March 13, 2022Sakalgeopolitics

Who is responsible for the Ukraine war, and who is its winner?

Regardless of the military outcome, alas, no one wins this war. Everyone loses. The only difference might be who loses more and relative to whom.

Mint This is from my Marathi column in Sakal that appears every month.

When we discuss any war we usually ask three questions: who is responsible for it, who won and who lost, and finally what were the consequences? I’m sure these questions are on your mind when discussing the ongoing war in Ukraine.

Who is responsible for the war? The straightforward answer is: Vladimir Putin, the Russian president. His stated reason for invading Ukraine is to prevent a country that he considers as part of the greater Russian nation from joining the West. He blames the United States and NATO from violating the solemn promises made after the collapse of the Soviet Union, encroaching into countries within the Russian sphere, and bringing the military frontier to Russia’s doorstep. He does have a point. However, we cannot completely accept his line. To do so would be to deny the Ukrainian people a say in determining whether their nation exists or not. To do so would also be to deny that Ukrainians, Moldovans, Belarussians, Lithuanians, Latvians, Estonians and Poles have to be bound to promises they never made.

But the United States cannot escape its share of the responsibility either. The expansion of NATO into countries Russia is sensitive about risked attracting Moscow’s ire regardless of what you think about the principle of sovereignty of former Soviet republics. From the early 2000s, Washington started withdrawing from Cold War-era strategic arms control treaties, sowing the seeds of insecurity in Moscow. Russia, and especially Putin, resented being treated as a lesser power. After the 2008 global financial crisis, the Americans told themselves and the world that they are a declining power, encouraging Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin to see what they can get away with. And they did get away with annexing territory. Emboldened after having nibbled smaller chunks of territory, Putin thought he could go for a bigger bite.

China cannot escape responsibility because Xi Jinping became Putin’s biggest ally. The West could neither isolate or effectively punish Putin for his 2014 invasion of Ukraine because the Chinese purchased Russian gas, weapons and other exports. Both countries shared a common interest in challenging Western dominance. Without the power of the Chinese economy behind him, Putin’s expansionist dreams might have remained just dreams. However, Xi Jinping miscalculated. It is not in China’s interests to trigger a sharp confrontation with the United States just yet. Beijing would also like the West to be divided between the United States and Europe. Putin jumped the gun by invading Ukraine, now forcing China into a very difficult position.

Europe too cannot escape a major share of responsibility for the war. For over two decades, countries of the European Union have pursued wishful policies, wilfully ignoring their own security and that of other countries. After Putin coercively cut off gas supplies to Ukraine in the winter 2008, EU countries actually increased their reliance on Russian piped gas. Not only did they buy more Russian gas through more pipelines, they invested in NordStream2 which bypassed Ukraine. That’s not all. After the Fukushima accident, Germany decided to turn off all its nuclear power plants, increasing the dependence on Russian gas. It is difficult to explain how thoughtful strategists in the EU and NATO thought that it is a clever idea to put their jugular vein in Putin’s hands. At the same time, as Donald Trump correctly but undiplomatically pointed out, EU countries were not putting adequate resources into defence. It was only after the Russians invaded Ukraine that the Europeans reversed their energy and defence policies. But by then, it was too late. The damage was done.

I will not blame the Ukrainians but they too are responsible for the war that has caused them so much suffering. Could the Ukrainian political elite have taken a less provocative line against Moscow over the past decade? Perhaps. But we should be careful not to blame the victims or second-guess their choices. If the price of peace means accepting Russian hegemony, much like the Belarussians have, Ukrainians might not have had much of a choice but to lean towards the West to protect their freedom.

So everyone is responsible for the war. But who wins? Regardless of the military outcome, alas, no one wins this war. Everyone loses. The only difference might be who loses more and relative to whom. Putin loses even if Russian forces capture all of Ukraine. Moscow will have to spend money to control Ukraine. It will be hard to find the money because the Russian economy is collapsing under sanctions. Russia loses. Its economy is wrecked, it is internationally isolated, faces a consolidated adversary to its West and becomes even more dependent on China.

The West may have regained solidarity and purpose, but cannot escape the pain of the sanctions it has imposed on Russia. The risk of a military conflict means higher military expenditure and greater pressure on budgets. Inflation, disruptions to supply chains, higher taxes, loss of markets and forces of de-globalisation will hurt Western economies. Post-pandemic economic recovery will be much harder.

China loses as it now has to challenge a consolidated, more military-minded West. Beijing’s plans of of annexing Taiwan by force have witnessed a reality check, even as the Taiwanese get a lesson in how to deal with an invasion if it were to occur. For now, the economic fallout from the Ukraine war may be the biggest worries on Chinese minds.

The Ukrainians, of course, have lost a lot. They are paying a stiff price for their national aspirations.

We in India might not have a dog in this fight, but we too have lost. Higher energy prices will hurt our economic recovery. We might have trouble in getting spares for the Russian-made equipment our armed forces use. Our neutrality in the conflict has a cost too. A prolonged confrontation between the West and Russia will certainly hurt our interests. Deglobalisation will hurt our economic growth. Unfortunately at this stage, there’s little that India can do about it.

There are many more Sakal columns here

This is a game that everyone loses, even those who are not players. As for the consequences, we will certainly feel them over the next two decades.



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