Tomorrow (May 9) is Victory Day in Russia commemorating the defeat of Nazi Germany during the Great Patriotic War. Some media personalities have speculated that Russia is desperate to win the war before this date or at least seem to win the war against Ukraine. This idea may be prompted by Anglo-American intelligence services, and part of the ‘narrative warfare’ that has spread virally over the last six months. There seems little evidence for any such intentions in the actions taken by the Russian military in the battlefields of Ukraine or the Russian Government in the full spectrum battlefields of economics, diplomacy and information. I think it can be discounted.
I am no military expert, but I can assess the quality of arguments. We hear bombast and exaggeration from the former staff of the Anglo-American military and intelligence services, and so much speculation about ‘Putin’s playbook’ that they can in no way know anything about. We hear exaggerated or even fabricated claims from Ukraine, and an immoral death-wish for their forces to stand and fight to the last conscripted man in Mariupol, or Severodonetsk. Shock and awe propaganda from Ukraine fills the Western media, then days or weeks later we learn slowly that:
- the ‘Ghost of Kyiv’ was a fake,
- the Heroes of Snake Island gave themselves up without a fight
- the heroic civilian resistance has largely fled the country and is being threatened by the Ukrainian Government with charges for evading conscription
- sunken ships still sail and
- Russian atrocities may have been staged or worse by Ukraine.
By contrast, most Russian and pro-Russian commentary points to facts: missile attacks on weapon motherlodes and military infrastructure, encirclement of troops, the slow and gradual enactment of Clausewitz’s maxim that you win wars by destroying armies, not cities. Perhaps Ukraine and the West won the first phase of the information war; but they may also have charged out beyond their supply lines.
The weight of the evidence seems to point to an eventual Russian military victory in Ukraine. Mariupol is lost. Severodonetsk is surrounded. The mass of the Ukrainian army in the Donbass, heavily entrenched in deep fortifications built over the the last eight years of civil war, is being encircled and shelled persistently. Western weapons are being destroyed on delivery by precise Russian missile attacks. Nodes of Ukrainian rail infrastructure to facilitate delivery of those weapons are being smashed. Western mercenaries have been killed, captured and deterred. The military victory seems certain, and is being extended, some commentators speculate, only by the political strategies of the Ukrainian and American leadership.
Russia also appears to be withstanding the economic blitzkrieg. The ruble has recovered, and today is trading at 66.5 rubles to the dollar – a stronger position than all of 2021. Inflation has moderated to Western levels, and Russian consumers and business are adapting without panic. Its semi-autarkic economy, strengths in commodities, resources and technology, and resilient relationships with the Eurasian world will see Russia weather the storm. By contrast, America and Europe seem rattled and unable to act effectively against inflation, government debt and changes in international trading patterns. Europe has no real way to solve its energy supply issues. America is facing a political crisis that will make solutions to inflation, debt and currency weaknesses near impossible to achieve any time soon. Energy shortages may come. Europeans may have a chilly winter. Food shortages are affecting the less developed world catastrophically, and may yet impact Europe and America. Food shortages bring social chaos. And Russia is only now beginning phase two of the economic war. What if Russia restricts the supply of neon gas to Taiwan, and, together with China, effectively blocks the West’s access to computer semiconductor chips that go into computers, cars, fridges, phones, and just about everything in the ‘internet of things’?
So, it seems reasonable at least to ask: what will happen in the West if Russia wins the war in Ukraine?
Let me speculate on three possible outcomes.
First, if Russia wins the war, the security arrangements of Europe will change – after all, that was Russia’s primary objective. The world could have negotiated a peaceful resolution of this process if only it had responded seriously to Russian treaty proposals in late 2021. America appears to be vested in arming a Greater Poland, as the fortified edge of Europe. It is applauding the newfound unity of NATO, and the renewed commitments to military budgets in Europe. But this defensive fortress will not be sustained by political consensus or European budgets, as the energy, economic and social crisis in Europe deepens. Europe will, in effect, have besieged itself within expensive city walls built in America, and Russia will accept this unsustainable defence for five to ten years until a more genuine multipolar solution can be found.
Second, international diplomatic institutions will change towards genuine multipolarity. The foresight of the Chinese and Indian diplomats will be vindicated. The ‘international rules-based order’ will become the butt of endless jokes, rather like Fukuyama’s ‘end of history’ hypothesis in 1989. There may indeed be serious moves to change the composition of the UN Security Council, with the aggressive spy Britain being kicked off, and India, a South American state, and an African state joining a new more vital committee for the world.
Third, a crisis of political legitimacy and political order will spread throughout the West. Regimes that lose wars lose authority. Media organisations that are exposed as liars for regimes that lose wars lose all credibility. There will be a deep disillusionment with both Western Governments and Western media organisations if Russia wins the war – after all, weren’t we being told only last month that Russia was a petrol station pretending to be a country? Weren’t we being told Volodomir Zelensky is the Churchill of the 21st century? Weren’t we being told that Ukraine would defeat Russia with memes, flags in profiles, and broomsticks? Already political orders in the Anglo-American world and the “West” are fragile. Such a catastrophic failure of its leadership elites will have unpredictable consequences.
These predictions may or may not come true – the outcomes of wars are highly contingent on decisions, circumstances, the correlation of forces and to some degree chance. In any case, stay tuned for an exciting decade while geopolitics is turned upside down.