On Friday we published a symposium to mark the year since the tragic and brutal Russian invasion of Ukraine. It featured ACURA experts Marlene Laruelle (“Lessons from a Year of War“), Anatol Lieven (“The Balance of the War“), Nicolai N. Petro (“Cold War Realism: Lessons from Ukraine“), Katrina vanden Heuvel and James W. Carden (“Why Not Diplomacy?“).
Marlene Laruelle: Sobering Lessons from a Year of War
Few experts had predicted Russia’s war against Ukraine would be a long one. Once it became clear that Ukrainians had an incredible, and unforeseen, capacity and will to resist, forecasts moved on the impact of Russia’s miscalculations. In the first months of the invasion, Western media were filled with projections that Russia would run out of weapons and ammunition within a few weeks or months. Declarations about Russia’s imminent collapse, economically and politically, became commonplace.
One year later, the lessons are sobering. True, there have been impressive successes. The first being the heroism of the Ukrainian nation, which has demonstrated incredible resilience, reinventing its nationhood around new themes of identity and new horizontal practices of community belonging and mutual assistance.
The second success has been the unity of the European Union, despite some internal tensions between the most zealous supporters of Kyiv (Poland, Baltic states) and the more cautious ones (Germany and France), and between Brussels and a reluctant Hungary. But still, given the enormous challenges, both militarily and economically, Europe has pretty well managed a crisis it was neither prepared to deal with nor even imagined possible.
But outside of these two successes, the picture looks pretty grim. The humanitarian cost of the war for Ukraine is high (8 million externally displaced, 6 internally displaced, several million people in need of humanitarian assistance, and at least 100,000 to 150,000 killed, including both military and civilians). The reconstruction of the country will be of an incommensurable scale, estimated at around USD 600 billion so far, and while it could be a unique opportunity for a new Ukraine to emerge, it could also become a quagmire both logistically and financially.
Contrary to Western expectations, Russia is down but far from out. It has been able to reinvent itself amidst the sanctions, both by bypassing them through third-parties and updating old Soviet traditions of dealing with a culture of ‘deficit,’ i.e. inventing informal ways to find spare pieces or medications, blending technological parts from different countries and different ages to make things work, and increasing domestic capacities of production.The impact of sanctions will be raising in 2023, and it remains to be seen how the country will deal with them in the medium and long term.
The Russian regime has been shaken yet it is still there, with almost no defection from the elites, more repressive mechanisms, and a military machine that is dysfunctional but still performing. Obviously, if the war were to continue for long, the political order in Russia could be impacted. So far, many Russian citizens have courageously resisted the war movement, and if new repressive laws have silenced them, individual acts of resistance are still happening. About a million Russians, mostly young and educated, have left, contributing to one of Russia’s endemic problems, its brain drain. But the large majority of Russian society has entered into what Jeremy Morris calls ‘defensive consolidation,’ a mix of siding with the regime even if it may be wrong, not questioning it in times of challenges, sharing both patriotism and fear of state repressions or horizontal social pressures, and a deep dive into private life to avoid cognitive dissonance.
On the international scene, the West, especially the US, seems to be in an optimistic mood, portraying the war as a conflict between the free world and old dictators, which is reminiscent of Cold War culture, with a twist of metaphysical language thrown in about the fight between Enlightenment and Darkness—a mirror game with Russia’s own narrative about the war as a civilizational conflict.
But there are rather few reasons for optimism – much less self-congratulation. The war has accentuated the divides between the “West” and the “rest” as shown by a report from Columbia University’s Center for the Future of Democracy: World public opinions are more divided than ever in their views of the US, Russia, and China.
The Global South has refused to be lectured by the West and to succumb to Western pressures about applying sanctions against Russia. It continues to see the war as a conflict specific to the North, between two imperialisms and normative orders that drags the rest of the planet far away from the real collective challenges—redistribution of wealth, climate change, sustainability, food security, better representation of the South in international organizations, and the like.
Even in the West, a growing chorus of voices are starting to question the long term financial and political cost of a very intensive war. US assistance to Ukraine, both military and humanitarian, has been calculated at $50 billion for the year 2022 and is projected to increase in 2023. Europe is providing less support but pay a heavier price in terms of economic and humanitarian support. The U.S. defense community, worried about China’s increasing assertiveness toward Taiwan, wonders about the risk of having to deal with two simultaneous fronts and would like to be done with the Ukrainian war theater before something happens in Asia.
Everywhere in the world, military-industrial complexes are booming and as military expenditures reach unprecedented levels, the global disarmament project gets put on the back burner. The White House has proposed the largest-ever military budget in the country’s history—and yet the US military budget has been already about eight to ten times higher than the Russian one and NATO countries are said to be on the verge of running out of ammunitions because Ukraine is using them at a faster pace than its partners can supply it.
Meantime, the fighting seasoning that has just opened, with Russia’s renewed offensive in the Donbas, could be decisive: Any major victory by one or the other party before next winter arrives will be a key factor for a negotiated – or forced – settlement.
Yet this doesn’t appear so far as the most obvious scenario. Ukraine, with Western support, can probably stop Russia’s attempt to gain new territories, but may not be able to push Russian troops back to February 24, 2022 borders, even less to Ukraine’s recognized international borders of 2014.
In case neither Kyiv nor Moscow are able to achieve major military victories on the ground this spring-summer, the prospect of a third year of conflict risks cooling the West’s current enthusiasm for the war. Europe will have difficulties expending itself economically to support the war effort at its current scale; and the US will be dominated by the forthcoming presidential elections and a Republican race that could make reducing support to Kyiv one of the key themes of the campaign.
It is also possible that in Ukraine itself, voices for a settlement with territorial concessions in exchange for preservation of lives, economic reconstruction and an accelerated path toward EU membership could emerge. But the contrary scenario is also likely, and in that case, the willingness of Ukrainians to continue fighting to get their territories back at any cost may collide with a more cautious Western approach—and this would be a bitter lesson for Ukrainians and their closer allies.
Moreover, even in the case of a ceasefire happening, long term issues facing Ukraine and Russia will remain on the table well past the end of the military fighting per se. They include the status of Ukraine as de facto member of NATO and EU if not de jure; rethinking of a European security architecture with a new internal equilibrium more favorable to Central European countries than to Western European ones; the reconsideration of Russia’s relationships with the West, largely dependent on how the legacy of the war would affect the durability of the Putin regime; and the symbolic politics of the war (war crimes judgment, legal debates on the genocide qualification, and requests for Russian reparations to Ukraine).
The ramifications of the war will be with us for a long time and prove a massive challenge to Europe’s future.
Marlene Laruelle is Director of the Institute for European, Russian, and Eurasian Studies (IERES); Director, Illiberalism Studies Program; Director, Central Asia Program; Co-Director, PONARS-Eurasia; and Research Professor of International Affairs at George Washington University. She is a member of the Board of ACURA.
Anatol Lieven: The Balance of the War
The Russian invasion of Ukraine has proved a disaster for both countries, and Vladimir Putin should take responsibility for this and announce that he will not stand for re-election in 2024. Ukraine has suffered massive damage, which cannot begin to be remedied until the fighting comes to an end. Both Ukraine and Russia have suffered huge military casualties, and Ukraine and the Russian-controlled area of the Donbas have suffered substantial civilian casualties.
The long-term damage to Russia however may prove even greater than that to Ukraine. The reputation of the Russian military has been badly damaged, to the point where Russia can no longer be considered a first rank military power. The West has been consolidated in hostility to Russia. While most countries around the world have not joined in Western sanctions against Russia, large majorities have condemned the invasion.
By far the greater part of Ukraine is now lost to Russian influence for all foreseeable time (though one cannot exclude the possibility that Ukrainian ethno-nationalist extremism could at some point cause a reaction). The war has become a grim struggle for small amounts of territory in the east and south of the country – though these territories include Crimea, which is critical to what remains of Russia’s great power status, and could yet be a trigger for nuclear war.
Perhaps worst of all for both Russia and Ukraine has been the damage to culture and intellectual life due to the war and increased domestic repression. Censorship is approaching Soviet levels. Teachers and students are terrified of expressing their opinions. Millions of young Ukrainians have become refugees, and in most cases are unlikely ever to return. The loss of people to Russia is not so great, but includes hundreds of thousands of young men whom Russia can ill afford to lose. Independent culture has been stifled, and numerous Russian cultural figures have fled into exile rather than be forced into public statements supporting the war.
Ukraine too is suffering from an upsurge of embittered ethnic nationalism, involving hatred for all things Russian. This is of course understandable given the suffering caused by the Russian invasion. On the other hand, in the early months of the war the Ukrainian government and its Western media backers repeatedly celebrated the fact that a large majority of Russian and Russian-speaking Ukrainians hadremained loyal to Ukraine and had not (as Putin evidently expected) backed the Russian invasion.
State-backed moves to destroy Russian language and culture in Ukraine are a poor reward for this loyalty. They will (or at least, should) add to the difficulties that Ukraine will face in moving towards membership of the European Union – something that has for the first time become a real possibility as a result of heightened western European sympathy for Ukraine.
What of the West? Europe has suffered economically, but America has so far benefited greatly from this war. Russia has been badly damaged, and hardline elements dream of destroying the Russian state (“decolonisation”). The USA has suffered only small economic damage, while Europe has abandoned any pretense of an autonomous geopolitical role and has returned to complete security dependence on the United States. American energy companies have made huge profits from western Europe’s move from cheap Russian gas to much more expensive American liquid natural gas (LNG).
As to the picture of the West revealed by the war, this has certain admirable aspects: notably the willingness of European governments to accept economic damage from restrictions on Russian energy exports and the generosity of families to Ukrainian refugees.
There have also however been some extremely depressing features: notably the ovine conformism with which the vast majority of the Western media have abandoned any pretense of objectivity, fact-checking and investigative journalism in their coverage of the war.
This has helped in the return to influence of what ought to have been utterly discredited groups and individuals like the neoconservatives in America, and the elimination from the public debate of past U.S. crimes like the invasion of Iraq. It has also given a license to cultural hatred and quasi-racist stereotyping of a kind more reminiscent of 1914 than the self-image of Western liberalism in recent decades; to the smearing of domestic critics as traitors; and to politicians to try to advance their careers by the striking of super-militarist poses. If this approach is extended to China (as it increasingly is), it could help lead to a war in which civilization would be destroyed.
To say (correctly) that the Russian public sphere is even worse is not exactly an excuse. It would be a good idea for Western journalists and commentators to look at the non-Western world (including progressive thinkers and writers in India, Brazil and elsewhere) and ask why they see the war in Ukraine so differently from most of the West. It is not that they support or endorse the Russian invasion; but they think that the record of the United States and some of its allies over the past generation gives us no right whatsoever to claim overwhelming moral superiority and demand that other countries sacrifice their national interests to support our agendas. Our media should have met mendacious Russian propaganda with scrupulous attempts to establish the facts and publish the truth. Instead, all too often, “we have met the enemy, and he is us.”
Anatol Lieven is senior research fellow on Russia and Europe at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. Dr. Lieven is author of several books on Russia and its neighbors including “The Baltic Revolutions: Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and the Path to Independence” and “Ukraine and Russia: A Fraternal Rivalry.” He is a member of the board of ACURA.
Nicolai N. Petro: Cold War Realism: Lessons for Ukraine
The new Cold War, like its predecessor, can be traced back to the misinterpretation of Russian intentions. In case of old Cold War, as we now know from diplomatic archives, the West grossly misunderstood the intentions behind the 1948 Berlin Blockade.
Western leaders feared it was the beginning of an attack on the West, while Stalin saw it as a means to gain leverage over an increasingly intransigent Truman Administration, and induce it to abide by the Potsdam Agreements. Later, the Korean War would also be seen as a feint to distract American attention from Europe, resulting in what historian Odd Arne Westad calls, “an entirely avoidable war, created by the intensity of ideological conflict among Koreans and a Cold War framework that enabled superpower interventions.”
The origins of the new Cold War can also be traced back many years, as the late Stephen F. Cohen argued in his last book, War With Russia?, reaching a fever pitch only after NATO cavalierly dismissed Russia’s last minute efforts in late 2021 to negotiate a comprehensive pan-European security agreement that would prevent the expansion of NATO into Ukraine.
Once again, many Western leaders labelled the subsequent invasion of Ukraine as a precursor to an attack on NATO, and began making statements about how it must be used to remold the world for future generations. Once this view becomes the conventional wisdom, it is not hard to see how it will be used to ensure domestic support for foreign military adventures for decades to come.
All this hints at the existence of a long term U.S. foreign policy strategy that outside observers can only guess at. I would not be at all surprised if, thirty years from now, future historians learned of the existence of a new NSC-68—America’s 1950 blueprint for conducting the Cold War—cooked up within the Biden administration in anticipation of just such a confrontation. After all, the contents of NSC-68 itself, although rumored about for years, were only revealed in 1975.
In sum, just as Russia is to blame for the initiation of hostilities in February 2022, so the West is to blame for prolonging them. In this conflict each side is pursuing its own ends, usually at the expense of the Ukrainian people.
As for what the immediate future holds, I would divide this question into two parts: One is “what does the future hold for Ukraine?” The other is “what the future hold for Russia and the West?”
For Ukraine the foreseeable future is catastrophic. Its population, which was estimated at 42 million before the war, has now probably fallen to below 30 million, and with reconstruction costs upward of 350 billion USD, there will be little to attract those who have fled to come back. Ukraine’s long term demographic picture therefore looks exceedingly bleak.
Realistically, one must add to this enormous burden, the conundrum that has plagued Ukraine since its independence in 1991—how to create a single national identity in a pluricultural society. The current war has led many Ukrainians to “rally round the flag” against Russian aggression, but as President Zelensky admitted at the 2023 Munich Security Conference, “To be honest, many have fled our state. Many have remained with the invaders of their own accord. And there is plenty of information of this kind.”
The terrible cost to Ukrainian democracy of trying impose monoethnic nationalism on a country with substantial Russian, Polish, Hungarian, and Romanian minorities is today a taboo subject. Perhaps even understandably so, given the ongoing war. But, as Alexey Arestovych, President Zelensky’s press spokesman until January 2023, recently noted, it will have to be addressed sooner or later:
“At every turn we shout about being the freest country, but we don’t even have elementary freedom of speech. In our society, it is considered reprehensible to discuss various scenarios. . . [but] then what kind of social contract can there be? A social contract is a broad discussion, examining a wide variety of scenarios, even unpleasant ones.
This is something we are absolutely unprepared for. Take the simplest example. Ukraine actually has only two options: a monoethnic state or a united states of Ukraine. . . [but] the monoethnic project is de facto unfeasible. We won’t be able to achieve it. And if we do achieve it, it will lead to a rapid reduction and aging of the country’s population. We will wind up just like all monoethnic countries.”
This savage combination of economic, industrial, and demographic devastation; cultural, religious, and political rivalry (which the inclusion of Donbass and Crimea would only make more acute); alongside the West’s determination to make Ukraine an instrument for containing Russia, will make it extremely difficult to resist efforts by the Far Right, and the increasingly politically influential military, to transform post-war Ukraine into an ethnic authoritarian enclave. To appease Western sensibilities, the trappings of electoral democracy will likely be preserved, but within a system designed to ensure that no candidate from the East or South of Ukraine can ever again emerge to offer the country a culturally pluralistic political alternative.
The fact that such a Ukraine will continue to be an Apple of Discord between Russia and the West long after the current conflict ends, sadly, seems not to trouble political leaders in the slightest. In fact, if there is one thing that Russian, American and European leaders all seem to agree on, it is that they would rather see Ukraine utterly ruined than allow it to fall into the hands of The Enemy.
The only way that I can see to prevent this from coming about is for Ukraine and Russia to negotiate a ceasefire between themselves, regardless of the West’s objections. It is time to recognize the brutal truth of political realism: that only Russia can guarantee Ukraine’s survival, or extinguish it. The question that anyone serious about ending this conflict should be asking, therefore, is this: what does Russia need to end its violence against Ukraine?
According to former Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, who served as the intermediary in talks in March 2022, at that time Russia was willing to give up both de-nazification (taking out Zelensky), and the disarmament of Ukraine. What its conditions might be today is anyone’s guess, but the sooner the effort is made to find out, the better the prospects for Ukraine’s survival and recovery.
Ukraine would of course be asked to sacrifice much in any direct negotiations with Russia, but it would survive as a state. And this, as Ukraine’s own historical experience has shown time and again—from the Versailles Treaty of 1919, to the Budapest Memorandum of 1994—is not something that the West has ever been willing to guarantee.
Nicolai N. Petro is Professor of Political Science at the University of Rhode Island. He was a U.S. Fulbright Scholar in Ukraine 2013-2014, and is the author of The Tragedy of Ukraine: What Classical Greek Tragedy Can Teach Us About Conflict Resolution. Berlin and Boston: De Gruyter, 2023. He is a member of the board of ACURA.
Katrina vanden Heuvel and James W. Carden: Why Not Diplomacy?
As 2023 unfolds, we fear that American policy will continue to be characterized by both mission creep and the absence of any sort of diplomatic engagement with Russia.
Throughout the course of the war, the Biden administration has slowly, steadily, even stealthily increased America’s involvement. Calls from Kiev for more and more weapons have, at every turn, been met with President Biden’s acquiescence. Meantime, Congress has continued in its decades-long abdication of its constitutional responsibilities, opting instead to act as a rubber stamp on ever-increasing amounts of financial and military assistance to Ukraine. All the while, Kiev’s appetite has grown larger with the eating.
First went the Javelin anti-tank missiles, sent to Ukraine by President Donald Trump. Then came the Russian invasion and demands for M777 Howitzers; and Bradley fighting vehicles; and Patriot missiles; and HIMARS; and NSAMS; and M1 Abrams tanks; and long-range GLSDBs.
Kiev is now demanding the delivery of F-16s fighter jets.
Will we soon see the demand for American ground troops? If so, will we witness any political will in Washington to refuse such a request?
Whatever the case, it is worth keeping in mind that the true beneficiaries of Washington’s spending bonanza have been executives in the C-suites of Northrop Grumman, Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, General Dynamics, as well as those companies that are part of the network of what we might term ‘soft-power for-profits.’
Withal, there remains an alternative path the Biden administration might take as the year unfolds.
Writing in 1947, at the beginning of the first Cold War, the journalist and grand strategist Walter Lippmann observed that, “The history of diplomacy is the history of relations among rival powers, which did not enjoy political intimacy, and did not respond to appeals to common purposes. Nevertheless, there have been settlements.”
American diplomacy has too often been an exercise in strong-arming our friends (should they dare question Washington’s prerogatives) or toppling (either covertly or overtly) our perceived enemies, and, still worse, under Mr. Biden and his predecessors, the practice of American diplomacy has become discounted and marginalized.
And while it is true that the ultimate responsibility for the war in Ukraine falls on the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, it is painful to recall that Mr. Biden and his predecessors were presented with numerous opportunities to forestall the current catastrophe.
Yet when presented with such opportunities, to back the Minsk peace process for instance, Washington has more often than not demurred. When presented with a draft treaty by the Russians in December of 2021, the Biden administration refused to even consider it. When presented with peace plans after the war began, Washington and its allies channeled the spirit of Melville’s Bartleby and declared that they would “prefer not to.”
At this juncture, with Russia at the start of a new offensive, we believe diplomatic engagement is the only moral and realistic policy available to President Biden and his advisors.
We hope they pursue it.
Katrina vanden Heuvel is ACURA’s President. She is editorial director and publisher of The Nation where she served as editor from 1995 to 2019. A frequent commentator on U.S. and international politics for ABC, MSNBC, CNN, and PBS, her articles have appeared in The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times and The Boston Globe and she writes a weekly column for The Washington Post.
James W. Carden served as an advisor to the Special Representative for Intergovernmental Affairs at the State Department during the Obama administration. He reported from rebel-held Donestsk and Ukrainian held-Donbas in the early years of the Ukrainian conflict. A frequent contributor to publications on the left, right, and center, he is a member of the board of ACURA.