Invasion of Ukraine bares Russia’s decline for the world to see

Invasion of Ukraine bares Russia’s decline for the world to see

CIUS weekly report on media coverage of Ukrainian affairs, 16–22 May 2022

Four North American magazines (Atlantic Council, The Atlantic, Foreign Policy, and Foreign Affairs) were selected to prepare this report on how the situation in Ukraine has been portrayed in the media during the past week (16–22 May 2022). The sample of magazines was compiled based on their impact on public opinion, as well as their professional reputation, popularity among the readership, and topical relevance. The four magazines in this week’s sample represent the centrist and liberal political spectrum.

This report covers only the most-read articles about Ukraine, as ranked by the respective magazines themselves in the past week. It also covers promoted texts on home pages, texts from special sections on Ukraine, texts from paper versions of the magazines, and texts about Ukraine from opinion columns and editorials.

Topics featured in the selected articles:

  • Ukraine at war: Kyiv’s energy confrontation with Russia, maximalist and minimalist goals of Ukraine’s victory, Ukraine’s contribution to modern warfare, and cultural and ethnic aspects of the war
  • The world and the war: reasons behind China’s neutrality, redesign of global economic frameworks, efficiency of sanctions against Russian energy exports
  • Russia at war: Putin’s stake on appeasement, growing chances for Russia’s defeat, social and ethnic issues in the Russian army, global repercussions of the Black Sea blockade.

The most common arguments:

Ukraine’s electricity exports challenge Russia’s energy superiority in the region. Aura Sabadus (Atlantic Council) writes that Ukraine successfully synchronized its electricity infrastructure with the European grid in March 2022. Two months later, Ukraine launched commercial supply of electricity to Moldova, its first customer. This launch was mutually beneficial: Ukraine acquired an additional source of revenue during the war while Moldova reduced Russia’s role in its energy security and acquired an impetus to switch to cleaner energy sources. Ukraine is also to launch commercial electricity supply channels to Hungary, Slovakia, and Romania in 2023.

Ukraine should not push forward in the war in all directions and at all costs. Charles A. Kupchan (The Atlantic) argues that “Russia has already been dealt a decisive strategic defeat” and therefore “strategic prudence argues in favor of pocketing these successes rather than pressing the fight and running the tantamount risks.” Kupchan posits this “strategic prudence” as a postponement of the territorial restoration of Ukraine, preventing the complete defeat of Russia (which could lead to further escalation), retaining Western unity around the current sanctions, preserving the global economic system from collapse, and leaving the communication window with the Kremlin open.

Ukraine’s sinking of the Moskva cruiser signified a new era in warfare. Elliot Ackerman (The Atlantic) highlights that the military hierarchy of the majority of states still reflect Cold War logic and are platform-centric: “[we have] an army built around tanks, a navy built around ships, and an air force built around planes, all of which are technologically advanced and astronomically expensive.” The Russo-Ukrainian war demonstrates that anti-platform warfare centred around portable and smart weapons (e.g., missiles like the Javelin, Stinger, and Neptune) have become the new norm. In this light, the armed forces of the US and its allies should become upgraded “to save a generation of Americans from their own [potential] Moskva.”

Ukraine is defending its right to have a unique culture and identity. Suzanne Nossel (Foreign Policy) argues that apart from military destruction, Russia is assaulting Ukraine’s culture and denying the state’s right to a sovereign existence. Therefore, “for Ukrainians, the drive to hold fast to a national identity, history, and culture is at the heart of a tenacious resistance.” Nossel describes the transformations of the Russian and Ukrainian societies after 1991 and underscores the democratic successes of the latter. Nossel writes that Russian propaganda portraying Ukraine as a puppet state is targeted at Latin American, Asian, and African recipients, who support this portrayal in their anti-Western sympathies. At the same time, Russian troops are razing all evidence that may point to the uniqueness of Ukraine’s culture. 

Ukraine’s capital Kyiv is slowly recovering from its “total militarization.” Vitaly Sych (Atlantic Council) publishes his second story about living in Ukraine during the war. In particular, having spent two months in Lviv, Sych writes about his journey back to Kyiv. He describes the atmosphere in the capital as a besieged fortress: fuel has become a precious commodity, traffic jams have disappeared, very few children play in the streets, and armed police are everywhere. At the same time, 2.2 million of the full, pre-invasion population of 3.5 million citizens have already returned. Sych also mentions his trip to a family dacha that was looted but luckily not burned down by the Russians. See also the first story by Sych in the same magazine.

Crimean Tatars are Ukraine’s most reliable allies on the occupied peninsula. Rory Finnin (The Atlantic) states that “the modern history of the Crimean Tatar homeland is one of cycles of displacement, expulsion, and resistance.” Finnin provides a short overview of the Crimean Tatars’ wandering and endurance following WWII. In the 1990s, they seemed to have found peace in their historical homeland under Ukraine’s rule, but in 2014 the situation changed for the worse again. In light of the continuous Russian aggression, Finnin argues that Ukrainians and Crimean Tatars “are fighting for the right to be at home together. They speak with each other in dreams of a free Ukraine—a homeland of homelands.”

The Russo-Ukrainian war placed China in a strategic predicament. Sam Crane (Foreign Policy) argues that the Chinese leadership unwittingly engineers foreign policy problems for their state. On the one hand, President Xi Jinping has propagated anti-American rhetoric for decades and praised the Kremlin’s assertiveness in order to keep it “as a junior partner to counter Washington’s power globally.” On the other hand, China has always been committed to “opposing violations of any state’s territorial sovereignty” and signed the “Sino-Ukraine Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation” in 2013. Crane concludes that “China is in a bind: Support for Moscow creates economic and diplomatic problems for Beijing. But…Xi and the party leadership have chosen this path because they believe it is the best means for maintaining their power at home, regardless of the costs.”

The Russo-Ukrainian war drafts a military textbook for China. David Sacks (Foreign Affairs) writes about lessons that China may learn from Russia’s ongoing war on Ukraine in order to enhance its own stance against Taiwan. In particular, Sacks observes that China is: tracking the world’s response to the US initiatives in supporting Ukraine and noting disagreements in the coalition (e.g., India’s abstention from sanctions against Russia); exploring the influence of sanctions on the Russian economy to make itself ready for similar impacts; analyzing the US military and diplomatic measures in supporting Ukraine against a nuclear foe; and monitoring the effectiveness of weapons and troops that Russia has deployed against Ukraine. Sacks also outlines the lessons that USA and Taiwan should learn in preparation for a possible confrontation with China. 

NATO principles should be extrapolated to global economics. Bruce Stokes (Foreign Policy) cites British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss, who proposed to enlarge the G7 and transform it into an economic NATO: “If the economy of a partner is being targeted by an aggressive regime, we should act to support them. All for one and one for all.” The main activity of the new alliance would reside in imposing uniform sanctions against rogue actors. The Russo-Ukrainian war demonstrated that the world’s leading economic powers can speak in one voice against the aggressor. This solidarity should be further institutionally reinforced and codified.

Energy sanctions on Russia should focus on capping the export oil price. Edward Fishman and Chris Miller (Foreign Affairs) argue that the West and its allies “should impose a global regime, backed by the threat of secondary sanctions, to cap the price of Russian oil and slash the Kremlin’s revenue.” As things stand now, the EU and Washington do not coordinate their policies against Russia thoroughly enough. Therefore, the global price for oil remains subject to Russian interference and initiates a chain reaction in other economic sectors. Fishman and Miller argue that the West and its allies should function “like a reverse OPEC: instead of wielding control over supply to set prices, the allies could leverage their control over demand to do the same.”

The West should not appease Russia until it leaves Ukraine. Dennis Soltys (Atlantic Council) argues that no peace deal with the Kremlin at the current stage of its occupation of Ukraine is worth considering: “Aside from the dubious morality of having their lands traded for peace, Ukrainian officials believe that any such deal would only postpone another round of aggression [while] Russia rebuilds its forces.” Soltys also argues that “the Kremlin’s current aggression fits a culturally well-embedded script that has little to do with [any] actions of the West,” including the post-1991 enlargement of NATO. Appeasement of Russia will reinforce the Kremlin’s propaganda narratives, overshadow the West’s current productive cooperation with Russia’s neighbours, and further legitimize the Russian society’s destructive imperial world view. 

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has caused unprecedented damage to the state’s global economic stance. Keith Johnson (Foreign Policy) provides the transcript of a conversation with Meghan O’Sullivan, director of the Geopolitics of Energy Project at Harvard University’s Kennedy School, and Jason Bordoff, founding director of Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy. These experts suggest that: OPEC should try stabilizing the prices in global oil markets by increasing supply; the US’s current energy exports of liquid gas cannot fully satisfy the EU’s demand; the EU should learn to consume less instead of importing more energy resources—which would also be healthier for the environment; the Kremlin’s invasion of Ukraine was self-defeating, as the EU strategically resolved to limit the volume of energy it imports from Russia; the Kremlin’s growing presence in Asian markets will never be as profitable as the pre-invasion trade with the EU (in particular, due to missing infrastructure, lower energy demand, and Chinese security concerns). 

Putin is running out of options to avoid strategic defeat in Ukraine. Taras Kuzio (Atlantic Council) argues that “Putin’s predicament is likely to worsen in the coming months.” Putin cannot implement a full mobilization in Russia due to public resistance and poor combat effectiveness of conscripted troops. The country’s lack of preparedness concerning the replacement of embargoed Western imports, growing levels of unemployment, inability to gain convincing victories on the battlefield, blunders of the state’s propaganda machine, and continuous military losses will likely make social dissatisfaction soar in future. Kuzio concludes that “the failure of his Ukrainian adventure will have disastrous domestic consequences for Putin personally. It will shatter the myth of the all-powerful dictator and lead to calls for dramatic political change within Russia.”

Russians must be tried for their crimes of aggression in Ukraine. Oona A. Hathaway (Foreign Affairs) argues that bringing Russian perpetrators to justice is a difficult but not impossible task: “The International Criminal Court (ICC) has launched an investigation… [but] to prosecute those responsible, it will be necessary to create an entirely new court. That should be done through an agreement between Ukraine and the UN, with the authorization of the General Assembly.” Hathaway describes war crimes from WWII and explains how the Military Tribunals in Nuremberg and Tokyo were established to address them. A similar path could be adopted in the case of Ukraine. Hathaway concludes that the prosecution of Russian perpetrators is crucial to reinforce and reaffirm the post-WWII principles of the international legal order. 

The core of the invading Russian army consists of soldiers from the federation’s ethnic minorities. Alexey Kovalev (Foreign Policy) highlights that the Kremlin has counted on deploying military units from the fringes of the Russian Federation in Ukraine: “Members of ethnic minorities subjugated by the expanding Russian Empire centuries ago appear to be disproportionately fighting and dying in the Kremlin’s army—while ethnic Russians…overwhelmingly manage to avoid duty at the front.” Kovalev argues that the level of casualties among Buryats, Dagestanis, and Tuvans has prompted representatives of these ethnic communities to rediscover their ancestral roots and speak out against Russians: “They are now motivated by an anger that their status as imperial subjects has turned into a matter of life and death.” The latter resentment may challenge the Kremlin’s legitimacy and provoke social instability in Russia’s regions. 

The brutality of Russia’s army soldiers in Ukraine stems (in part) from their dire living conditions. Lucian Staiano-Daniels (Foreign Policy) brings to light the fact that the Russian army has been looting on a massive scale in Ukraine. On the one hand, this is related to soldiers’ low wages and the army’s logistical problems with supplies; the Kremlin expected but failed to rapidly conquer Ukraine. On the other hand, the massive scale of looting reflects profound corruption in the Russian army and a long-standing tradition of re-selling appropriated goods for personal profit, even if these are spare parts for military equipment. Staiano-Daniels concludes that “offering nothing to its soldiers but contempt, the Russian army has created an atrocity factory.”

Russian commanders do not prioritize the survival of their own soldiers. Dara Massicot (Foreign Affairs) claims that alongside problems with supply logistics, equipment maintenance, inadequate planning, and poor training, the Russian army demonstrates a “lack of concern for the lives and well-being of its personnel. In Ukraine, the Russian military struggles to retrieve the bodies of its dead, obscures [the numbers of] casualties, and is indifferent to its worried military families.” This culture of indifference compromises the effectiveness of the Russian army. In the current war this culture has manifested in misinforming soldiers about their true objectives in Ukraine, ordering them to assault the most fortified Ukrainian positions, and authorizing the advance through the Chornobyl Exclusion Zone. The Russian culture of indifference contributes to undermining the prestige of the military service and may further degrade the state’s combat capability. 

Russia’s Black Sea blockade may lead to global famine. Andriy Zagorodnyuk (Atlantic Council) argues that the longer agricultural exports stay in Ukraine’s granaries, the higher the global security risks. Today, the Russian domination over the Black Sea is exacerbated by Ukraine’s earlier decision to boost up its ground forces at the expense of the navy, especially after the 2014 occupation of Crimea. Zagorodnyuk argues that creating a protected maritime zone in the Black Sea that is enforced by the international community may diminish the growing security risks. However, due to the current impossibility of any military vessel entering the Back Sea (Montreux Convention prohibition), for the time being Ukraine’s participation in this maritime zone will have to be sustained by the navies of Turkey, Bulgaria, and Romania. 

Worth your attention:

The West and Ukraine should not prioritize reconciliation with Russia. Charles A. Kupchan (The Atlantic) argues that “bringing the war to an expeditious close through a cease-fire and negotiated settlement is far preferable to either a war that drags on or a new frozen conflict that ends in a hostile stalemate…Putin’s back is up against the wall. Pushing him further is both unnecessary and unnecessarily risky.” 

While searching for reconciliation, Kupchan believes that the West should demonstrate its superiority over the Kremlin but not discourage it from future cooperation. He further argues that Western cooperation with the Kremlin is crucial: “In a more interdependent and globalized world, the West will need at least a measure of pragmatic cooperation with Moscow to tackle common challenges, such as negotiating arms control, arresting climate change, managing the cybersphere, and promoting global health.”

A recent editorial of The New York Times also puts forward a statement that the West, specifically the US, should seek reconciliation with Russia.

A settlement that legitimizes ceding forcefully occupied territory to the aggressor contradicts international laws of the inviolability of sovereignty; if permitted, such an act would erode trust in international institutions. The West would be the first to feel the undesired consequences of such a settlement. 

Secondly, any settlement should not allow Putin and his soldiers to escape responsibility for the war crimes they committed. But a settlement that anyhow legitimizes Putin’s misconduct would increase his credibility in Russia and send a signal to other authoritarian leaders that the gravest war crimes may not necessarily lead to prosecution. 

Thirdly, a settlement that anticipates concessions from the injured party in order to please the aggressor would serve as a dangerous precedent. Such a settlement would legitimize the right of strong states to humiliate the weak. Not to mention that Russian soldiers would continue to commit acts of genocide against Ukrainian citizens in occupied territories.

Kupchan’s advocacy of settlement reflects the Kremlin’s narratives about the invincibility of Russia’s troops and Russia’s inherent status of a global power to which the West should always pay respect. Kupchan seems to argue that regardless of all their crimes, Putin and his soldiers should be offered a chance to “save face” and declare some sort of victory. Otherwise they will continue fighting, commit more crimes, and stir up even bigger havoc in the international arena. 

In his article, nothing is mentioned about Russia’s obligation to pay infrastructural reparations to Ukraine or cover the treatment of people who suffered from Russia’s illegal invasion. The negotiated settlement should mandatorily address these issues. 

In their individual responses to The New York Times article, Anders Åslund states that the “worst person on earth, Vladimir Putin,” should not be allowed to save face; John Spenser advocates the need to fulfill three conditions before attempting any reconciliation: “(1) removal of all Russian military forces from sovereign Ukraine land, (2) return home of every single Ukrainian citizen kidnapped by Russia, and (3) [impose a] payment plan for all damages caused by Russia’s illegal invasion”; and Garry Kasparov declares any reconciliation attempts in the current situation to be “disgusting” and “the sort of pressure Ukraine will be under from its ‘allies’ repeating the Kremlin line that it wants peace while continuing Putin’s occupation and genocide.”
For more information about why any movement toward a negotiated settlement and/or reconciliation with Russia would be dubious developments without first meeting Ukraine’s conditions, we recommend reading this article by Dennis Soltys (Atlantic Council).

Ostap Kushnir

Ostap Kushnir

Ostap Kushnir is an assistant professor at Lazarski University in Warsaw. He holds an MA in Journalism from Odesa Mechnikov National University, an MA in International Relations from the University of Wales, and a PhD from Nicolaus Copernicus University (Toruń, Poland). His academic interests include geopolitical and boundary-forming processes in Central and Eastern Europe, specifically in the Black Sea region. Dr. Kushnir is the author of the book Ukraine and Russian Neo-Imperialism: The Divergent Break (2018). He is also a member of the editorial board of the Central European Journal of International and Security Studies (Czechia).

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