to neutral countries that have yet to give up their own illusions.