TWENTY SIX Next month, Russia’s violent assault on neighboring Ukraine will have been going on for one year. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s plan for a quick “special military operation” – a “Blitzkrieg” – has failed, owing to Ukraine’s unflinching resistance, the West’s united support of its defense, and Russia’s own incompetence.
Rather than a rapid military victory culminating in regime change, Putin’s “special operation” has instead descended into positional warfare. Even after a year, no one can say for certain when and how the war will end. Most likely, it will continue for some time, claiming many more victims. Yet it is hard to imagine a scenario in which Russia could still achieve its primary goal of eliminating Ukraine as a sovereign, independent state.
As long as NATO and its member states continue to provide military and economic support to Ukraine, and as long as the Ukrainian people maintain their resolve, Russia will not achieve its war aims. This realization seems to be dawning slowly on the Kremlin, which has stepped up its attacks on Ukrainian infrastructure and mobilized hundreds of thousands of conscripts. Russian military leaders are now betting on a long-term strategy of demoralization and exhaustion, relying on sheer numerical superiority over the Ukrainian army.
But this amounts to an act of two-fold destruction. A strategy of “quantitative dominance” requires the Russian leadership to give no consideration to the lives of its own soldiers, not to mention those of Ukrainian civilians. With each passing day, the criminality of Russia’s malicious war becomes more apparent. Whenever the fighting does stop, much of Eastern Europe will have been laid to waste, leaving behind a deep and abiding hatred. The guns will eventually fall silent, but there will be no peace. Ukraine will have to do everything in its power to deter another attack, and Western Europe will continue to rearm on a massive scale, possibly for decades to come.
With Ukraine forming a kind of security cordon between Russia and the rest of Europe, there will be an impetus for it to join both NATO and the European Union in relatively short order. Moreover, the EU’s own geopolitical and security interests will have changed, transforming the institution in the process. The prospect of Ukrainian membership will necessarily shift Europe’s focus eastward.
With his illegal war, Putin wanted to keep NATO at bay. But he has achieved the exact opposite. Finland and Sweden will now join the alliance, and the entire European continent will line up behind its shield. The EU and NATO will develop a much closer working relationship, lending vastly more geopolitical weight to the transatlantic region.
Such a transformation will be necessary in a world that is increasingly marked by deep distrust between states, and by a growing divide between authoritarian regimes and more open, democratic systems. These dynamics apply first and foremost to economic relations. By giving the West cause to withhold capital, technology, goods, and services, Putin has done his Chinese friends a great disservice.
As Europe’s attention turns to ensuring its own safety from Russia, and to rebuilding Ukraine and preparing for its integration into the EU, a burning question will loom: What will become of Russia itself?
Putin’s vision of a globally powerful Greater Russia has been exposed as a pipe dream. The war and Western sanctions are hitting the Russian economy hard, and the longer the fighting continues, the greater the costs will be. And Russia’s long neglect of economic diversification and modernization implies that incomes and living conditions will decline sharply. Spurred by not just the war but also the climate crisis, Europe will rapidly phase out fossil fuels, and Russia will have permanently lost its traditional export market.
With so few other alternatives, will it even be possible to hold the country together? If Russian leaders cling to the delusion that they can revive the czarist imperial tradition, they will risk plunging Russia into a deep intellectual crisis. Without comprehensive political and economic modernization, the country – with its huge nuclear arsenal – will stagger dangerously into an uncertain future. We certainly cannot rule out the possibility that Russia – and thus also Europe – will experience a replay of the 1990s.
Western Europe will not have the option of ignoring the challenges to its east. Whatever happens there will directly affect everyone who shares the same continent. No longer can we afford to harbor starry-eyed illusions about global progress and our own place in the world. A Russia-size geopolitical “black hole” in Eastern Europe and North Asia does not bode well for anyone. Putin has destroyed more than even he probably expected.
After World War II, in the early years of the Cold War, Western European countries took their first steps toward ever-closer union. After the war in Ukraine, they must continue that tradition. Given the massive geopolitical challenges and security threats that Europe will face, it can no longer afford to exhibit any kind of weakness. The Old Continent must grow up – and quickly.
Joschka Fischer, Germany’s foreign minister and vice chancellor from 1998 to 2005, was a leader of the German Green Party for almost 20 years.