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Putin’s War: The Next Phase

Putin’s War: The Next Phase

Friday, 18 March, 2022 - 05:30
Amir Taheri
Amir Taheri was the executive editor-in-chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at or written for innumerable publications, published eleven books, and has been a columnist for Asharq Al-Awsat since 1987

As it heads for its second month, like other wars in history, the war in Ukraine seems to be finding the rhythm and tempo that determines its cruising speed at least for some time.

One thing that all wars have in common is that, after an initial shock-and-awe period, they are factored in as part of the broader picture of life. As wars vary widely in terms of length it is hard to know when that factoring-in starts. The 30-year war and the 100-year wars in Europe didn’t become part of the broader picture of European existence with the same cadence.

What all wars have in common is that, once they have reached their cruising speed, they revert to being what they originally were: a form of communication or, in fact, the continuation of politics by other means. As actual fighting becomes part of a multifaceted reality, the quest for a way to end the war begins to loom as the central issue. Wars are aimed at replacing a status quo regarded as undesirable by one or both adversaries by a new one acceptable by the winning side and tolerable by the loser.

In a sense, the Ukraine war started in 2014 with the annexation of Crimea by Russia and its fomenting of secession in Donetsk and Luhansk. The latest upsurge in fighting shows that both Vladimir Putin who started the war and successive authorities in Kyiv failed to tackle the political core issues that caused the conflict.

After last month’s invasion, the conflict has drawn in a wider circle of powers involved, albeit vicariously, among them the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Beyond them, almost all members of the United Nations are also involved if only because, in one way or another, they have to take sides.

So far, the European Union and NATO have opted for what amounts to knee-jerk reaction to show that they are doing something without deciding what it is they are actually facing.

The Ukraine problem, if one might label it thus, is an evil twin. One part of it concerns what to do about Putin and his (mis-)reading of the world. The other part is about Russia and the challenge of finding its proper place in a global system of which it has become part with a paradoxical mixture of reluctance and temptation.

The Putin part of the twin is obviously transient.

Regardless of what happens in this war Putin’s historic timespan is bound to be shorter than Russia as a nation-state.

Yet, both EU and NATO seem to equate Russia, an abiding reality, with Putin, an epiphenomenon that can be waited out.

What the EU and NATO seem to have ignored is that Putin, though still popular, does not represent the evolving long-term reality that is post-Soviet Russia. I am not even sure that the 300 or so “oligarchs” cast as Putin’s support-base would be prepared to follow him all the way if they felt he is on the losing side.

Seizing the assets of the oligarchs makes good news copy. But I doubt if it will sway Putin away from his adversarial trajectory. In any case, if the oligarchs’ assets were produced by corruption if not actual theft, why did Western democracies welcome them as legitimate “investment”? And, if they were legit to start with, why seize them when the Western legal system excludes guilt by association?

The sanctions that punish wide sections of the Russian people could turn out to be equally counter-productive. Millions of Russians work in the part of the economy that has been integrated into the global system. French companies claim to have created over a million direct or indirect Russian jobs. Large numbers of Russians live in EU countries as well as the US and Canada. France is home to over 40,000 Russian permanent residents and, before the war, hosted over a million Russian tourists each year.

According to EU estimates over 250,000 Russians have personal accounts in Western banks.

In the past three weeks thousands of Russians, among them businessmen, academics, and intellectuals, have left their country while anti-war protests have taken place in dozens of towns and cities across the federation.

Both the EU and NATO would do well to try and de-couple Putin and the Russian people through information, public diplomacy, and carefully targeted sanctions. It is important to show that Western democracies are not after excluding Russia from its proper place in the concert of nations and that it is Putin’s misguided policy that is leading them to global pariah status.

Despite occasional outbursts of Slavophilia, the Russian people have often aspired after a proper place as a European nation. The current course taken by NATO and EU gives the wrong impression that the choice facing Russians is between asserting their power by force as Putin wants and being denied a top table seat by Western powers.

The Western democracies also need to foster a dialogue with those nations that are tempted to use Putin’s adventurism in the service of their own unresolved conflict with the West.

China’s attempt at hedging its bets is shortsighted and could end up adding further complication to an already tangled web. There is also an urgent need for active diplomacy with India, Brazil, and two dozen “developing nations” in Africa and Asia that feel schadenfreude about “big powers” going for each other’s jugular.

More importantly, however, even if Putin has burned all his bridges, the Western democracies should be prepared to suggest a bridge if and when he understands that he could push no further.

The temptation to let Putin dig an even deeper hole for himself may be hard to resist. But the aim is to end this senseless war, not to humiliate Putin, history will do that.

Apart from China at least half a dozen other nations could help foster a dialogue between Kyiv and Moscow as the first step away from an even bigger tragedy.

It is now clear that the Ukraine war cannot end as Putin dreamt. Putin could create a second Syria where after six years of unbridled violence he has ended up in control of five percent of the territory in a country where half the population was driven out of their homes.

No matter how this war ends the issue of how to fit Russia into the international order would have to be tackled. Right now, however, there are few signs that Western policymakers are preparing for that immense task.

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