It’s been a year since the Russian invasion of Ukraine. In spite of claims from the regime and its media allies that Russia was the next Third Reich and would soon roll through half of Europe, it turns out that was never even remotely true.
In fact, things have unfolded more or less just like we predicted here at mises.org: the Russians aren’t even close to occupying any place in Europe beyond eastern Ukraine. It’s not Munich 1938. Economic sanctions have not crippled the Russian regime. Most of the world remains ambivalent on the conflict. The conflict will likely end with a negotiated settlement—contrary to what the Washington wants.
The fact is that in spite of the United States’ and North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO) efforts to turn Ukraine into World War III, the war in Ukraine remains a regional conflict. It seems most of the world is uninterested in making sacrifices to carry out US policy in Ukraine and that many see the inherent hypocrisy behind US talk about respecting national sovereignty.
There’s also an important lesson here about listening to the war maximalists who incessantly promote full-scale war as the “solution” to every international crisis. The US clearly wants to fight the war to the last Ukrainian, in what the US is packaging as a global crusade in the style of World War II. But, it seems now that more pragmatic thinkers—i.e., the French and the Germans—recognize that negotiations are the more humane solution.
They Wanted a “Munich Moment”
Within days of the Russian invasion, the Western global hegemonists got to work claiming the invasion was essentially a war of global conquest. For instance, Matthew Kroenig in Foreign Policy stated that Vladimir Putin had shown a clear interest in “resurrecting the former Russian Empire, and other vulnerable Eastern European countries—Poland, Romania, or the Baltic states—might be next.” Kroenig immediately concluded that the US’s military budget should be doubled.
Another writer insisted the Ukraine invasion contained “a whiff of Munich.” John Storey at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute claimed that “the forgotten lesson of Munich” had allowed “Putin is [to do] his best impression of German dictator Adolf Hitler.” Storey ominously asked, “Will the Baltic states and Eastern Europe be next?” dutifully repeating the party line that Russian tanks might soon roll into central Europe.
Yet the “lesson of Munich”—which is invoked incessantly and certainly not “forgotten”—has never been appropriate for conceptualizing the war in Ukraine. That sort of thing has even led some pundits to proclaim that global nuclear war is “worth it.” The real lesson to be learned here, however, is the lesson of 1914: that we should not allow military alliances to lead major powers into overreactions that lead to global disasters. The “Munich” crowd wanted mass mobilization against Russia in early 2022. They didn’t get it, and thank goodness.
Russia Was Never a Global Threat
It has been clear from the very beginning that Russia has never had the capability to sustain an occupation of any areas that do not already contain a sizable number of ethnic Russians or Russian sympathizers. This hardly mirrors the military capabilities of the Third Reich. Thus, it is not surprising that Russia’s occupation endures only in southeastern Ukraine and the Crimea. At this point, Russia is attempting to push the frontiers of its occupation zone as deeply as possible into areas with a sizable Russian minority. Even this has proven difficult for the Russian regime. Russia simply lacks the resources to take on anyone but its impoverished neighbors.
What’s more, bogging down Russia has required only a tiny portion of the war-making resources available to the NATO coalition. Europe’s NATO members have mostly pledged older weapons, and precious little state-of-the art equipment. The Washington Post recently noted, for example, that the West “is still short on pledges.” Recent promises of Leopard tanks from Germany, Denmark, and the Netherlands turned out to be promises of “refurbished” tanks that are more than forty years old. Moreover, none of these tanks will even arrive before this summer. As of late November, contributions of military aid from Germany, the United Kingdom, and France combined totaled a paltry €5 billion. That’s 6.00 percent the size of Russia’s military budget, and a miniscule 0.05 percent of the combined gross domestic product (GDP) of $10 trillion that comes out of the UK, Germany, and France combined. But what of US military aid? Surely a huge amount is needed to counter the Russian juggernaut? Well, the US military aid totals no more than $50 billion as of early 2023. That’s 6.00 percent of the US military budget, and it’s 0.20 percent of the US’s GDP. In addition to this, the US regime now admits doesn’t even know what happens to the weapons it sends to Ukraine. How much of that $50 billion actually goes to Ukraine’s defense? Not $50 billion.
If that’s all it takes to keep Russia slogging it out in eastern Ukraine, it’s hard to see how the Russian regime poses an existential threat to even western Ukraine, let alone any other state in Europe. This helps illustrate how unnecessary the US is to the conflict. Russia poses no threat to the US—unless the US escalates to the point of nuclear war. If the Europeans feel threatened, they can easily defend themselves given the huge size of their economic bloc, relative to Russia. The Europeans have more than enough resources to “stand with Ukraine” however they wish to define that. Yes, that might require to Europeans to give up a bit of their government pensions and enormous welfare states in order to fund their own military defense. But there’s absolutely no reason why American taxpayers need be on the hook to subsidize European taxpayers as they’re swilling cappuccinos on month-long vacations.
The World Is Not United against Russia
Perhaps seeing that Russia presents no conventional military threat beyond its “near abroad,” most of the world has not signed off on starting a new cold war. Although NATO mouthpieces have been enthusiastic about the passage of United Nations resolutions condemning Russia, it’s notable how many countries chose to abstain from the vote. Last week, the UN general assembly voted again on a resolution condemning the Russian invasion and calling for Russia’s withdrawal. One hundred forty-one countries voted in favor, but, notably, thirty-two countries abstained from voting (seven states voted against the measure). Among those thirty-two countries were China, India, Pakistan, and South Africa. India, a US ally and the “world’s largest democracy,” was apparently uninterested in joining NATO on the resolution. South Africa, another major world economy and democracy, stayed out of the matter as well. In fact, the only member of the BRICS bloc to vote in favor of the resolution was Brazil.
This has partly been driven by practical matters. The political leadership in these countries is simply not prepared to impoverish its population in order to please Washington. But the resistance also comes from the fact that most of the world knows US pretensions toward respecting national sovereignty and international law are all an act. The US invasions and bombing campaigns against Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, and Syria have made it clear the United States is perfectly at ease with violating national sovereignty when it suits US ambitions. The so-called rules-based international order obviously means nothing to the US when it becomes inconvenient to Washington. (It should also be noted the Ukraine regime supported invading Iraq and sent at least five thousand troops to help the US occupy that supposedly sovereign nation.)
What does this all mean for Russia? It means that some of the world’s largest economies have signaled they have no plans to cut Russia off from the global economy and that they refuse to cut themselves off from Russian oil, gas, and foodstuffs.
Sanctions Didn’t Ruin Russia
The US has been unsuccessful in securing global compliance in isolating Russia economically. Thus, the US has been forced to rely on coercive sanctions—not just against Russia, but against those who choose to keep doing business with Russia. The US must now spend time and resources enforcing “secondary sanctions” designed to coerce countries that don’t play along, and now finds itself in the position of repeatedly threatening countries other than Russia with “consequences” for violating US sanctions.
But, for all the US bluster on this, US sanctions have clearly failed to ruin Russia economically. Recent numbers show that the US oil sanctions against Russia “have done little to curb the flow of Russia’s crude.” Or as this article as CNBC suggests, the oil sanctions “failed completely.”
This isn’t to say that the sanctions have had no effect. Yet it is clear that the sanctions—the harshest sanctions used since World War II—are not a “game-changer.”
Instead, the sanctions have created additional motivation for states to find ways to get around US sanctions in the future. As Agathe Demarais notes in Foreign Policy:
Russia, Iran, China, and other countries at odds with the United States are doubling down on efforts to vaccinate their economies against sanctions. These measures have little to do with sanctions circumvention: Instead, they represent preemptive steps to render potential financial sanctions entirely ineffective. Such mechanisms include de-dollarization efforts, the development of alternatives to SWIFT (the Belgian cooperative that connects all banks across the world), and the creation of central bank digital currencies.
That reference to “other countries” is key. The more the US employs its financial power as a weapon against other regimes, the further this will push the world’s regimes to find ways to break free of the US-centered financial world. Those efforts will put downward pressure on the dollar in coming years.
“Unconditional Surrender” was Never an Option
The US has generally saved its “regime change” rhetoric for small, dirt-poor countries that are unable to fight back. Yet, following the Russian invasion, many Western commentators began calling for regime change in Russia as well. Most notably, on March 26, President Joe Biden said Putin “cannot remain in power,” although he was later forced to backtrack. Not only are the prospects for regime change in a nuclear-armed country fraught with immense danger, but many observers recognize the fact that toppling Putin is easier said than done. Nor would such a move guarantee that Putin’s regime would be replaced with a regime opposed to Russian expansionism. In fact, the new government could easily be “worse” by NATO standards.
This is a hard pill to swallow for Americans who are wed to a long-standing obsession with “unconditional surrender” in every military conflict. The model here is the Japanese surrender in the Second World War. The reality, however, is that the overwhelming majority of military conflicts are ended through negotiated settlements.
Nevertheless, throughout the first half of 2022, those who called for negotiations to end the war—for purposes of ending the bloodshed sooner—were branded Russian apologists. Only total victory, we were told, was an acceptable outcome.
Those days are swiftly coming to a close. “Total victory” for Ukraine, defined as the total withdrawal of Russia, was never likely. The reality is more along the lines of what French diplomats are privately willing to admit. As the Wall Street Journal reported last week, French and German leaders are now telling the Ukrainian regime that it needs to consider peace talks:
“We keep repeating that Russia mustn’t win, but what does that mean? If the war goes on for long enough with this intensity, Ukraine’s losses will become unbearable,” a senior French official said. “And no one believes they will be able to retrieve Crimea.”
Gen. Petr Pavel, president-elect of the Czech Republic and a former NATO commander, said at the Munich conference [last week]: “We may end up in a situation where liberating some parts of Ukrainian territory may deliver more loss of lives than will be bearable by society. . . . There might be a point when Ukrainians can start thinking about another outcome.”
The endgame is coming into view, and it’s a negotiated settlement. Unfortunately, it’s a settlement that will come only after an immense loss of life for both Ukrainians and Russians, and at the price of enormous loss of capital and infrastructure. A settlement could have likely been achieved sooner, and with the same territorial losses in Ukraine that likely would have resulted in any case. The US could have given up its obsession with making Ukraine a NATO outpost. The Ukraine regime could have given up trying to turn Ukraine into an ethno-state where Russian-speakers are second-class citizens. The US and Ukraine could have admitted they’re not getting Crimea back. Instead, they chose to prolong the conflict, and the result has been perhaps hundreds of thousands of unnecessary deaths. The fact that the Russian regime is ultimately the aggressor here does not change this reality. Being a small, poor country next to Russia has always been just an unfortunate reality for some. Thus, responsible foreign policy for those states lies in taking positions that limit unnecessary bloodshed while finding ways to co-exist with the Russians. Instead, the US and Ukraine have chosen to wax philosophical about moral rectitude while NATO leaders recite their bullet points on regime change, total victory, Munich, and a “rules-based order.” None of this helps save lives.
Those who promoted a need for full-scale war and “no peace until total victory” have been stunningly wrong, and it has proven to be very costly.
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