Putin’s Russia: The hegemon that isn’t (II)

James Hamill writes on the blowback from the half-failed invasion of the Ukraine

The first aritcle in this two part series can be read here

Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine looks set to rank alongside the 2003 invasion of Iraq as the most compelling example of blowback, unintended consequences, and self-harm in the post-Cold War era. It may even surpass it as Russia’s capacity to absorb the shocks and costs of its self-inflicted disaster is much weaker than that of the United States after 2003. Instead of returning Russia to the summit of global power politics as a dynamic force to be reckoned with, it is damaging Russian interests on every level and is likely to create many more problems for Moscow than it solves. [i]

Self-deception and unintended consequences

Putin’s invasion was based on the twin assumptions that there was no real Ukrainian nation or state and that, consequently, Ukraine would collapse within days, but these have proved to be calamitous misjudgements and a case study in the folly of believing one’s own propaganda.

The invasion has actually served to highlight and reinforce a very powerful sense of Ukrainian identity and has kindled a fierce commitment to Ukrainian statehood, one forged in the heat of an existential struggle. In fact, the invasion is likely to prove to be a seminal moment in entrenching pride in Ukrainian nationhood - and generating a visceral hostility to Russia - for generations to come.[ii]

Moscow’s desperate use of the military bludgeon has also extinguished any prospect of a normalisation of relations with its neighbours as long as it remains in the grip of its current regime. The ‘special military operation’ in Ukraine has removed any lingering vestiges of trust in Moscow and the principal question for neighbouring states now is how best to safeguard their security and sovereignty in the face of such an aggressive regime.

The bad news for Putin does not end there, however. Contrary to his expectations, the invasion has strengthened a transatlantic alliance which had fallen into disrepair under Donald Trump as the West responded with ‘speed, determination and strength’ to Russian aggression.[iii] It has also facilitated the re-emergence of the United States from a period of hesitant, semi-isolationism as well as strengthening the unity of the European Union.

Above all, it is demonstrating the value of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), the very organisation the invasion was designed to render irrelevant. It will be seen as a strategic miscalculation of the highest order if Putin’s invasion - as now seems certain - increases the US troop presence in Europe to levels not seen in decades and guarantees NATO’s expansion rather than its rollback.

Sweden and Finland are more enthusiastic about joining NATO than ever before and now stand on the brink of membership, a serious setback for Putin whose invasion has, virtually overnight, overturned those two states’ historic commitment to neutrality. [iv]

The invasion has also led to the imposition of the most comprehensive sanctions package ever imposed by the West on another state, confounding Putin’s expectation that it would produce some token Western measures and much sound and fury amounting to relatively little. Although the impact of sanctions is always incremental rather than immediate, they will certainly degrade an already dysfunctional Russian economy.

Sanctions are likely to help send Russia into its deepest recession for three decades with a contraction in GDP of between 10% and 15% likely in 2022, according to Russia’s own projections, thus undermining the material base for further aggression.[v] Putin’s invasion has also given much greater impetus to a Western shift away from fossil fuels generally and from Russian supplies in particular.

Over the longer term this decoupling from the Russian economy will reduce Moscow’s leverage over Western European states who are currently trapped in the paradox of financing a Russian war they deplore as a result of their energy dependence. For Putin, the invasion was supposed to be another key landmark demonstrating the weakness and decline of the West, particularly the United States, a belief which is one of his guiding principles.

Instead, it has triggered a robust reassertion of Western values and purpose, a commitment to increased defence expenditure, and the revival of the Cold War policy of containment towards the Soviet Union.[vi] US officials are now openly stating that there should be no return to the status quo ante and the Western response to the war should weaken Russia’s capacity to wreak further regional havoc.[vii]

A further measure of Putin’s failure is that in a matter of days his invasion secured an overhaul of Germany’s post-war foreign policy modus operandi as Berlin adopted a more assertive stance, pledged a modernisation of its military capability and began supplying lethal weaponry to Ukraine, even if not quite at the pace or scale desired by Kyiv.[viii]

All of this marked the end of an era of Western illusions that dialogue, economic interdependence and the integration of Russia into multilateral institutions would produce a more democratic and responsible power.[ix] Overall, this invasion seems certain to transform the European strategic landscape but not in ways advantageous to Moscow.

A lawless power

Finally, Russia has exposed itself as a lawless power, principally through the aggression itself, and by Putin’s nuclear sabre rattling, but also by its decision to ignore the ruling of the International Court of Justice of 16 March declaring the invasion to be illegal and without justification.[x]

By so doing, Moscow has undermined the architecture of global governance and acquired a pariah state image, hardly part of Putin’s grand plan or the trappings of a great power. True, unambiguous condemnation of Russia has not been universal, its BRICS allies remain broadly supportive even if officially neutral.[xi]

However, most states throughout the developing world cherish state sovereignty and territorial integrity as central pillars of international relations and therefore view wars of conquest - and Russia’s attempt to destroy Ukrainian sovereignty - with alarm. That is why 141 states, 75% of the United Nations membership, voted for the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) resolution of 2 March condemning the invasion.

Russia, by contrast, could only muster the support of four squalid dictatorships: Belarus, Eritrea, North Korea, and Syria. It is also why the UNGA voted on 7 April to suspend Russia’s membership of the UN’s Human Rights Council in protest at the atrocities accompanying its illegal invasion, a humiliation for a permanent member of the UN Security Council (UNSC).[xii]

Even in the UNSC vote of 25 February, held immediately following the invasion, Russia lacked any positive support with an 11-1 vote against it with three abstentions (including China). However, Moscow’s sole vote against constituted a veto thus killing a resolution which had deplored the invasion and demanded an immediate Russian withdrawal. [xiii]

The Potemkin village

Such a catalogue of misjudgements is all the more puzzling given the lengthy prelude to the invasion which should have allowed time more considered judgments about options and likely consequences. That this failed to happen is instructive as to how the decision-making process in Moscow operates.

But the inevitable price of centralised authoritarian leadership is that Putin must now fully own this misbegotten enterprise which at best can only provide him with a pyrrhic victory, and, in all probability, will accelerate Russian decline. Putin’s Russia resembles something from the country’s own history, the Potemkin village.

It has the façade of a great power, but this cannot conceal its inner decay, its abysmal standards of economic and political governance and its marginalisation, both regional and global. There may well be some merit in granting Putin some face-saving mechanism to extricate himself from his Ukrainian quagmire, assuming of course that he is interested in an off-ramp and we do not enter another ‘forever war.’[xiv]

That, however, would have to be balanced against the interests of Ukraine and the need to ensure his aggression is not rewarded as that will only invite further challenges up ahead. Although wars often bring initial surges in popularity for leaders, it must be hoped that once the full extent of the damage inflicted on Russia – both material and reputational – hits home it will produce a reckoning for Vladimir Putin of the kind faced by Nikita Khrushchev in the aftermath of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.


[i] Ian Bremmer, ‘Counting the cost of the war to Vladimir Putin’, The Economist, 19 April 2022

[ii] Richard J Evans, ‘Vladimir Putin’s war of delusions’, The New Statesman, 9 April 2022

[iii] Ivo Daalder and James Lindsay, ‘Why Putin Underestimated the West’, Foreign Affairs, 7 April 2022

[iv] Carl Bildt, ‘NATO’s Nordic Expansion’, Foreign Affairs, 26 April 2022

[v] ‘Russia’s economy set for biggest contraction since 1994, Kudrin says’, Reuters, 12 April 2022

[vi] Ivo Daalder, ‘The Return of Containment’, Foreign Affairs, 1 March 2022

[vii] Matt Murphy, ‘Ukraine war: US wants to see a weakened Russia’, BBC News 26 April 2022

[viii] Sudha David-Wilp and Thomas Kleine-Brockhoff, ‘A New Germany’, Foreign Affairs, 1 March 2022

[ix] Caroline De Gruyter, ‘Europe’s Shattered Illusions’, Prospect, May 2022

[x] UN international court of justice orders Russia to halt invasion of Ukraine’, The Guardian, 16 March 2022

[xi] James Hamill ‘South Africa Has Chosen a Side in the War on Ukraine’, World Politics Review, March 2022

[xii] ‘Russia suspended from human rights council after UN General Assembly vote’, The Guardian, 7 April 2020

[xiii] ‘Russia vetoes UN Security action on Ukraine as China abstains’, Reuters, 26 February 2022

[xiv] Liana Fix and Michael Kimmage, What If the War in Ukraine Doesn’t End?’ Foreign Affairs, 20 April 2022