One year on from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine: what now?

The massive Russian invasion of Ukraine on 24th February 2022 in clear breach of all international law revived an old spectre, that of a major European land war that the EU’s very existence was meant to have vanquished. Currently, nobody knows what the outcome of the war will be. 

Certainly, Russia’s initial assumptions about a quick, easy victory have been rebuffed. The Putin leadership’s strategic objective was to revert to the Cold War era, pushing Russian influence as far westwards as possible. It claims that since the 1990s the US and NATO have expanded eastwards, thereby endangering Russia’s security. There are a set of US conservative realists within the international relations school of geo-politics who basically agree. This ‘might is right’ school of politics is expressed most clearly by John Mearsheimer. He argues that by allowing East European countries to join NATO, the United States was encroaching on Russia’s ‘sphere of influence’ and hence provoked Russia to invade Ukraine. 

There are some within the fundamentalist Left whose analysis of the origins of the war starts from US imperialism and adopt the principle of ‘my enemy’s enemy is my friend.’ On that basis, they agree with Mearsheimer and see the war as the West’s fault. They are subject to a blistering critique in The American Pundits Who Can’t Resist “Westsplaining” Ukraine by  Jan Smoleński and Jan Dutkiewicz. In the Mearsheimer school of geo-politics, 150 million East Europeans count for nothing. The wishes of Poles, Czechs, Hungarians and others to apply for NATO membership is an irrelevance. They have no agency and no significance. The ‘realist’ school obliterates citizens, nation states and indeed Europe. It was noteworthy that before the start of the war Putin and foreign secretary Lavrov sought to make it an issue between the United States and Russia with the EU excluded.  Putin’s doctrine as he strives to create a Yalta Mark 2 is the same as Brezhnev’s when he invaded Czechoslovakia in 1968.

With the full weight of the Russian army seeking to occupy Eastern and Southern Ukraine the world risks an extremely perilous military confrontation, the most dangerous since the Cuban missile crisis. Rejecting Mearsheimer does not mean being unaware of big power sensibilities. For example, Nikita Khruschev was reckless when he wanted to site Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba in 1961. Today, it is sensible for President Zelensky to say that Ukraine will not seek to join NATO; the Belarussian opposition to Lukashenko should adopt the same stance. 

The Ukraine war has reminded social democrats, liberals and greens of the limits of pacifism.  During World War II progressives weren’t pacifists in the face of Nazi aggression. They can’t be now in face of Putin’s. They should stick firmly to the legitimate aims of the defence of Ukraine’s sovereignty and upholding the UN and the rules of international law.  

With the real dangers of military escalation and the use of nuclear weapons, it is crucial that progressives resist militarist hawks –both within Ukraine and elsewhere – and state that  wholehearted support for the defence of Ukraine is not an endorsement for any repeat of NATO military adventures out of Europe, let alone adventurist talk of the break-up of Russia. Dialogue and multilateralism must remain central to European engagement with its neighbours, no matter how difficult.

Looking to the Future

The biggest and most difficult issue Europe, and the UK, will face at the end of the Ukraine conflict will be how to deal with Russia. This vast country sharing the European land mass and with a large population is not going to disappear.  An indefinite Cold-War style containment would mean the continuation of a sullen, morose Russia acting as an uneasy neighbour and endlessly dependent on the exploitation of its oil and gas reserves. This would imperil COP-agreed carbon reduction targets which require turning the Russian economy onto a low carbon axis. 

New European thinking is needed. The ‘Ostpolitik’ opening to the East that EU politicians led by Angela Merkel and Gerhard Schroder encouraged, reinforced Russia’s reliance on a high carbon economic model rather than facilitating a strategic shift to a low carbon one. Those narrow, mercantilist politics based on German trade surpluses have to end. Rather a post-war settlement will require Europe to use its commercial clout and diplomatic skills to cajole Russia in a new direction. It has to give space to those like Ivan Timofeev, Programme Director of the Russian International Affairs Council, who says, “We will have to rediscover our own country and its productive forces.” For Europe to have a huge resentful neighbour on its doorstep would be a recipe for continued instability. However, complicated as this will be, the Europe of the future is going to need to deal with Russia with an open hand – not a closed fist.

Jon Bloomfield is a writer, European policy specialist, environmental practitioner and author of ‘Our City: Migrants and the Making of Modern Birmingham’. He is an Honorary Research Fellow at the University of Birmingham. You can read his latest report for Compass, ‘After Ukraine: Where Now for Britain and the EU?’ here.

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