Having for decades condemned western interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Libya as interventions that changed regimes, Russia is now indulging in the same practice in Ukraine
Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a flower-laying ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier after the Victory Day military parade in Moscow on 9 May 2021 (AFP)
Nothing less than three decades of US and western domination is unravelling over the world’s military and economic affairs, which followed the collapse of the Soviet Union. What is being formed in its place is a world run by great powers.
Nothing less than three decades of US and Western domination over the world’s military and economic affairs is unravelling
Apart from the US, one bloc will stand out – a Eurasian power bloc with China at one end and Russia at the other. Between them will lie the greatest landmass in the world, unlimited reserves of energy, manpower, military, cyber and AI strength.
This is a substantial re-arranging of furniture on the deck of the Titanic, as the landmasses around the world quietly slip into the sea. Until the new red lines are drawn, it will not be a more stable one.
The signs of the collapse of the US-led order, which has come under various names – liberal interventionism, coalitions of the willing, a rules-based order – were many. In the last year, these were the fall of Kabul to the Taliban, the protracted negotiations with Iran in Vienna in which Tehran could yet emerge as the big winner, and now Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.
What could well follow is China’s takeover of Taiwan. All four are linked.
Taken by surprise
Each of these events has taken Washington by surprise. The US had no inkling of how quickly Afghanistan, a Potemkin state, would collapse once it announced its withdrawal. Of its neighbours only Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), who were on the ground with the Taliban, had the right intelligence.
The US has similarly had to retreat on all fronts – particularly sanctions – in the face of the steadfast Iranian negotiators in Vienna. It was similarly unprepared for the build-up of Russian troops on Ukraine’s borders and the invasion itself.
Each event has forced policymaking on the hoof. And this does not work.
Consider the implication of a western financial blockade that is about to be mounted on Russia, though it will probably continue to supply Europe with gas, for the oil fields of Iran. It will only make the price for them much higher.
It puts Iran in pole position for an energy-hungry Europe. Was this intended to be the outcome of four decades of sanctions, culminating in Donald Trump’s policy of “maximum pressure”? Until very recently Washington’s neoconservative think tanks were saying regime change in Tehran was likely.
As seen by those countries on the receiving end of the US world order, there were two features of Washington’s behaviour that were particularly irksome: a complete – many in the Middle East would say colonial – conceptual inability to see the world through anything other than its own eyes and a total refusal to bend once a course of action had been set.
America – and it alone – defined democratic behaviour, and issued waivers to pro-western autocrats to ignore it. Thus human rights or a values-based foreign policy became highly selective – to be used against Venezuela but not Saudi Arabia or Egypt.
Thus it was Tony Blair and George Bush who decided to invade Iraq at their meeting in Crawford a full year before the invasion took place or before the entry of UN weapons inspectors. And it was Bush who first tore up international treaties. He called the 1972 anti-ballistic missile treaty “outdated”. And it was Bill Clinton who first re-arranged the borders of a European state, during the war with Serbia over Kosovo.
These leaders regarded themselves as masters of the universe. But their strategic decisions had no coherence.
Everyone seems to be forgetting, not least Keir Starmer – who threatened t0 pull the whip from 11 Labour MPs who wanted to sign a Stop the War statement – that his hero Tony Blair urged the world to “forget Ukraine” in 2014 when Russia seized the Crimea and concentrate on the fight against radical Islam.
A failed competitor
Washington did not regard Russia as an enemy. Even worse, from Putin’s view, it regarded Russia as a failed competitor. For much of the last three decades, Washington told Moscow: “We hear what you say, but we are going to do what we intend anyway.”
The endless list of western interventions which ended ultimately in failure, and over which neither Russia nor China could do anything to stop, had a cumulative effect on the Russian and Chinese psyche. As Russia filled up its coffers with oil dollars, it also started to rebuild its military. This had been written off by British and American generals as a joke – prematurely it now seems.
The tales of Russian military impotence were legion: that Russian pilots had only several hours of flying time a month because no-one could afford the fuel; that sailors on exchange visits went on shopping sprees with the per diem they were paid by their hosts; that one ship had to accompany another in case of breakdown; and finally that Russia was incapable of mounting an expeditionary force.
That assessment changed rapidly when Putin began his intervention in Syria, an intervention that was to prove decisive in keeping Assad in power.
All the while a form of blowback was being planned in Putin’s mind. This has often been misinterpreted as the attempt by a former, low-level officer of the KGB to restore the Soviet Union. It is not. Putin’s Russian Federation is wholly capitalist, and the man at the top of it the richest leader in Russian history – richer even than the Tsars.
The Soviet leaders were hugely privileged, but in comparison not remotely wealthy.
You only have to tour the former privileged areas of the woods around Moscow for visual evidence of this. The dachas of the Soviet era are modest, crumbling wooden huts, with flaking green paint, in comparison to the cottegi, the so-called three-floored “cottages” of the new Russian rich. The road to one of these settlements is littered with adverts for Lamborghinis and flats for your mistress.
Putin is an oligarch, not a general secretary. The Soviet Union was a world power and the Russian Federation – at best – a regional one. Putin’s ideology in invading a state he does not believe to exist stems less from what the Bolsheviks did than it does from Russian Orthodoxy and Russian nationalism.
Putin did not start out anti-western. It took him seven long years, between his emergence as prime minister in 2000 and his speech at the Munich security conference in 2007. In this time he repeatedly tried to engage the West and join Nato. He was repeatedly rebuffed. So too were his ideas for a European security pact, which was again misinterpreted as an attempt by Russia to control the politics and freedoms of vassal East European states.
A turning point on his journey from pro-western oligarch to Russian nationalist autocrat was the fall of Libya’s Gaddafi. Not that he had any love for the Libyan dictator, but Russian oil and military interests were involved.
Russia abstained on a UN resolution permitting the use of force in Libya, a decision for which the prime minister at the time, Dmitri Medvedev, took the full brunt of Russian wrath when it emerged that the result would be regime change. An anonymous but high-quality Russian video emerged condemning Medvedev as a traitor – the same words now used about the last two western heroes of Russian reform, Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin.
It was Libya in 2011, not the invasion of Iraq in 2003, that determined the Russian intervention of Syria in 2015.
What happens now?
The first major change resulting from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is that Russia will now openly engage in the very activity it accused America of – regime change.
The first major change of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is that Russia will now openly engage in the very activity it accused America of – regime change
Having for decades condemned western interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and Libya, as interventions that changed regimes, and having framed the Arab Spring as one big CIA plot, Russia is now indulging in the same practice in Ukraine.
It is using the same logic that Washington used for much of the last 30 years. It is moving into Ukraine because it can. It knows Nato can not move against it without provoking a nuclear war.
Last month, Dmitri Trenin, a veteran commentator on Russia’s military and foreign policy, said the following: “Perhaps a separate ‘Russian project’ is already being constructed, and it no longer anticipates integration into the world where the West still plays a leading, though not dominant, role. Given its rupture with the West, Russia may establish much closer and even de facto allied relations with key non-western states, primarily with China, as well as Iran and US adversaries in the western hemisphere: Venezuela, Cuba, and Nicaragua.
“Under this scenario, Russia may conduct a significantly more active foreign policy. Moscow may start doing the very thing that the West has so often accused it of doing. Russia in this scenario aims to create both spheres of influence and the right to use force to overthrow unwanted regimes.”
Ultimately there is no excuse for starting another war. None of this justifies or excuses tanks rolling into Ukraine.
I was in Grozny in 1994 when Russian tanks attempted to roll in there. The Chechens put up a huge fight, won a temporary reprieve and were only crushed when Putin re-invaded in 2000, by levelling every building, and installing a psychopath as president.
The second Chechen war was notably chronicled by my brave Russian colleague Anna Politkovskaya. When I asked why she risked her life uncovering what she described as Russian war crimes, she said she was fighting for the soul of Russia. She was gunned down by a professional hitman in the lobby to her block of flats.
I have no idea whether Ukrainians will put up the sort of fight the Chechens did, or how much more combat-ready the Russian army now is. But my guess is the more casualties they sustain, the more they will use artillery and air strikes against civilians in built-up areas.
The bloodshed that we will witness in the next few days and weeks could be enormous. In war, the concept of “precision strikes” quickly goes out the window, and in Russian hands, precision strikes entailed the use of vacuum bombs in Grozny which sucked the air out of a central square in the town centre.
This war need not have happened. Putin’s issue with Nato could have been avoided. New security structures could have been agreed with Moscow that upheld the independence and sovereignty of states, which in turn respected the human rights and loyalties of Russian speakers. This is not rocket science and it has been achieved elsewhere.
But it would have involved an essential ingredient that was missing in western behaviour to Russia – humility. When the Soviet Union collapsed the winner took all. It did not even feel the need to listen. Nato should never have expanded eastwards.
At the very least, it should have included Russian forces in its structures and modernised them. This would have eliminated the central paradox of reform: what was good for the West was bad for Russia. Instead there was no state building, just demolition. It was left to someone like Putin to rebuild Russia’s military power, with the consequences it has today.
Putin has now reversed the logic, by saying that what is good for Russia is bad for Nato. Only the resistance of Ukrainian fighters can persuade him that the price of continuing this invasion is too high and faced with overwhelming numbers, the likelihood is they will not be able to do so for much longer. Nato has hung Ukrainians out to dry. Having championed the principle of Ukrainian territorial integrity, it can do nothing to defend it.
The tragedy is that while Russia regarded the Cold War as over, we in the West kept on fighting it. Now we have recreated the very enemy we thought we had left behind.
David Hearst is co-founder and editor-in-chief of Middle East Eye. He is a commentator and speaker on the region and analyst on Saudi Arabia. He was The Guardian’s foreign leader writer, and was correspondent in Russia, Europe, and Belfast. He joined the Guardian from The Scotsman, where he was education correspondent.