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 had remained 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.