When the countries of Central and Eastern Europe gained their independence from what used to be the Soviet Union, it seemed that we had been looking at a historically unprecedented event: besides the collapse of a great empire, a dozen revolutions managed to realize their objective without any incidents of violence worth mentioning. The empire crumbling at the center suffices to allow the peripheries to obtain their independence relatively very smoothly. This seemed to be the rule that prevailed on the day.
It soon became apparent that this great dream was flawed. Indeed, as soon as the empire, without having deeply reassessed its previous imperial role, retrieves some of its strength, a Pandora’s box explodes, letting out many demons that have resolved not to die.
This is what the latest war in Ukraine meant, adding a specific particularity to the developments there: several peoples’ and nations’ path to independence and democracy is being drawn exclusively there. This war, spreading a sufficient degree of historical pessimism, affirmed that the great peaceful accomplishment of 1989- 1990 will only be realized and fully achieved if the former Russian Empire becomes peaceful- that is, when it genuinely gives up on its imperial tendencies once and for all, becoming content with being a normal country like the other countries of the world. The fact that this has not happened under Vladimir Putin’s leadership is precisely why the fears of the Ukrainians and other European countries are valid, and this is what has made them extremely enthusiastic about joining NATO and the European Union. So long as the neighbor has not become a normal democratic country, sleeping on the silk sheets of their neighborliness could turn into sleeping on thorns at any moment. Events of the recent (as well as distant) history of its neighbors strengthen their apprehensions regarding Russia’s high-handedness.
The developments in Ukraine, despite their immense costs, have made returning to an imperial past, in Ukraine and elsewhere, all but impossible.
Herein lies the second specificity of the case of Ukraine and the Ukrainian war, to which the state of affairs in a new Russia and its significance are tied. That is because the massive war would not have been marked by the tragedies it has precipitated if it were not linked with this situation and significance. Suddenly, different predictions about whether nuclear weapons would be used began spreading, in addition to the havoc wreaked on Ukraine, especially its infrastructure, and the number of casualties, with American General Mark Milley putting the figure at around 200,000 dead. Who knows, the conflict could go on, and its futile, absurd violence could aggravate, with mass destruction inflicted to maintain a particular meaning of Russianism, one that the ruling elite in Moscow does not want to turn the page on and replace.
Thus, with the fact that the Russians have begun withdrawing from the city of Kherson and the Ukrainians have raised their flags there in mind, we have begun to see some, who are not necessarily mistaken, begin stressing that the real end to the Ukraine war will come once things change in Russia itself. Here, we should keep in mind that the Russian social fabric- which has always been torn between its Slavic and European elements and between a drive to tyranny and another to democracy- might not survive this immense historical task.
In any case, it has become extremely clear that the Putinist model currently in place, which has been hit with one setback after another over the course of this war, will not manage to achieve what it had once claimed it would. Neither the rubble of the old empire nor the brittle-winged lust for retrieving the empire allow for this. As for betting on the sheer determination and initiative of Moscow, it would be misguided because willpower cannot overcome the gulf in technical and military capacities. We now have an abundance of compelling evidence attesting to this unevenness, which, in the end, speaks to the huge distance between the Western political, cultural and economic model supporting Ukraine and the Russian model, which has been dilapidated on every level.
The fact is that the US withdrawal from Afghanistan or the divergences within NATO and the EU is not at all enough reason to bet, leaping over the massive technical and nontechnical gap, on “inflicting defeat on the West” and “ending unipolarity.”
The sixties and seventies witnessed, because of the Vietnam- US war, the emergence of a theory that peoples, through their sacrifice, can defeat the armies of technically advanced countries. However, the other specificity of Ukraine's position vis-à-vis Russia is that Ukraine is the Vietnam of this confrontation, while it also enjoys technical superiority afforded to it by Western arms and training.
In other words, it is very rare for technical capacities and a just cause to come together in demanding independence, sovereignty, and the withdrawal of foreign forces. They have come together in Ukraine, which might be destroyed, but its defeat seems extremely far-fetched.