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

Ukraine: The Unintended Consequences

What do you do when you are stuck in a war that you can neither win nor lose? This is the question that Russian President Vladimir Putin faces as his “Special Operations” against Ukraine enters its second year. The answer is: you stage trompe l'œil shows to hide the fact that you are stuck and going nowhere fast.

Last December Putin and his propaganda machine harped on the theme of victory thanks to General winter which was supposed to clinch victory with its frozen claws. When that didn’t happen they bought a few favorable headlines by sacking their commander in Ukraine and throwing their top military chief, General Grasimov, into the lion’s den. However, it is now clear that Grasimov, a bureaucrat in uniform with as many medals as a general in an operetta, is no miracle worker.

This is why we now hear a new tune from the Kremlin: the spring offensive which is supposed to present Russia with full victory on a platter. The fantasy that, just as it revives nature, spring would also offer victory to any side that it favors is as old as the history of war itself.

Over 2,000 years ago the Roman consul Crassus, the richest man in the world in his time, gambled on a spring offensive in Carrhae and ended up having his head cut off and sent to the Parthian king on a golden platter.

In the 14th century war between England and France, the English King Edward III thought that his spring offensive would close the bloody saga. He defeated the French in Poitier and captured their king. But the fat lady refused to sing the end of the longest war in history.

In the American Civil War, General Sheridan’s cavalry went deep into “enemy territory” as part of General Ulysses S. Grant’s spring offensive. Doing a Sheridan became a military proverb but the fratricidal war didn’t end there.
In 1918 we had the German version of the spring offensive which morphed into Thanatos on a national scale.

The tragedy in Ukraine, call it special operation if you wish to please Putin, has evolved into a positional war of small incremental advances and retreats reminiscent of World War I rather than a 21st century war. In fact the war front that was established in 2014, with the Russian annexation of the Crimean Peninsula and establishment of secessionist enclave sin Donbass, has largely remained unchanged. The spring offensive that Russian propaganda is beating the drums for is unlikely to change that.

It is, perhaps, more interesting to study the unintended consequences of this tragic saga. One such consequence is to bring war back into international conversation as a here-and-now reality.

The idea that war could somehow be scripted out of the human story as did incest or slavery is exposed for what it is: a dangerous fantasy. This has led to musings about flashbacks to military doctrines that many believed or hoped had faded away.

Almost half a century ago the US abolished the draft in favor of an all volunteer force. Most other Western democracies and some developing nations followed the example. Today, however, some form of return to the draft system is publicly debated in several capitals. Defense spending that had been considered as a luxurious conceit is now regarded as vital for national security and independence.

Before the Ukraine tragedy reducing military expenditure was a standard device for cutting budget deficits.

In 2022, however, more than 40 nations increased their defence budgets while embarking on massive programs to renew their arsenals and develop more advanced weapons systems.

Thus, one unintended consequence of the Ukraine tragedy may be a new arms race that Russia is visibly unable to win. It could also face China with a hard choice between joining the race and thus limiting the resources needed for bringing more of its people out of poverty or staying out and scaling down its ambition for global leadership.

Another unintended consequence may be the downgrading of diplomacy as the chief tool of conflict resolution on global scale. With the United Nations already marginalized, the ability of international diplomacy to end or at least moderate many small or big regional conflicts would be reduced further.

The Ukraine tragedy has also boosted a trend that started in the early days of the new century towards privatization of war. The best information available shows that private war has become a lucrative global business employing tens of thousands of people and affecting more than a dozen countries in Latin America, Africa and the Middle East. In some places, such as the eastern regions of Congo-Kinshasa, privatized war has become a key factor in controlling access to rare mineral resources of strategic importance.

Another unintended consequence is the emergence of a big question mark about Russia’s integration as a major player into what Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin descried as “our common European home.” The classical Russian debate between Slavophiles and Westernizers reflected the Russian reality with its inherent contradictions. Putin offers an ersatz version of Slavophilia which - the Slavic nations already integrated into “the common European home”- leaves Russia with no choice but to look east to China and accept to play second fiddle to a power with structures and ambitions alien to the average Russian.

The most significant unintended consequence of the Ukraine tragedy may be the derailing of the so-called globalization process. Two decades ago all the talk was about comparative advantage and delocalization. Today people talk of re-localization and rebuilding “our own industry”. This may turn out to be a return to the corn-law economic mentality and protectionism which could spell disaster for many countries or offer an overdue correction to globalization gone too far.

Invading Ukraine was an unnecessary move which, in Talleyrand’s view, is worse than making a mistake. It has let too many genies out for anyone to control let alone push them back into their bottles.

Well, spring isn’t far away and Putin may have his offensive. But the question remains: then what?