This war is not about the west v Russia. It is about Ukraine

Western politicians and commentators should not deny the agency of Ukrainians

May 17, 2022
article header image
Ukrainian soldiers. Photo: UPI / Alamy Stock Photo

It is hard to imagine a more comprehensive military and political failure than Russia’s since 24th February. 

The most obvious of Russia’s failures are on the battlefield. Despite billions of dollars spent on military reform over more than a decade, the Russian army appears to have learned few lessons since the catastrophe of the first Chechen war in the mid-1990s and its under-performance in Georgia in 2008. The first days of the current war—intended to be a quick and painless occupation of Ukraine—exposed problems in almost every area, including logistics, training, communications and morale, as well as profound failures of intelligence and strategy. Russia has lost a staggering number of troops, including multiple senior officers. It has witnessed the humiliating sinking of the Moskva, the flagship of the Black Sea Fleet, and continues to suffer significant defeats such as the destruction of much of a battalion tactical group in a failed river crossing.

Although the Kremlin dramatically reduced its war aims in late March, more than six weeks since the announcement of “phase two” it has still failed to achieve them. Having already been defeated in its political aims of installing a puppet government in Kyiv and preventing future Nato expansion, Russia may now also be incapable of achieving a military victory.

In the diplomatic arena, Russia has failed to build the coalition against the west that it wanted. The Kremlin has repeatedly tried to frame the war as the final nail in the coffin of western dominance, and to position itself as one of the leading states in a new global order. Although most countries have not adopted the strong sanctions against Russia and support for Ukraine that Nato and EU states have, many of them have signalled disapproval of Russia’s actions through mechanisms such as the vote to suspend Russia from the UN Human Rights Council, which was supported by more than 90 states.

Russia has been increasingly economically and diplomatically dependent on China since the major break with the west over Ukraine in 2014. But although it has not condemned the invasion, China has also not provided the military and economic support for Russia that the Kremlin appeared to want, perhaps because of the risk of sanctions from the west.

Even more worrying for Putin, the reactions of the other post-Soviet states have shown the limits of his diplomatic power in what the Russian government still considers its sphere of influence. Moldova and Georgia have moved to accelerate their applications for EU membership. Despite military help from Russia in putting down an uprising in January, the government of Kazakhstan has not supported the invasion of Ukraine and appears to be strengthening relations with Turkey as a counterweight. Even Belarus’s Lukashenko, whose presidency now depends on Russian support, has resisted being wholly pulled into the war. Aiming to strengthen Russia’s hold on the region by controlling Ukraine, Putin has achieved the opposite result.

The same thing has happened in relation to the other key geopolitical goal of the war: pushing back and weakening Nato. Despite disagreements—inevitable among a large group of states with differing interests—the Nato response has been stronger and more united than anyone (least of all Putin, it seems) expected. Seeking to prevent Nato expansion, the Kremlin has accelerated it.  

Given the implications of Russia’s self-inflicted failure  for European and global security, it is not surprising that most analysis has focused on how and why it got the invasion so badly wrong. But this has not just been a reflection of Russia’s failure but of Ukraine’s success. The Ukrainian will to resist and the courage and skill in doing so have been remarkable and have transformed perceptions around the world. After the Second World War, the Soviet Union honoured “hero cities”—Soviet cities that had shown particular courage resisting German occupation despite terrible suffering. For much of Europe, the US and elsewhere, Ukraine is now a hero nation. 

Despite this, there is still a tendency among some western politicians and commentators to treat Ukraine as a supporting actor in the war and its resolution. Much western analysis has focused almost entirely on Russia’s failures and the US or Nato’s support for Ukraine. It is certainly true that Ukraine would have been unable to expose the weakness of the Russian army as it has done without extraordinary levels of western material and diplomatic support. But all of that is secondary to the necessary precondition—Ukraine’s willingness and ability to defend itself.

More disturbingly, the anxiety to see an end to the war has encouraged some in the west to promote the idea of a ceasefire with concessions, when Ukraine itself does not support the idea. Assumptions about the primary roles of Russia and the west in ending the conflict deny the agency of Ukrainian state actors, civil society and ordinary citizens engaged in extraordinary acts of courage. This is a war about Ukraine’s survival, being fought by Ukrainians; it is for them, not for neo-colonial voices elsewhere in Europe or the US, to decide when it is time to negotiate. 

However and whenever the war ends—and at this stage a Ukrainian victory seems distinctly more likely than a Russian one—there will be no return to the world before February 2022. The break in the European security order is as profound and irrevocable as it was when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989. Western politicians, analysts and citizens need to acknowledge this, adjust to it, and continue to work cooperatively in responding to it. Beyond the immediate security and ethical imperative to support Ukraine, this is the long-term challenge confronting us all.