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"Collateral Benefit": Could Putin's Launching A Failed War Make The World Better?

Consider the inverse of "collateral damage." Envision Russia's defeat and the triumph of a democratic coalition offers reflection on the most weighty sense of costs and benefits.

Photo of a doll representing Russian President Vladimir Putin

Demonstrators holding a doll with a picture of Russian President Putin

Dominique Moïsi


PARIS — The concept of collateral damage has developed in the course of so-called "asymmetrical” wars, fought between opponents considered unequal.

The U.S. drone which targeted rebel fighters in Afghanistan, and annihilated an entire family gathered for a wedding, appears to be the perfect example of collateral damage: a doubtful military gain, and a certain political cost. One might also consider the American bombing of Normandy towns around June 6, 1944 as collateral damage.

But is it possible to reverse the expression, and speak of "collateral benefits"? When applied to an armed conflict, the expression may seem shocking.

No one benefits from a war, which leaves in its trace a trail of dead, wounded and displaced people, destroyed cities or children brutally torn from their parents.

And yet the notion of "collateral benefits" is particularly applicable to the war that has been raging in Ukraine for almost a year.

There are the "benefits" that seem obvious and have already been the subject of many commentaries. And there are others, more indirect, but just as important, that deserve a more in-depth analysis.

Ukrainian identity 

Among the obvious benefits, is Putin’s “feat” of getting unified, wealthy democracies to rally behind Ukraine. In trying to neutralize and even annex Ukraine, Putin unintentionally encouraged Sweden and Finland to join NATO while pushing Germany and Japan to reconsider their respective security policies on a fundamental level. And NATO itself has emerged, thanks to Russia, from its “brain-dead” state to gain, through its original mission, a new energy. The war has also allowed Ukrainians, through blood and tears, to crystallize their identity through real, on-the-ground victories, from the north to the south and the east of their country.

But it would certainly be simplistic to explain the current reluctance of Beijing and Belgrade to embark on a military adventure by the sole counter-example of the Russian experience. Can Xi Jinping's China fight on two fronts at once, against COVID-19 at home and against Taiwan, supported by its American ally, abroad? Can Serbia, which is looking more and more towards the European Union in the wake of Croatia's entry into the Eurozone, reconcile its global ambition with nationalist irredentism?

In both cases, the counter-example provided by the Russian experience in Ukraine helps to re-enforce the side of those who think that it is urgent to wait before choosing the path of war. We know how a war starts. We never know when it ends and in what state.

Photo of a protestor wearing a mask that says STOP PUTIN

A woman wears a protective mask that reads ''Stop Putin'' during a demonstration outside the Russian embassy in Warsaw

Attila Husejnow/SOPA/Zuma

Peace benefits 

For the Balkans, the main factor that protects against recourse to war is neither Belgrade’s hope of European integration nor the war in Ukraine, but the looming memories of the Balkan wars.

In order to understand the Balkans in 2023, it is probably appropriate to recall the Spain of the 1970s, the years before and after the death of General Franco. The title of Alain Resnais' 1966 film, The War is Over, foreshadowed the state of mind of the majority of Spaniards.

In the Balkans, the images of Ukraine awaken memories of the Srebrenica massacre for some, and of the NATO bombing of Belgrade for others. The psychoanalyst Boris Cyrulnik, who as a young child experienced the horrors of the World War II, described in a radio interview the profoundly destabilizing impact of the images and sounds of the war in Ukraine on his own psyche. It was as if his past had suddenly resurfaced, disturbing him but also reinforcing his conviction that peace was a precious and rare commodity, to be preserved like a treasure — but not at the cost of betraying its values.

What will happen to Russia if it loses?

Beyond the notions of damage and benefits, there are areas of the world where it is safer to use the national of "collateral uncertainties." Thus it would be tempting to say that China in central Asia, and Turkey in the Caucasus will be the great beneficiaries of Russian military failures in Ukraine.

Could the ultimate collateral benefit of Russia’s war be to clarify the international system?

One could also think that, as Russia has demonstrated the gap between its ambitions and its means, the world will gradually return to a more classic bipolar confrontation between the only two major powers: the United States and China. Could the ultimate collateral benefit of Russia’s unfortunate military advance in Ukraine be to clarify the international system in its new bipolarity?

Such a conclusion predicts, of course, that the Russian defeat "will go well" and will not be accompanied by jolts or perilous escalations. This is not 1917 or 1991. In 1917, the civil war led to the fall of the Tsarist regime and Russia's withdrawal from the First World War. But America's entry into the war on the side of the Allies more than made up for Russian failure.

In 1991, the USSR had only briefly survived the return of Europe, kidnapped into the realm of democracy. What will happen in 2023? It would be very optimistic to think that the main beneficiary of the war in Ukraine will be the Russian people themselves — who could finally freely choose their leaders.

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FOCUS: Russia-Ukraine War

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photo of a rescue dog near ruins

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Larisa Borysenko/Livy Bereg
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It was April 23, 2022 in the eastern city of Pavlohrad when Russian armed forces fired three guided missiles, striking a railway junction and a factory.

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For local rescue workers, the area is familiar. But because of the darkness and the damaged structures of the building, it is barely recognizable. Members of the Antares search and rescue team, Petro Zub, Vyacheslav Maiboroda and Larysa Borysenko, and Borysenko's two dogs, Belonna (aka Besha) and Sparky, searched the rubble for nine hours before finding the body of a dead railroad worker.

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