Russia’s war in Ukraine has proven almost all assumptions wrong, and Europe now wonders what the remaining assumptions are safe.
Its invasion in February was shocking in every way. For those who think Moscow is sensible enough not to attempt such a large and reckless undertaking. For those who thought the Russian military would waltz in a country of 40 million people and switch to a cleanup operation within 10 days. For those who think they have the technological and intelligence prowess to do more than randomly bombard civilian areas with aging artillery; the Kremlin’s military has grown from the leveling of Grozny in Chechnya in the 90’s.
Finally, for those who think the threat of nuclear force is an oxymoron in 2022 – you can’t just threaten people with nuclear weapons because they wreak total havoc on everyone on the planet.
Still, as 2022 looms, Europe faces a host of known unknowns that were unimaginable in January. To recap: an army once thought to be the third largest in the world has invaded its smaller neighbor, and a year ago it excelled mainly in IT and agriculture.
Russia spent billions apparently modernizing its military, but it turned out to be largely a hoax. It found its supply chains to be inoperable dozens of miles from its borders; its assessment of Ukraine as desperate to shed its own “Nazism” was the twisted product of nodding to a president who — Vladimir Putin – Delivers what he wants to hear in pandemic isolation
Russia has also encountered the West, which, far from being divided and reticent, is happy to send some of its arms to its eastern borders. Western officials may also be surprised that Russia’s red lines seem to be constantly shifting, as Moscow realizes how limited its non-nuclear options are. None of this should happen. So, now that there is, what has Europe done and prepared?
The point is that the West is unexpectedly unified. Europe and the U.S. have been playing the same playbook on Ukraine, despite disagreement over Iraq, divisions over Syria and a partial reluctance to spend 2% of GDP on the security guarantees the U.S. has long demanded from NATO members say. At times, Washington seems more belligerent, and authoritarian outliers like Hungary have emerged. But this shift is about unity, not division. What a surprise.
It is too early to declare that Russia has lost the war. There are still variables that could lead to a stalemate in its favor, or even a reversal of fortune. NATO may lose patience or courage over arms shipments and seek economic expediency over long-term security, thereby pushing for a peace that is not good for Kyiv. But at present, this seems unlikely.
Russia is digging on the east side of the Dnieper River in southern Ukraine. The advantage is that the Donetsk and Luhansk fronts in eastern Ukraine are closer to its border. Yet its challenges are enormous: well-trained, compulsory conscripts make up 77,000 of its front-line troops – according to Putin’s glossy assessment. It is struggling with ammunition and has often seen public and internal criticism of its winter supply chain.
On Ukrainian soil, morale remains high and Western weapons are still arriving. Since the collapse of Moscow’s patchwork of forces around the northeastern city of Kharkov in September — their supply lines cut off by smarter Ukrainian forces — all momentum has been against Moscow.
The prospect of Russia’s failure is the broader one: it has not won quickly over an inferior opponent. State television mouthpieces spoke of the need to “take off the gloves” after Kharkov, as if they would not expose their withered fists. The Russian military, all but exposed as a paper tiger, will struggle for decades to regain parity with NATO. This is perhaps the broader damage done to the Kremlin: In about six months of mismanagement, years of efforts to rebuild Moscow’s reputation as a smart, asymmetrical enemy backed by conventional forces have come to naught.
The question of nuclear power remains, largely because Putin likes to invoke it so often. But even here, the Russian threat has diminished. First, NATO has been sending clear signals that its forces would suffer conventional disruption if any form of nuclear device were used. Second, Russia’s good-weather allies India and China quickly assessed its losing streak and publicly warned Moscow over its nuclear rhetoric. (Their private messages may have been more intense.)
In the end, Moscow is left with a question no one wants to know the answer to: If the supply chain of diesel fuel for tanks 40 miles from its border isn’t functioning, how can they be sure the button will work if Putin arrives madly pressed? For a nuclear power, there is no greater danger than exposing its strategic missile and retaliatory capabilities to be ineffective.
Despite Russia’s apparent decline, Europe does not welcome an era of greater security. Calls for more defense spending are growing louder and gaining attention, even at a time when Russia, the defining issue of European security for decades, is showing itself as less of a threat.
Europe is waking up to the fact that it cannot rely on the US for security alone – and its wild swings between political poles.
Meanwhile, thousands of innocent Ukrainians have lost their lives in Putin’s egotistical and misguided efforts to revive the tsarist empire. More broadly, authoritarianism has been exposed as a disastrous system that can be used to wage selective warfare.
However, there are some good things about this debacle. Europe knows that it must wean itself off immediately on Russian gas and, in the long run, on hydrocarbons in general, because economic dependence on dictator fossil fuels does not bring long-term stability.
So how does the West deal with a Russia that has experienced a huge loss of face in Ukraine and is slowly shrinking economically due to sanctions? Is a weak Russia worth fearing, or just weak? This is the known unknown that the West must contend with. But this is no longer a terrible problem.
For more than 70 years, Russians and Westerners have held the world at the mercy of mutual destruction. It is a peace based on fear. But the fear of Moscow should slowly fade, and with it comes the risk of miscalculation. It also raises the less chilling prospect that Russia — like many authoritarian states before it — may be in decline, undermined by its own clumsy reliance on domestic fear.
The challenge for Europe now is to deal with Russia in a chaotic state of denial while hoping that it morphs into a state of controlled decline. One lasting consolation may be that, having underestimated Moscow’s malign potential, Europe risks exaggerating its potential as a threat.