Today we are witnessing a transition to the second phase of the Ukrainian crisis. Russia’s determination to win is very significant. Despite the exhaustion of Ukraine’s own resources, Western support is not weakening. This makes the transition of the military-political confrontation between Russia and the West to 2023 highly probable, writes Valdai Club Programme Director Andrey Sushentsov.
The Ukrainian crisis is one of the most multidimensional international political crises over the past century. The complexity of the conflict makes it especially difficult to analyse and predict. That is why what is happening today is forcing analysts to look for new models of analysis, and when making forecasts, remain careful in assessing what is happening. The internal aspects of the crisis include an unresolved socio-cultural conflict between two civil-political groups with directly opposite goals for the development of the Ukrainian state — in the West and the East of Ukraine.
The circle of participants in the crisis includes six groups of players pursuing different political goals. They are: the United States, the countries of the so-called “New Europe” (Britain, Poland, the Baltic countries, the Czech Republic, Slovakia), the countries of Western Europe (Italy, France, Germany), the union state of Russia and Belarus, and a group of Western countries, which we call “gateways” (Turkey and Hungary), as well as Ukraine itself.
At the first stage of the crisis, the strategy of each group of states was very different. The United States intended to provoke Russia to use force and, by exhausting Moscow’s resources, to withdraw it from the “first league” of powers in world politics. The US strategy also aimed to deprive the European Union of strategic autonomy by suppressing independent-minded political elites and radically reducing the resource base for an independent, pragmatic foreign policy.
The strategy of the countries of the New Europe can be described using the metaphor “Lord Ismay 2.0”: to permanently close Russia’s access to the affairs of Europe, to reliably ensure an American presence in Eastern Europe, and also to deter impulses for autonomy among the countries of Western Europe. The latter did not pursue an unambiguous course, and the crisis took them totally by surprise.
The “gateway countries” — Turkey and Hungary — professed a strategy of opportunism and strategic autonomy. They were looking for ways to gain as much as possible from the Ukrainian conflict, be it political (in the fight against Brussels and Washington) or economic — acting as a gateway for the continuation of Russian-European interaction.
Ukraine began to follow a “Cuba 2.0” strategy, the goal of which was the survival of the Western Ukrainian political project at any cost. Just as at the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis, Fidel Castro called on the USSR to launch a nuclear strike on the United States in the name of the goals of the survival of the communist project, the current leadership in Kiev is also ready to go all out.
Russia’s aim was to eliminate the threatening military foothold in Ukraine, while economically spending available resources; force the West to negotiate a new security architecture in Europe; to break the asymmetric economic interdependence with the West and, finally, to consolidate the “world majority” on the platform of combating Western neo-colonialism.
The autumn of 2022 allows us to sum up the efficiency of the strategy of each group of actors in the unfolding crisis. The success of the United States can be attributed to the fact that the Ukrainian government did not collapse in the first months of hostilities. Washington achieved a final break in Russia’s relations with the European Union and consolidated control over the key nations of the European continent. The failures of the United States include the fact that, despite massive pressure, Moscow continues active military operations with relatively limited resources and retains the initiative in the developing crisis.
The countries of “New Europe” have managed to get the United States actively immersed into European affairs. They have also achieved an internal political consolidation of their governments to embrace anti-Russian politics, which partially compensates for the dissatisfaction of the population over the fall in living standards. The failures of the “New Europe” include deep economic, social and migration crises — how they will compensate for it is not yet obvious. It is likely that the countries of “New Europe” are planning to seek resources to mitigate the consequences of these crises using frozen Russian funds or assistance from the countries of “Old Europe”.
The strategic successes of Western European countries are not obvious. Berlin, Paris, and Rome are facing unprecedented economic and energy crises, runaway inflation, and the risks of political destabilisation amid failed economic policies. These risks have been significantly exacerbated due to the fact that citizens actually pay for the prolongation of the crisis using their own money. There is a loss of initiative in “Old Europe” in the development of the crisis, which has been intercepted by the United States and “New Europe”. Bravura statements that the transition to a green economy will now be inevitable are not supported by any intelligible argument. A return of interest in their national military industry can be construed as a relative success, but otherwise the parameters of success for this group of countries are difficult to determine.
The “gateway countries” — Hungary and Turkey — have acted more successfully. They have increased their autonomy from Washington and Brussels, and also offer themselves as platforms for diplomatic negotiations following the conflict, which enhances their international political weight. They didn’t pursue their course without risks: external pressure from the allies is increasing against them in order to “bring Ankara and Budapest back to the right line.” The European Union is threatening to stop subsidising the Hungarian economy, while the US is imposing sanctions on Turkey and supplying weapons to Greece.
Ukraine acts both as an active participant in the crisis and as a battlefield between Russia and the West. Ukraine’s success can be attributed to the survival of Zelensky’s government , the consolidation of his control over the life of the country and his ability to push the opposition out of the political field. On the outside, the systematic continuation of international assistance to Ukraine ensures tactical victories on the battlefield and maintains the image of a resilient country in need of support. The losses for Ukraine are more significant — the economic collapse, the loss of a significant part of its territory and population, as well as the inability to conduct military operations relying only on its own forces — all this calls into question the future viability of the state, even within the present new borders.
Russia over the past six months of the military campaign has eliminated most of Ukraine’s own military resources, as well as the country’s means of producing more. The result of this success in the first stage of hostilities was the addition of new territory by Russia with a population of many millions, as well as the provision of a strategically important land corridor between Russia and Crimea. Moscow was successful in consolidating much of the international community that did not join the West by appealing to the fight against neo-colonialism. Its failures at the first stage include the lack of a decisive victory and the prolongation of hostilities, which makes negotiations with Western leaders on the future of the European security system a more distant prospect. Although the old foundations of the economic model of relations between Russia and Europe have been broken, new ones are not visible yet, and its contours will begin to emerge only after the crisis enters a decisive phase. In the current situation, Russia assumes that time is on its side; that is why it does not remove the priority of spending funds economically in the conduct of military operations.
Today we are witnessing a transition to the second phase of the Ukrainian crisis. Russia’s determination to win is very significant. Despite the exhaustion of Ukraine’s own resources, Western support is not weakening. This makes the transition of the military-political confrontation between Russia and the West to 2023 highly probable. What will its parameters be? The United States has so far succeeded in mobilising the EU to support Ukraine, but as the crisis drags on, the will of the Europeans to continue the confrontation will inevitably fall. “Gateway countries” are looking for a way to increase strategic autonomy, as well as find a favourable balance between Russia and the West. The position of autonomous Turkey and Hungary, as well as the horizon of the exhaustion of resources of Ukraine’s allies, will determine the development of the crisis in 2023.