Early morning, February 24th, 2022, Russia launched an attack on Ukraine. The attack clearly violates international law and Russian treaty commitments. Where and how it will end is still anyone’s guess. Witnessing the destruction of property and the plight of the Ukrainian population, the immediate, understandable, impulse is to isolate and punish Moscow. Nonetheless, eventually reality must win out and Russia will have to be re-integrated back into the international system.
“While there is little doubt that in the end Russia will be able to defeat Ukraine on the battlefield, any victory Russia can claim when this is over will be, at best, pyrrhic.”
From all indications, this war is not developing as anticipated. While there is little doubt that in the end Russia will be able to defeat Ukraine on the battlefield, any victory Russia can claim when this is over will be, at best, pyrrhic. A definitive long-term victory will not exist. Putin violated one of Clausewitz’s central dictums: you must have achievable objectives. “De-Nazification”, whatever that means, is not achievable. More importantly, the Ukrainians have shown they will not be pacified, and Russia lacks the capacity to occupy a country of 42 million indefinitely (if that is the plan).
Crucially, Vladimir Putin misjudged the reaction of the West and its allies, all of whom were able and, more importantly, willing to take collective action to punish Russia for its attack on its neighbor. Most surprisingly, defying many predications, the Europeans, risking their own economic wellbeing, have imposed some of the harshest sanctions on Russia, going so far as to impose sanctions on Putin and members of his cabinet. Russian assets have been seized, airline flights have been cancelled, and companies have fled Russia because of sanctions. Even Russia’s past efforts to make themselves sanction proof have been undermined as some of the assets of the Russian Central Bank have been frozen. The economic costs to Russia have been enormous with predictions of GDP contraction upwards of 9% (according to Bloomberg Economics).
“The fact remains that at some point Russia will need to be reintegrated into the global system and into Europe.”
Still this war will end, and it is worth asking what comes next? The fact remains that at some point Russia will need to be reintegrated into the global system and into Europe. As noted by French President Macron, European stability requires the inclusion of Russia. More importantly, Russian cooperation is needed to solve many of the most challenging problems facing the world from climate change to terrorism to proliferation (as illustrated by the centrality of Russia in negotiating the JCPOA with Iran). In short, Russia is too big and too consequential a country to just ignore or permanently quarantine. More importantly, its current isolation is not universal. Crucially, despite hopes, China has not turned its back on Moscow, reinforcing a growing relationship that should worry the West.
So how do we move forward once the fighting ends? Russia’s reintegration may have to wait until Vladimir Putin is no longer President. Even after that, it is likely that any real reintegration will take some time, but our common interests will force us to work together. Perhaps the place to start is to understand that the years of unquestioned Western freedom of action are over and to acknowledge Russian security concerns. This does not mean giving Russia a veto over other nations’ foreign policies, but it must be conceded that Russia has genuine concerns about its western flank. The expansion of NATO was not a pretext for invasion created by Putin. President Yeltsin identified this as an issue for Russia in 1997, while acknowledging that Russia was too weak to do anything about it. Going back to the Czars, the lack of natural barriers on Russia’s western frontier always invited invasion, forcing it to seek strategic depth. This will not change, regardless of who sits in the Kremlin. The hope that a different leader will accept NATO on Russia’s borders is folly. No matter how many times Brussels or Washington claim NATO is not targeted at Russia, the nature of geopolitics means Russia will always see it as a potential threat. Consequently, the age of unrestricted NATO expansion is over. NATO must acknowledge that Ukraine and Georgia, at least for the foreseeable future, will not be members.
“The hope that a different [Russian] leader will accept NATO on Russia’s borders is folly.”
More importantly, a return to the status quo ante is impossible. The current security structures in Europe have failed to maintain the peace and they will likely need to be replaced or, at least, reimagined. A system needs to be created where security of one state cannot be perceived as threatening the security of others, this is true not just for Russia but Ukraine, France, Germany, etc. This may not involve the elimination of NATO, but it will require its subsumption into a larger security architecture.
Whatever form the reintegration takes it must happen. The drive to cancel Russia, while understandable, is unrealistic. Its exclusion will only make it more dependent on China, strengthening Beijing’s global position and potentially further accelerating Sino-Western conflict. It will also limit the world’s ability to solve many of the most pressing problems. While many will view efforts to reintegrate Russia as rewarding its bad behavior, it must be understood as reflecting the need to preserve global stability and future prosperity. While the nature of the reintegration will be reflective of the post-war settlement, history has shown that the international system cannot be stable with a large revanchist, isolated, and angry state seeking to continuously overturn the global order. To paraphrase Lyndon Johnson, it is better to have them inside the tent, than outside.