When the Russian president is finally defeated in Ukraine, the West must avoid past mistakes to ensure peace
I have never been so wrong about a major event that was so clearly forewarned. I was convinced that Vladimir Putin would not be so reckless as to launch a full-scale conquest of Ukraine, if only for the simple reason that he would lose. I had assumed he was a cunning dictator who hated democracy, was smart enough to play on the corruption of a West enamoured of rentier capitalism and therefore had a cold measure of realities. I also thought he felt profoundly threatened by last year’s uprising in Belarus. The possible contagion of a democratic revolution there would threaten him personally, and the West’s sanctions, while not enough to undermine Lukashenko’s regime, were a close call. So I reckoned – perhaps I should say hoped – that the huge mobilisation of Russian military forces around Ukraine was a feint, whose real aim was to consolidate Russian control over Minsk, not Kyiv. This, it seemed to me, was bad enough.
It is important to hold onto one’s disbelief and the reasons for it. There is a danger in defaulting to self-regarding huff and puff, especially if you are British, with righteous declarations of how dictators must not be appeased. Putin should – and more importantly, will – be defeated. Now is the time for war, given that he has chosen it. It will be fought and suffered by the people of Ukraine, and we must extend to them solidarity and support. In the spirit of such solidarity, this also means it is time to begin to plan the peace that follows when the would-be conqueror is vanquished, and Russian forces withdraw. Ukraine’s heroic President Zelensky is right to put his country’s neutrality on the table in any negotiation. For if we do not wish to return to the old cycle that has led to this war, we have to acknowledge where we are coming from.
There were two reasons why Putin’s invasion was ‘unbelievable’. First, Ukraine is a large country with a proud people and long borders. It cannot be successfully occupied against determined patriotic resistance. Even if the Russian forces can completely subdue Ukraine’s professional army, which is not yet clear, they cannot withstand a long insurgency fed with the latest infantry weapons, night-vision rifles and drone technology, supported by US surveillance and cyber-warfare. The premise of Putin’s assault, as set out in his historically insane address, is that the people of Ukraine are really Russian. As his troops will learn, this is untrue. Nibbling off part of an oblast is one thing – seeking the conquest of an entire, functioning country that borders NATO does not make sense.
Second, a wholesale invasion of Ukraine explodes the post-Cold War world order. With a vast act of armed frustration, Putin has terminated the era deemed ‘the end of history’, which is said to have begun after the US emerged victorious from the Cold War and the Soviet Union collapsed in 1990. But he himself is the creature of this order. Many of the Western figures who personify it, such as Peter Mandelson, Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson, to name but three from my own country, are spellbound by him or his favoured oligarchs. They need to go down with him.
Putin’s concern for Russian greatness should not, therefore, be seen in Cold War terms such as a response to the threat of NATO expansion. He understood the weaknesses of the West and that the ‘threat’ was pure theatre. His fear is popular democracy, liberal values such as the rule of law, freedom of speech and human rights. Hence his backing of Western friends, above all Donald Trump, who shared his contempt for due process and a mobster’s relationship to truth, even if they didn’t murder their opponents.
Rather, Putin is a product of the disastrous way that the US replaced the Cold War. As I write in ‘Taking Control!’, in 1992, then-president George H W Bush expressed “the joy that was in my heart” at the way America had “won the Cold War”. He was thrilled that “a world once divided into two now recognises one sole and pre-eminent power, the United States of America”. Other countries, he continued, “regard US pre-eminence with no dread. For the world trusts us with power, and the world is right. They trust us to be fair and restrained. They trust us to be on the side of decency. They trust us to do what’s right”.
Dread was much the wiser course. The 30 years that followed saw enormous economic growth and innovation. China’s transformation is without precedent and the global economy went from analogue to digital with the rise of platform corporations of unprecedented nature and reach. But politically it was far from being restrained and fair, America’s solo hegemony was responsible for a period of unrestrained unfairness. Its wars of choice in Afghanistan and Iraq were indecent disasters and its insatiable financial system exploded in the great crash of 2008.
Nowhere was more indecently and unfairly treated than Russia. After 1992, the US could have supported its transformation into a relatively uncorrupted democracy as its people wished. Instead of extending an updated Marshall plan to a defeated enemy, as the US had so successfully done with Japan and Germany after 1945, Russia was ravaged by economic ‘shock therapy’ and bankrupted. Putin is the foster child of Washington’s greed and myopia, determined to take revenge on the forces of the capitalist family that also orphaned him even while he has been personally enriched and empowered by it.
What everyone must now strive to ensure is that the tragedy of Putin’s folly and his coming defeat does not turn into a further tragedy – a return to a smouldering polarisation that ensures another, future conflict. In other words, how Putin loses must be turned into a victory for Russian and Belarus democracy and a path for their renewal. Only this can compensate for the US’s ghastly orchestration of the decades when it was the “sole and pre-eminent power”.
So far, US President Biden’s strategy has been intelligent and dignified. He took three courses of action that distinguished him from Trump. First, his administration has armed Ukrainian forces with defensive weaponry and training (and presumably advisers) as well as detailed intelligence. Second, it has systematically revealed what it knew and risked its classified information gathering, so as to ensure that the world has a factual knowledge of what is happening. This has restored credibility to America’s claims after four years of Trumpian bluster. Third, it has built an international alliance rather than proclaiming ‘America First’. In addition, Biden has, wisely, not called for Putin’s overthrow or sought to provoke a man consumed by crazy notions of history with nuclear weapons at his disposal.
In this way, the US administration is allowing Putin to defeat himself. For this to happen it has to be concluded domestically. Defied and frustrated on the battlefields of Ukraine he can only be replaced by Russians themselves.
It is striking that large, spontaneous anti-war demonstrations have taken place across Russia, while there have been no significant demonstrations of support for a massive war on a supposedly threatening neighbour. It is an imbalance that echoes the pattern of the US-UK Iraq invasion – also a ‘mad’ war of choice. Even though Washington spent over a year propagating the lies that Saddam Hussain was involved in 9/11 and had weapons of mass destruction, it could not get its supporters onto the streets.
Defeat for Putin will come much faster than for George W Bush and his vice president Dick Cheney after 2003. Ukraine is far better armed and organised than Iraq. It is lodged much closer to Russia in spirit and geographically. In addition, there is Belarus. One of the striking things about the recent popular opposition movements in the ex-Soviet autocracies is their disparate character. Russia’s protest movement was suppressed after the 2018 elections, but was followed by the 2020 uprising in Belarus against Lukashenko’s election theft. No sooner had that been crushed than unrest broke out in Kazakhstan at the start of this year.
The war is now generating opposition in Belarus as well as Russia. An invasion intended by Putin to consolidate his sway across the ex-Soviet space is leading to coordinated demands for distinct democracies in Minsk as well as Moscow, threatening both autocrats.
In four remarkable articles for openDemocracy, Greg Yudin, a Moscow professor, has followed the frustration of the opposition to Putin. At the same time, he argues that Putin felt his power ebbing and chose war to save himself, not his country. The leader who for two decades embodied the cool, ruthless re-establishment of Russia’s standing – and retained popular support because of this, despite the detestable corruption that he permitted – has suddenly become an idiot. Yudin feared it would be very hard for opposition to the war to gain popular traction. Nonetheless, just before the assault was launched, he concluded:
The war with Ukraine will be the most senseless of all the wars in our history. Because we can never fight with Ukrainians. Though Russians may think Ukrainians’ choices are wrong, may think they are ungrateful and cruel and their rulers irresponsible, we cannot fight them, even if they are, in our view, to blame for everything. Because they are Ukrainians – if we are not able to find a common language with them, then we are not able to be friends with anyone. We will be alone against the whole world, and our defeat will be heavy.
We need to ensure that defeat is swift, decisive and falls on Putin. But its burden must be lifted for the Russian people once it has been secured. This is an opportunity to help Russia to become a political ally, not an enemy, and thus genuinely terminate both the Cold War era and its disastrous aftermath.
Military support for the Ukrainian resistance is essential: its purpose is to alter the entire paradigm of polarisation. Anatol Lieven is one of the wisest commentators on Russia and Ukraine, and he foresaw and sought to prevent the present disaster. It may seem foolish to disagree with his expertise. But he argues against a strategy of support for guerrilla warfare because it would “instrumentalise Ukrainians as a weapon to weaken Russia and recall some of the worst U.S. actions of the Cold War”. Instead, he wants sanctions designed to “help the Ukrainian people”. But the help the Ukrainian people want is to be aided in their resistance. As the Vietnamese can tell you, you may be supported for ulterior motives yet at the same time make your own history with the support that you get. Just read this letter from Kyiv to the Western Left.
The people who need to be helped are the Russians. As the resistance exposes Putin’s recklessness a political crisis will engulf the Kremlin. Putin’s Russia is neither an efficient one-party state nor a backward kleptocracy. It has a civil society, scientific and artistic networks and a population that, while intimidated, believes in itself and is capable of bravery. It can now demand democracy.
The larger principle, as set out by British academic Mary Kaldor, is to move from a world based on force and polarising alliances to one based on human rights and human security. Inevitably and rightly, this will diminish the supremacy of the West. It means seeking a democratic Russia that is no longer to be treated as an opponent.
The consequences will be profound. When the Soviet Union collapsed, and this ended the Cold War, the US sought to cripple the rise of a future Russia. Treating it as a potential enemy created its enmity. The true way to end Putinism is to terminate the enmity between Russia and Europe and the US. May the hot war in Ukraine truly end the Cold War and any reconstruction of the rivalries that serve the military-corporate complex. We need Russia, Ukraine and Belarus to become a democratic trinity and allies in the creation of a sustainable world.
Anthony Barnett was the founding editor-in-chief of openDemocracy (2001-7), the co-director of The Convention on Modern Liberty (2009) and the first director of Charter 88 (1988-95). He was a member of the editorial advisory group of the Bureau of Investigative Reporting (2014-18). Anthony has authored and edited numerous books. He also sits on the board of openTrust. He tweets at @anthonybarnett. His new book, Taking Control! Humanity and America after Trump and the Pandemic is published on March 15, 2022.
This piece was originally published on 28 February 2022 on openDemocracy.