The Ukrainian crisis has launched the processes of a global divide: between the West and the Non-West, writes Valdai Club Programme Director Andrey Sushentsov. In Europe, the new watershed means a military-political confrontation between Russia and NATO, following the patterns of the deep European security crisis of the 1970s and 1980s, when the parties were close to a nuclear war, but one never took place. Outside the European continent, the Non-West is now actively taking stock of its relations with the Euro-Atlantic states.
In mid-2022, German President Steinmeier complained that the escalation of the Ukrainian crisis had led to the catastrophe of a unified “European home” dream. In place of such dreams, “fear came”. The German president can be congratulated: the emerging feeling of fear for one’s own helplessness is useful — it is able to mobilise one’s political will to solve long-standing problems. It is high time for the EU to abandon its strategy of sentimentality: high-flown mantras, complacent summits, and false-hearted handshakes, not backed by goals or resources, and the determination to make sacrifices. However, this time there will be no necessary shake-up: the Europeans are not able to appreciate the significance of the Ukrainian crisis and the vital nature of Russia’s interests, having long ago lost the habit of thinking for themselves. The vacation from strategic thinking continues.
Strategic thinking can only emerge when a crisis of a vital nature presents itself, such as when a country is fighting for independence, economic survival, or reassembling itself after a civil war. After such a catastrophe, the gained experience is generalised and passed on to the next generation of elites through the education system: the experience is converted into textbooks, into professors and into tradition. Such a tradition becomes the necessary “general knowledge” of people in the four key types of public service: civil, diplomatic, military and special. Only in this way can a consensus be formed among the political elite about national interests, about the means and resources it has to achieve them, and what to sacrifice for them. The last three generations of European politicians have been in “European negotiation exercises” — a lighter version of strategic rivalry that creates a false perception of the realities of world politics. These greenhouse conditions have led to the degradation of the four services of the states of Europe and their inability to formulate the vital interests of their countries.
How was European strategic thinking defined before? Five hundred years ago, the French would have said that their main goal was to prevent the English from landing at Calais. Two hundred years ago, the French would have said it was necessary to contain Britain and prevent the victory of the conservative powers that were trying to stifle the revolution. A hundred years ago, the Germans were the main enemy, and fifty years ago, in Gaullist France, the Anglo-Saxon powers were seen as opponents of continental Europe. Now in Europe, there is no unequivocal enemy for France: that is why neither the mobilisation of resources nor attention is obtained. For the past seventy years, the political elites in Europe have not raised the question of what their vital national interests are.
Amid such circumstances, fear is a useful thing.
The loss of the habit of thinking strategically has left Europe with a deeply distorted perception of Russia’s interests in the Ukrainian crisis and, accordingly, Europe’s own strategy is inconsistent. When the hostilities began, the Europeans deliberately projected onto Moscow the experience of the United States in the Iraq campaign: in their opinion, Russia should have used all the forces and means at its disposal in order to immediately gain overwhelming superiority, decapitate the political leadership in Kiev and suppress disorganised resistance with missile strikes.
Then, after the departure of Russian forces from the Kiev and Chernigov regions, a new strategy appeared in Europe: since Russia does not have enough resources, it is necessary to support Ukraine with all its might and supply it with weapons; the outcome of the situation, as Josep Borrell said, must be sought on the battlefield, rather than at the negotiating table. In June, a third version of the strategy was born: it turns out that Russia may still have vital interests in Ukraine. Moscow is demonstrating great skill in manoeuvring its forces and means, in fact choosing the direction of the strike, and at the same time reshaping the world’s economic ties, in which, as it turns out, Russia’s contribution is high. There are voices in the West again about the need to negotiate with Russia, preferably before the start of the cold season. No one is immune from the fact that in a month, in Europe, they will again reconsider their view of Ukrainian developments, having found themselves using another strategy for interacting with Moscow.
Such fluctuations testify that, as a result of the crisis, a revolution of consciousness among the European elites will not occur. Already, the Americans are close to the “Nixonian formula” for ending the war in Vietnam, the so-called “Ukrainian Guam Doctrine”: “we are for the Ukrainisation of the conflict, we supply weapons, and then it’s up to you to decide.” As for Europe itself, Americans continue to look to the continent not only as their security responsibility region, but also as a development resource, a region from which they will draw resources in the coming decades as their relationship with China becomes increasingly confrontational. Using the anti-Russian phobias of the Baltic and Eastern European countries, the United States will maintain points of tension on the borders with Russia and sell resources to the Europeans at exorbitant prices, while sanctions pressure and trade wars will push capital to flow to the American market.
As long as these constants remain, it is premature to raise the question of a New Yalta. The decisions at the Yalta Conference of the Big Three were the product of a global catastrophe in which tens of millions of people were killed. Elites in all countries of the world simultaneously realised the harmfulness of war, as well as the need for a respite in order to restore strength and repair the destroyed countries. These men, who led Europe for the next 40 years, built the European order with a constant eye on the catastrophe of the past, understanding the vital interest in preventing a major confrontation. The Ukrainian crisis, for all its tragedy, still remains a regional crisis — it has not witnessed the same catastrophic consequences, although some of them are felt on a global scale.
Of course, the risks of a nuclear escalation of the conflict are significant — in such a scenario, the Ukrainian conflict will rapidly develop into the hotbed of a new world war in Europe. At this stage, however, the Ukrainian crisis has launched the processes of a global divide: between the West and the Non-West. In Europe, the new watershed means a military-political confrontation between Russia and NATO, following the patterns of the deep European security crisis of the 1970s and 1980s, when the parties were close to a nuclear war, but one never took place. Outside the European continent, the Non-West is now actively taking stock of its relations with the Euro-Atlantic states. Turkey has questions for Finland and Sweden, and even by renaming itself from Turkey to Türkiye it is hindering NATO expansion. The Indian prime minister at the QUAD session started speaking in Hindi on principle, creating a real embarrassment with the translation, for which the parties were not ready. The UAE refused US demands to remove Russia from the OPEC+ deal. These all seem like small details. However, such stirrings were impossible two years ago, and testify to the emergence of an increasingly mature poly-centricity in the world. In this world, strategic sentimentality is quite dangerous.