Photo by Mihail Siergiejevicz
Artillery Row

Red sky in the morning

The West woke to find itself hooked on Russian gas with degraded militaries

After months of military build-up and overt threats, educated, intelligent and respected experts across the West woke on Thursday, 24 February genuinely shocked to discover that Russia had launched an invasion of Ukraine.

Career analysts suffer a profound inability to understand different belief systems

How is it that people paid to conduct exactly this sort of analysis could be so badly wrong? The experts who apparently completely underestimated Russia’s intention to undertake major military action, ranged from analysts and academics to President Zelensky himself. Russia’s intentions were hardly a secret. To be shocked at this invasion — not that it occurred when it did, or that it was undertaken in the particular way it was, but to be shocked at the very realistic possibility that it could have occurred — was foolishly naïve. Many of these analysts, whose careers have been built upon understanding the actions of non-western states, suffer a profound inability to understand actors with different thought patterns and belief systems. At its core, their failure seems to arise from academics, journalists and diplomats appealing to exclusively liberal fears and values. Economic penalties, the loss of reputation in liberal institutions and calls to value human rights were meant to convince a man, with minimal respect for these, to act against his own interests.

This failure of understanding limits the ability of the West to successfully counter Russian action. How can you act against an objective when you were unable to understand it in the first place? Western analysis, with its reliance on the tools of diplomacy and soft coercion, has forgotten that when soft power fails, hard power must be a credible threat. After years of managed decline, how much of a deterrent are our increasingly degraded militaries? As long as the West prioritises soft power values over hard power realities, nations who do the opposite are free to act how they may.

Russia’s attempt to reassert itself as a Great Power has been a project decades in the making. Since Putin’s ascendency to power, Russia has reached the fourth-highest military expenditure in the world; made consistent and escalating interventions in Chechnya, Georgia and Syria; enacted an increasing clampdown on dissidents; and built up a significant currency reserve. Putin’s stated belief that the fall of the Soviet Union was “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century” was not born of any commitment to communist politics, but spoke to the decline of Russian influence over its neighbours in the post-Soviet years that followed. Putin wishes to make Russia a Great Power that can intervene and win abroad, prop up its allies and exterminate its ideological allies on foreign ground, without fear of diminishment on the world stage.

Putin cannot be bought off with rosy promises of buoyant GDP

Putin’s ambition to gather together “Russian” lands has been clear for almost two decades now. His growing nationalist rhetoric and action over the past decade should have only indicated that this ambition was strengthening. That he had interventionist, even imperial, geopolitical goals should have come as a surprise to precisely none. He has long been open about those he admires (Peter the Great), those he despises (late and post-Soviet leadership) and his opinion of Russia’s rightful place in the world (ascendant).

Vladimir Putin is not Boris Yeltsin, and cannot be bought off with rosy promises of buoyant GDP and cases of cognac. He has never been willing to tolerate the territorial losses and political humiliation that the Russian Federation suffered under his predecessor. With the West faltering under weak, incoherent leadership; a recalcitrant neighbour electing a literal comedian as president; and an economy built to withstand sanctions, Putin decided that as favourable an opportunity may never materialise again. If any doubts on America’s reluctance to intervene remained, the failure of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan surely put them to rest.

This reluctance ensured that in the build-up to invasion, America relied entirely on ineffective threats in trying to dissuade Russia, appealing to liberal norms and values against a country concerned with national pride and global ascendancy. By assuming that their own viewpoints and moral assumptions were intrinsically unalienable and universal forces, the West expended crucial energy into pursuing ineffectual measures. There was little understanding of the rationality of others — even days into the invasion, liberal actors were still insisting that Putin was acting in a wholly illogical and inexplicable manner — and even less understanding that retaining and nurturing impressive capabilities would have been a good insurance policy, in case these assumptions were revealed to be incorrect.

Let him who desires peace, prepare for war, wrote Vegetius in the late 4th century. For the West, this does not mean significant, reactive military intervention in Ukraine now, but instead a complete re-evaluation of long-term strategic goals and the military capabilities needed to achieve them.

Britain has been content to allow its military capabilities to atrophy

Over recent years, Britain has been content to allow its military capabilities to atrophy. Successive conservative governments willingly prioritised short-term economic gain with budgetary cuts to British military capabilities, presiding over wilful military reduction in the name of austerity, focusing on cutting the scope of forces in favour of attaining better equipment. In the face of a visibly revanchist Russia, having a military personnel just 500 stronger than that of Ethiopia could be unwise. A weakened military can be buoyed with an intelligent diplomatic service, but these have been headed by a Foreign Secretary who could neither remember the difference between the Balkans and Baltic states, nor recognise Russian territory. Institutional decay has largely bypassed public awareness, but is uncomfortably brought to light at moments of crisis.

In a further example of long-term planning failure, many in Western Europe are overly-reliant on Russian resources that weaken their bargaining position. Germany has belatedly realised the position its dismantling of nuclear energy has created.

Two weeks into the invasion, and the West has begun to react. Perhaps the biggest pivot has come from Germany, which has shifted to a swift process of light de-Merkelisation that will see its defence budget pledged to increase annual spending 30 per cent. Still, these measures remain spotty and incohesive, in order to allow for mutual reliance on the sale of gas. The reason for this is simple: each action undertaken has been an immediate reaction, rather than part of a coherent, managed plan. Western states simply did not account for this development — could not account for the scope of this development — without acknowledging that their managed decline and ideological interests might have failed. The West has awoken to find itself in the middle of a crisis, hooked on Russian gas and possessing degraded military capabilities.

Across the Western world, short-term political gain has been made at the expense of long-term strategic planning. The true danger lies in believing that others are making the same mistakes. Experts have failed the Ukrainian people, who have needlessly suffered and died in an invasion that may otherwise have been prevented. In order for Western states to dissuade future invasions, they must look outside of their own parameters of thought when attempting to understand the fears, desires and motivations of others. Only time will tell if they choose to double down on weak assertions of international law or wake up and reverse the decline.

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