Delusions of the West

While John Gray’s piece at The New Statesman begins as a critique of Robert Kaplan, towards the end he transitions into remarks on the war in Ukraine with which I largely agree:

The war in Ukraine began not as a tragedy but a crime. Vladimir Putin has prosecuted his “special military operation” with unspeakable savagery. Torture, abduction, sexual violence and targeting civilians are routine procedures for Russian forces. Putin’s avowed aim of extinguishing Ukraine as a distinct culture approaches genocide. Confronted by expanding Russian barbarism, it is unthinkable that the West could have stood aside. In recent months, however, Western objectives appear to have changed. From seeking to defend Ukraine against aggression, the goal has become inflicting a devastating defeat on Russia. For some the aim is to topple Putin; for others it is to break up the Russian state.

By whatever route Putin leaves office, he will most likely be succeeded not by an opponent of the war but by an intelligence insider such as Nikolai Patrushev, the hard-line secretary of the Russian Federation’s Security Council. Others may join in jockeying for power, and a protracted period of instability could follow. In a not unrealistic scenario, the Russian Federation could fracture and fall apart. For evangelical liberals this would be a triumph of self-determination, not only for Ukraine but the nations currently confined in the Russian empire.

Here liberals are engaged in a high-stakes gamble against history. Because it left much of the state intact, the implosion of the Soviet Union was relatively peaceful. But the disintegration of the Russian Federation could be closer in human cost to the complete collapse that occurred a century ago when the country descended into anarchy, with independent states emerging not only in Ukraine but also Siberia and the Caucasus, during the Civil War of 1917-1923. Around ten million people died in battles, pogroms, famines and pandemics. Millions more fled the country.

There are larger hazards. The prospect of nuclear escalation could return if Ukrainian forces threaten to advance on Crimea. Russia’s illegal annexation of the territory was not a Putinist anomaly. The seizure of the region, which is of pivotal geopolitical importance to Russia because of the port of Sevastopol, was supported by Mikhail Gorbachev; even the jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny has not suggested it should be reversed. Any attempt to recover Crimea will be treated as an existential challenge. If the barrier against small battlefield nukes is breached, anything could happen.

According to the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, full-scale nuclear war could kill more than half of the world’s human population through its effects on health and food production. No doubt some will assure us that Putin is rational enough not to commit suicide. The same people tend to tell us he is mad, but never mind. It would be piquant if the modern West – the most intellectually advanced civilisation in history, as everyone agrees – destroyed itself though an irrational faith in human reason.

In any new Russian offensive Ukraine must be strongly defended, with the US and Europe (now including the opaque and devious German chancellor, Olaf Scholz) giving it the arms it needs. But Russia can be permanently contained only by calling on the influence of China, also a repressive autocracy. There is no realistic scenario in which the West, a declining force in world affairs, can prevail over both powers.

We ignore or dismiss Russia’s and China’s national interests at our peril. We should not doubt that certain actions on our part inevitably lead to certain responses from Russia and China. That is where the “tragic realism” that Mr. Gray calls out comes into play.

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