America, unfettered. Ukraine, unbowed. China, unnerved. Russia, undone.
One year after Vladimir Putin’s invasion, it’s easier to record what the bloody conflict across Russia’s western front has not achieved rather than what it has resolved.
It has not broken Ukraine. It has not laid waste the western order. It has not unhinged the solidarity of the US and Europe. It has not undermined the world role of the dollar. It has not unleashed inflation that international central banks are powerless to parry. It has not sustained the fable of Russian miliary might. Yet it has not (so far) deterred Putin and his supporters from further murderous endeavours against both the Ukrainian and the Russian people.
Driven by medieval great-power aspirations and grievances, Russia’s president has been reasserting, with devastating modern means, medieval methods of warfare. Yet Putin has been unravelled. The myth has melted. The spell is broken. No longer a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. Rather a tyrant trapped in paranoia, complicit in his own outlawing. A dutiful though not masterful espionage officer in earlier life, he has, in his relentlessly unimaginative conduct of the war, matched his own dour self-description: ‘Once KGB, always KGB.’
Whatever the outcome, however long it takes, this conflict will not end well for Putin. Historians will cite the tragic paradoxes. Instead of reglorifying the Russian empire, he has relegated his nation and its people to long-lasting second-class status. The economy has been degraded through isolation, sanctions and loss of foreign investment and people. Putin has attempted to impose on Russia’s western neighbourhood his own version of America’s ‘spheres of influence’-setting Monroe doctrine. Instead, Putin has brought a galvanised and unified Nato alliance – through frontline rearmament and Swedish-Finnish accession – still further into Russia’s backyard.
Denigrating the West as degenerate and doomed, Putin has allowed the US to unfurl the rich trappings of its technological, economic, military and monetary power. That may jar with many leading emerging market countries, which still see Russia as a partner or ally. But the US has displayed its financial clout by leading, immediately after the invasion, previously inconceivable sequestration of Russian central bank assets, and forcing Chinese banks to cut credit lines to Russian borrowers. Legal battles are in store over whether Moscow’s frozen assets can be used for Ukrainian reconstruction.
Joe Biden’s administration has clamped down on access to advanced semiconductor components and technology. This is challenging China by means similar to those seen in President Ronald Reagan’s 1980s ‘strategic defence initiative’ missile shield project, which ultimately contributed to the collapse of the Soviet Union. Both China and the Russians harbour unhappy memories of these times. The Chinese leadership has sworn to avoid a similar fate.
By circumscribing the Sino-Russian ‘no limits’ friendship, American global action has brought Russia into a doubly unenviable position, resenting both junior status and lack of rewards from partnership with China. If US intelligence is correct that China is preparing to send lethal aid to shore up Putin’s armies, this will be a further test for America’s industrial-military authority and the resilience of its allies. Given persistent sabre-rattling over Taiwan, the stakes could hardly be higher.
Putin successfully manoeuvred Germany, as its long-standing European alter ego, into a position of weakness and dependence on imported Russian energy. By overplaying his hand, the blackmailer has driven the intended victim into the arms of America – now exporting to the suddenly ultra-flexible Germans all the liquefied shale gas they previously shunned as morally and energetically unconscionable.
Putin’s absurd accusation that the Ukrainian government was following Nazi policies might have served a warped purpose in attempting to deter the Germans from sending weaponry into a region they ravaged in 1941-45. Now, Putin is following tactics reminiscent of Adolf Hitler – tightening totalitarian control, reinventing history as war propaganda, sending invaders to ‘rescue’ minorities, turning erstwhile partners into belligerents. As a result, even comfortable combat-fearing Germans (led, improbably, by the Greens) have overcome at least temporarily their pacific tendencies.
Across Europe, the war has ended many illusions. Once they knew the Ukrainians would fight and the Russians were faltering, other European countries made significant contributions to stiffening Ukraine’s resistance. But no one echoes the ludicrously non-prophetic assertion of the Luxembourg foreign minister in 1991, ahead of the Yugoslav wars, that the ‘hour of Europe’ has struck. The Americans and Nato (in that order) are in charge.
The effects on the West have been massively asymmetrical. European allies closer to the action bear the refugee flows and the angst (especially in Germany) about two most unfavourable outcomes: nuclear escalation and/or a catastrophic Russian weakening that could oust Putin and replace him with a still more confrontational leader.
The US can profit from the strengthening of the dollar that habitually results from world crisis, real-time insights into the capabilities and frailties of Russia’s armed forces, testing of its own largely superior equipment and substantial monetary rewards for US armaments and fossil fuel companies. Britain can display strategic muscle in a way that may not have been possible had it remained in the European Union. That provides some compensation for much-dented economic weight and international reputation during a run of disastrous Conservative prime ministers.
The US Treasury’s global assertiveness appears to have played a role in the International Monetary Fund’s unusually robust criticism of UK economic policy during the autumn financial upsets that ended Liz Truss’s ill-starred premiership. China’s search for western friends creates opportunities for US statesmanship. Without Ukrainian valour, nothing positive would have been possible. If the US and its allies take advantage of the openings created by blood and sacrifice, and Putin carries on failing, in six months the world could look a more stable place.
David Marsh is Chairman of OMFIF.