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The world after Ukraine—Part 1: Russia’s failure and Russia’s choice

by Ilian Vassilev

With the war in Ukraine not yet over, the possible contours of the world that will follow it are emerging – or at least the alternative possibilities that present themselves. For almost 80 years, the word “postwar” has tended to mean “post-1945”. But the war in Ukraine has been so momentous, and its ramifications are likely to be so great, that this may change. We, at any rate, will be using “postwar” to mean “after the war in Ukraine” in this two-part essay.

And the postwar world will indeed be a different world, with all the major players undergoing a change in status – including Ukraine, Russia, and the non-Russian members of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). Europe will be a different place, and this postwar world’s shape will further presage nations’ rise and fall, just as happened after the Second World War. Events and the actions of governments, fed into a giant accelerator of history, will define the place and role of each country, each political, social or corporate leader, and each ordinary person.

The narratives of the “winners” and the “losers” will inevitably differ, as will the tales of greatness and misery emerging from the war. New role models will guide the coming generations as they seek the path of prosperity, development and security.

Undoubtedly the picture of the post-war world that I paint will not be entirely accurate. But it will be a useful exercise to share my thoughts on the main “anchors” of the new postwar world.

The breakdown of Russia’s relations with the West
The rift between the West and Russia, following the Russian army’s open move into Northern and Eastern Ukraine on February 24, 2022, has become unbridgeable. By taking this step, Russia crossed a red line. And this marks the main difference between 2022 and the annexation of Crimea in 2014. As a result, peaceful coexistence between the aggressive regime of Russian president Vladimir Putin and the rest of Europe seems impossible, with the number of points at which interests converge becoming fewer and fewer – and the chances of a return to diplomacy fading.

Thanks to the sacrifices it has made and the successes it has achieved on the battlefield, Ukraine does not need to be saved or advised, only assisted. Ukraine is not Georgia.

What sets the stage for diplomacy will be the battlefield. And Ukraine must decide on the moment when that diplomacy will happen and the form it will take. In this sense, pressure on Kyiv from French president Emmanuel Macron and other Western politicians for premature talks is perceived by Ukrainians as an attempt to spare Mr Putin defeat and help him retain power.

And Ukrainians are right!

Within the present Kremlin paradigm, there can be no peace – much less a sustainable one –  as long as Russian troops are in Ukraine. For a “peace” under those conditions will just will freeze the conflict and provide the Kremlin with a clear advantage. After Georgia, Ukraine, Syria, and former German chancellor Angela Merkel’s failed policy of appeasement, only a fool would trust Mr Putin not to invade again once he regroups. Sadly, there’s no shortage of fools in high places in the West, so there’s no guarantee that the right decisions will be made. But it should really be obvious – and needs to be said as often and as loudly as possible – that current trends in the war are the best chance for the West and Ukraine to rebalance relations with Russia from a position of strength, without changing Ukraine’s pre-2014 borders.

Peace will prevail only if Mr Putin and/or his successors are deprived of the capacity to attack their neighbours.

Russia: revamped or revanchist?
To begin with, this time, the complete and irreversible rupture of relations between the West and Russia that the war has produced will have one of two end-results. Either there will be a new Iron Curtain (or cordon sanitaire). Or Russia will be revamped in such a way that it does not threaten its neighbours and Europe. The former, in fact, seems more probable, since the idea of a Russia that is either unwilling or unable to invade any other country is an almost unimaginable one. So a mix of containment and engagement seem the only plausible way forward for Europe, 

Why do I say this? Because Russia is the world’s last empire, and violence is the glue that holds it together – internally and abroad. 

Every other nation with global ambitions has diversified its sources of influence and power away from military options, by adopting a globally competitive economic development model. Not Russia. This mode of existence explains why the Kremlin has resorted to subversive and coercive action, culminating in a fully-fledged war against Ukraine. As the leader who has launched that war – and presided over two decades of policy of which that war has been an entirely congruent and fitting culmination – Mr Putin needs either a victory or an excuse for not achieving one. 

Victory is now vanishingly unlikely, but something that could just about be depicted as a victory is not beyond the bounds of possibility. As to the excuse, this would be that Russia has been unfairly bested by the wily and malign West. So essentially the coming generations of Russians are being offered the prospect of revanchism and new wars.

Hence, if Russia does not simply disintegrate in the process of realigning its aspirations with its potential within the postwar global world order, its internal transformation – managed or not – will be a sine qua non for that realignment. The only question here is whether the results of the war in Ukraine will deliver the final push that allows (or forces) Russians themselves to do that job; or whether NATO and the EU will be involved more intimately in attaining this new balance of forces in Russia and Eastern Europe.

Mr Macron’s mantra is that diplomacy solves everything and Russia deserves a security guarantee. That’s a classic paradigm of the way the world works, but in present circumstances it’s just wrong. It betrays a fundamental lack of understanding of what Europe needs in a postwar Russia. Why? Because, if the war does not end in a clear win for Ukraine, Russia will inevitably return to revanchism as long as Mr Putin – or Putinism – remains in power. Hence, demilitarisation or “deputinisation” of Russia is an essential prerequisite for a stable and just postwar order.

Mediation at this stage of the conflict, without Russia’s unconditional pullback from Ukraine, would grant the Kremlin a face-saving formula, a breathing space – and time to regroup and strike again. As a result, Mr Putin would be able to consolidate his grip on power and secure a continuation of Putinism via his choice of successor, with Russia remaining a permanent threat to Europe.

Now, it will undoubtedly be diplomatic action that ends the war. But, if a real end, a real peace, is to be achieved – as opposed to a glorified armed truce or, more likely, a new frozen conflict – that diplomacy cannot, and must not, occur before Russia has left Ukraine. 

And that is not an unrealistic idea. 

Who will blink first?
Mr Putin’s escalation options are nearly exhausted, even though his new waves of mobilisation target up to five million recruits. The reason is simple. Russia currently has neither the capacity nor the time and resources to train its army’s personnel to a high level, so a new wave of mobilisation is most likely to bring about a drop in that army’s overall quality. Instead of improving the state of affairs on Russia’s front line, it will actually cause the situation to worsen, as chaos proliferates, as weak spots multiply, and as scared, untrained, poorly armed and poorly clothed troops prove a liability.

Of course, there are risks involved in the sort of war that has emerged, the sort of war implied by a realistic goal of clearing the Russians out of Ukraine before negotiations begin. We are talking of a transition, from the Ukrainian point of view, from survival to victory as an operational aim, and from a purely defensive war to one of vigorous counter-offensive. 

Russian forces need either to be pushed back, mile by mile, or else subjected to such pressure that discipline, morale and capacity to fight collapse to such an extent that there is withdrawal or rout. That will be a difficult, bloody and possibly quite protracted process. Also, Mr Putin will fight dirty. Indeed, he already is doing so, with his indiscriminate attacks on civilian infrastructure, designed to cause mass power and water outages and thus undermine the Ukrainian population’s will to continue the fight.

In these circumstances, it is understandable, morally justifiable and logical in military terms that Ukraine should feel able to strike targets deep into Russian territory. But it is really vital that such strikes should be made sparingly; only when there is an extremely important, obvious and unambiguous military objective; and only in such a way as to avoid or minimise “collateral damage”, Russian civilian casualties. And the strikes must not be – and must not be presented as – retaliation in kind for what Russia is doing. At any rate Ukraine should avoid giving the Kremlin the high moral ground by allowing it to claim its actions are in Defense of the Motherland, and must deny Putin the Patriotic War he has sought so desperately.

The reason this is vital is not so much the risk of an escalation that might draw NATO directly into the struggle. That risk exists, but is small: The reason is, rather, that Kyiv is at war with Mr Putin, his cronies and his regime. Not necessarily with Russia, or Russians generally. Treating all Russians as enemies would be a great mistake. Ukraine (and the West) need allies within Russia to end the war and to agree on the order that is to prevail after the war. How the war is waged will be part of what determines how numerous and influential such allies are.

Russia: back to the future?
Russia is the world’s last colonial empire, and its collapse seems pre-ordained given current trends both in Russia and in its war on Ukraine. That war is – or at any rate is perceived by Russia as – a classic case of a colonial war. The imperial power, the “mother country”, is waging war in lands that are considered to belong to it. In this case, lands “belong to Great Russia” – a euphemism for saying that Moscow has the right to rule and milk the foreign peoples who live in those lands. The country is stuck in a 19th-century mindset and 19th-century patterns of behaviour, in which the world consists of Great Powers, each with its sphere of control and influence, with their relations regulated by a Balance of Power. And it is stuck in this dismal time-warp because the Soviet era failed to give birth to a globally competitive economic and social model that is workable in the 21st century.

So, today, the Russian elite is not plotting a course to a better future, one that will secure Russia’s place among the world’s leading countries. Instead, that elite is facing an existential challenge: how to keep a vast and unwieldy country in one piece and offer its people a version of managed democracy, effectively denying its various ethnic groups the right to self-determination or independence. 

Contrast China, which bases its claim to global dominance on a model that involves a growing and technology-intensive economy and access to the global market. Contrast, for that matter, India and Brazil – or just about any other rising global or regional power. Russia, however, continues – as it did in the 19th century and even before that – to function as a mere appendage to the global economy, a provider of raw materials and mineral resources and little else (except for weapons which, it now turns out, are in some cases rather second-rate). It does not even claim the level of technological and economic self-reliance that the Soviet Union achieved.

Russia’s imminent loss in this war – or, more precisely, the absence of any prospect of military victory for the Kremlin – will result, ultimately, in long-term shifts. This judgement applies both internally, to the Byzantine world of the Kremlin, and externally. The global balance of power will change. And so will more than one regional balance, notably those of the Baltic and Black Sea region and of the post-Soviet space. 

The Kremlin’s use of blackmail and aggression has reminded many in that space who are not ethnic Russians just how brutal the traditional Russian state can be – if reminder were needed. But the conspicuous failure of the Russian army has demonstrated the erosion of Russian power, its striking limits. And the extent to which Moscow has relied upon manpower from non-ethnic Russian regions – for instance, Buryatia, Tatarstan, Tuva, Bashkortostan, Dagestan and Chechnya – will have impressed many in those regions with the danger of being used as cannon-fodder in other people’s wars.

These articles analyses and comments are made possible thanks to your empathy and contributions, which are the only guarantors of independence and objectivity in our work. The Alternatives and Analysis team.

The collapse of the Russian military could have swift ramifications over a vast area, from Tiraspol to Tashkent and from Baku to Bishkek. Not only has the Russian military performed abysmally, by the way, but failure was almost pre-ordained: ever since it became clear that the government in Kyiv would not immediately surrender or flee into exile at the very approach of Russian tanks, Mr Putin’s war has lacked clearly articulated and, above all, realistic objectives. That means the Kremlin cannot even define what an acceptable end to it would be. 

Notably, the Russian army’s failure might immediately affect the credibility of the security guarantees that Russia provides to other members of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). That’s the Eurasian military alliance of six post-Soviet states (Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia and Tajikistan), that allows Russia to hold the ring between feuding members, provide support to states under threat from non-members, and send “peacekeepers” to quell domestic unrest to member states. Its ability to do any of these must now be seriously in doubt to those who rely on Russia or fear its displeasure.

Defiant actions have already surged to record levels in CSTO members Armenia and Kazakhstan, and in non-members Azerbaijan and Moldova (locked respectively in an interminable territorial dispute with Armenia and a sensitive, decades-long “frozen conflict” involving Moscow-backed separatists in Moldova’s Transnistria region, which is strung out along Ukraine’s western border). Even Uzbekistan – not a CSTO member but normally rather obliging – has refused to join Moscow’s project of a common gas bloc. 

Of other former Soviet republics (aside from the obviously special cases of Georgia and the three EU members on the Baltic), only three are (so far) relatively quiescent. These are Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Belarus. Of these three, the first two – both in Central Asia – are heavily reliant on remittances from citizens who have migrated to work in Russia, and it is probably this vulnerability that has, for now, held back an analogous process in their relations with Moscow. As to Belarus, that is the fiefdom of Alexander Lukashenka, an ultra-loyal (if somewhat eccentric) vassal of Mr Putin’s. Domestically beleaguered, Mr Lukashenka would hardly last a week if abandoned by the man in the Kremlin, though interestingly he has resisted apparent pressure to bring Belarus into the war so far.

Sooner rather than later, if Russia continues to offer its people a less than globally competitive model of welfare and security, they will challenge Moscow and seek decentralisation. Some may even choose to leave the empire altogether. And that should not scare the West. Countries have left empires and gone their own way before, in Europe, Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean. And, from the point of world order, the process has not rocked the boat unduly.

So much for Russia, at least for now. 

In the second and final part of this essay, we will first shift our focus to the other side of the conflict and ask what lies ahead, after the war ends, for the EU – and in particular for the newer, Eastern part of it – and for Ukraine itself, whose resilience has surprised the world and which is proving itself an indispensable bulwark for the West as a whole. 

Having concluded that the outlook for both is bright, we shall turn back to the gloomier subjects of Russia and the war. For Russia, we will argue, cataclysmic disintegration has been overestimated as a threat. But with Mr Putin himself almost certainly now destined to pass into history very quickly, the process of overcoming his legacy – of “deputinising” Russia – will be as complex and delicate a process as it will be a necessary one; and the outside world can play its part in this. The war, too, will take some handling, at it is now moving into what, in some senses, will be its most intense phase, fraught with dangers of escalation. 

These articles analyses and comments are made possible thanks to your empathy and contributions, which are the only guarantors of independence and objectivity in our work. The Alternatives and Analysis team.