Ukraine Crisis: Offbeat Lessons For The West
Despite West's sanctions, half a year on, the Russian economy is far from collapse, and Putin's grip on power remains as firm as ever.
NATO thinks that plying Ukraine with arms and money will enable it to put up a good fight and give Russia a bloody nose.
But a Russia made to sweat profusely also has the option to expand its war aims.
My last article on Ukraine was published here in March with the title, "Ukraine: Actions, Consequences and the Unintended Consequences that Matter More."
In the six months since, it has become clear that the sanctions imposed on Russia have been far less effective than originally assumed.
What were those key assumptions underlying the West's elaborate and ambitious push for sanctions? This CNN article of 1 March 2022 titled "The West's $1 trillion bid to collapse Russia's economy" lays out the objectives in crystal-clear terms -
"The West has responded to Russia's invasion of Ukraine with round after round of punishing sanctions. The latest salvo is designed to spark a banking crisis, overwhelm Moscow's financial defences and tip the Russian economy into a deep recession.
Never before has an economy with the global importance of Russia's been targeted with sanctions at this level, according to analysts, who say there is now a high risk that Russia will face a financial crisis that pushes its largest banks to the brink of collapse."
A half-year on, the Russian economy is far from collapse, and Putin's grip on power remains as firm as ever.
On the other hand, the sanctions have turned counterproductive for NATO's leading European partners who now struggle with ever-surging prices for natural gas and face the prospect of a bleak winter, with a recession all but certain.
In economics and statecraft, like in so many other aspects of life, the unintended consequences can matter more.
By now, the US and its allies have sunk billions and billions of dollars in their quest to bolster Ukraine's military. The original expectation was that Ukraine's early success in holding off Russian tanks from rolling into Kyiv could be extended to an outright defeat of Russia.
That looks more and more like wishful thinking. Sceptical voices in the West have woken up to Ukraine as a blackhole that swallows up enormous resources with little to show at the end of it.
A defeated Ukraine forced to cede large chunks of its southern coastline and the eastern industrial heartland becomes a millstone around the West's neck for years to come.
For Russia on the other hand, notwithstanding all the blood and treasure expended, there will be solid gains in territory rich in resources that can pay back the costs in the years to come.
Besides, for now, there's also the unexpected windfall delivered by soaring prices for energy which happens to be Russia's main export.
Why have things not gone the West's way? I have some unconventional pointers to offer.
Hollywood lessons: I begin with a 1990 Hollywood film, The Godfather Part III, where the character of Michael Corleone played by Al Pacino is shown rebuking his hot-headed nephew, the character of Vincent Corleone played by Andy Garcia.
Vincent was new to the business and quite raw, yet here he was, stridently calling for a rival gang leader to be bumped off. The elder Corleone’s response was simple and profound, “Never hate your enemy, it affects your judgement.”
Anyone following the West’s narrative about Russia would know that Putin is an impossibly evil tyrant out to take over the world and destroy freedom in all its nooks and corners, starting with Europe.
Surprisingly, and disconcertingly so, much of the sophisticated western world seems taken with this crude, two-dimensional portraiture.
A sober mind is capable of reflective thought and recognises errors allowing for timely course corrections. Overcome by hatred, your judgement and the actions that follow, go haywire.
Forget course corrections, you are much more likely to double down on your errors. You convince yourself that any other course of action would be the end of the world or the beginning of the end. And so, Russia must be defeated in Ukraine at all costs, else the rest of Europe will go down like ninepins.
The thinking harks back to the cold war and the domino theory that caused the US prolonged grief in Vietnam. Moreover, as I wrote in my earlier article on Ukraine: “The ability to see the larger picture, to be cognisant of the tectonic shifts being set off by your actions today, requires a sense of detachment and distance.
When you give in to self-righteousness and pair it further with demonisation of the other side, that capacity to stand back and see the larger picture taking shape before you gets undone.”
It is to another Hollywood movie (Scarface, 1983) that we owe this saying popular among drug dealers, “Don’t get high on your own supply.” Modern-day wars are fought on multiple levels – military, political and diplomatic, economic and financial, information etc. In the information and propaganda war unleashed after Russia’s invasion, many questionable claims and counterclaims have been made.
Yes, the warring sides have an understandable interest in scoring propaganda victories to keep morale high, but no matter how much of self-serving disinformation you put out, you don’t fall for your own propaganda.
From day one of this war, Ukraine has relentlessly pushed at the boundaries of truth with industrial-scale lies and exaggerations. The instances are too many to bear full recounting here. For an Indian audience, an approximate parallel would be the stuff that Arvind Kejriwal and his Aam Aadmi Party routinely put out.
Even so, as the side fighting with its back against the wall, Ukraine cannot be overly faulted for indiscriminately throwing things at the wall to see what sticks. But one did expect better of the West than to lapse into a lazy “willing suspension of disbelief” mode and treat all that propaganda as gospel.
Worse, they wanted the rest of the world to fall in line, and get high on their supply, so to speak.
Dharma: In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna’s sage advice to Arjuna was to perform his duties without selfishness and without expecting any reward. The West’s motives in Ukraine were just the opposite.
Almost no thought was given about what would be better for Ukraine in a world where great powers don’t always play by the book and where countries, free to choose friends and allies, have no such say over their neighbours.
Instead, the focus was entirely on what would be good for the US and its NATO allies or whatever it takes to diminish Russia at least cost to self.
Here's another quote from my previous article on Ukraine that speaks more to this point: “When you live next door to a bear, the simple rule to live by is that you do not go and poke it in the eye. But, by harping on NATO membership, Ukraine did precisely that.
And today, as Russia and Ukraine fight it out on the ground, and as Putin draws condemnation for the resort to military might, the US and its allies must be called out for their role in stoking this needless conflict.
Quite simply, by not smacking down Ukraine’s NATO pipedreams, the West let go of an opportunity to act like an adult. After all, telling a few home truths to a petulant kid demanding more than its share of pink candy is the minimum behaviour expected of an adult.”
Dharma, in this context, would have been for the West to act in Ukraine’s long-term interests. Instead, they chose to spot an easy opportunity to teach Russia a lesson with the pain felt elsewhere.
It was now about fighting Russia to the last Ukrainian ostensibly because this was what the Ukrainian government wanted. And so, Ukraine was egged on into an unequal fight by well-wishers who should’ve known better.
The sunk cost fallacy: A good definition of the sunk cost fallacy says it “describes our tendency to follow through on an endeavour if we have already invested time, effort, or money into it, whether or not the current costs outweigh the benefits.”
The US and other NATO countries have already transferred billions of dollars in aid of Ukraine’s military and every passing week brings yet another announcement of a fresh commitment of billions more.
Having sunk so much money into this endeavour, and with each successive transfer raising the threshold of what would be an acceptable return on investment, the sunk cost fallacy has come into play.
And that makes it even more difficult for them to think through the consequences rationally or to objectively evaluate the option of cutting their losses in good time. As I see it, this mess is all set to get a lot uglier.
In fact, the sunk cost fallacy was at work even before the shooting began when the diplomatic back and forth was still on. That was when the Russians wanted to discuss permanent neutrality for Ukraine but the US would have nothing of it.
Their argument was that neutrality was a question entirely up to Ukraine to decide in its capacity as a sovereign nation. If Ukraine was keen to join NATO and host foreign military bases on its soil, it was not for NATO to say no. That is a deceptive argument because, in practice, it just means that sovereign nations on Russia’s borders have rights that sovereign nations in America’s neighbourhood don’t have.
Further, unlike Russia, the US has no strategic interests at stake in Ukraine. A neutral Ukraine is no big deal for them and could easily have been conceded, as a gesture of good faith in a spirit of statesmanship.
Unfortunately, as I noted in my earlier article about Ukraine, this flashpoint emerged right after the US fiasco in Afghanistan and that proved consequential in shaping their response.
“It seems that President Biden, smarting under the scorn that came his way following America’s debacle in Afghanistan, saw this as an opportunity to stand up and be seen as an authoritative world leader and reclaim the ground ignominiously lost in Afghanistan.”
Having squandered so much political capital in Afghanistan, the Biden administration saw a heaven-sent opportunity to wipe the slate clean and make good on those losses. What better way to get rid of the taint of defeat and incompetence than to stand tall and act tough while posturing as a wartime President.
Offbeat leadership lessons: There are two great leadership qualities in my book that somehow haven’t got due recognition. First is the ability to recognise a lost cause when you see one. Among the US presidents, one great example is of Ronald Reagan and the way he responded to the truck bomb attacks on a US military base in Beirut, Lebanon, on 23 October 1983.
Those were days when Lebanon was beset by a bloody sectarian civil war and a multinational force, consisting mainly of American and French soldiers, had come into the country for peacekeeping. Before long, two truck bombs struck their barracks, killing 241 American and 58 French servicemen.
Reagan’s initial response was to strike all the right notes befitting a strong leader, including a resolute pledge to stay on course with the peacekeeping mission. However, within four months, he ordered the withdrawal of all US troops, convinced that the US involvement in Lebanon was a strategic mistake, as this 2014 article in Foreign Policy titled “When Reagan Cut and Run” suggests:
“What was particularly remarkable about Reagan’s bold decision was its rarity. Presidents often authorise using force or deploying troops to achieve some discrete set of political and military objectives.
When they prove incapable of doing so with the initial resources and political support, the mission can be scaled back in its scope, enlarged to achieve additional missions, or, the atypical choice, terminated. The latter option requires having the ability to recognise failure, and political courage to end a U.S. military commitment.”
It is not a coincidence that among the current lot in Washington, Ronald Reagan is not a popular name.
The other great leadership quality not given its due is the art of restraint when the going is good. It is the knowledge that a rubber band can be stretched and the wisdom not to stretch it too far lest it snap.
Stretch a rubber band, it does not break, stretch it a little more and it still does not break. Along the way, lesser minds get emboldened, and they stretch it too far, at which point it does break.
NATO expansionism went well for 30 years adding almost all of Eastern Europe. But then, in 2008, there was trouble between Russia and Georgia that should have alerted NATO to the potential perils of continued expansion into Russia’s near abroad. As it happened, those early warning signs went unheeded, and it fell to Ukraine’s misfortune to become the stretch too far.
The cricket parallel: In limited overs cricket, it is not uncommon to see the side batting second (the chasing side) lose many early wickets and appear headed for certain defeat. However, this is rarely a cue for their supporters to give up hope and pick their way out of the stadium or switch off their television sets.
On the contrary, you will see them invest much hope in one or the other lower-order batsmen’s ability to turn the tide single-handedly. Hopes rise to a fever pitch whenever a couple of stray shots make it past the boundary. And yet, for all the eager anticipation, that turnaround rarely materialises.
Today, Ukraine has lost more territory and manpower than what it had bargained for, and the chances of a dramatic reversal of fortune are bleak. Even so, many intelligent folks in the West have convinced themselves that a turnaround is just around the corner.
Typically, their hopes rest on this or that “gamechanger” weapon that the West will send to Ukraine. I suspect they are no better than partisan cricket fans.
The mediocre hire trap: Anyone who has run a business or whose job has involved recruiting people would know that there are three kinds of hires. The good ones who can get the job done and the bad ones who don’t. The point is, you hold on to the good ones and promptly let go of the bad to minimise your losses.
However, it’s the third kind that is actually the most damaging. The mediocre hire shows occasional flashes of competence to give you a false sense of comfort and blunt your perception to the reality that he is fundamentally incapable of doing justice to the position. You end up persisting with him for much longer to waste your time and money on a lost cause.
By the same token, if Ukraine had tamely folded up early on, the West would not be so deeply mired in a losing cause as it is today.
Ukraine’s sporadic successes have only served to blur the West’s perceptual acuity and make them oblivious to the objective reality that Ukraine will lose this war no matter what their tall claims are, and no matter how many more billions the West dumps into that country.
At the height of the cold war, NATO had 16 members. After the fall of the communist bloc in 1989, NATO has taken in 14 more members along with intermittent chatter about adding Ukraine and Georgia to its fold.
It’s all very well to talk about NATO as an alliance of equals but the fact is, the only voice that matters is that of the US, the alpha male of the group. Think of the US as an ageing sugar daddy with a bevy of mistresses.
Ukraine, then, is the latest addition to the harem, young and attractive, but whose capricious demands will keep piling up even as the pleasures afforded by the relationship keep ebbing. My guess is, there’s a lot more pain in store before the inevitable, messy break-up.
NATO’s current thinking is that plying Ukraine with arms and money will enable it not only to put up a good fight but also give Russia a bloody nose. The Russian military will then be so degraded that it won’t be a threat anymore.
All this sounds good on paper but a Russia made to sweat profusely also has the option to expand its war aims. It can conceivably compensate itself by capturing more territory to get the cost-benefit equation back in line.
Back in 2015, the international relations scholar, John J Mearsheimer, had said that the West was leading Ukraine down the primrose path. He predicted that Ukraine would ultimately get wrecked, exactly what is happening today.
Be that as it may, I also think Mearsheimer’s “primrose path” has been upended in a way that few realise. Consider that the US and its allies have spent many billions of dollars to bolster Ukraine’s war effort, having bought into its vaunted capacity to throw the Russians out.
All that Ukraine has to do these days is to hold up a decent picture of a giant bear licking its wounds and the West keeps throwing good money after bad. With apologies to Mearsheimer, it is Ukraine that is now leading the West up the primrose path.
(Ranjan Sreedharan is an occasional writer whose area of interest is the interface between politics and economics. He tweets at @ranjansr and he can be reached at email@example.com)
Also Read: Ukraine: Actions, Consequences, And The Unintended Consequences That Matter More
As you are no doubt aware, Swarajya is a media product that is directly dependent on support from its readers in the form of subscriptions. We do not have the muscle and backing of a large media conglomerate nor are we playing for the large advertisement sweep-stake.
Our business model is you and your subscription. And in challenging times like these, we need your support now more than ever.
We deliver over 10 - 15 high quality articles with expert insights and views. From 7AM in the morning to 10PM late night we operate to ensure you, the reader, get to see what is just right.
Becoming a Patron or a subscriber for as little as Rs 1200/year is the best way you can support our efforts.