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The Ukraine War: Russia’s Duel With The West 

The Ukraine War: Russia’s Duel With The West 
 Michel Duclos
Special Advisor and Resident Senior Fellow - Geopolitics and Diplomacy

All exaggeration aside, there’s one thing we can all admit: we have entered a new world. Russia is invading a neighboring country, signaling a return to Europe’s pre-1945 aggression that the United Nations Charter had intended to ban forever. This time, however, the West - and especially Europe - seems determined to counter the Kremlin's challenge to the Western world. 

Putin’s Milosevic syndrome

By what tortuous calculations has the President of the Russian Federation decided to take so many risks? 

The most straightforward response is that he has shot himself in the foot. Upon seeing that the Ukrainian government was not going to give in, he had no choice but to actually go through with his threatening plan of action. However, this can only be understood against a particular background:

  • First of all, since the end of the Cold War, the Russians have tended to mimic Western behavior (e.g., recognizing Abkhazia and Ossetia, just as the West had recognized Kosovo). Within this framework, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is reminiscent of the United States’ invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq, with regime change as the shared objective in all three cases. The two disastrous precedents of Afghanistan and Iraq should have made Putin more prudent. Evidently, the Russian President has chosen not to learn from recent history.
  • Another, more determining factor was certainly at play. Vladimir Putin took on this endeavor by himself, without the confidence of his entourage, as was apparent in the extraordinary staging of a final meeting of his National Security Council. Putin now appears to be caught up in an obsession with "gathering the Russian lands". His historical revisionism has moreover taken on a dramatic dimension with the suppression of the NGO Memorial. In hindsight, it is tempting to compare the July 2021 article on the unity of the Russian and Ukrainian peoples with Slobodan Milosevic's 1989 Gazimestan speech on the 600th anniversary of the Battle of Kosovo - a harbinger of a bloody endeavor in the name of historical chimeras. 
  • In addition, the perception that Putin and his clan have of the West has been reinforced over the last few years. In the eyes of Russian leaders, as Elie Tenenbaum puts it, the warlike and domineering West of the past has become decadent and weak, clearing the way for the 2008 Russo-Georgian War, the 2014 annexation of Crimea, the ongoing Donbas war, and Assad's Moscow-backed crimes in Syria. The Russians also consider the Biden administration to be weak. Furthermore, the prevalence of Trumpism in America and national-populism in Europe, may have given Moscow the false impression that they are merely fulfilling History’s natural course. 

A hybrid war for the West

All that being said, it is precisely this overestimation of the strategic decline of the West - combined with an underestimation of the Ukrainians' willingness to resist - that will now play a determining factor in the course of events.

  • The West quickly responded to Russian aggression with several waves of sanctions, coordinated between Washington, the EU and other European governments. These sanctions now go much further than anyone could have imagined, or than Moscow was prepared for. Freezing Russia’s central bank assets abroad, as well as excluding the major Russian banks from international financial markets, will cut short Moscow’s ability to maintain or reboot the economy after the war. Among all the commercial ties between Russia and the West, it is only hydrocarbons - an essential sector - that is being spared, at least for the time being
  • Beyond imposing sanctions, Europe’s reactions include the closure of the European space to Russian aircrafts, the EU’s decision to create a fund to buy weapons to be transferred to the Ukrainians, and a U-turn from the German government, committing itself to doubling the defense budget of the Federal Republic, helping Ukraine, including by military means, and reversing its energy policy in order to be less dependent on Russian gas. 
  • The United States is certainly playing a role in the West's response, though one that is, in reality, far less prominent than would have previously been the case - this in itself is another notable development. Biden’s hands are tied by his electoral deadlines. From the beginning, he has been unambiguous about stating that there would be no American soldiers in Ukraine. What, then, explains the strength and unity of the European response? Fear is clearly the driving force: for Berlin, Paris and other capitals, Russia’s excessive aggression leaves little doubt about Moscow’s long-term strategic interests. If Putin has an easy win in Ukraine, he will continue his offensive against other countries. His own statements indicate that, once "the Ukrainian problem has been solved," he intends to restructure Europe’s security architecture. 

What’s the end goal? 

Amid these driving factors, there is a fascinating document that sheds light on Putin’s projection of power: an editorial piece of the Novosti agency, scheduled for publication the day after what was supposed to be a quick victory over Ukraine. When this was not the case, the document was inadvertently published and immediately deleted from the agency's website. It clearly states that the end of Ukraine as a separate state from Russia will shake the West to its core, marking the end of the transatlantic relationship. It also stated that a war was unavoidable, given the growing "anti-Russian sentiment" in Ukraine.

Putin’s so-called conditions for a possible cease-fire negotiation confirm as much: "denazification, demilitarization, neutralization".

We are now more than ten days into the Russian aggression, and this supposedly "quick and easy" victory has not taken place. But it’s also clear that, not having broken the Ukrainian resistance right away, Russia will double down on its force. It will repeat its actions in Chechnya and Syria, unleashing a dirty war, deliberately aiming to destroy entire cities, targeting civilian populations, hospitals, marketplaces and schools. Putin’s so-called conditions for a possible cease-fire negotiation confirm as much: "denazification, demilitarization, neutralization".

At this stage, it is not clear what would cause him to change course. Having consistently underestimated the Ukrainians, he may be minimizing the risk of prolonged urban guerrilla warfare when it comes to occupying the country. For now, "negotiations" - contacts between Russian and Ukrainian delegations, phone calls between Macron and Putin - signify a continuation of war by other means, as was the case in Syria. 

For the West, the end goal is inevitably less clear than it is for Putin. Europe’s strategy, however, seems to be straightforward: to help the Ukrainian forces delay their defeat as much as possible, thus making the Russian army suffer a high cost, and above all to considerably weaken Russia by asphyxiating it economically, and isolating it politically. More sanctions will thus follow - a strategy that must be handled with care. When President Macron solemnly declared that "France is not at war with Russia", he meant that the West must avoid giving Putin pretexts to extend the conflict beyond Ukraine, and to resort to nuclear blackmail or any other form of escalation. Nevertheless, the Russian dictator is himself stirring up the possibility of using nuclear weapons, given his attempts to convince the world that Ukrainians are planning to use them first. Clearly, nuclear power is not off the table. 

In the event of a "Russian victory", one can only imagine how challenging it will be for NATO and the EU to have a largely destroyed, Russian-occupied Ukraine on its doorstep, in the grip of an insurgency-type war. The temptation for the Russians to test NATO in the Baltic countries or elsewhere - already present today - will be very strong. 

The logic of the currency strategy, however, is leading to a strategic defeat of Putin.

In any case, it is the irony of history that the West has no choice but to practice this "hybrid war" first theorized by the Russian head of state, General Guerassimov, which combines, among other things, military actions (arming the Ukrainians), "informational" or cyber operations, and economic measures.

As noted earlier, the end goal for the West is anything but clear at this stage. The logic of the currency strategy, however, is leading to a strategic defeat of Putin. In the coming weeks, the Russian economy will be on its knees. The Russian state will eventually reach the point of not being able to pay its civil servants, police, military and pensioners. Vladimir Putin will find it difficult to present himself to his people as a winner, even if domestic pressure, surveillance and fear is at a level not seen since Stalin. He will, of course, be entirely in China’s hands, who may question the value of such a weakened and discredited ally. In devising their strategy, Western leaders should bear in mind the message that they are also sending to Beijing. 

A fatal duel for the Russian dictator

Could the blood and fury unleashed in the name of a Ukrainian regime change, actually lead to a regime change in Moscow? There is no point for the West to speculate on such a scenario, of which we have anything but a clear picture. What should be anticipated is that a cornered and possibly humiliated Putin would be all the more dangerous. What is true, however, is that the Russian President has engaged in a duel with the West, which may not be a duel to the death, but a duel from which he can only emerge deeply wounded. 




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