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Tue. August 16, 2022
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The torture in the next room: the morally and strategically deficient policy response of the West on Ukraine
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What is happening in Ukraine in the hands of the Russian military in the last three months is like prolonged torture and methodical dismemberment in the next room. And the response of the West has been morally and strategically deficient. The response to this incomprehensible violence so close to major political centers of the West, right next door to the EU, in the third decade of the 21st century, has unfortunately been ‘too little and too late’. Measures against Russia’s agression and in defense of Ukraine’s sovereignty on every front—economics, weapons, military action—have been incomplete, stalled or nonexistent when they have run into the short term interests and calculations of individual members of the Western alliance aided by Russia’s effective posturing. Yet, on the altar of these short-term interests and calculations, it is not only that the torture of Ukraine is continuing unabated and its dismemberment is unhurriedly and methodically taking place, with the West ‘monitoring’ the process with decreasing interest; it is also the West’s own fundamental values, interests and appeal and the corresponding world order that are being sacrificed on that altar.

Economics

In respect of economic pressure on Russia, one cannot but lament the position of the European Union and thus the weakness of the EU and the dominance of Russia.

When the EU, after a long delay, shies away from immediately banning Russian oil in the EU leaders’ end-May 2022 summit it puts on display its nature as a table of self-serving ‘business partners’. More generally, it puts on display its dysfunctionality and weakness as a Union and a player to be taken seriously on the world scene. It is not only Hungary’s generally anti-Union behavior, as well as its Prime Minister’s ties to President Putin and his designation of the President of Ukraine as an “opponent”, that is noteworthy among these ‘business partners’. It is also the approach of other EU members, which are asking for “more time” to use Russian oil. It is very disturbing that on the one hand some of them give some weapons to Ukraine to fight off Russia, and on the other hand they insist on giving some serious money to Russia for nearly a whole year after the invasion began or even longer (in the case of some member states) that allows Russia to more easily continue its torture and dismemberment of Ukraine.

Out of a lack of commitment of some EU governments to Western (and EU) ideals or out of a lack of political spine of some other governments to shoulder some economic discomfort for applying the Western ideals they profess, the end result is that the EU ends up giving Russia “blood money” through the end of 2022 and beyond. And a good number of its member states are setting themselves up for becoming again, sooner or later, satellites of Russia and reliving the invasions of 1956 and 1968.  

Actually, EU member state purchases of Russian oil is the somewhat ‘easier’ issue. The case of EU member states’ continuing purchases of Russian natural gas is even more disconcerting. The EU, led by some of its largest economies, has ruled out stopping completely any time soon purchases of natural gas from Russia, which is a big money maker for Russia and arguably financial lifeblood for its invasion of Ukraine (through the fungibility of funds and the maintenance of enabling domestic conditions within Russia for the invasion). There is little doubt three months into Russia’s invasion that the economic comfort of some EU member states, such as Germany, Italy and Austria, de facto trumps any discomfort they have from effectively financing with their continuing massive purchases of Russian gas the horrors in Ukraine and the demolition of the world order. And this, strangely, notwithstanding the public ruminations by some EU leaders that they are ready to live without Russian gas if that meant peace in Europe.

And on top of this, the tables are turned. It is Europeans that are effectively kowtowing to President Putin not to cut off the gas to their countries and not President Putin showing concern about losing customers for Russia’s exports. For example, it is staggering that the Austrian Chancellor contacted President Putin and got assurances that the latter will not shut off the supply of gas to Austria, after his demonstration of cutting off the gas supply to Finland because the latter had the audacity to want to join NATO in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine! It is also sad that the Austrian Chancellor had to dress up this de facto kowtowing to President Putin as a success, when Austria is effectively funding (along with others) the Russian military meat-grinder in Ukraine. And even more sad that the Chancellor tried to hint that he also ‘got something’ for Ukraine along the way during his phone call—that President Putin is ready to discuss a prisoner swap with Ukraine.

At the same time, the EU is giving in to Russian demands that gas exports to the EU are paid in rubbles. This does not seem to be a substantive matter from an economic point of view: from the moment the EU actually continues to buy the Russian gas paying for it in euro, Russia has the foreign exchange to buy the rubbles in the market and support its currency’s value. The issue is that President Putin wants to demonstrate the incapacity/unwillingness of the EU to reject his demand that the EU effectively make the purchase of rubbles itself and hand the rubbles to Russia. It is simply a demonstration of the dominance of Russia over the EU and the pitiful weakness of the latter. And President Putin has again been successful.

Weapons

Regarding weapons provided to Ukraine by the West, the situation is overall characterized also by ‘too little, too late’. There have been ample warnings by military experts, yet their views and advice has not been heard and followed in a timely manner. The provision of weapons suited for the phases of the war that Ukraine is at any point in, in the needed quantities, and on time has often been wanting. Now, in east and south Ukraine the fruits of this critical weakness are being reaped. Russia is succeeding in advancing the annexation and Russification by force of large parts of Ukraine with a view to creating faits accomplis that will be very difficult to reverse.

In this context, it should be noted that the incorporation into Russia of the occupied parts of Ukraine could mean that any effort to dislodge Russia from them could somehow be interpreted as a situation where “the Russian state faces an existential threat from conventional weapons” and thus be subject to triggering Russia's official military deployment principles for the use of nuclear weapons. President Putin is of course eager these days to advertise his doctrine on the use of nuclear weapons to reinforce the creation of his faits accomplis in Ukraine and to deter the provision of “offensive” weapons to Ukraine that would allow it potentially to try to recapture its lost territory—soon to be or already designated as “Russian state”.

Even after three months of war, in the case of provisions of weapons to Ukraine, one still sees hesitation in providing all needed weapons to Ukraine. The government in Germany has really been a model for how not to behave in this area. Over the past three months it has come reluctantly to a position of providing some weapons to Ukraine after very significant pressure and shaming. Yet, still, as of the time of writing, the BBC reports: “The message is that Berlin is sending Gepard defensive tanks directly to Ukraine, but not Leopard or Marder offensive tanks, because of a supposed informal agreement with NATO”. “Defensive tanks”? An “informal agreement with NATO”? All this is highly disconcerting, with deadly effect on Ukrainians now as well as far reaching consequences for the strategic interests of the West.

The situation with the US is admittedly better but still deficient. In this phase of the war, for example, instead of providing in a timely manner Ukraine with the longer range strike capabilities that it needs to have a chance of effectively responding to the Russian non-stop bombardment in eastern Ukraine or anti-ship systems to break the blockade of Ukraine’s Black Sea Coast, US leaders (and others) are dithering or they are not providing exactly what is needed. They seem concerned that the Ukrainians may take the fight to the Russians (in defending themselves from an invasion nearly universally recognized as illegal!) and they are concerned that the Russians may then feel they are facing an “existential threat” (see above). These leaders have internalized the Russian-suggested red lines to an extent that is proof of President Putin being a cunning and successful adversary. However, internalizing the opponent’s purported red lines is not the way to win a fight. Mr. Putin definitely knows this; Western leaders do not seem to appreciate it.

The approach of Western leaders in limiting the offensive capability they provide to Ukraine so that the latter cannot strike the artillery/rocket system positions and the military airports inside Russia where the bombs and rockets are inter alia being launched (originating) from is the same as telling somebody who is being attacked on the street by a hulking thug intending to kill them that they can defend themselves by parrying his blows but not by striking the thug himself as it might be considered by the thug an “existential threat” (see above). There is no doubt that the thug will sooner or later overcome the defenses of his victim with lethal effect. President Putin knows this and has been (again) successful in making Western leaders act essentially according to his own rules in this fight.

This situation is paradoxically proving former US President Trump right, when he declared on February 23, 2022, that “President Vladimir Putin made a "genius" decision when he recognized two pro-Kremlin breakaway states in eastern Ukraine and ordered Russian troops across the border on a so-called "peacekeeping" mission.” The one way President Putin was a “genius”, was in assessing right his Western adversaries, their reaction functions and—putting it plainly—their ‘guts’ for a fight. Not of course that Mr. Trump, if he had been president now, would have made any positive difference, despite what he claims. Actually, it would arguably have been much worse. This is evident, inter alia, from his cozy interactions all along with President Putin, but also from his statement at the National Rifle Association (NRA) conference on May 27, 2022, where he criticized the Biden administration’s aid to Ukraine when he said that the US "has $40 billion to send to Ukraine" as a priority instead of domestic priorities, such as school security. It should be noted that he won a big applause from his audience for this cheap quipping. One can only shudder at the thought of what could happen in places such as the Baltic states, Finland, Georgia, Moldova and elsewhere if Mr. Trump were to be elected to the presidency again in 2024. 

Military action

In terms of military action, it has been argued before that “the U and its European allies must retain the option of taking appropriate and judicious military action in Ukraine. It makes sense from a global strategic perspective for the West: to demonstrate its moral advantage, uphold international norms, avoid precedent setting of restoration of empire, show commitment to protect democracy and liberty against authoritarian and autarchic regimes, press for an acceptable and long-lasting peace, and actually reduce the probability of nuclear war.”

Yet, regarding appropriate and judicious military action on the part of the West, it is hard to find indications of it, at least if one is looking for effects on a large enough scale. The successes of Russia in the third month of its invasion indicate that not enough, if any, action on the part of the West is taking place. It was wrenching to follow the weeks-long siege of Azovstal and the eventual capture of its extraordinary defenders, when many expected some action to help the latter avoid death or a daunting fate under Russian detention and prosecution and also, very importantly, keep the land bridge from the Russian border to Crimea—so desired by Russia—from becoming reality. Similar questions arise when one follows the successful march of Russian forces on the strategically essential city of Severodonetsk.

In discussing appropriate and judicious military action, it is applicable to bring up the issue of the Russian blockade of the Black Sea coast and ports of Ukraine. This is another set up by President Putin for blackmail, holding now not only the EU hostage (with his energy exports) but the entire world community captive with the threat of a food and humanitarian crisis and all that comes with these problems. To safeguard world food security, macroeconomic stability and political/social stability in many countries around the world, a coalition of enough willing nations could act to break that Russian blockade in a ‘special operation’ to reopen the ports of Ukraine. Yet, this appears to be too tall an order for Western leaders, despite the fact that a serious food crisis, especially for vulnerable nations in Africa and Asia, seems to be looming. And despite the fact that opening that Pandora’s box other problems would be unleashed around the world adding to the already serious strategic challenges for the West.      

In this context, one would be remiss not to mention the recent increase in the probability of emulators of President Putin acting up around the world. It has been discussed elsewhere that “the invasion of Ukraine by Russia is a dress rehearsal for more of the same around the world by authoritarian and autocratic regimes seeking to resurrect empires of the past. The invasion, from its preparation to its execution and to its eventual aftermath, will serve as a model for other invasions and effective annexations and re-drawings of borders.” The recent ramping up of aggressive rhetoric as well as action on the part of Turkey towards Greece and of China towards Taiwan are cases in point.

In conclusion, an unsettling picture

In conclusion, an unsettling picture is emerging: The West, the EU and to a certain extent the US, is de facto going through the motions of supporting Ukraine and punishing Russia, but ‘not too much’. Political leaders are trying to take enough measures to pacify the outrage that large parts of their citizenry feel when they see the ravaging of Ukraine on their media—the death, devastation, atrocities, war crimes etc.—but not too many and too drastic measures of the sort that would decisively help Ukraine push Russia out of its territory.

One could safely wager that a good number of these politicians are silently hoping for a quick win of the war by Russia so that they can achieve some subset of the following short-term gains: normalize soon their political relations with Russia, bring down their energy and food costs, reestablish their private sectors’ opportunities in Russia, refocus their policy attention and resources to other challenging parts of the world, avoid a consolidation of the Beijing-Moscow axis, etc., and generally get back to their business without the Ukraine ‘headache’.

Some politicians are conveying the exasperating-to-the-Ukrainians message—sometimes allegedly privately themselves and other times in public through like-minded experts and journalists—that Ukraine should start thinking about giving President Putin what he wants so that we can all go back to ‘normal’ life (as if this was possible after this world-changing invasion). This is of course music to President Putin’s ears. This has been part of his plan all along. And President Putin knows that time is on his side for one more reason: the usual waning of the attention of the public in the West is setting in, facilitated by the decreasing coverage of Ukraine’s plight in Western media as the latter are looking for the next stimulating story.

But any purported gains from pushing Ukraine, one way or another, to accept President Putin’s conquests in the ‘field’, apart from being morally unacceptable on account of the price in blood and sovereignty of the specific country in question—Ukraine—they are also short-sighted. Indeed, they go hand-in-hand with strategic damage to liberal democracies around the world—to their long-term security, to their prosperity, as well as to their values and their appeal (as a way of organizing society). Thus, it is inappropriate to look the other way and it is lamentable to not do enough to stop the torture and dismemberment of Ukraine: maximum economic pressure to Russia today—not next year, decisive weapons to Ukraine now, and, where necessary, appropriate military action.

Andreas V Georgiou, a US and Greek national, is a Visiting Lecturer and Visiting Scholar at Amherst College, USA, where he teaches courses on statistical ethics. From 1989 until 2010 he worked at the International Monetary Fund, holding positions in various departments. In 2010, he returned to Greece to head the newly established Hellenic Statistical Authority (ELSTAT) – the recast National Statistics Office of Greece – and align it fully with European law and international statistical principles. He was President of ELSTAT for five years. He is currently serving as an elected member of the Council of the International Statistical Institute and a member of the European Statistical Governance Advisory Board. He has a BA from Amherst College and a PhD in Economics from the University of Michigan. He lives in the Washington DC area.

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