The western response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was supposed to help the latter by punishing the former. That strategy isn’t working. Punishing Russia economically is suring up Putin’s position domestically, NATO’s expansion is strengthening the China-Russia alignment, and military assistance to Ukraine without direct NATO involvement is merely protracting the war, with no clear end in sight. Given the geopolitical deadlock, the only viable option would be for the West to broker a neutrality status for Ukraine. It will be a difficult deal, with lots of costly compromises, but at this point it's the only geoplolitical solution available, writes Alexander Korolev.
The West’s response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on 24 February 2022 can be broken down into three main prongs. The first one has to do with the imposition of unprecedented economic sanctions to inflict enough punishment on Russia to delegitimise Vladimir Putin’s political regime or make it change its foreign policy calculus and stop the war. The second prong materialized in extensive military assistance to Ukraine to help Kyiv fence off Russia’s aggression by making the costs of the war unacceptable to Moscow. The third prong took the form of a new round of NATO expansion into Finland and Sweden – to contain aggressive Russia more effectively and, according to NATO General Secretary Jens Stoltenberg, demonstrate that NATO’s door remains open regardless of Mr Putin’s preferences and that smaller states have full agency over their foreign policy choices.
The geopolitical implications of this three-prong response emerge as opposite to the intended outcomes. While punishing Russia, it fails to help end the Russia-Ukraine war. Instead, by all evidence, it consolidates Putin’s grip on power and makes him dig in for a long haul in Ukraine.
The more the West uses sanctions to push against Russia and threaten the existing political regime, the more the majority of Russians rally around Putin.
SUGGESTED READING How we got Putin so wrong By Stathis N. Kalyvas The economic sanctions have failed to have a tangible impact on Russia’s behaviour in Ukraine. Nor did they undermine Putin’s domestic standing. Even smaller states could sustain an enormous amount of economic punishment without populations and elites revolting against the ruler. In Russia, the Western economic sanctions have encountered Russia’s own nationalism that, with the assistance of state propaganda, effectively channels public indignation about economic hardships into anger against the external enemy and the cause of the pain – the West. The more the West uses sanctions to push against Russia and threaten the existing political regime, the more the majority of Russians rally around Putin. According to recent public opinion polls, 76% of Russians trust their president. Moreover, the data reveals that while in December 2021 only 62% of Russians approved of Putin’s job as the President, in May 2022 this figure rose to more than 70%, with 61% noticing increased social unity around the President. This level of support allows Putin to claim to have a public mandate to continue carrying out his “special operation” in Ukraine.
Military assistance to Ukraine, with the West’s simultaneous reluctance to step in and defend Ukraine militarily, also protracts the war. The crisis is plagued by the “geopolitics of asymmetry” – a situation where Russia is willing to pay an enormous price to pursue its geopolitical interests in Ukraine, a price that neither NATO nor EU is willing to even consider. Losing in Ukraine would be a political catastrophe for Putin, which is why the regime will not shy away from the most dramatic solutions to prevail in the conflict. For the US and its allies, in turn, Ukraine is not a priority strategic interest beyond its being a useful strategic bulwark against Russia. According to UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, the war in Ukraine “is not a NATO conflict, and will not become one.” In a similar vein, Stoltenberg highlighted that “we are determined to do all we can to support Ukraine. But we have a responsibility to ensure that the war does not escalate beyond Ukraine, and become a conflict between NATO and Russia.” In a situation when Russia is willing to fight and die in Ukraine whereas the EU and the US are not, flooding Ukraine with weapons without tangible security guarantees or attempts to broker a neutrality status for Ukraine does make the war costly for Russia, but it fails to make it shorter, with Ukraine being destroyed in the process.
Putin has managed to create the world he has been warning Russians and Russia’s allies about: the West is indeed fully out to encircle Russia.
Finally, the expansion of NATO into Sweden and Finland has poignantly demonstrated that despite the war, Ukraine remains a third-rank citizen in the West. Sweden and Finland were warmly welcomed by NATO even before they formally applied. Ukraine, in turn, despite all its efforts to join NATO, was designated by Boris Johnson on 6 March 2022 as the country that “had no serious prospects of NATO membership in the near future.” This was echoed, on 11 March 2022, by Josep Borrell, who reflectively admitted with regards to Ukraine’s NATO membership that “it’s a mistake to make promises that you can’t keep.”
The limits of the West’s support of Ukraine are crystal clear to Putin and the rest of the world. Regardless of what Russia does in Ukraine, there will be no NATO membership and no collective security guarantees for Ukraine. Moreover, this round of NATO expansion brings the “enemy” to the gate of Russia and corroborates Putin’s besieged-fortress ideology. Thus, Putin has managed to create the world he has been warning Russians and Russia’s allies about: the West is indeed fully out to encircle Russia. This self-fulfilling prophecy shores up Putin’s rhetoric within Russia and signals to China that the West does pose a danger to Russia and is more interested in harming Russia’s geopolitical interests than helping Ukraine. This recognition strengthens China-Russia alignment which will further buttress Russia’s capacity to carry on in Ukraine.
In other words, the goal of saving lives in Ukraine should explicitly prevail over the geopolitical logic of weakening Russia.
These are immediate implications of the West’s response to the Ukraine war. In the long run, economic sanctions, support for the Ukrainian military, and NATO expansion might eventually drag Putin down. But the opposite scenario might also be true. The Western unity might fail to sustain the stress-testing of the war. The sanctions are costly for Russia, but so they are for Europe. The European population might grow tired of skyrocketing fuel prices, which undermine the competitiveness of Europe’s industries, and the impending food crisis, which will affect large swathes of the population. A new generation of politicians might come to power and start reconsidering their relations with Russia and NATO. In any scenario, the conflict seems to have passed the point of no return and morphed into a long-term open confrontation between Russia and the West, when both sides are more interested in prevailing in the ongoing Ukraine crisis than in preventing it, which is detrimental for Ukraine as an independent state.
In a geopolitical deadlock like this, the only workable proposal that both Russia and the West could accept without looking like a losing side should have explicit humanitarian grounds – a common denominator for negotiations. In other words, the goal of saving lives in Ukraine should explicitly prevail over the geopolitical logic of weakening Russia. The West should work with Kyiv and Moscow to broker an internationally-guaranteed neutrality status for Ukraine. Such an agreement must go beyond just Moscow and Kyiv and involve multiple stakeholders including the United States, some of its European allies, and also China – a de facto ally of Russia. The key to success is to institutionalise the agreement by making it nested in the existing networks of multilateral security agreements, which will make breaking the agreement by either Russia or Ukraine more difficult.
This is a momentous task for diplomats, and the final arrangement will not be ideal and will involve some difficult decisions. For example, Ukraine will have to reconsider its claims over Crimea. Russia will have to at least compensate for the damage inflicted on Ukraine during the war and contribute to the reconstruction in Ukraine. The West will have to draw back from concentrating on punishing Russia and start helping Ukraine instead, which means demonstrating leadership and working hard on setting up the right incentive structure to compel both Ukraine and Russia to sign the agreement.
Provided that the West’s response is rapid enough, the situation may not be as hopeless as it might look. While it is extremely difficult to reverse Russia’s annexation and effective control of Crimea, the situation around Luhansk and Donetsk Peoples Republics is not firmly settled yet and there are no formal barriers for these newly “independent” states to consider reintegration with Ukraine if the incentives are there. The goal now is not finding ideal geopolitical solutions – there is none. It is about minimising the damage and working out an arrangement justifiable from a humanitarian standpoint.