BERLIN — Let’s get one thing out of the way from the start: the West had no alternative to the policies it adopted towards Russia after the invasion of Ukraine. If the United States and Europe had not used every economic and diplomatic weapon available to them — only stopping short of being drawn into the conflict themselves — Vladimir Putin would have taken such an apathetic response as a sign of weakness. He would have seen it as an invitation to expand his ambitions even further west.
Germany has an important role to play in the alliances between Western countries. If it had broken ranks and tried to position itself as a mediator between East and West, refusing to supply Ukraine with weapons, that would have had damaging consequences for years to come. Europe would have been confronted once again by a new "German question" and by all the consequent mistrust.
The art of determining foreign policy involves weighing up possibilities and considering subtle differences, constantly asking what would be in a country’s own best interest. Anyone who has given the matter serious thought will conclude that the West’s decisions so far have been correct. They would still be correct if Moscow decided to cut off the continent’s entire gas supply. Germany has survived far worse crises in its history.
Effective foreign policy also means shedding as many illusions as possible. In times of crisis, we are surrounded by comforting myths and it is incredibly tempting to believe them. In Germany, this is making people reluctant to face facts, leading them to adopt a narrow perspective and cling to a misguidedly optimistic view of how easily the war and crisis might be resolved.
We must shake off three dangerous illusions: (1.) Western sanctions will force Russia to back down; (2.) Moscow is isolated from the rest of the world; and (3.) Kyiv will emerge victorious.
Sanctions are undeniably an important part of the West’s response to Russia’s war of aggression. That goes without saying. The U.S. and E.U. have imposed 830 different sanctions. Russia has been cut off from the SWIFT system of international payments, effectively shut out from much international trade, and blocked from importing high-tech goods.
Sanctions don't topple regimes
It is now very difficult for Russian citizens to travel to the West. Their automobile industry – which employs 600,000 workers – is at a standstill, as is the aviation industry because 700 of 1,100 aircraft are produced in the West. Moscow is not able to buy high-tech goods elsewhere – it is dependent on the U.S. and the E.U., as they supply it with 66% of its imports in this area. Experts predict that the Russian economy will shrink by 10% by the end of the year.
Dictators couldn’t care less about the suffering of their subjects.
But this pressure will not bring Putin to his knees. Partly because Russian sales of gas and oil are still booming, but mainly because dictators couldn’t care less about the suffering of their subjects. For centuries, the Russian people have learned to live with hardship and deprivation. Throughout the entire history of the twentieth century, sanctions have not forced a single authoritarian regime to change.
For decades now, North Korea and Iran have been subject to the harshest of sanctions, but the ruling elite in those countries are not concerned. Why should Russia — a country that is too large and has too much military power to be truly isolated — capitulate when Pyongyang and Tehran have not?
Despite what German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock have been insisting for months now, Russia is by no means isolated. Not only because the Kremlin can draw on the support of a global superpower in China, but also because most countries across the world see the war in Ukraine as a European problem. The majority of African states are remaining neutral, and — aside from Japan — the same is true of Asia.
What about South America? On Wednesday, the governments of countries in the Southern American Mercosur trade bloc were not even prepared to allow Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to speak at a summit. There is only one possible conclusion Moscow could draw: Putin’s war is against the West alone, and its prospects are by no means as gloomy as we would like to think.
Big Four Conference in Geneva in 1955
No outright victory for Ukraine
After the early days of the war were marked by serious strategic failures, Russia is now bringing its full military might to bear. Moscow has ten times the firepower of Kyiv. The Ukrainians are fighting for survival, so their troops have often been more successful than Russia expected. However, Russian soldiers are starting to gain significant territories, while all the Ukrainian army can do is promise that the counter-offensive is on its way.
However many bridges and munitions depots the Ukrainian army blows up — and hopefully it will be many — Kyiv will not be able to defeat the military superpower that is Russia. There will be no victory for Ukraine — at least not a victory as we have understood it since the time of Prussian general Carl von Clausewitz: "The military power must be destroyed, that is, reduced to such a state as not to be able to prosecute the war."
Washington should seek talks with Moscow, while never losing sight of the Ukrainians’ suffering
Ukraine’s only hope is to make Russia suffer enough losses that Moscow realizes its war of aggression is no longer tenable. But it will be a long time before the conflict reaches that point.
Humble lesson from Eisenhower
Germany must recognize that wars can last many years, and this one is likely to. It is time for the government — and all public representatives — to open up an honest discussion about what sacrifices their citizens are prepared to make to win this war, and what disappointments may still lie in store. It is the duty of politicians and commentators to think ahead, to condemn warmongering and never to settle for easy answers — even when that is painful.
It is painful to recognize that Ukraine does not have enough military power to win this war outright. Their hope lies in victory through guerrilla warfare. But sooner or later that would mean negotiations with Moscow, and Russia is not ready for that yet. But Washington — as Kyiv’s most important ally — should seek talks with Moscow, while never losing sight of the Ukrainians’ suffering.
Even in the darkest days of the Cold War, U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower and his Foreign Minister John Foster Dulles — both politicians who favored war over de-escalation — persistently sought meetings with the Soviets, as the history of the Geneva conferences in the 1950s attests. They failed, but it was worth trying. Just as it is worth trying now.
In times of war, foreign policymakers should turn to the famous line by Samuel Beckett: "Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better."
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