The Russian war in Ukraine is a catastrophe in many ways. First, obviously, for the people who are suffering through it. Secondly, but viewed from a longer perspective, for Russia. Then, for the whole world, due to the crises (energy and food) that it is already triggering or worsening. Then, for Europe, which has lost its strategic compass even before finding it. Then for China, which has a vital need for stability to continue to develop at a faster rate than its competitors. This war, on the other hand, is by no means a disaster for the United States, which is, for now, the big winner: a gift from the Russians, which perhaps had not entered into the calculations made by the Moscow leaders before February 24.
A general observation is required before going into detail: history teaches nothing. It shouldn’t come as a surprise, but it is certainly a confirmation: when a war breaks out, we not only rediscover that, as human beings, “we still proceed on all fours and that we have not yet emerged from the barbaric era of our history” (as Trotsky wrote at the outbreak of the Balkan wars one hundred and ten years ago); but we also fall back, in a Pavlovian way, into the atavistic need for blind herding together developed in the age of caves. The will to understand, when it exists, is overwhelmed by the need to take sides, to uncritically merge behind the dominant opinion. Recently, an Italian newspaper, although used to erudite and refined analyses, blamed the “demagogues of complexity”, that is, those who, instead of cheering for one side or the other, take the trouble to delve into the complexity of reality to try to understand it. The thesis would be that, in this case, the thing does not need to be excavated: there is an aggressor and there is the victim, and therefore we must take sides without qualm or hesitation with the attacked against the aggressor. Simple, linear, incontrovertibly human. It is a pity that the same newspaper, in 2003, had sided with the American (and British, Italian, Spanish, etc.) aggressors against the attacked Iraqi. It is a pity that the world is full of assailed peoples that we forget to defend and support. It is a pity that, in Russia, the overwhelming majority of the population believes that the Ukrainians are the aggressors and the Russians the attacked, and that this “special military operation” is an act of self-defense. If one does not face complexity, one is a victim of propaganda: consenting and willing victims–because they want to shelter in the herd when danger approaches–but still victims.
Geopolitics addresses complexity. Which begins, in this case, with the search for the very reasons that generated the conflict: why did Russia intervene militarily in Ukraine? Obviously, some of the justifications that Moscow ruling circles have offered their population (the “de-Nazification” of Ukraine; the risk that Kyiv could represent a military – or even nuclear – threat to Russia) do not even deserve to be refuted; others (that Ukraine was slipping more and more towards military integration with NATO, even without joining NATO) were certainly better grounded. But the Russians have never wondered why they “lost” Ukraine, that is, in other words, why Ukrainian ruling circles felt the need to slide towards Europe and be protected by NATO (essentially, to be precise, by Americans, British, Poles and Turks). If the Kremlin had tried to answer this question, perhaps all the miscalculations that led to a war that is a strategic catastrophe for Russia would not have been made.
In recent decades, the Russians have tried to keep Ukraine in their sphere of influence by dangling the carrot: the reciprocal supply chains established in the Soviet era, the common historical-cultural roots, and the project of the Eurasian Union, “an essential component of Great Europe… from Lisbon to Vladivostok”, as Putin wrote in October 2011; had it joined, Ukraine “could have integrated into Europe more quickly and from a stronger position.” In other words: alone, Ukraine would have been treated by Europe worse than Romania and Bulgaria, but together with Russia, it would be received with the honors due to a great power.
Except – and this is the crux of the matter – Russia is not a great power. Already in 2014, the same year in which the Eurasian Union should have materialized, its GDP collapsed, dragged by the steep fall in gas and oil prices, only to return to the level of ten years earlier in 2020. Already in 2014, for Ukrainians, choosing between a modest Russian loan and an association agreement with the European Union no longer made sense (if it ever had): the pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovyč chose the Russian loan, and this choice triggered the Maidan revolt. To which Moscow responded by pulling out the stick: annexing the Crimea and creating two puppet republics carved into the old Soviet rust belt, the Donbass. It does not take great skills of psychological penetration to understand that Russia–aggressive, gray, and increasingly asphyctic–had suddenly alienated most of the sympathies it still had in Ukraine, and that the new regime in Kyiv would seek (economic, political and military) protection elsewhere. It does not take great psychological penetration skills to understand that, between an economic bloc (United States, Europe and United Kingdom) with a combined GDP of almost 40,000 billion dollars (in 2020) and Russia, with a GDP of 1,500 billion (a little less than South Korea, a little more than Spain), Ukraine preferred to find an agreement with the former rather than the latter.
But, in Russia (and not only in Russia, actually), people continue to think that military force can make up for all the other deficiencies, reducing the most hostile wills to greater amenability. On the other hand, the carte blanche that the Russians had obtained at the end of the Second World War in the management of Central and Eastern Europe comforted them in that belief. The problem, however, is that this is not true. Armed force becomes armed fragility if it is not supported by economic force; and when those who are subjugated notice it, uprising becomes inevitable. Between 1989 and 1991, the Soviet Union experienced it in its entire sphere of influence, internal and external, and its mammoth military arsenal could do nothing to avoid collapse. Indeed, it was the ultimate cause of it.
From a geopolitical point of view, Russia is in a vicious circle from which it is almost impossible to escape: in order to develop economically, it must conquer access to navigable seas all year round; but, in order to succeed in doing that, it has to spend resources that it does not have. Twice in the last century, a military commitment beyond its means has caused the country to collapse and disappear from the radar of international politics. This consideration alone should have been enough to curb Moscow’s aggressive impulses. But it wasn’t enough.
To be able to play in a bigger league, Russia is using the art of bluffing, giving the rest of the world an impression of power. And when it succeeds it does so not only thanks to its disproportionate military strength and its elusive diplomacy–sometimes grimly menacing, sometimes mellifluous and intriguing–but above all thanks to the fact – even if the Russians will never admit it – that its rivals will almost never ask to see what cards it’s holding, in the hope of using the Russian bluff for their own ends. In the days preceding the invasion, the massive military mobilization, a deliberately misleading communication, and the openings of France, Germany, China and India had already guaranteed Moscow a series of successes. First of all, Russia was again, overwhelmingly, at the center of the world – feared, flattered and, as always, used; then the control of Crimea and of the two puppet republics would have been recognized (de facto , even if not de jure); finally, NATO, strongly divided, would most likely have accepted (more likely without saying it) to lighten its presence at the borders of the former USSR.
All analysts then skeptical about the possibility of an attack (including the present author) were led by this simple observation: if Russia invades, it risks not only losing what it has, in actuality, already obtained, but much more. But obviously Moscow’s demands presented in the form of an ultimatum concealed a much broader goal: to regain control of all or part of Ukraine, as could be inferred by trying to squeeze a coherent meaning out of Putin’s confused televised tirade of February 21. It goes without saying that the unconditional surrender of Ukraine could not be obtained at the negotiating table; not even the two NATO countries (France, Germany) most open to Moscow’s needs would have allowed it. Military action thus became the only possible recourse.
But it is not because the goals are more ambitious, and pursued at the tip of the bayonets, that the initial deficiencies disappear. On the contrary. This time, the international reaction forced the Russians to show their cards; and, as it happens at the poker table, when you have very little or nothing in your hand, you lose your entire stake. With its initiative, Moscow has achieved a long series of results opposite to what it had, at least in words, set for itself: it has created in Ukraine a national cohesion hitherto non-existent, losing most of its residual support among the Russian-speaking population; it reunified and reinvigorated NATO, labelled as “brain dead” by Emmanuel Macron a couple of years ago; it has increased NATO’s popularity throughout Europe; prompted two countries (Finland and Sweden) to want to join it; caused a surge in its military presence on the borders of the former USSR; it allowed Germany to accelerate its rearmament; stimulated the opening of a debate on nuclear weapons in Japan; alienated many in China, Iran and India (even if the Chinese, Iranians and Indians cannot say it openly); alarmed Turkey; and it was heavily condemned by the UN General Assembly (141 in favor, 4 against and 35 abstentions). Without forgetting, of course, the salvage of extremely harsh sanctions which, grafting onto an extremely fragile economy, jeopardize its stability; and perhaps its very existence, should Europeans succeed (even in the medium term) in emancipating themselves from Russian energy supplies. To all this is added, last but not least, the evidence of an embarrassing military paucity and a rusty and corrupt chain of command, which suddenly devalues all the bluff of armaments, the alleged backbone of the illusory Russian power.
The real – and only – winner of this war, as stated above, is the United States, at least at the current stage of the conflict (late April). If one accepts the premise that Washington has made, makes and will always make–that it will do whatever it takes to keep Europeans apart from Russians–many pieces of the puzzle fall into place: the enlargement of NATO to the East; the suggestion of bringing Georgia and Ukraine into the Atlantic Alliance; the dramatization of the Russian threat in order to galvanize the Europeans behind the American stance. Thanks to the war in Ukraine, the United States suddenly regained an international influence that had been fading for decades: forcing France to put its dreams of “European independence” back in the icebox; obtaining from their allies the increased military commitment that Americans have been asking for years in vain; acquiring valuable new allies on the Baltic front; outsourcing the European Union to anti-Russian hawks; getting back closer to Turkey after a couple of decades of coldness; increasing their importance on the Pacific front and East Asia in general; finally being able to count on the new inevitable frictions between the Chinese (and Iranians) and the Russians.
The Chinese are unhappy not only because the Russians proved unreliable (they have always known this), but because of the soaring prices of raw materials that weigh down their energy bills, and above all, because as good investors, they prefer stability and order. And if it were true that Putin, in his visit to Xi Jinping for the Olympics, had really failed to warn him of what was to come, the resentment could only understandably be multiplied. Especially since, if the common tactical objective of Moscow and Beijing is the weakening of the United States, this war is instead strengthening it. In Tehran they are irate because the war has blocked the signing of a new nuclear deal, which Iran desperately needs (as well as consumers of fossil fuels, given that a resumption of Iranian exports could lower prices worldwide).
From its point of view, the United States has a vested interest in the continuation of this war, possibly at low intensity. But no matter how many advantages it brings, it is unthinkable that it can suddenly and definitively reverse the erosion of their influence, due to decades of relative decline. China will not give up its strategic goals, nor Europe its own: the unity of the anti-Russian front on the Old Continent strictly depends on the war contingencies in Ukraine, and therefore is provisional. The electoral victories of two friends of Russia such as Victor Orbán and Aleksandar Vučić indicate that the Hungarian and Serbian populations were not influenced by the invasion of Ukraine; and the explicit dissociation of the Austrian Chancellor Karl Nehammer from the possible sanctions on Russian gas, followed by his visit to Moscow, could be a first crack. In France, the lines of communication with Russia have never been interrupted, and if Paris could find the pretext to reactivate its traditional strategy of attention toward Moscow, Italy and Greece would fall into line, and Germany would be forced to choose between its Atlanticism on the one hand and Europe (and gas) on the other.
But the loss of American influence in recent decades is an objective fact, even if Moscow is partially remedying it. The United States, however, runs another risk, this time subjective: the risk that, in the wake of success, they may overplay their hand. The bullying of China and India, whose conduct the Americans would like to dictate, can only reconsolidate the now quite loosened ties of these two countries with Russia. Worse still: few in Washington understand how precious Russia is – strategically – for American foreign policy: for dividing Europe (as during the Cold War) and for possibly weighing against China. Moreover, many in Washington believe that Russia is the Empire of Evil, therefore deserving to be wiped out once and for all from the geopolitical map of the world (finding, in this, some staunch allies in Europe). If in Washington ideological and emotional considerations were to prevail over geopolitical calculations, the consequences on international relations – in the short and longer term – would be incalculable, disastrous for everyone, but much worse for the United States itself.
In an ideal world, geopolitics would be useless. In the real world, on the other hand, ground of incessant and multiple conflicts between interests, geopolitics is indispensable not only to satisfy the intellectual need to better understand, but above all, to avoid inflicting irreparable damage on oneself. Geopolitics, in fact, delves into complexity above all to identify the limits of action, i.e., the obstacles that stand between the will and the execution of the will. That is, to put it another way, what is possible and what is impossible to do or, better still, what is impossible to do without hurting oneself unnecessarily. Russia needs to recapture the empire if it wants to become a great power, but it cannot do so because it is caught in the vicious circle mentioned above and cannot get out of it in the foreseeable future. Whether for Russia or anyone else, any attempt to make ideological and emotional aspirations prevail over the geopolitical calculation of constraints is a sure recipe for disaster.