Commentary on Political Economy

Saturday 26 February 2022

 Putin’s war is a brutal blow to a complacent West

Russia’s assault on the Ukrainians is a mugging by strategic reality for the governments and peoples of the Western world. They must respond to the challenge.

Feb 25, 2022 – 6.47pm



“Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” Boxer Mike Tyson summed up volumes of geopolitical and military theorising in one terse statement.

Not long ago, few would have bet on the reality of a hot war in Europe by February, no matter how obvious it is in retrospect that this blow was coming.

For more than a decade there has been high-level debate about the return of great power contests – putting an end to talk about “the end of history” and the inevitable triumph of peaceful liberal democracies. But it’s still a shock when an old-fashioned territorial invasion by one of the traditional great powers of Europe becomes a bloody reality, and signals the return of a world most had thought gone.

Not long ago, few would have bet on the reality of a hot war in Europe by February. AP

Western democracies and their voters never like confronting the worst. Defence has become grudge spending in the West, slumping heavily after the end of the Cold War.

Australia has only just dumped its rule of thumb in defence planning that no threat would emerge for 10 years. Though spending is accelerating now, a decade ago it was at the lowest levels since 1938.

Government rhetoric on defence and China has been either overblown and too far out in front, or used for schoolyard-level electioneering. Our US ally is militarily very powerful, but is stretched around the globe. Europe has some top-line equipment but lacks depth or readiness.

Russia’s military has some big weaknesses. But even if Ukraine had been a member of NATO, the alliance would be struggling to halt the kind of blitzkrieg that Russia has now launched on its neighbour.

Culture wars weaken the West

Western politics have become soft and complacent too. The events of 9/11 should have prepared us more for people with visceral pre-modern beliefs, religious or nationalist. But the misstep of the Iraq War also left some Western voters with the impression that the only wars are ones their own misguided governments start – forgetting that for much of their history, the big wars have come to them, and they were not ready.

And Western societies have had the luxury of descending into culture wars that trash the broader liberal civic culture we all share. Healthy self-criticism and self-correction is one thing; self-loathing is something else, and the new authoritarians are only too happy to stoke these divisions in their online trolling.

There have been been a few moments when the West seemed to lose its grip. In a famous 2016 interview with The Atlantic, Barack Obama said he was proud of abandoning his earlier red lines on chemical warfare in Syria, following his smart new rule of “don’t do stupid stuff” in the Middle East.

But he didn’t see the old-style authoritarians re-emerging in the background, and in Beijing and Moscow they were furiously taking notes. The grabs in the South China Sea, Syria and now Ukraine all followed.

And the West just blithely assumed after the Nixon breakthrough half a century ago that China would always be benign. The US could guide it into the world economy, and prosperity might make it if not exactly a democracy, then a relatively open economy.

Shoulder to shoulder: China’s Xi Jinping and Russia’s Vladimir Putin Moscow in 2019. 


How Ukraine fits into China’s long game

Vladimir Putin hopes to establish new international realities, with Europe again divided between East and West.  


The world that Vladimir Putin wants to see

A damaged military facility in the south-eastern port city of Mariupol, which has come under heavy bombardment.


Has Putin strategically miscalculated?

But as China-watcher Richard McGregor noted in our Review section, the Chinese Communist Party was never going to put itself out of business: it’s not that Beijing has changed direction since the reform days, it’s just that it’s now too powerful to bother going along with any US-led global consensus.

But it is not just the West making strategic misjudgments. Moscow has always fretted about its margins: Catherine the Great said that Russia’s borders were indefensible, so they must be expanded. But Vladimir Putin’s fears of Western encroachment are just fanciful, and a pretext for aggrandisement.

Imposing a heavy cost for this on the Russian President through sanctions and unity is the only way that the West can show the resolve it failed to show earlier.

The world economy already faces serious economic spillovers. New energy shocks will only add to the post-pandemic inflation. That is going to make government and economic management harder, and it will demand more focus from the political class and voters alike than they are used to.

But Mr Putin’s assault on the Ukrainians is also a mugging by strategic reality for the governments and peoples of the Western world. They must respond to the challenge.

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