Western ‘Unity’ Is Making the Ukraine War Worse
Western ‘Unity’ Is Making the Ukraine War Worse
More than 100 days of war in Ukraine have not only unleashed multiple political, economic and environmental crises; Vladimir Putin’s invasion has also revived dangerous delusions in the West.
A few months ago, acute divisions plagued the United States, the European Union and ties between them. Germany, Europe’s leading nation, had developed a mutually profitable relationship with Russia. Poland, a frontline state now aligned against Russia, was descending deeper into autocracy, inviting punitive measures from its EU partners. A mendacious Tory prime minister led the United Kingdom. The US, damaged by Trumpism, a mismanaged pandemic and a military debacle in Afghanistan, was debating the likelihood of civil war. French President Emmanuel Macron had declared NATO was experiencing “brain death.”
As soon as Russian President Vladimir Putin launched his assault, Western politicians and journalists raced to announce that such fissures had miraculously dissolved. Lauding “Western unity” and the rejuvenation of “the free world,” they seemed to spend as much time trying to refurbish the West’s self-image as coming up with an effective rejoinder to Putin’s invasion.
Of course, unfocused actions bred largely of self-regard were always doomed to fail. Take, for instance, sanctions, widely hailed as projecting Western resolve against Putinism. Ineffective against even toothless regimes such as Cuba, sanctions have predictably failed to deter the Russian leader while exposing billions across the world to steep inflation and hunger.
Additional punitive measures have been very selectively imposed, with more focus on maintaining unity than on the political, economic and social repercussions for a world that has barely recovered from two radically destructive years of the pandemic. It should not be surprising that most nations, including close Western allies such as India and Turkey, continue to do business with Russia, or that Putin has retaliated by blockading ports that supply the world with wheat and fertilizers.
Now convinced of their own rhetoric about the strength of the Western coalition, US politicians and commentators have clamored to change the regime in Moscow and fatally weaken Russia, with no reference to how such fantasies of supreme power worked out in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya. Meanwhile, three months into the war, these same figures seem no closer to defining realistic Western objectives in Ukraine.
In fact, the options before the US and Europe have always been blindingly clear.
They could throw their full support behind Ukraine’s resistance to Russia, make sanctions watertight and cut off all financial support for Putin’s war machine. Or they could bring forward the unavoidable obligation to talk to their enemies and offer incentives for both Ukraine and Russia to reach a negotiated solution.
The first option is scarcely ideal. Nations that depend on Russia for its energy and food needs won’t end their relationship with the country overnight — not even Germany will do so. Also, increasingly direct military confrontation with a nuclear-armed state is unwise.
Yet the second option is hardly being vigorously pursued right now. Thus, Ukraine receives from the West neither the weapons it seeks for a more fruitful war effort, nor sufficient motivation to pursue peace through diplomacy.
What we do get, in copious measure, is a psychodrama — of a tiny but powerful minority of politicians and journalists who have been trying to resolve the identity crisis of the West by rhetorically exaggerating its will and resources against Putin.
During his four years in power, US President Donald Trump wrecked the cold war idea of the West as free, democratic and rational. In Europe, hard-right movements and personalities that were openly admiring of Putin further blurred a Western self-image forged during the long confrontation with totalitarian Soviet communism.
A brazenly imperialist Russia has now appeared to cleanse and vivify that identity just as the Soviet Union once did. Declarations that “the West must hold its nerve,” even as death and destruction stalk Ukraine, fuel the suspicion that achieving some kumbaya moment of synchronized purpose and identity has become more vital to the West than averting a global humanitarian catastrophe.
Needless to say, old assumptions — of a singular West possessed of colossal power or prestige or nerve — cannot be sustained today by a profoundly fragile coalition of Western countries which are internally divided, with angry populations pursuing widely different socio-political destinies.
It is true that many members of the West’s political and media elites, mostly middle-aged, white and male, fundamentally experienced the world as its hegemons. Too many disorientating things have happened since they were young — among them, the rise of China, a country nursing its sense of humiliation by Western powers, and the re-emergence of a defeated rival Russia as an energy superpower.
Faced with such resentful and implacable challengers, they have naturally sought shelter in the easy certainties and slogans of their youth. But peace and stability in the world will depend on whether today’s fragmented West can find less treacherous ways of dealing with the rest.