No return to “business as usual” was the motto of Western foreign policy after the 2014 integration – annexation, in Western terms – of Crimea into the Russian Federation. Since 24 February 2022, this has changed to “no business at all”, and the West has been threatening with sanctions every state and individual still maintaining relations with Russia. The events of the past few months, however, raise doubts as to whether the West will succeed in imposing its views on the world. The importance of Western Europe, in particular, is dwindling; it will have to learn to live with its unloved neighbour in the east.
The West’s economic combat instruments as well as those concerning its foreign policy diplomacy have proved too ineffective in the fight against Russia. In addition, many states reject the claim to leadership raised precisely by US President Joe Biden during his election campaign. After three decades, resistance is rising against the Western belief that it can declare every unpopular state a “rogue state” and punish it in consequence. The call for a multipolar world is the answer to the dominance the West has been wielding since the collapse of the Soviet Union.
The West lacks arguments
The West’s indignation over the Russian intervention in Ukraine may have been expedited by the fact that the Russian side put forward the same arguments in the case of Crimea and the Donbass that the West had used to justify its various interventions over the past three decades: part of this argumentation is the reference to the right to secession of the Russian-speaking population in the south and east of Ukraine versus that of the Kosovo Albanians in former Yugoslavia.1 In addition, there is the concept of the Responsibility to Protect, or respectively of humanitarian intervention, which was made use of in connection with Kosovo and also with the Western intervention in Libya.2
The weakness of the West’s argumentation is further enhanced by the fact that in the cases of Serbia in 1999 and Iraq in 2003, the justifications put forward for military intervention subsequently proved to be unfounded. The existence of “Operation Horseshoe” is and remains disputed, and also the thesis of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction proved to be a lie.3 A mirror was also held up to the West in the area of security. Since February of this year, Russia has been arguing that a pre-emptive attack on Ukraine was made necessary by the imminent Ukrainian strikes against the breakaway Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics. The term “pre-emptive attack” was first used before the US Congress in 2002 by then President George W. Bush. Moscow has always justified its opposition to NATO’s eastward expansion with reference to the indivisibility of security, which is anchored in the Helsinki Final Act.4 The West, of course, rejects all Russia’s arguments: it does not reckon the respective events comparable.
This may be enough for some observers in the West. Representatives of an egalitarian view of international law, however, are more inclined to subscribe to the Russian view. This includes in particular those countries that have already been victims of Western interventions or feel threatened. Here it is not a question of commenting on or even evaluating the argumentation chains of the parties to the dispute. Who believes whom today is often the result of ideologically coloured convictions rather than a sober analysis of the facts.
For the tenth time already, the Russian government held its traditional security conference in Moscow in mid-August, and this was of course overshadowed by the war in Ukraine. A map of the origin of the speakers at this conference speaks volumes: The majority of Asian and Latin American countries participated, as well as half the countries of Africa.5 It is interesting to note that some Western European countries also took part, although surely all possible measures were taken on the American side to prevent this, as in previous years. All the more remarkable is the lively attendance of representatives from all over the world at a time when Russia is actively engaged in war. Russia is and remains relevant to world politics, and even countries that do not in every respect approve of Russia’s actions in Ukraine want to remain in contact with Moscow. The West and Europe in particular, on the other hand, are losing relevance. This raises the fundamental question for Russia of why it should subordinate itself to the will of a Europe whose importance is dwindling.
Economy and geoeconomics
In 2015, at a seminar at the George C. Marshall Center in Germany, the then German defence attaché in Russia, Brigadier-General Schwalb, showed a picture of a bearskin on the wall and remarked that the West would be able to nail Russia to the wall by means of economic measures in no time.6 Seven years later, his prediction has still not come true. It was probably also the same belief in the absolute economic superiority of the West that led to the prediction believed in until February of this year that Russia would not attack Ukraine. In terms of the effectiveness of geoeconomics, the West has massively overestimated itself in recent years.
In view of the enormous economic costs and the political risk of war, according to the theories of Edward N. Luttwak, geoeconomics was to replace classical warfare.7 The implementation of a promising geoeconomic strategy requires a strong and relevant economy as a basis. Russia’s economy so far appears to have had the size and relevance to withstand Western geoeconomics. A player’s desire to expand its economic base can lead to the involvement of states previously uninvolved in a conflict – including Switzerland as one of the more important participants in the global economy. Western commentators were only briefly able to rejoice at the collapse in value of the Russian rouble last March.8 Apparently, the Russian central bank intervened very effectively and quickly stabilised the rouble. Even the alleged economic nuclear bomb, i.e., Russia’s exclusion from the SWIFT system, did not lead to the collapse of the Russian economic and financial system.
In the case of Russia, the means of economic and political sanctions did not bring about the desired success. Should there be further conflicts in the future with countries that enjoy the support of Russia, China or other “underdogs” of world politics, the West will have to resort to military means sooner than before. The West’s descent will be accompanied by violence.
Crisis in Russia in the 1990s
One often hears the assumption that Vladimir Putin wants to restore the Soviet Union. Yet for broad circles of Russian society, a return to communism is certainly not an option. The Russian Communist Party is failing to win majorities and its electorate is ageing. But a return to predatory capitalism, as practised in the days of the liberal experiment under Boris Yeltsin’s leadership, is not an option either. The memory of the rouble crisis is still too vivid, when the dramatic devaluation of the rouble deprived many people of their lifetime’s savings. This happened not only to many people in Russia, but also in Ukraine and other republics of the former Soviet Union. The figureheads of the liberal experiment, who became known as the “Young Reformers”, are unpopular in Russia today. They included Yegor Gaidar, Boris Nemtsov, Sergei Kiriyenko, Anatoly Chubais and others.9
Those who are not aware of what happened in Russia in the 1990s will not understand Russia today. A generation that remembers the catastrophic nineties will offer every possible resistance to Russia being turned back into what it was in the nineties: a country that gives away its raw materials for a ridiculous price, along with the corresponding production plants, but which otherwise has no say in international politics. That is why it was the most inapposite thing the former commander-in-chief of the US forces in Europe, General Ben Hodges, could say when he declared at an OSCE event in Vienna that he would like to see cooperation with Russia as it was in the 1990s.10 This form of cooperation is no longer acceptable.
Today, it pains many people in the former Soviet Union that Russians are now fighting against Ukrainians, Azerbaijanis against Armenians, Tajiks against Kyrgyz, and so on. It was precisely with a view to unresolved conflicts in this region that the Commonwealth of Independent States was founded in 1991, but today it unfortunately leads a wallflower existence as a side-lines for veteran diplomats. However, Europe has plunged into a conflict with a country that is determined not to submit ever again. A new modus vivendi must be found.
Europe as a divided community of values
Europe sees itself as a community of values, but this community is divided, and the EU will have a hard time maintaining unity. Especially in questions of gender mainstreaming, there is a pronounced East-West divide: Some Eastern European states are not readily prepared to go along with this trend.11 This reverses the ideological conditions of the Cold War: If Soviet-style communism was not an option for Western European countries at the time, now the public of several Western countries is leaning more towards the ideology of its alleged enemy Russia. In fact, in several Eastern European countries, the “new values” are no more an issue than they are in Russia. By aggressively promoting their LGBTI+ ideology, zealots from Western and Northern Europe could force governments in Eastern Europe to take a clear stand and divide their own community of values.
Europe has thrown down the gauntlet to a society determined to preserve its own way of life. On top of that, in Russia Europeans are considered incapable of defending their values. At the same time Russia is no longer a GULAG, as it was under Stalin’s repression. Russian citizens can freely enter and leave the country. Every year, one million more people immigrate to Russia than emigrate.12 On the one hand, this creates a social outlet, and on the other, it shows that life in Russia is not as terrible as we are sometimes led to believe.
Russia’s geostrategic disadvantage
The global importance of Russian agriculture has become clear in the course of the Ukraine conflict. In Russia, the triangle St. Petersburg – Irkutsk – Rostov-on-Don can be used for agriculture. The distribution of the population in Russia also coincides with this: More than 80% of Russia’s population lives in the European part of the country, namely in the St. Petersburg – Ekaterinburg – Chelyabinsk – Rostov-on-Don quadrangle.13 Most of the population of Siberia lives on its southern edge.
And it is precisely in the Eastern European plain that the open door to Russian territory lies. Most other border regions are not suitable for the deployment of strong conventional force groupings. Russian territory is really only accessible in the Baltic States region and the Eastern European Plain. A second open door lies in the Far East: east of the so-called Heihe-Tengchong line in China, the resources would be available for an attack on Russian territory. And who would help Russia defend its Far East if it were to go on a confrontational course with China? Russia is well aware that it is at a geostrategic disadvantage. The latent sense of threat harboured by Russia’s political elite stems from this disadvantage.
Reorganisation in Eastern Europe
After 1991, with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the independence of its constituent republics, millions of people suddenly found themselves living in a country whose official language they did not speak; they were given passports of a state they did not have much time for. This problem remains unsolved to this day. Kazakhstan and Belarus have at least managed to recognise two official languages. Russia and Kazakhstan are the only countries of the former Soviet Union that consider themselves a multi-ethnic state. All the others pursue a more or less pronounced policy of nationalism. The Ukraine conflict could easily be repeated elsewhere.
In the case of Ukraine, it would probably not have been an unacceptable demand to introduce Russian as a second official language. Belgium, Finland, Ireland, Luxembourg and Switzerland also use several official languages without endangering state unity. A majority of EU member states are, however, monolingual, and many of them have struggled with their national minorities in the past.14 Thus far, the EU has done precious little to protect the rights of the Russian minority in the Baltic republics.15 The linguistic self-determination of the Russian-speaking areas in eastern Ukraine, as formulated in the Minsk package of measures, has, in eight years, never been implemented.
Another provision of the Minsk agreements on which the implementation failed was the article on the federalisation of the country. This term was interpreted by Ukrainian politicians and oligarchs as a free pass for the establishment of petty kingdoms. In the set around the oligarch Rinat Akhmetov, people may have rejoiced that the Donbass would now become such an empire, and Ihor Kolomoysky probably had similar intentions for his hometown of Dnipro/Dnipropetrovsk. In Dnipro, he and his governor Gennadyi Korban are possible candidates for the throne, in Kharkov Evgeniy Muraev and Vadim Rabinovich. These personalities might put the Dnipro and Kharkov oblasts on a secessionist course in the medium term.
Overall, Ukraine will emerge from the current war as a financially, economically, demographically and infrastructurally weakened state. This was probably one of the objectives of the war as a whole and the background to Russian President Putin’s statement that the aim was to guarantee Russia’s military security over a period of two to three generations.
Arms Trade and Stability
As far as corruption and the arms trade are concerned, the reports that 60–70% of the arms supplied from the West disappear in the swamp of Ukrainian corruption may probably be believed. In September 2014, the then Minister of the Interior, Arsen Avakov, literally “gave the runaround” to an OSCE delegation in Kiev.16 At the time, the OSCE was concerned about the uncontrolled transfer of weapons from all kinds of depots to Ukraine’s newly formed volunteer formations and offered the Ukrainian government software to register these weapons. This had already proved successful in other countries, but the Ukrainian Ministry of the Interior showed no interest in it. Their reasons are open to speculation. The volunteer battalions that were established at that time “bought” their equipment. The numerous western uniforms that could be observed in eastern Ukraine in those years were only part of this. The lack of arms control may not have been unintentional at the time. Now, in recent months, weapons and ammunition have been pouring into Ukraine on an unprecedented scale, and it is to be feared that there will be little control over their whereabouts. Today, however, it is no longer just a question of small arms, but of heavy weapons against tanks and aircraft. Europe may very soon see assassination attempts carried out with Western weapons of war. Political extremists and organised crime will be able to use such weapons for their purposes in the near future, and thus destabilise the entire eastern half of Europe. The price of this negligent policy will be paid by the Eastern European countries.
Today, the West can no longer convince other countries, and probably no longer force them to adopt its views. At present, the bloc can only maintain its unity by mongering fear of Russia. In Russia, on the other hand, there is a certain consensus not to again accept a subordinate role to the West, which does not enjoy great prestige anyway. A turnaround in Russian policy is currently not in sight. Whether the EU will be able to finance the reconstruction of Ukraine, the development of Eastern Europe and a wave of rearmament is still uncertain. In view of the current economic situation, it may well be doubted.
Western geopolitics will force Russia to destabilise its neighbours in Eastern Europe in the coming years, perhaps decades, in order to prevent a solid base for an attack on Russia from developing there. With corruption still rampant, the conditions in Eastern Europe would be favourable for such an attack, and the means exist in the form of the numerous weapons available. Russia is well enough networked in the international community of states to be able to afford an aggressive policy towards Europe and it will hardly be possible to deter it by sanctions. At the same time, Western foreign policy will be handled in a more aggressive, almost militaristic manner.
Ukraine and the hardliners in the West will hinder the search for a modus vivendi with Russia. But the West will not be able to dictate the form this will take. •
1 cf. Fuhrer, Hans Rudolf. What was the trigger for the Russian “special operation”? Ukrainian plan of attack or Russian imperialism? in: Current Concerns of 27 September 2022, online at https://www.zeit-fragen.ch/en/archives/2022/nr-19/20-20-september-2022/was-war-der-ausloeser-der-russischen-spezialoperation
2 see the homepage of the Global Center for the Responsibility to Protect, online at https://www.globalr2p.org/what-is-r2p/#:~:text=The%20Responsibility%20to%20Protect%20%E2%80%93%20known,cleansing%20and%20crimes%20against%20humanity. On the topic in general, see Schaller, Christian. “Gibt es eine ‘Responsibility to Protect’ – “Is there a ‘responsibility to protect’?”, at Bundeszentrale für politische Bildung, 31 October 2008, online at https://www.bpb.de/shop/zeitschriften/apuz/30862/gibt-es-eine-responsibility-to-protect/. (in German)
3 See, as representative of the numerous publications on this subject, in particular Halimi, Serge; Rimbert, Pierre. “The fairy tale of the ‘Operation Horseshoe’”, in: Le Monde diplomatique of 11 April 2019, online at https://monde-diplomatique.de/artikel/!5584546, and “20 years of NATO attack on Serbia, bombed locally”; in: TAZ of 24 March 2019, online at https://taz.de/20-Jahre-Nato-Angriff-auf-Serbien/!5579713/. On the lie of the then US Secretary of State Colin Powell in the UN Security Council: Burgmer, Christoph. “Built on lies”; in: Deutschlandfunk of 5 February 2013, online at https://www.deutschlandfunk.de/auf-luegen-gebaut-100.html, Havertz, Rieke. “This one moment”, in: Zeit online of 18 October 2021, online at https://www.zeit.de/politik/ausland/2021-10/colin-powell-tod-ehemaliger-us-aussenminister-nachruf-weisses-haekchen-augen-erhobene-haende, Kottra, Katta. “Lies in the Iraq War, The Long Noses of Powell & Co”; in: Süddeutsche Zeitung of 18 March 2008, online at https://www.sueddeutsche.de/politik/luegen-im-irakkrieg-die-langen-nasen-von-powell-co-1.264076
4 The Final Act of the 1975 Helsinki Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe is available online at https://www.osce.org/files/f/documents/6/e/39503.pdf.
5 cf. the list of speakers on the homepage of the Russian Ministry of Defence at https://eng.mil.ru/en/mcis/speeches.htm
6 The author participated in that seminar.
7 on Luttwak and geo-economics see: “From Geopolitics to Geo-Economics, Logic of Conflict, Grammar of Commerce”, 1990, in: THE NATIONAL INTEREST 20, 1990, pp. 17–23, limited preview at https://www.jstor.org/stable/42894676
8 cf. the illustration at https://www.finanzen.ch/devisen/chart/us_dollar-russischer_rubel-kurs
9 cf. representative of the numerous publications Steiner, Christian. “Als Russland die schwerste Krise seit dem Ende der Sowjetunion erlebte - When Russia experienced the most serious crisis since the end of the Soviet Union”; in: Neue Zürcher Zeitung of 17 August 2018, online at https://www.nzz.ch/wirtschaft/als-der-rubel-nicht-mehr-rollte-ld.1412034?reduced=true (in German)
10 The author was present at this.
11 Cf. Pew Research Center. “European Public Opinion Three Decades After the Fall of Communism”, 15 October 2019, p. 5, online at http://docs.dpaq.de/15433-pew_research_center_europe_report_embargoed.pdf
12 See the figure at: https://www.statista.com/statistics/1009483/emigration-and-immigration-russia/
13 Rosinfostat: Плотность населения России по регионам и городам на квадратный километр, online at https://rosinfostat.ru/plotnost-naseleniya/. See the map that Aklexej Glushkov (Алексей Глушков) created for Wikipedia Russia.: https://ru.wikipedia.org/wiki/%D0%9F%D0%BB%D0%BE%D1%82%D0%BD%D0%BE%D1%81%D1%82%D1%8C_%D0%BD%D0%B0%D1%81%D0%B5%D0%BB%D0%B5%D0%BD%D0%B8%D1%8F_%D1%81%D1%83%D0%B1%D1%8A%D0%B5%D0%BA%D1%82%D0%BE%D0%B2_%D0%A0%D0%BE%D1%81%D1%81%D0%B8%D0%B9%D1%81%D0%BA%D0%BE%D0%B9_%D0%A4%D0%B5%D0%B4%D0%B5%D1%80%D0%B0%D1%86%D0%B8%D0%B8#/media/%D0%A4%D0%B0%D0%B9%D0%BB:Federal_subjects_of_Russia_by_population_dencity.svg.
14 cf. https://arbeit.studiumineuropa.eu/s/3704/75716-Europaischen-Landern-Amtssprachen-Einwohnerzahl-Hauptstadt-Wahrung-Telefonvorwahl-Internet.htm (German)
15 cf. Wissenschaftliche Dienste des Deutschen Bundestags: Die russischen Minderheiten in den baltischen Staaten, Sachstand (the Russian minorities in the Baltic states, facts of the matter), WD 2 - 3000 - 02/17, 24 February 2017, online at https://www.bundestag.de/resource/blob/502250/4a724aa7d34d30c84baed59a7046500f/wd-2-010-17-pdf-data.pdf. One of the numerous publications on this: “Aufstand der ‘Nichtbürger’ in Lettland – Uprising of the ‘non-citizens’ in Latvia”; in: Deutschlandfunk Kultur of 25 April 2014, online at https://www.deutschlandfunkkultur.de/baltikum-aufstand-der-nichtbuerger-in-lettland-100.html in German) and “‘Non-citizens’ in Estonia and Latvia, fear of the Russian minority”; in: Spiegel Ausland of 3 October 2017, online at https://www.spiegel.de/politik/ausland/estland-und-lettland-das-problem-mit-der-russischen-minderheit-a-1169422.html (German)
16 The author was part of the OSCE delegation at the time.
* Presentation at the annual conference of the working group “Mut zur Ethik” (“Europe – what future do we want?”) from 2–4 September 2022
Ralph Bosshard studied General History, Eastern European History and Military History, graduated from the Army Higher Cadre Training at the Military Academy at ETH Zurich as well as from the General Staff Training of the Swiss Army. This was followed by Russian language training at Moscow State University and training at the Military Academy of the General Staff of the Russian Army. He is familiar with the situation in Eastern Europe and Central Asia from his six years at the OSCE, where he served, among other things, as Special Advisor to the Swiss Permanent Representative.
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