Ukraine and unintended consequences

Even a year or so ago, some Russia watchers believed that President Vladimir Putin might end his war on Ukraine with something like a victory in time before what would be his final re-election campaign. However, with the Russians now about to head to the polls, victory does not appear to be by any means assured.

It is likely, and almost certain, that Putin will win a new term, earning another six years in the Kremlin. What many people are looking for is the percentage of votes he will receive; In the 2018 elections, Putin received approximately 78 percent of the votes. So, anything less than that might look like a loss related to the faltering war in Ukraine.

This may seem all the more important given that his two main opponents, Nikolai Kharitonov of the defunct Communist Party and Vladislav Davanov of the small New People’s Party, have been very reluctant to declare their support for the war. The two rivals may not get more than 15 percent of the vote together, but if voter turnout drops, they could together highlight declining support for what more and more Russians see as a “costly adventure.”

Although Putin remains personally popular enough to make any Western leader jealous, the war is clearly losing popular support. Recent opinion polls, some of which are credible in some Kremlin-controlled circles, suggest that the war has no more than 30 to 40 percent support among Russians. More interestingly, between 50 and 60 percent of Russians oppose a second wave of military recalls, something Russian military planners consider necessary if Russia intends to stay in the game. Perhaps for this reason, Putin decided to mention the war in his New Year’s message in an exaggerated manner, instead of focusing on how he could overcome Western sanctions and return Russia to the path of economic growth.

As expected with regard to the Ukraine war, the law of unintended consequences is now in play. Putin ignited the war with explicit or implicit goals. At the top of these goals is a kind of “unity,” if not “annexation,” to return Ukraine, the prodigal son, to the arms of Mother Russia. Even Dmitry Medvedev, Putin’s key aide, compared the gamble to German reunification.

Now, however, more and more Russians are wondering whether such unification, if possible, would be desirable. If some 45 million Ukrainians are added to the more than 140 million citizens of the Russian Federation, a quarter of whom are not native Russians, it will mean a severe ethnic and demographic earthquake. Then comes the sterile problem of who will finance the rebuilding of a devastated Ukraine; Certainly not Russia, which is dancing on the brink of bankruptcy.

Another goal of Putin’s was to strengthen Russian nationalism with new blood. The unintended consequence, however, was that two million young Russians left the country, and hundreds of them joined the Ukrainian volunteers. Last week, some of these volunteers launched attacks on Russian territory in Belgorod. Another of Putin’s goals was to weaken NATO and even encourage some of the less enthusiastic members to rethink their commitment to the alliance.

Instead, NATO found two new members, and not just any members, because Finland and Sweden built part of their national identity on neutrality. What is worse for Putin is that the US-led alliance is accelerating the joining procedures for at least 4 other countries, most notably Albania, which last week transferred its largest military base in Kokova, south of the capital, Tirana, to NATO.

Putin also hoped to weaken (if not cause the end of) the European Union, believing that the “fat and lazy Westerners” would not be able to withstand the event of a major war.

Medvedev (yes…him again) also expressed this fantasy several times, asking: “Without Russia as a liberator, who would have marched on Berlin to eliminate Hitler?”

Before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, public opinion in all NATO member states was in favor of reducing the military budget. Since then, they have all increased defense spending in some cases, such as Germany, significantly.

But in this regard too, the law of unintended consequences worked by putting the EU accession process on pace for a number of countries, including Moldova and Serbia, where Slavism should have favored Russia, let alone Ukraine itself.

Another example of the law of unintended consequences relates to Russia’s adventurism, as Moscow relies heavily on support from China, a neighbor that Russia has viewed as a competitor, if not an actual adversary, for nearly two centuries. Having to sell oil at an attractive low price to China is the last thing Russia would have wanted, had it not been forced to do so by Western sanctions.

The law of unintended consequences also worked against the Western Allies. French President Emmanuel Macron sent an unexpected and controversial message by suggesting that NATO might be forced to put its forces on the ground in Ukraine. He organized a flashy conference, also attended by Britain, to emphasize Europe’s unity, but it ended up revealing deep divisions.

The Ukraine war has also become a contentious topic in domestic politics, not only in the European Union and Britain, but also in the United States.

In Poland, Spain and France, farmers are demonstrating against what they claim is unfair competition from Ukrainian farm products, ignoring the fact that their governments spend more heavily on defending Ukraine than Ukrainian farmers earn from selling their produce in the EU. In Hungary, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán is using the Ukraine issue to exploit the European Union more aggressively.

As for the United States, the Russian-Ukrainian war has already begun to take on the appearance of the main problem in the upcoming presidential elections, as the potential candidate from the Republican Party, Donald Trump, claims that he can end it in one afternoon, while President Joe Biden is still thinking about the victory that has become… Always elusive.

What is surprising is that all parties involved in this tragedy seem to be unable to read the ancient runes even when they are clearly explained to them, especially since a war that is fought so halfheartedly – as if it were a holiday hobby – may continue without producing a winner or a loser. It is something without which wars can never end.

The current confusion may be an opportunity for virtue signaling, as we saw in Pope Francis’ call for Ukraine to raise the white flag and end the war. But even then, the law of unintended consequences has been triggered with opinion polls showing that the papal invitation has irreversibly increased Ukrainians’ resolve to press on. Meanwhile, Ukrainians and Russians continue to die.

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