The Long, Indecisive War in Ukraine is Reshaping the Political World Map

Photo by Nick Tsybenko

“The lamps are going out all over Europe, we shall not see them lit again in our life-time,” British Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey famously remarked to a friend in August 1914. He was, of course, dead right about the longevity of the First World War, which did not end decisively in 1918 but went on sparking crises and wars up to 1939. The Second World War ended with the total defeat of Germany and produced a frozen peace in Europe which largely stayed in place, with the exception of the break up of Yugoslavia, for 77 years, until the Russian invasion of Ukraine this year.

The Ukraine war is the third of these great pan-continental conflicts sucking in the rest of Europe and the US. Most European states are not directly involved in the military conflict, but they are fully engaged in political and economic warfare against Russia which is as important as anything happening on the battlefields.

Ukraine appears more like First World War

So far the Ukraine war looks more like the First than the Second World War, in that it is likely to be long and indecisive. (1918 Germany had sought an armistice but no Allied troops had crossed the German frontier). Neither Russia nor Ukraine are likely to win a total victory, though both have the will to go on fighting in the hope of doing so.

The prospect of an endless war in Europe should not be surprising, since this has been the pattern in recent wars in Syria, Yemen and Libya. In the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, even the direct engagement of US and UK ground forces backed by overwhelming airpower were insufficient to defeat the enemy. The takeover of Afghanistan by the Taliban last year only took place after the country had been ravaged by war for over 40 years.

Ukraine may appear different as a poor but modern state, but so too were Iraq and Libya before their infrastructures were destroyed. Much the same could happen in Ukraine and Russia. International attention is over-focused on the risk of nuclear war, possibly starting with the use of tactical low yield nuclear devices. The risk is getting higher since Putin needs to give substance to his nuclear sabre-rattling by practical preparations, as when Russia last week staged its first nuclear drill since the start of the war.

Alarm at the possible use of weapons of mass destruction in Ukraine is understandable since the rest of Europe fears becoming the next target. Few pay attention to the fact that a revolution has taken place in aerial warfare in the last 40 years, enabling precision-strike conventionally armed missiles to cause immense damage, something demonstrated in the last four weeks as a Ukrainian official said Russia severely damaged 40 per cent of Ukraine’s electricity generating capacity, largely by the use of cheap drones. No doubt Ukraine will be tempted to retaliate in kind against the Russian infrastructure.

Tectonic shifts in the political map

A long war in Ukraine means tectonic shifts in the world political and economic map, some of which were already underway. Even after a temporary ceasefire – and there is not sign of one – permanent confrontation between the Nato powers and Russia looks unavoidable. Aside from issues in dispute, fear and hatred generated by the fighting will take at least a decade to dissipate. Each side will foment proxy wars and exploit any weakness among the other side’s allies, as happened during the Cold War between the West and the Soviet Union.

Confrontation will be all the sharper if a weakened Russia acts in combination with China. So far, China has kept its distance from Putin and not supplied him with arms, presumably to avoid secondary sanctions – and President Xi Jinping has been negatively impressed by the rout of Russian ground forces in several battles. Nevertheless, in the long term, Russia and China may feel forced to embrace to face a common Western enemy.

Putin is seeking to give an anti-imperialist gloss to his Ukraine war, saying this week that Europe is at the beginning “of the most dangerous, unpredictable and, at the same time, most crucial decade since the end of the Second World War.” This may be true enough, though Putin evidently did not foresee these historic developments at the time when he launched his under-resourced “special military operation” on 24 February in expectation of a Ukrainian collapse.

Putin says that “the West’s undivided dominance over world affairs is coming to an end.” But the trend has, if anything, gone in the opposite direction as the Russian military machine blundered from defeat to defeat over the last eight months. Yet there are plenty of countries in the world who see Russia as a counter-balance to Western hegemony and will not want to see it removed as a powerful piece from the international chess board.

Russia will not be the only great power weakened

Putin’s personal ineptitude as a war lord has been repeatedly exposed. But he is not the only leader to make strategic mistakes, and Russia will not be the only great power weakened by the war. By launching an all-out economic war against Russia, the EU played against the Kremlin’s strong suit as an oil and gas producer, inflicting immense self-harm on itself without sufficiently damaging Russia to bring down the regime or make it change course.

This was predictable since sanctions against Saddam Hussein in Iraq and Bashar al-Assad in Syria failed to displace the dictators. They were, if a anything, strengthened by economic warfare against them that took the form of communal punishment for ordinary Iraqis and Syrians. There never was any reason why there should not be the same unhappy outcome in Russia.

A long war is bad for both Russia and Ukraine since the level of destruction will escalate without either side being able to land a knock-out blow. But the rest of Europe also suffers by facing a permanent confrontation with Russia, increased defence spending, high energy prices and decreased European competitiveness with the rest of the world. As during the Cold War, there is likely to be an increase in proxy wars between the two sides fought out in what used to be called the Third World.

Conceivably, all could come right for Ukraine and the Nato powers if the Russian armed forces suffer a complete collapse. Possibly, some putsch in the Kremlin will lead to Putin being given, as the saying is, a “choice between a suitcase and a coffin.” But there is no sign so far of this benign outcome, from the Ukrainian and Nato point of view, being more than wishful thinking.

Without a decisive military victory by one side or the other, the only means of ending the war is through diplomacy, yet anybody suggesting such an approach is treated as a pariah, if not a traitor. This happened recently to progressive Democrats in Congress who were forced to withdraw a letter suggesting talks with Russia after a furious backlash from other pro-war Democrats.

Diplomacy is unlikely to get anywhere until the two sides have fought each other to a standstill, but even then ceasefires are likely to be temporary and confrontation permanent.

Further thoughts

I wrote last week about how the nature of air warfare has changed decisively in the last 40 years without many people, aside from military specialists, noticing this development. Briefly, the US monopoly of guided missiles and smart munitions that existed at the time of the First Gulf War in 1991 has ended.

At that time, the US largely destroyed Iraq’s electricity generating and oil refining capacity in the course of a few days using these weapons, But by 2019, Iran was able to launch a devastating air assault on Saudi Arabia using precision guided drones at $15,000 a piece that wrecked crucial oil facilities. We are now seeing Russia systematically destroying Ukraine’s electricity generating capacity by overwhelming air-defences and firing great quantities of cheap drones at power stations and the like. The nature of air superiority has been transformed.

This important point is made by Anthony H Cordesman, who holds the emeritus chair in strategy at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

“Russia has provided a series of tangible demonstrations that warn that modern precision-strike conventionally armed missiles, cyber warfare capabilities, intelligence analysis of civil systems and targets, and a wide range of other evolving military strike capabilities can do immense potential damage to local and regional civil targets and capabilities.

“Unlike weapons of mass destruction, these advanced forms of non-nuclear strike can be used in combination with political and economic weapons, and they can be used with considerable flexibility and far less risk than the nuclear weapons that provide some degree of mutual assured destruction. If anything, Russia and NATO’s mutual possession of nuclear weapons tends to deter their use by either side, while creating a situation where both sides can now use a wide range of conventionally armed weapons and new technologies to escalate their level of civils conflict.”

Some Western governments are calling these drone and missile attacks on Ukraine “war crimes”, but they are no different from the destruction inflicted on Iraq during the air campaign component of Operation Desert Storm. Those who would like to know more about what happened then may be interested in this expert account of the air campaign published by the Government Accounting Office in 1997.

Beneath the Radar

It is always revealing to look at the academic achievements of politicians which are seldom quite what the public imagines.

Former Chancellor of the Exchequer Kwasi Kwarteng wrote his PhD thesis at Cambridge on “The political thought of the recoinage crisis of 1695-7,” which was accepted in 2000. There were some catty remarks when Kwarteng was Chancellor about how far this piece of economic history equipped him to deal with a modern-day financial crisis. Not very well, was the unanimous verdict after the disaster of the mini-budget on 23 September.

Unknown at the time was the fact that Kwarteng’s first attempt at his PhD was not accepted, I am told on good authority. In fact, I am told it was “referred” so Kwarteng had to rewrite large chunks of it, something that seldom happens unless a thesis is a mess.

The academic misadventures of Thérèse Coffey, previously deputy prime minister and health minister, and now environment minister in the Sunak cabinet, are better known.

She entered Oxford’s Somerville College to study chemistry in 1989 and was asked to withdraw in 1991 after failing her “prelims” twice. These exams are used to weed out at any early stage undergraduates who are doing no work or fail to grapple with their chosen subject. Few fail to pass them and to fail twice is uncommon. Despite this being no secret, many laudatory profiles fail to mention it, comparing Coffey to Margaret Thatcher, another Somerville chemistry student who did get her degree. Coffey later graduated with a PhD in Chemistry from UCL.

Neither Kwarteng nor Coffey publicly claimed higher academic qualifications than they had received, but a false impression is left of stellar academic achievement. Another point is that people seldom pay much attention to these achievements even when they are for real.

Cockburn’s Picks

One issue invariably underplayed by governments and the media is the great surge in corruption at the highest level in almost every country.

In Britain, this was very noticeable, and well-documented, during the scandals over government procurement of PPE equipment at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, with billions of pounds disappearing into the pockets of the politically well-connected, using official “fast lanes”.

The excuse is always that at the height of an emergency, be it a pandemic or a war, normal regulations must be relaxed lest they delay life-saving contracts. Here isanother story of dubious financial goings on that has received little play in the media.

Patrick Cockburn is the author of War in the Age of Trump (Verso).