One year after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the outcome of the war is still unclear, despite massive military, financial and intelligence support for Ukraine from the West. Indeed, we could well be heading towards a stalemate. How do we get out of this quagmire and preserve the rules-based world order that has fostered market-oriented economies, and open democratic political systems since World War II?
To explore these issues, we speak with John West, executive director of the Asian Century Institute, about the origin of the war, the stakes involved and what the future might hold.
Unravel: What drove Russian President Putin to launch an invasion of Ukraine?
John West: Like all dictators, President Putin’s actions are motivated by worries about his own survival and that of his regime. Deposed dictators often face death, imprisonment, exile and expropriation of their wealth. In contrast, former one-term American presidents like Jimmy Carter and George HW Bush can achieve much greater respect and fortune in their post-presidential careers.
President Putin had every reason to be worried about his future. His return to the presidency in 2012, following a stint as prime minister, was very unpopular, marred by fraud and provoked protests. The Russian economy has also performed poorly, due to low energy prices, a brain drain, and corruption and cronyism. Weak economies are a threat for a dictator like President Putin, because economic prosperity provides the resources to maintain a system of patronage that ensures loyalty and minimises the risk of a coup. And being possibly the richest person in the world can make President Putin a target for elite and popular discontent.
Against this background, Mr Putin would have hoped that the invasion of Ukraine would pander to popular Russian nationalism and disdain for Ukraine independence, and perhaps also Russian business interests who could profit from the war, and thereby boost his waning popularity.
Unravel: How could President Putin believe that he would get away with an invasion of Ukraine?
Mr West: To understand President Putin’s behaviour, it is important to remember that he is fundamentally a product of the KGB (now the FSB) where he spent his early career, which still sees the West as Russia’s enemy. In this context, President Putin and the “KGB-state” that now rule Russia are emboldened by the belief that the US and Europe are spineless and incompetent, as evidenced in the disastrous US withdrawal from Afghanistan, President Obama’s reluctance to enforce “red-lines” in Syria, Europe’s high dependence on Russian energy, and Europe’s unwillingness to invest in its military. And in his own backyard, Mr Putin only saw ineffectual Western responses to Russia’s invasion of Georgia, the seizure of Crimea and actions in the Donbass region.
Mr Putin is also a Russian nationalist who believes that the West is suffering from decadence and moral decline. He sees the US as a country at war with itself, and the January 2021 Capitol attack as a green light for invading Ukraine and messing with Europe. President Putin also has scores to settle with the West in light of Obama’s dismissive comments about Russia as a mere “regional power” which was a threat to no-one.
The biggest score that President Putin has to settle with the West is the end of the Soviet empire and the Soviet Union itself which he regards as the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century. He believes that Mikhail Gorbachev was a weak man who naively opened Russia up, thereby weakening it. The West will only take advantage of Russian openness. In short, Gorbachev got rolled by the West. And today, President Putin is convinced that the US is behind all of Russia’s problems, notably in Ukraine.
Unravel: To what extent could we have predicted the conduct of the war over the past year?
Mr West: The Ukraine war will probably go down as one of the most surprising in history. We have seen an incompetent and poorly organised Russian military campaign. President Putin was obviously badly informed about the capabilities of Russia’s military and intelligence services, and the corruption that had eaten away at their capabilities. Like most dictators, President Putin was surrounded by an ever-smaller circle of advisors, who reportedly would tell him what he wanted to hear. Moreover, he was motivated as much by his world view, as by serious intelligence and analysis.
The leadership of Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky is universally regarded as being brilliant, even if some still try to belittle him based on his previous career as an actor, and his very low popularity prior to the war. The extraordinary fighting spirit of the Ukrainian military has been a great surprise, especially vis-à-vis the low motivation of Russian soldiers. Evidence suggests that defenders of their homeland are usually more motivated than invaders.
The cohesion of Western countries—in terms of providing arms, finance, and intelligence, and implementing severe sanctions—was very much unexpected, especially by President Putin. The war has led Sweden and Finland to seek NATO membership. It has also been very surprising how Europe was able to cut its dependence on Russian energy. Germany went from importing two-thirds of its natural gas from Russia to none in a matter of months.
Today, the big question is how long? For how long will the Russian military remain incompetent, for how long will the Ukrainian military outperform itself, and how long will Western solidarity hold? These are the big unknowns, and we are likely to be hit with many more surprises.
Unravel: Why does the Ukraine war matter so much to the West?
Mr West: The Ukraine war is of critical importance to the West because it is basically a war between Russia and the West, a proxy war, in that Ukraine is receiving arms, training, finance and intelligence from the West. It is also a war between Western values and authoritarian regimes, as Russia is receiving help from Iran, China and North Korea.
Beyond these generalities, there are many reasons why the West is so deeply involved in this conflict.
Some fear that if President Putin succeeds in his invasion of Ukraine, that he will then continue to Moldova, the Baltic states and perhaps beyond. This could then disturb the whole European order that has been carefully constructed by the EU during the postwar period. Fortunately, former Soviet satellites like Poland are the most committed in their resistance to Russian aggression.
Beyond that, perhaps the greatest threat is to the West’s leadership of the world order, and the associated political and economic freedoms. We could end up in a world where might means right, smaller countries must surrender, and where prosperity and freedoms are adversely affected. In other words, if the US wants to remain a superpower, it cannot allow Ukraine to be defeated.
Separately, Russian success would only embolden other authoritarian regimes, like China which is actively coveting Taiwan. This is why Japan is moving towards abandoning its postwar pacifism, and committing to doubling its defence expenditure over the next five years.
Unravel: What is the likely outcome of the war and over what time period?
Mr West: This is the most difficult question of all. Both President Putin and President Zelensky seem to believe they can win the war, and are currently committed to continue the fight. US President Joe Biden’s recent visit to Kyiv suggests that the US, the main supporter of Ukraine, remains committed to ensuring a Ukraine victory. US Republican Senate leader Mitchell McConnell has also made clear his determination for a Ukraine victory to discourage Chinese designs on Taiwan.
But there are questions about how long both sides in the conflict can continue. Will they soon run out of arms, people, courage? Indeed, neither side may have the military capacity to achieve victory. There are also questions about possible “Ukraine fatigue” in the West, especially in the US as it moves into the presidential election season. Then there is the risk that a weakened President Putin might lash out and become even more dangerous, rather than go out quietly.
Overall, most commentators argue that this conflict might continue for a very long time. And when it ends, it may be in the form of a ceasefire and armistice, rather than a peace. Crimea and Donbass could be split off from Ukraine proper, in much the same way that North and South Korea were split in 1953. But as Ukraine reminds us, this would not be a solution. It would merely give Russia the time to regroup and rearm for another attack in a few years’ time.
The only real solution would be a decisive victory, hopefully by Ukraine. But if the West is as serious about this, as it says it is, it must give the Ukrainians all the arms that they are asking for and as soon as possible. At this stage, the West is only giving Ukraine enough to survive, but not enough to win. True, that would run the risk of Russia employing tactical nuclear weapons. But all scenarios involve risks. Indeed, as we write, China is presenting itself as a new peacemaker, while assisting Russia and trying to drive a wedge between Western countries.
John West is author of the recent book, “Asian Century … on a Knife-edge,” and executive director of the Asian Century Institute. He is also adjunct professor at Tokyo’s Sophia University and contributing editor at FDI-Intelligence, a Financial Times magazine. These positions follow a long career in international economics and relations, with major stints at the Australian Treasury where he was director of balance of payments, OECD (head of public affairs and director OECD Forum) and Asian Development Bank Institute (senior consultant for capacity building and training).