Observations of an expat – Ukraine: where are we going?

Putin has to go. But when and how? What will be the result of his Ukrainian failure in Russia and the rest of the world? How much damage will be inflicted on Ukraine and almost every other country before he is thrown out of the Kremlin?

Working on the assumption that the West will win (any other scenario is unthinkable), what will be the short, medium and long-term repercussions for the world?

The immediate consequence is Hell for Ukraine, pariah status and economic disaster for Russia and economic pain for everyone else.

Vladimir Putin expected Ukraine to fall into his lap like an over-ripe Slavic apple. It didn’t happen. They are fighting back with a fierce patriotism which has shocked the Russian president and won global admiration.

Most of the world has rallied around with the toughest sanctions since World War Two and tons of military hardware – but no troops and no planes for a no fly zone. Ukraine is not a member of NATO and the alliance is terrified of Ukraine escalating into World War III if NATO and Russian troops directly face each other.

So Ukraine is fighting on behalf of a Western Alliance of which it is not officially a member.  It is fighting a war which is the clearest cut case of good against evil since 1939. It is a war which has been 70 years in the waiting.

In the short term Volodomyr Zelensky’s brave army will probably lose militarily. The Russian army is too big. As I write this blog the tank column that has been inching its way towards Kyiv is fanning out through the surrounding forests for a major bombardment of the Ukrainian capital and Russian planes are increasing their attacks.

But a conventional Russian military victory would be a political disaster for Putin. His invasion has created a sense of Ukrainian nationalism which would lead to an insurgency war which would more than equal Moscow’s ten-year Afghan calamity, which in turn led to the collapse of the Soviet Union. The economic war would continue and Russia would be forced to retreat behind an unsustainable Soviet-style Iron Curtain.

There are reports that Putin has seen the writing on the wall. He has allegedly fired eight generals and turned on his trusted FSB to accuse them of providing him with faulty intelligence which led to  his invasion order. The FSB is said to have responded by accusing their leader of creating a climate of fear so that reports were doctored to justify his political wish list rather than presenting evidential facts.

As we approach the Ides of March (the 15th), the scene would appear to be set for a palace coup. But who would replace Putin or dare to move against him. He has surrounded himself with group-thinking yes men known as siloviki (Russian for enforcer).  They owe their positions and wealth to the pleasure of the Russian President and have been appointed because they bought into his autocratic anti-western paranoia harnessed to a messianic belief in Russian greatness. On top of that their actions, conversations and meetings are carefully monitored by presidential spies.

The next possible source of revolt is the Oligarchs who are now being stripped of their vast wealth by Western sanctions. They too owe their position to Putin. Each has been chosen for their personal loyalty to profit from lucrative enterprises. Those who have strayed in their fealty have been stripped of their corporate assets and/or been assassinated. However, Putin is now weakened and a group of Oligarchs may take the view that the best chance of rescuing their baubles is to move against the president.

Next in line is Russia’s young people and intelligentsia. Thousands have taken to the streets to protest the war. An estimated 10,000 have been arrested. They face up to 15 years in prison for spreading “fake news” which is defined as any news not approved by Vladimir Putin. Most of this group never suffered the closed Soviet society. They travel. Until this week they followed Western media. They go clubbing, eat in street cafes and basically enjoy a Western lifestyle. That has disappeared overnight and they are angry.

But for the middle classes to successfully move against Putin they would need the support of Russia’s vast working class and all the signs are that they support Putin’s war—for the time being. The Russian proletariat has a long history of silent suffering under successive repressive regimes (1917 being the exception) and Putin’s stranglehold of the media insures their loyalty.

But even if Putin is removed, what then? How does the rest of the world deal with the persistent and dogmatic Russian paranoia coupled with a messianic belief in its right to greatness with a strong leader at the helm? How do we change centuries of national hubris to bring Russia into the rules-based international order? There was a brief moment after the collapse of the Soviet Union when such a world seemed possible. But it was crushed by the dark Russian soul.

As Putin’s Russia implodes, the West is rising to the occasion. It had appeared weak and divided. Both Moscow and Beijing spoke openly of the decline of democracies and the rise and inevitable victory of   autocracies. But Russia’s attack on the border of NATO and the EU has united and revitalised the Western Alliance. It now has an easily identifiable enemy and a justifiable cause.

Europe has united and backed with German resolve is marching towards a proper security and defence policy. Long-time neutralists Finland and Sweden are considering NATO membership. Even Switzerland has joined the sanctions war. The US has—after four years of wavering under Donald Trump—recommitted itself to the NATO alliance. The bulk of the Republican Party has ditched its isolationism to unite behind a bipartisan war effort, leaving far-right Trumpists floundering.

Autocracies will suffer. Putin has been regarded as a torch bearer by populist strongmen. If he goes down in flames it will embolden others to strike out against men such as Viktor Orban, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Narendra Modi, Nicolas Maduro, Mohammed bin Salman, Jair Bolsonaro, the Myanmar generals, Iran’s Mullahs and others. Syria’s President Assad will be especially vulnerable without his Russian protector.

China is likely to be exception. It is rich and the Communist Party has successfully established control at every level of society and a pseudo-capitalist economy that is delivering a rising standard of living. An attack on Taiwan remains a possibility. But China watchers are dubious—at least at the moment. Xi Jinping has too much to lose by widening the war. Europe (including the UK) has told Washington that it would be reluctant to support an Asian war, partly because it wants to stay focused on Ukraine and partly because it needs trade with China.

But the West faces severe short-term sacrifices. Inflation fuelled by soaring energy prices is affecting every aspect of life. At the moment the American and European public are almost gleefully surrendering the relative good life for the greater causes of Ukrainian freedom and democratic values. But how long will a West already exhausted by the restrictions of Covid continue to tighten its collective belt? Putin probably believes that his dour Russians can outlast the decadent West.

Energy will be the biggest winner and loser. Prices are being pushed up by Russia’s prominence as an international oil and gas exporter. Europe’s economy is almost totally dependent on Russian energy. That is why Moscow’s fossil fuels are currently exempt from European sanctions. That is a short term problem which has to be resolved quickly if only because Putin may turn off the taps at any moment. This week’s EU summit agreed to cut Russian imports by two thirds by the end of the year, but no more than that.

In the short and medium term, climate change policies are being sacrificed on the altar of war. The world desperately needs energy. Increasing production in the OPEC countries and in places such as Norway, the US, fracking sites, Venezuela, Azerbaijan and Libya along with coal production from Australia, India and Poland are seen as necessary wartime fixes.

But simultaneously the West—especially Europe—has awakened to the need to establish secure home-grown energy sources. This means more investment in green technology and probably a German U-turn on its decision to ban nuclear power stations.

The war has raised issues about economic national security in a wide range of other industries ranging from steel production to wheat to microchips. President Biden has spoken in almost Trump-like terms about bringing industries home to protect America.

If 1930s style isolationism is a long term consequence of the Ukraine War then that would be unfortunate. It would damage free trade which has encouraged economic interdependence and for 70 years helped to reduce the spread of conflicts and raised living standards worldwide. Globalisation exports jobs and increases the dependence on other countries. But it also reduces consumer prices, lifts living standards worldwide and—conversely—reduces the chances of conflict.

As usual, it will be the poorest who will suffer most because of Putin’s war—in the developed and developing world. Government finances have already been stretched to breaking point by the pandemic. Now they have to pay for increased defence spending, restructured energy policies, a refugee crisis and, eventually, the rebuilding of Ukraine. Taxes will inevitably rise.  Money will be diverted from education, health and welfare to pay for more immediate needs. Infrastructure projects will be delayed. Borrowings will increase. Foreign aid will be cut. Growth and living standards, especially in the developing world, will falter after decades of improvement. Putin is to blame.

* Tom Arms is foreign editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and the author of “The Encyclopedia of the Cold War” and the recently published “America Made in Britain” that has sold out in the US after six weeks but is still available in the UK.

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9 Comments

  • Mario Caves 12th Mar '22 - 8:04am

    “In the short term Volodomyr Zelensky’s brave army will probably lose militarily. The Russian army is too big”.

    Not true.
    Yes the Russian army is big numerically, but the Ukrainians have many advantages, especially in defending the capital, Keiv.
    I will concentrate on the campaign in the north, where the most important political objective is, the capital and the seat of government.
    Looking at a map, you will notice that all of the Russian military gains in the north are rural, strategically insignificant areas. They have made no progress at all in penetrating the large cities.
    To be sure of success in attack you also need 3 soldiers on the front line for every soldier on the opposite side in defence. In FIBUA (fighting in built up areas), that ratio increases to at least 5 to 1. That numerical advantage of the defenders is compounded by the fact that in conventional war you need up to 7 soldiers supplying the logistical needs of every combat soldier on the front line. The Russians have to move all their supplies along long and vulnerable logistics columns from Russia to keep moving.

  • Mario Caves 12th Mar '22 - 8:04am

    It also impossible to win a built up area just with armour, you must use infantry to take and hold a city. Armoured vehicles in built up areas are ducks in a barrel to a well equipped defender.

    Add to that the determination of the Ukrainians, defending their homes from an aggressor, prepared to fight to the last man, compared to the Russian army, with many very young and inexperienced conscript soldiers who have little appetite for being killed for a cause they appear unlikely to support once they learn what it actually is.

    The question is; How long will it take for the Russians to accept that they will never be able to overthrow the Ukrainian government?

  • David Goble 12th Mar '22 - 9:46am

    I have read that the accepted ratio of occupiers to occupied is 1:50; this means that, for a nation of 44,000,000, Putin is going to have to have, and sustain, an occupying army of 880,000. His armed forces are, I have read, 3,000,000 strong. The occupying army is, therefore, a very large percentage of his forces. Can he afford this number of occupiers?

    There is also the question as to whether he can be allowed to “win” this conflict? We can be sure that, if he does, he will wish to move elsewhere in his bid to rebuild the Soviet Empire. Where? Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania, Moldova? Nearly every move will bring him into conflict with NATO and I am sure that nobody wants that.

  • @Mario. You make excellent points and I hope you are right. At the moment, my reading of the reported military analysis is, on balance, leaning towards my assessment. Either way, I don’t think this is going to be a short conflict and from that stems my views in the rest of the article. Let’s hope I am wrong about that too (except the departure of Putin).

  • David Garlick 12th Mar '22 - 12:56pm

    If we are set on avoiding world war three then we have to find different ways to be strong and face Putin down. Being strong means cutting off all trade with Russia and Belarus, That may hurt us too but must be done. Isolating Russia has to remaiin for at least as long as Putin has ANY ROLE in Russian Govt and until reparation/rebuilding Ukraine is completed at the cost of Russia and Belarus.

  • Brad Barrows 12th Mar '22 - 6:30pm

    My fear is that Putin will not agree to a cease fire and peace deal unless the lifting of international sanctions is part of the deal, and I don’t believe that will happen. So Putin May conclude that he might as well try to win militarily as he will lose economically whether he agrees to a settlement or not.

  • @Brad

    Thats a difficult one

    Of course, we need a ceasefire immediately to relieve the suffering and protect further lives, but then, we can surely not afford to lift sanctions immediately as what lesson is there to be learnt for Putin there.
    He cant be given the ability to just go back to how things were and start building up his military again.
    And given what his demands are thus far. Recognising Crimea as Russian territory, along with the independent states ” of Luhansk and Donetsk and now holding an illegal referendum in Kherson to create another breakaway republic.

    If he is allowed to get away with that, where next, Moldova, does he start flooding Poland and other Baltic states with separatists who then declare regions of Poland as Independent states, for Russian then to start all over again making claims of genocide in those states for which he must come to the rescue.

    Eventually, that is going to lead to WW3, no matter what.

    Seems to me our only choice is to hammer Russia Economically which must last for several years, ordinary Russians must have to see what it is like to live in a communist country again and then hopefully they will rise against Putin to say thats not how they want live their lives and what they want for Russia.

    I dont like the thought of Ordinary Russians suffering, but the only people who can change this is the Russians themselves because the alternative is a full-scale war which does not end well for any of us

  • The Russian empire ended with the fall of the Berlin wall and collapse of the Soviet Union. For the Austro-Hungary, German and Ottoman empires, WW1 was the end. For Britain and France, WW2 and the Suez crisis brought the end of Empire. For the UK, Eisenhower’s blocking of IMF loans during the Suez crisis and threat to sell part of the US Government’s Sterling Bond holdings were sufficient to persuade Eden of the folly of continuing the invasion of Egypt. Economic sanctions may not persuade Putin to end the bloodshed anytime soon, but they will make it clear that his aspirations for reconstituting a Russian empire will not be tolerated in the modern world.
    Tom Arms is right when he says “As usual, it will be the poorest who will suffer most because of Putin’s war—in the developed and developing world.” We must do all we can to mitigate the suffering of those worst affected and to help Ukraine defend itself against he last gasp of imperial aggression.

  • Peter Hirst 16th Mar '22 - 1:21pm

    Zelenskyy’s commitment not to join NATO is the first sign of a realistic treaty that might lead to a cease fire. At present it feels as if we’re going to end in a quagmire that could last until Putin goes. If Ukraine begins to win the war, the pressure on him to come to some sort of agreement or resign will be unstoppable.

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