As a shorthand phrase “the war in Ukraine” may please headline writers and politicians keen on facile simplifications. The phrase gives the impression that the war is going on in a remote place called Ukraine and only tangentially affects the rest of the world. The rest of the world is divided into three categories.
The first is that of ringside spectators, nations that watch the war on TV but have little or no concern about its outcome. Next, we have nations that try to play both sides in the hope of reaping some benefits from whichever side emerges as the victor in the end. Finally, we have those, principally the so-called G-7 nations and their allies in the European Union and NATO, who are taking Ukraine’s side while anxious to limit their involvement to writing cheques and shipping a range of surplus weapons to “heroic” Ukrainians.
What all the three categories mentioned above have in common is their refusal to acknowledge the fact that this conflict, though not a world war by the classic definition, affects the whole world.
Soon, the ringside spectators will see that the threat to the world order, or, to be more exact the international order is bound to affect them in ways that they might not welcome. The blood that is shed in the ring is bound to splash on the ringside as the Spanish Civil War showed more than 80 years ago.
Those who try to hedge their bets by one day drinking Vladimir Putin’s health and the next day complimenting Volodymyr Zelensky for his “heroic leadership” will also reap nothing but shame because this war, in fact like most other wars, is likely to produce more losers than winners.
Compared to the nations in the two above-mentioned categories, the Western democracies and Japan have the merit of admitting that the “Ukraine war” is bound to affect them along with all other nations.
The problem is that their admission is not translated into full awareness of the fact that, like it or not, they are getting involved in a war in which they have no control on one side and largely symbolic influence on the other. War can never be a part-time indulgence, either you are in it full-time with bare knuckles or you are not. Georges Clemenceau, the French Prime Minister in the First World War, had a mantra: “You ask what I do? In the morning I wage war, in the afternoon I wage war, throughout the night I wage war!”
You might say that what we have here is a proxy war that does not require the kind of focused energy, not to say obsessions that Clemenceau boasted about. But even proxy wars require a coherent strategy and a unified overall command even if nested within the shell of a proxy, much like Matryuhska dolls.
Again you might quip that Zelensky is in overall command.
In reality, however, he is not and cannot be because he does not control the resources needed for war. He is an effective communicator on behalf of his beleaguered nation and a paragon of courage in adversity. However, he does not have the key to the war chest and the passcode for arsenals of necessary weapons. Nor does he control the flow of electronic and space-based intelligence gathering that plays a crucial role in modern warfare.
The lack of a unified command based on a joint analysis of the situation, and a perception of shared interests, is also felt in political, economic, and diplomatic fields related to this war. Despite joint communique and end-of-term photos by G-7, NATO and EU leaders, different member states play their separate tunes, albeit on the same theme.
Some like Emmanuel Macron in France and Boris Johnson in Britain try to appear heroic in Ukraine in order to divert attention from their respective failures at home. Others, like Joe Biden in the US and Olaf Shultz in Germany, hope to burnish their tarnished images by posturing low-cost as war leaders. They are unable or unwilling to tell their peoples that they are under attack from a delusional despot with creepy messianic pretensions.
Then there are bit-players like Viktor Orbán and Recap Tayyip Erdogan who try to collect some of the crumbs or pinch some of the tips thrown on the Ukrainian table.
Treating the Ukraine war on an ad-hoc basis means that no one is in charge of overall strategy.
Some NATO members have assigned one or two diplomats or military men to monitor the war while NATO as a whole has not deemed it necessary to create a specific coordinating task force. At the same time there is no unified mechanism to monitor and assess the implementation of sanctions imposed on Russia and the so-called “oligarchs” and the effect, if any, they might have had.
Much energy is spent on what one might call gesture politics, notably, inviting Ukraine and Moldova to start negotiating a putative membership of the European Union and allowing Ukrainian refugees visa-free entry into the EU.
More importantly, perhaps, the Western democracies will soon face the need to put their armaments industries in high gear. And that means a massive increase in military budgets. Yet, most NATO members are still proceeding with old plans to reduce the size of their armed forces and switch arms production from what is needed in a classical war, such as the one we witness in Ukraine, to warfare in cyberspace or outer space.
In any war, the belligerents also try to turn neutrals into allies and the allies of the foe into neutrals. That, too, requires a unified command capable of pursuing a course of creative diplomacy. So far, only Putin has been active in that direction, fortunately with little success. The Western democracies, on the other hand, have developed no common position and, in some cases continued their petty rivalries as if nothing has changed.
It is time for everyone to realize that the war to destroy Ukraine isn’t a sideshow. This is not a low-intensity war in which one is involved only vicariously. True, it's Ukrainian blood that is shed on the battlefield. But citizens of almost all other countries also pay a price in galloping inflation, widespread shortages and a growing threat to security.
It is time for NATO, the EU and allies to move beyond the welcome, though largely symbolic, a show of unity through symbolic gestures and develop a common analysis of what is involved and what needs to be done to curb Putin. And that would require a mechanism for unified overall political leadership with Zelensky as field commander.