Ukraine: why now? And now what?

Irina Filatova on why Putin acted when he did, and the disastrous consequences that will flow from that decision

This is the second article in a two-part series. The first can be read here.

The answer to the question of why Putin started the war when he did, is obvious. Ukraine seemed tantalisingly weak. Its leadership was divided and full of pro–Russian elements and Russian spies, even in the security service and the military.

Its army seemed small and ill equipped. The Russians knew that Ukraine was buying some new weapons and equipment – but nothing sufficient to withstand an attack by Russia’s regular army. And yet they also knew that NATO was helping to train the Ukrainian army. Why wait until they were fully trained?

Europe seemed to be in tatters. It too was weak and divided. Europe’s economy had barely survived Covid, and the public was tired of lockdowns and annoyed with their governments. Each of the then leaders’ position, in Putin’s view, was precarious. Germany’s Merkel, the only European politician for whom Putin had some respect, was gone.

Now the country had a coalition government, always an unsteady option, with the seemingly weak Olaf Scholz at its head. In France Macron, always perceived as extremely weak, was also facing an election. Hungary’s Orban was a close ally. Britain’s Johnson was staggering from crisis to crisis. The EU itself seemed to teeter on the brink of collapse with endless bickering about illegal immigration and with West Europeans displeased by the undemocratic practices of the EU’s East European members.

Moreover, all of them and particularly the strongest, Germany – thanks to Angela Merkel – depended on Russian gas and oil. Many European politicians had been bribed. Russian big business had become deeply entrenched in Europe’s financial and economic systems. And the Russia Today TV channel was active and popular throughout Europe.

Even Russia’s arch enemy, the USA, was in disarray, more divided than at any time since the civil war and more isolationist than at any time since the 1930s. Biden was old, weak and, according to Russian propaganda, ill, and his vice president was incompetent. The American economy was in trouble, with inflation going through the roof.

And Russia had friends all over the world: China, India, Venezuela, Brazil, South Africa and other African countries – together representing the majority of the world’s population.

There were internal Russian reasons too. Before February Putin’s ratings were at their lowest for some time – about 54 percent approval. The population, tired of the pandemic lockdowns and the crumbling economy had started to get restive. The Crimea’s incorporation in 2014 had been extremely popular, so a new and successful military operation would help again – as indeed, it did.

The political protests in Belarus in 2020–2021 had added urgency and precision to these ideas. The magnitude of the protests and their potential power had galvanised the Russian political elite. And the brutal crushing of the protests – thanks to Russia’s benevolent assistance and money - had turned the hitherto elusive Belarusian president Aleksandr Lukashenko, into Russia’s compliant client.

Political aspects apart, Belarus’s compliance made the invasion of Ukraine so much easier: it gave Russia a base for its troops, a thousand kilometres of unprotected border with Ukraine, and easy accessibility to Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital – just 150 kilometres from that border.

The return to Russia, in January 2021, of Alexei Navalny, the most prominent opposition leader, was extremely inopportune. He and his supporters simply had to be crushed: and they were. Everything was now ready: the opposition crushed, the media sphere cleansed, a new constitution adopted, new restrictive laws passed, the Duma turned into a rubber-stamp.

One should not forget that in October 2022 Putin will be 70. Whether or not he is ill, as reported by some Western media, he must be feeling his age and thinking of his legacy. The incorporation of Ukraine would be a crowning achievement for such an anniversary and a powerful lesson to his successors.

We do not know how the present war will end, but Putin may have already achieved some of his goals. He wanted to divide the world into spheres of influence or “civilisations”. This division is already happening, at least in Europe. The question now is where the border between the Russian and Western spheres will be, and how the rest of the world will be aligned.

Of course, there will be other such spheres of influence (or civilisations, as Russians see them), beginning with that around China. And these political and civilisational spheres of influence will obviously clash with one another, leading to friction and conflict – just as Huntington predicted.

Putin has in a sense, already proven to the world that might is right, enabling one to do as one pleases. Whether or not he achieves his goals in Ukraine, the new global order is bound to be less safe, more dangerous and much more militarised. No one is going to repeat Ukraine’s mistake of de–nuclearizing, whatever the incentives or sanctions.

Whether we like it or not, this new global order will also tend to be less open, less democratic, less liberal, and less global. Security measures in Europe, for example, may produce a tendency to curb some civil liberties, some access to information and some free speech, particularly in East European countries, which are in the direct line of fire.

Probably, not all international institutions based on the present global order, will survive the shock of this war. It is not clear, for example, what is going to happen to the UN Security Council and thus to the UN itself. The newly polarised world may also be much less interested in the International Criminal Court and the Bretton Woods institutions, let alone Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. It is easy to protest against the obvious dominance of the West, particularly the USA, in these institutions, but it is not clear whether the world will be happier if they disappear completely.

The new world will also be much poorer – at least for some time. The war has already had a dramatic effect on the global economy. Supply chains have been disrupted and are bound to remain so for a long while. They will have to be drastically restructured in accordance with the new imperatives of self–sufficiency and self-reliance in every possible sphere.

Commodity prices have already gone through the roof and could remain high for years ahead. High food prices, food shortages and may be even famine are inevitable, whatever the outcome of the war. So, instead of the predicted post-pandemic boom the world’s economic growth forecasts have been cut back and there are fears of a major recession. All this even before we start factoring in the slowdown in China’s economy.

Whatever the outcome of the war, Ukraine, or what is left of it, will be in a desperate state, and is bound to remain so for a long time. We do not know what will happen with the territories currently occupied by Russia, and how extensive that occupation could be in the future. Ukraine’s industry and infrastructure have been destroyed.

It is not clear whether Ukrainians will be able to sow and harvest their fields and what they will eat if they can’t. We do not know if Ukraine will have even a single port left from which to export its grain or whether Russia will allow such exports. Ukraine’s stark reality of approaching mass unemployment, possible famine and criminality is just beginning to sink in. It is too painful even to think about the scale of this disaster.

If Ukraine is defeated, Europe will exist in the shadow of an aggressive hostile neighbour which, as we have seen, may attack on a whim. Europe will have to cope with millions of Ukrainian refugees, and even if the war stops now, economic refugees from Ukraine will keep coming. If Russia were to be defeated, Europe would end up having to feed and accommodate not only millions of refugees, but a whole devastated country, and then help to rebuild it. If the war ends in limbo with, for example, a rump Ukraine suing for peace, Europe might have to live with both of the above.

Europe is now deciding how to wean itself off its dependence on Russian oil and gas, a tortuous process after many years of planning for the opposite. The cost of aiding Ukraine could run to billions of Euros a month. These costs plus those of Ukrainian refugees will come on top of inflation, higher military spending and new security measures. This is bound to produce public discontent.

Such discontent is exactly what Putin is counting on. He has said many a time that Russia will sustain any sanctions and hardships, in part because of the patience and adaptability of the Russian people, but mostly because sanctions will hit Europeans more. In Russia’s view, Europeans, spoilt by high standards of living, will not tolerate a government which brings them discomfort. They will soon get tired of Ukrainian problems, change their governments and leave Ukraine to its fate.

For the moment, the war has given new relevance to Ukraine’s and Europe’s leaders. But for how long? Europe’s unity is already under stress with fault lines emerging between the irreconcilably anti-Russian East and Western states far more willing to placate Russia.

To some extent the same is true about the USA. In geopolitical terms the US may actually have benefited from this war. It has powerfully re-confirmed America’s leadership and indispensability and even restored a degree of bipartisan unity. Polls show a very high proportion of Americans supporting assistance to Ukraine and rejecting Henry Kissinger’s proposal that Ukraine should cede some of its occupied territory to Russia and sue for peace now.

But in the long run domestic problems, divisions, elections, as well as isolationist tendencies, will outweigh the importance of onerous European problems. Ukraine is already not a front-page issue, and with fears of recession rising, Americans will start asking whether the money spent on military and humanitarian assistance to Ukraine should not be spent at home.

In other words, if one of Putin’s war aims was, indeed, the destabilisation of the “collective West”, that goal too may have been achieved, whatever the war’s outcome.

Russia’s own risks and challenges in the new global order are obvious. Sanctions may not change Russia’s policy, but they will start biting. People will get poorer and probably more disillusioned about the need for global grandstanding. Western technology will be more difficult to obtain. Russia will doubtless find new markets for its precious resources, but this will take time.

The golden era of pipelines into Europe will not return, and any new buyer will doubt the wisdom of putting itself in a position of long-term dependence on Russian supplies. The strategic alliance with China may give Russia reassurance now, but in a longer perspective it may risk turning Russia into China’s raw material appendage.

If Russia incorporates the occupied Ukrainian territories, it will get ruined cities, devastated fields and millions of very angry and hungry people. It will also probably also get a guerrilla movement, subversion and crime – not only in Ukraine, but in Russia too.

All of which was totally unnecessary. But Russia’s leadership must feel that Russia’s global power and importance has been confirmed and this signifies more than any practical considerations. They also believe that whatever today’s problems, Russia is on the right side of history, supported by the majority of the planet’s population – the same vision that was cherished by their Soviet predecessors.

Irina Filatova