Joe Biden’s victory and self-congratulation tour of Kyiv notwithstanding, there is no sign of impending triumph as we enter the second year of the Russia-Ukraine War that we helped to precipitate. Russia continues to build up its forces for renewed offensives, while Ukrainian counter-offensives have stalled. A long, grinding war of attrition is looming.
The total cost of the war so far is incalculable, but it would have to include the $113 billion in aid the United States has committed, over $50 billion in assistance from EU countries, the roughly 100,000 military casualties on both sides of the conflict, 8 million refugees, a staggering amount of damage inside Ukraine itself (valued at $350 billion +), tens of thousands of civilians killed and injured, tens of millions of people worldwide facing increased food insecurity, and trillions in lost economic production globally, due to sanctions, higher energy prices, and other disruptions.
These are the costs easiest to enumerate, but what is more intangible, and undoubtedly more serious in the long run, is the gathering sense of doom and menace that now haunts most of the world, as Russia and the West drift ever closer to a resumption of the Cold War, at best, and to World War III and universal Armageddon, at worst.
The West has been shockingly cavalier about assuming these risks, and inflicting these burdens. Crude depictions of Vladimir Putin as the reincarnation of Hitler cannot hide the fact that aggression and inhumanity have been practiced on much grander scales in recent memory (think “the African World War” in the Congo, for instance), without the United States and EU/NATO countries demonstrating even a fraction of the outrage that they have focused on Putin and Russia, and sometimes without the West even showing cursory interest. What’s more, before the war started Ukraine was a poor country, wracked with corruption, on the far fringes of Europe’s geopolitical core, and universally judged to be ineligible for both EU and NATO membership. It was and is a curious choice, therefore, as the casus belli for what may become World War III, given how little demonstrable importance it has or had for either the West or for Russia, except as an occasionally profitable backwater trading partner, on par with Bangladesh and Nigeria.
Despite the seeming irrationality of the massive military and economic commitments that Russia, the United States, and Europe have made to the present conflict, the tendency has been for both sides to raise the stakes inexorably, and for any and all peace feelers or suggestions of compromise to be shrugged off. Western propaganda assures us that the Russian army is close to obliteration, that the Russian economy is teetering, and that Vladimir Putin is sure to be overthrown by his own people. In other words, the war cannot but end with complete victory for the good guys, i.e. us (and, secondarily, our obedient proxies). The imminent exhilaration is so palpable that it can already be seen on the self-satisfied faces of many Western politicians and talking heads. The rather sensible objection that, if all or most of this did come to pass, Russia would have little to lose by nuking Ukraine, elicits yet more hand-waving and self-assurance. “Well, then we’ll make ’em pay!” And where does that lead?
Propagandists have been at work in Russia no less than in the West. The most recent evidence we have indicates that Russian support for the war is more or less unchanged since it began, despite the fact that Russians now realize the war will be longer and more costly than first assumed. What’s more, Putin’s approval rating is up—not down. Are a small number of Russians protesting the war, at great personal risk? Yes, and just as notable is the vicious public scorn that ordinary Russians pour on these dissidents, as the country rallies around the flag and girds itself for what their leader describes as an existential struggle against Western “imperialism” and “fascism.”
That Western policymakers and opinion leaders are unable to dictate public opinion in Russia is perhaps not surprising, but their failure to accurately gauge, or intelligently manage, world opinion is ultimately more telling. In China, for example, 79 percent of those polled in December/January view Russia as an “ally” or as a “necessary partner,” and just 20 percent see Russia as a “rival” or an “adversary.” The equivalent numbers in the United States are 14 percent and 71 percent, respectively: a near perfect reversal.
Our failure to propagate our preferred narrative about the Russia-Ukraine War goes far beyond China, however. Elsewhere, 80 percent of Indians view Russia as an “ally” or as a “necessary partner,” as do 69 percent of Turks (fellow members of NATO). The same poll finds the international community deeply skeptical of Western claims that it is fighting (indirectly) in Ukraine for “democracy.” Instead, the prevailing view is that obsessive U.S. and Western engagement in the conflict is generated by self-interest and a desire for “dominance.” Even the notion that the current war has exposed Russian weakness, an almost universal view in the West, is not shared internationally.
The key takeaway here should be that, while Americans and Europeans are more convinced than ever of the justice of their cause and of the inevitability of their victory in Ukraine (combined, of course, with their ironclad determination to do none of the fighting themselves), Russia and its key global partners see events in Ukraine in a completely different light. As long as they continue to do so, and as long as they continue to possess the means to resist the Western onslaught, we can expect that this war will grind on—relentlessly consuming the military and economic resources of Russia, Ukraine, and the West, and just as steadily eroding the credibility and legitimacy of the Western elite on the world stage.
In the end, we will be lucky if only the Western-dominated global order is extinguished by the Russia-Ukraine War. The greater danger is that a wider conflict could imperil the very existence of Russia and the West, not to mention countries like China and India, which for the moment are merely watching the antics with a jaundiced eye, and believing little or nothing of what they hear about the conflict from us. They have yet to turn unambiguously against us, true, but we should be under no illusion that they are, or ever will be, “with us,” either.
Instead, it is we, and we alone, who will have to beat back the rampaging hordes of barbaric Russians, or, perhaps, sit down with them and talk, as we did in days of yore?