Wars are both accelerators and revealers. The Austro-Prussian war of 1867 speeded up Austria’s loss of great power status and revealed Prussia as the leading German state. The Franco-Prussian war of 1871 revealed that France was no longer Europe’s No 1 power – and that Germany was. World War I fast-forwarded the collapse of European dynasties and empires, the emancipation of women and the arrival of communism – and so it goes on.
The war in Ukraine has also speeded up and revealed things. It has turbo-charged the creation of a homogenised Ukrainian nation with a fixed Western, anti-Russian identity. It has also revealed a thing hitherto only half guessed-at: that for all Vladimir Putin’s imperial posturing, Russia is not remotely the superpower that the USSR once was, or even a serious rival to the US.
It has also revealed the continuing overwhelming strength of the US as well as the continuing relevance of NATO.
A protester holds a banner reading ‘Russia is a terrorist state’ during a protest organized by the Russian Democratic Society in Serbia in Belgrade, Serbia, 24 December 2022. Russian troops entered Ukraine on 24 February 2022 starting a conflict that has provoked destruction and a humanitarian crisis. EPA-EFE/ANDREJ CUKIC
Scroll back a year and today’s status quo was almost unthinkable. In February 2022, it was a given that, if push came to shove, the Russian steamroller would knock down the gates of Kyiv in days and shift Russia’s de facto frontier several hundred miles westwards. Hardly anyone predicted the blunders and botched manoeuvres that failed to deliver Odessa or Kharkhiv to Russia, let alone Kyiv.
Russia has also failed totally bring the West to its knees and break its unity by blackmailing it over energy – another wrong call. We are already in January, the spring thaw is weeks away, and no Western country froze to death this winter, even if most are reeling from higher energy costs and inflation. In card game terms, the Russian ace turned out to be the two of clubs. It’s also a card that Russia cannot play twice. Germany has practically weaned itself off Russian energy. The only lasting result of the energy stand-off is that Putin has to sell his most precious resource at bargain rates to his supposed ally China.
Putin is increasingly in the same position as the Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic was in his final years – desperately trying to repackage epic failures as great successes.
After Milosevic catastrophically lost his all-or-nothing gamble in Kosovo – to “solve” the problem of the Kosovo Albanians by getting rid of them – he doubled down on the loss of Kosovo as a victory; yes, it turned out he had saved Serbia from a land invasion by NATO! In fact, no invasion of Serbia had even been on the table, and Serbs saw through the ruse.
Putin is using similar language today, claiming the invasion of Ukraine was not, after all, about conquering/liberating Ukraine but about saving Russia from being broken up by the West.
A man walks past a billboard depicting Russian President Vladimir Putin with a note written in Serbian language ‘Happy birthday to President Vladimir Putin from Serbian brothers’, signed by Conservative movement ‘Nasi’ in Belgrade, Serbia, 07 October 2022. Orthodox Patriarch Kirill asked all to pray for the health of the longest serving leader of Russia since Josef Stalin, as Russian President Putin turned 70 on 07 October 2022. EPA-EFE/ANDREJ CUKIC
Putin’s minion, Dmitry Medvedev, spelled this out in a speech before New Year. “The Anglo-Saxon perverts”, he said, had been foiled in their plan “to shred us into pieces”. Except there never was a plan to break up or “shred” Russia. Contain, yes, shred, no. Only China would gain from the breakup of Russia, and the last thing the West wants is fragments of Russia dropping into China’s orbit.
Of course, the tide could yet turn in the spring, the next Russian offensive could be more successful than its predecessors, Zelensky could exhaust the US with his endless demands and pressure could grow on Kyiv to cut its losses and agree a weak peace.
But there is no immediate sign of any of that happening. And so far, if this is a “proxy war” between the US and Russia, it’s a proxy war going America’s way. US investment in Ukraine, unlike past investments in Afghanistan, or South Vietnam, has paid off. The US is barely sweating over the cost of the Ukraine war, for all the Republican complaints.
“While US aid to Ukraine has scarcely been cheap, US spending has been at token levels compared to the economic burden that the cost of the Ukraine war and economic sanctions have placed on Russia,” a recent commentary by Anthony Cordesman of the think tank the Center for Strategic and International Studies wrote.
This reminded us that US GDP is 13 times that of Russia and US defence spending is also 13 times higher than Russia’s. In other words, unless it loses heart, the US can hardly fail to outgun and exhaust Russia.
The US is not losing any of its own fighters in Ukraine, either – no embarrassing body bags coming home; Russia, meanwhile, has lost a lot of men, 100,000, according to Western estimates.
Why should the US back off at this stage? To save Putin’s face? A Russian triumph in Ukraine would have encouraged aggressive adventures by China, whereas a weakened Russia will be a deterrent to China, likely delaying a dreaded face-off over Taiwan.
The Balkans, too, could reap a peace dividend from the humbling of Russia’s ambitions. Had Putin stormed into Kyiv, Serbia might have been more tempted to try its hand in restive northern Kosovo, its very own Donbass. Now the pro-Russians in Serbia – and elsewhere in the region – may have to rethink their options.
Marcus Tanner is an editor of Balkan Insight and the author of “Albania’s Mountain Queen, Edith Durham and the Balkans” [Tauris].
The opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of BIRN.