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We are all with Ukraine, but where are we going?

Photo by Katie Godowski from Pexels

Costa-Gavras’ 1982 film Missing is based around the disappearance of an American journalist, Charles Horman, during the military coup in Chile in 1973 which deposed and murdered the elected President Salvador Allende.

The journalist’s father, Ed (played by Jack Lemmon), travels down to Chile to try to find out what has happened to his son. He presumes, as one would, that the local US diplomats will only assist him in this endeavour. But the consistent stonewalling, obfuscation and straightforward lying he runs into from those diplomats chips away at that belief which is replaced by growing trust in local sources introduced to him by Charles’ wife, Beth (played by Sissy Spacek) who he had initially dismissed as something of a misguided youthful radical but who he comes to respect.

The key moment when strong suspicion hardens to indelible belief occurs in Horman’s final meeting at the embassy. He looks out the window of the spacious office onto the carefully manicured, empty lawn. Every spare inch of ground in every other diplomatic mission in town is occupied by refugees seeking sanctuary from the new junta. Only the US mission is sterile.

On 1 March, 141 member States of the UN General Assembly voted in favour of a resolution condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. 35 countries abstained and 5 others, including Russia, voted against it. If your few friends are Belarus, North Korea, Eritrea and Syria, it is much less likely that you are sadly misunderstood than that you are being understood very well indeed.

There is no doubt that Russia is entirely to blame for what is happening in Ukraine. In Ireland, the small number of voices disputing that contention can be divided into three overlapping categories.

The first is aging, mentally pot-bellied, wistful Sovietphiles who delude themselves that Russia today is still a flame keeper for genuine socialism rather than a kleptocratic oligarchy, indeed the very antithesis of socialism. The second comprises the armchair radical anti-Americans who automatically default to the other side in any dispute or conflict involving the US. And the third is the small cluster of pious messianics who believe that conflicts are resolved not by identifying and supporting the right side but by pursuing a global peace order in which conflicts would either not arise at all or be easily subdued by the weight of international unanimity. All of them hurlers from the comfortable ditch of the high moral ground.

In the darkest days of the Northern Ireland troubles, it used to be said that anybody who thinks they know the solution to the problem cannot have properly understood what the problem is. These days, we can dismiss without concern anyone who claims to “know” the overall balance of how things stand now in Ukraine and anyone who thinks they know where things are going, even into next week. When and how the dust might settle over the medium term are entirely unpredictable, fit subjects only for windy and pointless speculation.

For example, by dint of repetition, it has become conventional wisdom that the Russian military campaign is not going as well as Mr. Putin had expected. That view is plausible, but only Mr. Putin and perhaps a tight circle around him, know whether it is true. Paper never refuses ink and microphones need a steady queue of serious-sounding voices. Those who know little speak a lot with confidence and those who might know a lot say little and with humility.

We can guess what Mr. Putin wanted: that his invading troops be welcomed and embraced as liberators, that the Ukrainian army would be all bark and no bite, and all Russian military activity would be confined to a rapid procession to Kyiv, a bit like the US-led coalition’s easy progress to Baghdad in 2003 or, indeed, Mr. Putin’s bloodless takeover of Crimea in 2014. But whether this was what he expected is another matter.

At a very high level of generality, what is being tested in this conflict is as much each side’s capacity to endure and suffer pain as their ability and willingness to inflict it. Which has the greater resilience?

Will the resistance of President Zelensky and his army weaken as buildings are flattened and civilians die around them because of the Russian artillery barrage, or will they fight on to the last defender in the rubble?

But, even if President Zelensky retreats or surrenders, what happens then? The Soviet Union established apparent control in Afghanistan within days of its invasion of 1979, only to be progressively harassed out of it over the next 9 years at considerable cost in blood, treasure and reputation. If brutality nurtures resistance more than obedience, it is not easy to see a form of Russian victory that would pacify the entire country, larger than France, quickly and sustainably. Mr. Zelensky won’t get his no-fly supply zone but he will not want for other weapons coming through Poland.

On the other hand, while western sanctions will hurt Russia more than might reasonably have been anticipated, will they be enough to force a rethink by Mr. Putin or his removal and a rethink by whoever replaces him, a contingency made more unlikely by the sealed “information” cocoon that surrounds the Russian people, trust in it possibly perversely reinforced rather than undermined by the censorship of all independent channels.

And for how long will western countries be willing to tolerate unusually high energy prices in the short term? Aside from immediate political rumbling, are higher prices more of a reason to retreat to greater reliance on readily available fossil fuel supplies from alternative sources than a reason to accelerate progress away from them altogether? How well will Europe weather an influx of Ukrainian refugees running to millions?

Fortunately, reflecting on what’s past is easier than predicting the future. The last fortnight has been one of those short periods within which decades happen. The Economist editorial described Mr. Putin’s invasion as setting aside “the everyday calculus of political risks and benefits”. As such, it provoked an equal and opposite reaction in so many different ways. It was not just in Russia that the previous rules of geo-political chess went out the window.

Germany abandoned several embedded cornerstones of national policy on defence, energy, government spending, in the space of a single 30-minute speech by its Chancellor. Follow through in detail is not to be taken for granted but the commitments themselves are already transformational.

The intensification of the EU response was characteristic of the rapid evolution of approach across the “West” as a whole. At their summit on 24 February on the evening of the invasion, EU leaders reacted as if by rote, sticking to well worn paths, striving to be punctiliously “proportionate”, frightening horses a bit but not too much, earning this immortal withering judgement from The Irish Times European Correspondent.

The atmosphere was grave. But they seemed slightly bewildered. With a strange lack of urgency, they talked of further discussions that were needed for certain steps. They seemed to speak from the world of yesterday.

Since then it has been galvanised into much more powerful and purposeful collective action almost as if they were hunting for new stones to turn on the sanctions front rather than hesitating to turn over tried and trusted ones. Visceral indignation and a default to erring on the side of punishing rather than merely condemning Russia have taken over not just among governments but across whole societies. Corporate, sporting, even cultural engagement with Russia are now taboo. Russia is toxic.

Regardless of how things go in Ukraine, a positive consequence of Mr. Putin’s invasion is to undermine further the notion that big countries can apply military suppression of other countries as a deliberate, discretionary policy. Grabbing territory and people simply because you can is off limits. It has been deemed “anti-social behaviour” at best for a long time. Recall the prompt reaction to Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990. The past few weeks have raised the dial on military aggression from its being frowned upon towards its being downright unacceptable.

That generalisation requires shading and qualification. Don’t expect the world to come down heavy on Israel the next time its forces waltz into Gaza to inflict mass chastisement on a flimsy whim, or if something similar happens in a part of the world where “first world” interests are less directly affected. Nonetheless, the bar of putative justification for territorial appropriation is higher than it was a month ago.

The phrase “off ramp” became more common currency as the invasion moved past its first week. Whatever he might want is one thing. What Mr. Putin might be persuaded to settle for as the price of withdrawing his troops is another. I can only speculate, but it is hard to see him agreeing to anything less than something he can credibly claim as a victory falling somewhere between justification and triumph. Anything that looks like a victory of that kind for Mr. Putin can only look like a defeat for Ukraine and for the broader democratic West that has nailed its colours firmly to Ukraine’s mast. So, where is the possible intersection point?

Going back to the status quo ante is not an easy wearable option for anybody. It would be hard even for Mr. Putin to explain to his people why he has caused so much death, destruction and disruption for nothing at all. And it would be hard for Ukraine and the West to allow Mr. Putin simply to pull out without consequence. He has done too much physical damage to Ukraine and its people and has trashed his own country’s already low credibility as a respecter of rules and commitments.

By putting in all his chips, effectively challenging his opponents to do likewise or fold, Mr Putin has made this a high stakes zero-sum game. Everyday political calculus it most certainly is not.



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