It seems incredible to realize that it is a year since Russia invaded Ukraine. Old certainties have seemingly been upended; new realities are apparently emerging. What to make of it all? Three things to consider.
First, the “West” is now more solidly united than ever around some basic propositions. The most important of these is that Russia cannot be allowed to prevail; such an outcome would completely overturn the fundamental tenets of European stability. While the NATO nations have determined that they cannot participate in the fighting for fear of widening the war, there is widespread consensus (occasional wobbles notwithstanding) that Ukraine must be given all necessary assistance to stop Russia.
Germany, the NATO member which looked most towards economic and energy relations with Russia as a key aspect of its post-Cold War policies, has stepped back from these and is significantly increasing its defence budget. After some hand-wringing, it is taking steps once thought unimaginable, such as the export of tanks to Ukraine. There will probably be new thresholds in terms of military aid, and Berlin will, after pressure, probably accede to these as well.
Beyond this, the concept of “neutrality,” which meant something during the Cold War, is finished for the foreseeable future. Sweden and Finland are joining NATO (once Turkey stops blackmailing the Alliance for its own parochial reasons). Switzerland (Switzerland!) is permitting the export of weapons to Ukraine. In this sense, Putin’s gambit has failed most spectacularly; as President Biden said, he sought the “Finlandization of NATO” but is getting the “NATOization of Finland” in return.
These steps, though necessary in the context of defeating Russia in Ukraine, have longer-term portents. It may be necessary that European security become firmly entrenched as an “everybody united against Russia” dynamic to help Ukraine, but will that be healthy in the longer term? History is long; Russia has been a presence in European security affairs for centuries and will be for centuries more. While any government run by Putin is likely to be permanently unacceptable as a European security partner, for a good reason, this does not mean that Russia must be. Even as we seek to isolate and punish Putin, we must recognize the distinction between him and Russia.
Second, there is a growing sense of the danger totalitarian regimes pose, particularly regarding their getting together. China’s emergence has been a source of concern for many years, but Putin’s recklessness – and China’s support for it – has raised new concerns that Beijing may take a leaf from Moscow’s book. Talk of “the coming war with China” is rising (surveillance balloons are not helping), and fears that Xi will do to Taiwan as Putin has tried to do to Ukraine are now firmly in the mainstream. Iran’s support for Russia and increased relations with China cause worries that some “Axis” of authoritarians is emerging.
In this context, the need to be careful about “historical thinking” is probably the greatest. There is a need to avoid the trap of thinking that adroit and thoughtful diplomacy must be likened to “Munich” every time. Lines must be held firmly, and Beijing, Tehran and Moscow need to know that they will be resisted firmly if they cross them. But that does not just mean militarily, and these countries are far from a “bloc” in an alliance sense. They have weaknesses, and their relations are not founded on immutable and permanent interests.
All of this can be exploited, but only if we guard against the trap of seeing all diplomacy as a weakness. In the case of China, we have to recognize that it is a rapidly emerging Great Power, though not without its own problems, while Russia is a rapidly diminishing one. They are not a bloc in a military sense. Meanwhile, Iran is a faltering dictatorship that may not survive in its present form much longer. Aside from their dislike of America’s leading position in the world, the thing that binds these countries together is energy – more specifically, China’s insatiable need for it – not any confluence of outlook. This is a reality that can be exploited.
Finally, the bloody nose Russia has received in Ukraine and the likelihood of its eventual defeat there raises fundamental questions about whether what we now know as Russia will survive the reckoning that will follow its ejection from Ukraine. Putin is inextricably tied to this war. This makes him dangerous but also vulnerable. After decades in power, he has likely been able to “coup-proof” his regime extensively. But can his regime survive this? The one thing that dictators need above all else is to be feared; will he be after the amazingly rag-tag Russian military is ejected from Ukraine?
Though Putin may have created a safe bubble around himself in Moscow, will the vast Russian Federation itself hold together? This may be the real danger of a Russian loss. Russia is an enormous country with many different ethnicities and regional interests. Some of these have chafed against the centre for many years. In the wake of a defeat that seriously weakened much of its Army, will Moscow’s grip remain as firm as ever?
The prospect of different regions and ethnicities in Russia bolting for the door may seem far-fetched in normal times, but these are not such times. Even if such efforts do not succeed, we may face the prospect of a long and bloody period of savage internal fighting within Russia. This raises serious questions. Some of these are immediate – who has control of the nuclear arsenal if the country is unstable? Others are longer-term – if brutality is the only way to hold the country together, the emergence of a more representative government in Moscow is even less likely. And strongmen who seek to unite their fractious country have a history of inventing foreign military threats as a way to do it.
The coming years in Russia are not likely to be very pretty, and there are dangers of spill-overs that will cause instability over a large area of the world.