Ukraine victory delayed by West’s fear of crossing Putin’s red lines

Ukraine victory delayed by West’s fear of crossing Putin’s red lines

CIUS weekly report on media coverage of Ukrainian affairs, 29 August04 September 2022

Three North American magazines (Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, and Atlantic Council) were selected to prepare this report on how the situation in Ukraine has been portrayed in the media during the week of 29 August–04 September 2022. The sample of magazines was created based on their impact on public opinion as well as their professional reputation, popularity among the readership, and topical relevance. These three magazines 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 given week. It also covers promoted texts on home pages, texts from special sections on Ukraine, texts with the hashtag #Ukraine, texts from the paper editions of the magazines, and texts about Ukraine from opinion columns and editorials.

Topics featured in the selected articles:

  • Ukraine affairs: Ukraine’s fight reaffirms legitimacy of the values of the free world; Ukraine’s army relies on advanced weaponry but needs to be further reformed to increase its effectiveness; Ukraine has more work to do on decolonizing the history of Crimea and pursuing its national interests in Africa; the war risks exacerbating the spread of HIV and tuberculosis in Ukraine; 
  • The world and Ukraine: The West should stop overestimating Russia’s threat; the current US foreign policy paradigm resembles the one from the Cold War; China learning from Russia’s mistakes in Ukraine for designing its Taiwan policy;
  • Russia at war: The Kremlin’s initial plans have utterly failed and led to Ukraine’s irreversible departure from Russia’s sphere of influence; staged referendums in the occupied territories will escalate the war; Russia has to bear legal responsibility for its war crimes in Ukraine.

The most common arguments:

Ukraine is fighting for democracy against authoritarianism and nihilism. Timothy Snyder (Foreign Affairs) starts his article with a statement that “Russia, an aging tyranny, seeks to destroy Ukraine, a defiant democracy.” In this light, “a Ukrainian victory would confirm the principle of self-rule, allow the integration of Europe to proceed, and empower people of goodwill to return reinvigorated to other global challenges.” Instead, if Russia wins, it will legitimize the genocidal extermination of a nation as a tool of foreign policy, empower authoritarian leaders all across the globe, undermine the unity of the European continent, and gradually subdue the individual governments of European states. The outcome of the Russo-Ukrainian war will set up rules for policymaking in the 21st century, as well as specify the role of human life and liberty in defining these rules. Snyder writes in his article about democracy as “the harmony of risk and freedom” and demonstrates examples from Ukraine’s history showing that risks should regularly be taken in order to safeguard freedom. Today Ukraine is reaffirming the validity of democracy and self-rule, both of which should never be taken for granted, in its struggle against the authoritarian and nihilist foe. It continues uniting other democratic states around its cause and against Putin’s Russia, “which is characterized by a cult of personality, a de facto single party, mass propaganda, the privileging of will over reason, and a politics of us-versus-them.” If successful, Ukraine will not only defend its right to exist as an independent state but prove the general relevance of democracy in the modern world, giving it a vital boost. 

Ukraine is more effective than Russia in using military technologies and advanced weaponry. Lauren Kahn (Foreign Affairs) highlights that after six months of fighting, the “Ukrainian question” in the West has changed from “How long can Kyiv hold out?” to “Can Ukraine reclaim its occupied lands?” The unexpected resilience of Ukrainians to Russia’s invasion is closely connected to their technological perspicuity and exploring the full potential of available weaponry. In particular, Ukrainians have learned to convert commercial drones into miniature bombers, created special software that combines AI and satellite imagery to calibrate artillery strikes, identified enemy soldiers through face recognition programmes, and monitored satellite data to pinpoint and predict the movement of invading troops. Most of Ukraine’s self-developed technologies are widespread, affordable, and simple to use. This simplicity, according to Kahn, results in the “democratization of military power” that allows “everyday citizens, private companies, and civilian institutions to help in the fight.” Khan also argues that “the ultimate result of all these changes is a dramatic diffusion of warfare, one that makes the traditional means of measuring the balance of forces far less relevant.” This particularly explains why Russia with its superiority in tanks and soldiers could not achieve its original objectives (i.e., a rapid conquest of Ukraine). Finally, Khan writes that Ukraine has become today a testing ground for a variety of recently developed means of destruction.

Armed Forces of Ukraine need to further reorganize in order to defeat Russia. Richard D. Hooker, Jr. (Atlantic Council) argues that apart from benefitting from a steady supply of Western weaponry, Ukraine needs to modernize its army’s structural units, inherited from Soviet times, in order to win the war. The existing structures poorly combine “airspace, deep fires, logistics, intelligence, and higher-level command and control,” which results in the impossibility of organizing effective large-scale offensives. Hooker’s proposal is to create “four regionally-oriented corps with anywhere from two-three divisions based on the terrain and threat,” as well as “a fifth corps in general reserve composed of at least three tank and mechanized divisions to conduct decisive operations.” To coordinate all these corps, a four-star field headquarters should be established. The key staff positions should be offered to officers in retirement or officers whose wounds prevent them returning to the battlefield. The system of recruitment and unit formation should be redesigned to allow an efficient exchange of experience between veterans and newly trained soldiers. At the same time, Ukraine needs to expand its military infrastructure in order to be able to support the existing war effort. Hooker argues that if the proposed reforms are implemented vigorously, the new structures may become operational as early as 2023. 

The history of Crimea should be de-Russified to become credible. Oleksandra Gaidai (Atlantic Council) writes that beyond the liberation of Crimea from Russian troops, “it is also vitally important to debunk the disinformation promoted by the Kremlin to justify the 2014 takeover of the Ukrainian peninsula.” One of the ways to debunk such disinformation is to look at the history of Crimea from the perspective of Crimean Tatars, the peninsula’s indigenous people. This perspective uproots the generally shared belief that Crimea is “historically Russian land,” as it appears that Russia had arrived there on an unpopulated peninsula only in the late 18th century. After the collapse of the USSR, Crimea became a disputed land between Ukraine and Russia. On the one hand, it belonged to Ukraine’s sovereign realm, which was recognized by everyone, including the Kremlin. On the other hand, the Kremlin continued nurturing separatist sentiments in Crimea by appealing to its imperial past. Gaidai argues that “failure to move beyond the imperial past in the 1990s has turned modern Russia into a backward-looking country that is driven by a revisionist desire to reassert its authority over former colonies.” The occupation of Crimea in 2014, as well as the invasion of Ukraine in 2022, epitomise the revisionism of contemporary Russia. Gaidai concludes that today is the right moment for the West to stop perceiving Russia’s historical narratives as wholly truthful. 

Alongside waging war, Ukraine needs to fight the spread of HIV and tuberculosis. Shannon Kellman (Foreign Policy) highlights that while the numbers of people suffering from HIV and tuberculosis in Ukraine have always been high, Russia’s invasion made it harder for patients to access necessary medication. Kellman writes that “since late February, demand for HIV preventative medication has surged as much as 300 percent in some parts of western Ukraine, and demand for TB drugs has followed a similar pattern.” This is related to a massive internal displacement of Ukrainians who fled from the eastern to the western parts of the country. Regardless of new challenges, however, the staff of Ukrainian and international healthcare organizations have managed to satisfy the demand for medications and establish supply networks in new regions. Drawing from the experience of the Russo-Ukrainian war, Kellman outlines three solutions that can promote medical resilience in brutal conflicts. First, a decentralized and community-driven approach to medication management should become the norm, as patients and doctors know their demand much better than anyone else. Second, long-term investments in a community-led healthcare system should be encouraged to improve sustainability. Third, a direct connection should be established between healthcare providers and patients, which will minimize the need for bureaucratic intervention.

Ukraine needs to reinforce its image among African states as an anti-colonial power. Kimberly St. Julian-Varnon (Foreign Policy) notes that Kyiv’s recent efforts to advance its interests and foreign policy objectives in the African Union have been met with much less enthusiasm than those of the Kremlin. For decades Russia has been building monopolist relations with African countries and aiming to replace the USSR as an exporter of grain, arms, and money. Regardless, Ukraine needs to develop interconnections with African countries if only to contain Russia’s influence there, as well as gain additional support at the UN level. To be successful, St. Julian-Varnon recommends that Kyiv promote the image of Ukraine as a country that resists the colonial ambitions of its imperialist neighbour. Also, Kyiv is able to emphasize the positive experiences of African students and trainees in Ukraine, as well as advertise itself as a major grain and fertilizer exporter. St. Julian-Varnon warns against Ukraine’s inaction, as every time a critical message about Ukraine appears in African media it becomes trumpeted by the Russian side; it also often happens that Russia is the initiator of such messages. 

Western reluctance to provide better weaponry to Ukraine is rooted in flawed geopolitical assumptions. Glenn Chafetz and Richard D. Hooker, Jr. (Atlantic Council) hypothesize that to recover its occupied territories “Ukraine will require advanced combat aircraft, tanks and armored personnel carriers, multiple-launch rocket systems (MLRS), sustained funding and logistical support, and other weaponry. Without these, there is a danger that Ukraine will bleed and starve until it can no longer fight.” In this light, Western supplies of weapons to Ukraine should be drastically increased. Chafetz and Hooker write that there are two major reasons why the West is under-equipping Ukraine. Primarily, the West is worried that Putin would ultimately deploy nuclear weapons if Ukraine becomes properly armed. Secondly, the West is interested in keeping a diplomatic bridge with Russia and hopes that “normal” cooperation will eventually be restored. Both reasons are flawed as, according to Chafetz and Hooker, Putin is aware that “using nuclear weapons risks uncontrolled escalation that could mean the end of his regime and of Russia itself.” Also, “Russian behavior has shown conclusively that it is impossible to cooperate with an interlocutor who defines their success by our failures. We cannot play a positive sum game with a partner who plays zero-sum.”

US reverts to “competition of superpowers” paradigm in its foreign policy. Foreign Policy interviewed Anders Fogh Rasmussen, Angela Stent, Stephen M. Walt, C. Raja Mohan, Robin Niblett, Liana Fix, and Edward Alden about changes in the US’s international stance and grand strategy after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The majority of the interviewed experts agree that the invasion “marks the end of the post–Cold War era and return of heightened superpower competition in both Europe and the Pacific.” The world of open markets and globalization is shrinking into more region-based and protectionist zones. Apart from this, recent developments in the Russo-Ukrainian war have brought Western countries closer together, and holding them together is NATO, which has reinvigorated and is acquiring new members; moreover, the EU is learning to wage economic war in unfavourable conditions. The worrying trend for the West is the general unwillingness of developing countries to choose sides in the conflict. Instead, some of them, such as China, are learning from the war to adjust their foreign policies and boost global rivalry. 

China designs its Taiwan policy by closely observing Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Robert C. O’Brien (Foreign Policy) believes that China has become more aggressive and authoritarian over the past decade. The prolonged Western appeasement of Beijing led to bitter outcomes, with the Chinese leadership exploiting the cooperative global environment as long as it could, eventually declaring a “no limits” partnership with no less an authoritarian Russia’s regime. According to O’Brien, fears existed a few months ago in the West that Beijing would seize the moment and follow Russia’s venture in Ukraine by attacking Taiwan. However, Ukraine’s resistance in the face of superior power put Beijing’s ambitions on hold. Currently, the Chinese leadership is analyzing developments in the Russo-Ukrainian war on four levels. First, the roots and magnitude of the resilience of the society under attack (i.e., the role of morale, supplies, and effective use of scarce armaments). Second, the real battle capacity of the cenralized invading power (i.e., quality of armaments, training of troops, and coordination between units). Third, the reaction of regional states to the aggression (i.e., appeasement of the invader, drastic militarization, or geopolitical switch to a competitive superpower). Fourth, the gravity of economic punishment imposed on the aggressor by the international society. In light of these observations, according to O’Brien, the Chinese leadership is unlikely to attack Taiwan in the immediate future.

Russia planned its invasion of Ukraine as a blitzkrieg but plunged into a war that is hard to end. Stephen M. Walt (Foreign Policy) opens his article with an overview of historical wars that started as supposedly easy, quick, and cheap but bound the aggressors for years. Afterwards, Walt places the Russo-Ukrainian war in this context and pinpoints the miscalculations and mistakes of the Kremlin. Firstly, the Kremlin underestimated the fierceness of Ukraine’s resistance and exaggerated the sympathy for Russia among Ukrainians; this underestimation has resulted in constant deployment of new troops being required on an ongoing basis today. Secondly, the Kremlin needs to justify to its citizens that the costs and losses of the invasion were worth it; therefore, it continues pressing for victory. Thirdly, the Kremlin needs to respond to the hatred of ordinary Russians toward Ukrainians who have already killed thousands of invading soldiers; again, this requires deploying more troops in Ukraine. Fourthly, the more hatred accumulates in Russian society, the harder it becomes to find a diplomatic solution, and the longer the war will last. Fifthly, as the Kremlin does not want to lose, it will likely raise the stakes in future and the war will escalate; the same applies to Kyiv. Sixthly, the circulation of information during the war encourages the Russians to celebrate their victories or avenge losses; in any case, more bloodshed seems to be inevitable. Finally, the person who authorized the war, President Putin, is not likely to stop it until he manages to boast of a convincing victory to the Russian public. Walt concludes that “all wars do come to an end eventually, of course, but that is cold comfort when the costs far outweigh the benefits.”

Russia irreversibly lost Ukraine from its sphere of influence in February 2022. Taras Kuzio (Atlantic Council) writes that Russia’s invasion initiated the nationwide de-Russification of Ukraine that is “directly undermining Vladimir Putin’s dreams of a new Russian Empire.” Kuzio also highlights that the wide-scale internal displacement triggered by the invasion allows Ukrainians from different regions to communicate intensively and find common grounds regarding “national identity, language, relations with Russia, and future geopolitical objectives” that has led to the most eloquent nation-forming processes since the proclamation of Ukraine’s independence. To this, one should add the effects of mobilization to the military and volunteering that allowed different people from different backgrounds to meet each other for the first time. Kuzio emphasizes that, as of today, “the number of Ukrainians who support Ukrainian as the country’s official state language has risen to 86%” and “92% of Ukrainian citizens now declaring themselves ethnic Ukrainian.” The percentage of Ukrainians who share a positive attitude toward Russia plummeted to 3%. Kuzio concludes that the invasion became the major factor of the Europeanization of Ukraine–the state shifted in a completely different geopolitical direction than the Kremlin planned.

Russia’s staged referendums in occupied territories will escalate the war. Olga Aivazovska (Atlantic Council) argues that Russia seems to be pursuing a similar scenario of “legitimizing” its presence on occupied territories as it did in Crimea in 2014. However, the situation is different this time, as Western countries are far less inclined to tolerate Russia’s breaches of international law. Not to mention that the Armed Forces of Ukraine are much more battle capable than eight years ago. The Kremlin seems to be aware of these differences and, therefore, pushes for referendums so hard. If successful, the life of Ukrainians in these occupied territories may become unbearable. They may be recruited by the Kremlin into its proxy army, used as a live shield, or deported to distant parts of Russia. Not to mention that Russia will start threatening to use nuclear weapons if Ukraine continues its war efforts to liberate occupied territories. Aivazovska concludes that, if Russia is not stopped on the battlefield today, the referendums will be staged “at gunpoint.” Their legitimacy will be farcical, but sufficient for the Kremlin “to strengthen its grip over the regions it currently controls.”

Russia must be held accountable for committing atrocities in Ukraine. Danielle Johnson (Atlantic Council) writes that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine might have been avoided if three decades earlier the Kremlin had confronted its troubling past and acknowledged Soviet-era atrocities. Instead, the post-Cold war policymaking in the Kremlin was imbued with the feeling of impunity and glorification of imperial expansions. In this light, Johnson argues that Russia should be held accountable in accordance with the international law for the crimes it commits in Ukraine today, but not only: “Prosecuting war criminals must go hand in hand with efforts to challenge the historical narrative that drove the invasion in the first place.” This means that Russia should also reject chauvinist aspects of its imperial identity and recognise the right of Ukraine to exist as an independent state. Moreover, any discussions of the peace treaty on Russia’s conditions should be rejected as inappropriate. Russia is a perpetrator that needs to pay reparations for its misconduct, not be listened to as an “equal partner.” Johnson concludes that a sustainable resolution of the ongoing war “will require a long-term approach to historical justice that goes beyond the courtroom and seeks to strengthen every aspect of Ukrainian statehood while fundamentally challenging the way Russians view their own past.”

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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