Lessons from the Russian War

Photo: Anadolu Agency

It is one year since President Putin ordered the invasion of Ukraine; and while the outcome of the war is as uncertain today as it was on day one, and while future events may, for better or worse, modify many present impressions, some important lessons for the future can already be drawn now.

By David Engels

The first lesson is that the age of war is back, and not just in the countries of the so-called Third World Global South, but in the midst of Europe -– and here, too, not in the form of civil wars or asymmetrical conflicts, but of classic interstate wars, which, despite being revolutionized by modern satellite technology and military unmanned aircraft drones, are largely conducted prosecuted with the conventional means of artillery, air force, armored vehicles, and infantry. According to Oswald Spengler, the future of the West was to be characterized by an era of “Warring States” until the final victory of Caesarism, which was presumed to be the closing terminal point of Western history; and given the present tendencies, it seems the German philosopher of history was not entirely wrong: war is back, contrary to all those who had expected an “end of history” and all those who had declared war in Europe impossible since it would inevitably lead to nuclear disaster. Obviously, “history” is continuing to work today along the same lines as some millennia ago, while the doctrine of nuclear stalemate has been refuted (so far) - – and it is to be feared that we are only at the beginning, hardly at the end, of this new normalization of conventional interstate warfare.

War is back, and so are all the old values protecting people for ages from mutual annihilation. Indeed, we cannot but notice that the war in Ukraine has beautifully confirmed all those values which the left has been busy declaring dead: courage, patriotism, faith, the sense of family, and the love of freedom -– without these, the Ukrainian fighters would have long since given up the unequal struggle. And as in the case of Ukraine, the left-liberal elites of the West, at least for the moment, must grudgingly endorse everything they usually discredit and denounce among their own population’s peoples as nationalism, fundamentalism, toxic masculinity, or heteronormativity. Thus, it is to be expected that for many years to come, the heroic struggle of the Ukrainians will become an important precedent for all debates on “Western values” – certainly not for the worse.

Another lesson from this war, which probably surprised many, is Russia's military weakness. For years, the Russian army, as well as along with Vladimir Putin's strategic intelligence acumen, were described in almost hyperbolic terms, and not only in Russophile circles. Now, the Russian armed forces have turned out to be as poorly trained as they are equipped, incapable of forcing the considerably smaller Ukraine to surrender or occupy significant parts of the country, despite the element of surprise and 12 twelve months of the war. Putin’s calculation that he would be able to occupy and capture the north, east, and the capital region in a true “Blitzkrieg” has also proved to be a serious mistake that has clearly tarnished the Kremlin ruler's credibility -– a lesson that is likely to be learned with great attention in China, and which will certainly also have consequences for Russian domestic policy.

Of course, Putin must also have included factored a possible failure in his calculations, and the fact that he started the conflict anyway should give us food for thought: even in the case of a “Blitzsieg,”, Putin seems to have been prepared to permanently break off economic and political relations with the West in order to once again transform Russia into an imperial power and to lead it into a new Cold War with the West.: At least for Vladimir Putin, the age of traditional inter-state multilateralism and international law was a political model going extinct anyway, and he may even have been right about this cynical diagnosis. But of course, however, Putin must also have been aware that the new Cold War he ushered in will no longer be characterized by the ideological bipolarity of the 20th twentieth century, but rather by the multipolarity of the new continental superpowers: The U.S., China, Russia, India, and Brazil, a list to which, unfortunately, the European Union cannot yet be added.

Of course, this new era of the “Warring States” era will be fought under a completely different parameters paradigm than the 20th twentieth century’s Cold War, for where just two generations ago, the internal unity, economic dynamism, and technological superiority of the Western world were beyond all doubt, and access to all necessary strategic resources seemed firmly assured, today's situation is very starkly different: NATO is deeply divided, the West’s economy is increasingly in recession, China has long since caught up with or, even overtaken the West’s technological advance, and access to oil and rare earth is more fragile than ever. No wonder that, apart from the NATO members in Europe and East Asia, virtually no other states have participated joined in the sanctions against Russia, which, together with China, has even been able to expand its positions foothold in Central Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. Already during the Cold War, the communist Soviet Union had been able to build up considerable sympathies in the so-called “Third World” Global South in the name of “peace” and “decolonization”; it can be seen that these notions continue to have a carry active significance even after the fall of socialism: Resentment against the old colonial masters and what is perceived as the moral arrogance of the U.S.SA is far too great. Vladimir Putin’s assertion, taken directly from Soviet rhetoric, that Russia wants to stand by the local populations against a Western world relentlessly striving to conquer and enslave them “since the Crusades,” is obviously falling on fertile ground -– and one may well fear the worst should the West's tarnished prestige evolve into an actual open defeat.

As the last year has shown, this hatred of the West not only characterizes the populations of Africa and the Middle East (who are, of course, at the same time quite eager to emigrate to the very same West in order to enjoy its numerous material and political advantages); it has also become increasingly rampant among European and American citizens. This also explains the astonishingly high level of sympathy, or at least friendly understanding, that Putin’s war of aggression has triggered among many Western conservatives. Indeed, almost all the civil society institutions of Europe and the U.S.SA that are currently siding with Ukraine had been instrumental, during their recent years and decades, in furthering the left-liberal, “woke” transformation of our Western civilization to such an extent that by now, their credibility has been permanently lost; and the same is to be said of the political elites of the USA in Washington, whose moralistic justification of largely opportunistic wars in the Middle East has led precisely those moral values ad absurdum. At the same time, thanks to intensive media preparation groundwork and the infiltration of the corresponding political networks, Vladimir Putin has succeeded in permanently elevating himself to the position of protector of apparently “conservative” values, so that many European right-wingers have been led to criticize "the West" for undermining nation states, censoring social media, discrediting opponents, supporting mass migration, promoting Islam or rewriting history, while paradoxically hoping for aid from a Russia which does exactly the same, and though to an obviously to an even larger degree... Hence, hoping to fight the “woke” elites of the West with the help of Russia’s alleged “conservatism” is nothing else than driving out the devil with Beelzebub and betrays a frightening political naivety, where Putino-Rightism seems to play the exact same role for conservatives than as what the French call Islamo-Leftism plays for the “progressives”: a form of exotism only hiding concealing a deep inability to center on one’s own tradition and faith.

This points once again to Europe's total failure to become a true and independent political actor on the world stage. While 100 years ago, almost the entire African and Asian continent was ruled by Europe, and while Europe was the world's military, technological, economic, and cultural leader in every respect, our continent is now only a dim shadow of its former power, as becomes obvious in the indecorous role played by the EU institutions in the Ukraine conflict: except for the usual pompous “condemnations” of Russia’s aggression, the EU limits itself to sanctions whose impact, given Russia’s continuing intense trade with China, India, and Africa, is more than limited, while Europe’s weapons’ supplies military aid, partly due to the appalling demilitarization of the continent, are too sparse, too late, and too hesitant to have any true effect on the war. Massive aid right at the beginning of the conflict could have quickly ended the war in Ukraine's favor - – the current drip-feed of weapons is just prolonging the status quo rather than decisively influencing it. And even this aid would hardly have come about without the courageous and generous initiatives of Poland and the Baltic states, since most other EU member states, Germany first and foremost despite its self-proclaimed European “leadership,”, have shown an appalling lack of interest in the events; a lack of interest that not only betrays a far-reaching abdication of Europe from history but also foreshadows bad things, should we ever see another armed conflict or civil war arise anywhere on our continent...

Europe is thus strangely absent when it comes to formulating its own vital interests and deciding about its best strategic allies, not only because of internal discords between the nation states but rather because of a cognitive overload with the challenge of geopolitics: criminal disinterest in world affairs should not be confused with a conscious decision for the embrace of neutrality. But while the EU foreign policy largely fails to formulate the vital interests of half a billion people in the face of a war raging in its immediate neighborhood other than by largely looking the other way and hoping everything will be over soon, the internal consensus seems strong enough to continue the further deconstruction of our society in terms of imposing LGBTQ diversity, gender ideology, multiculturalism, mass migration, abortion banalization, and critical race theory.: While Poland is spending a fortune to take in millions of Ukrainian refugees, donate hundreds of battle tanks and many other weapons to Ukraine, and modernizes its own army in order to defend Europe in the East, Brussels not only refrains from actively supporting Warsaw in any significant way but even goes so far as to punishes Poland with the toughest sanctions since the EU came into existence in order to force it to implement radical leftist-liberal societal choices -– a clear sign that ideological conformity is considerably more important to the Union than the common formulation of foreign policy positions.

The same can be said about the dangerous energy situation in Europe, especially in its economic heartland, Germany. It is true that Angela Merkel’s deliberate turning away from nuclear and fossil energy and her attempt to enforce this choice throughout the entire EU by means of the "Green Deal" were interpreted suspiciously by Germany’s neighbors as, e.g., a strategy to weaken France and Poland. In fact, however, the main primary motivation behind this suicidal choice was the chancellor’s decision to ensure her re-election by pleasing the leftist-green ideology of climate protection and the “special responsibility” of the West for both global warming and the misery of the Third WorldGlobal South –; an ideology widespread everywhere in Europe and not only in Germany. For climate activists, Europe's long-term industrial as well as economic decline is not only accepted as a sad collateral damage of its energetic realignment but rather explicitly welcomed as part of the reparation of its own historical guilt, -– and as a welcome means of taking over ever greater political power. Germany’s (overvalued) dependence on Russian gas is thus hardly a long-term goal on the part of the German elites (even though some left- and right-wing circles certainly have a private interest in promoting their Russian patrons), but rather a mere provisional intermediate stage on the way to a complete energy revolution, at the end of which not only Germany, but all of Europe is to be largely de-industrialized in order to “save the planet.”.

Of course, all this casts a dubious light on the hope of Polish and other European intellectuals that the Ukraine war would lead to a stronger military and political significance for the countries in the east of the EU. These, they hoped, could grow into a real “trimarium” Three Seas alliance through their commitment both to their Ukrainian neighbor and to the defense of NATO's eastern flank, expanding thus the Visegrad alliance to the Baltic, the Black Sea, and the Adriatic in order to form a real conservative counterweight to the leftist-liberal elites of the declining and demilitarized Western Europe. And indeed, given the dithering of Berlin as well as Paris, it may have become obvious in Washington as well as London where the most promising military alliance partners actually are. But in view of the internal disunity of the original Visegrad states, as well as Poland’s almost complete ideological isolation, it is to be feared that Warsaw’'s involvement in Ukraine will only be tolerated by Washington at the price of its own ideological alignment with the increasingly radical left-wing societal vision of the Democrats; and even then, Brussels, Berlin, and Paris are unlikely to view Poland’s growing political weight very positively. Moreover, the question must be allowed whether Ukraine will continue to stand by Poland once the war is over - – or whether, when it comes to rebuilding the country and to securing not tanks, but loans, Warsaw will be pushed aside in favor of the investors from Berlin and Paris and the subsidies to be expected from Brussels. In any case, the Trimarium Three Seas idea still has hard a rough road times ahead of it.

Of course, when it comes to the future of Eastern Central Europe, the central deciding factor will be the situation of Russia. Should the gigantic sprawling country continue to remain politically stable, Poland will continue to be wedged between Moscow and Berlin (or Brussels); but should Russia, and with it Belarus, disintegrate, Warsaw could indeed become the new political and economic hub for the continent’s East. But even this perspective should not give rise to high hopes for the future, as in both cases, the real winner of the conflict between Russia and the West would probably be China. For whether the next few months or years will bring a new Cold War, in which Moscow will increasingly be demoted to Beijing's junior partner, or whether we will witness a full-fledged disintegration of the Russian Federation, in which case parts of Siberia will probably become a client state of China: Either way, – the rivalry between the Western World and the Middle Empire, will increasingly become conflictual and, sooner or later, enter its hot phase. – And for the moment, time, at least from a short- to medium-term perspective, tends to play in favor of China rather than the West. Will Europe be able to pull itself together to avoid being crushed?

Prof. Dr. David Engels (born 1979) is the chair of Roman History at the University of Brussels (ULB) and currently works as a research professor at the Instytut Zachodni in Poznań, Poland. Author of numerous scholarly publications and essays. Photo: Prof. Engels’s private archive.