The War In Ukraine And The Conditions For World Peace
François HollandeFormer President of the French Republic.
The year 2023 has begun with the perspective of a protracted conflict on the European continent. The main protagonist is a nuclear power whose leader, Vladimir Putin, has the ability to blend the hot and the cold, or more precisely, the red-hot and the glacial, and to keep the risk of an escalation alive, which the world may fear the worst of.
This war, which is currently on everyone’s mind, did not happen through a sudden flare-up in tensions between Ukraine and Russia. It is part of a process that began ten years ago and which is now partly coming to an end. This process reflects the desire of Russia and China to change the world order and to make force prevail over law.
Putin and Xi: The temptation of an authoritarian world order
This is the strategy established by Vladimir Putin, returning to the Kremlin in 2012, and Xi Jinping, who rose to become General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party at the end of that same year. This strategy is based on the conviction shared by the two leaders that the United States — and Western nations more broadly — have reached the pinnacle of their influence and are now facing an irreversible decline, therefore justifying a revision of the international hierarchy that prevailed up to that point. In their view, this ambition is justified by the development of a new power balance. China believes that it will be the world’s largest economy by 2050.
For the centennial of the Chinese Revolution in 2049, China expects to have a decisive technological advantage in key sectors such as digital, cyber, and even space. Over the last decade, Russia and China have also embarked on military programs which, in terms of weapons stockpiles, remain far smaller than the American arsenal but which, in terms of quality and quantity, represent considerable sums of money that indicate a desire to catch up with and even surpass the most sophisticated equipment. They are also convinced that the United States will inevitably fade from the international scene. Barack Obama’s refusal to intervene in Syria in the summer of 2013 was the first indication of this; this was confirmed by the West’s tepid reaction to the annexation of Crimea and the occupation of a part of the Donbass. The debacle in Afghanistan did the rest.
China and Russia also interpreted the financial turmoil that engulfed Western economies, the terrorist crises that hit Europe and the United States, and finally the large migratory movements that destabilized Western societies as signs that the regimes of freedom were losing their influence. These empires took advantage of this to break new ground in Africa and the Middle East and to extend their borders ever further. Russia, and to a lesser extent China, also encouraged any and all efforts that could undermine the democratic framework within our own nations through the presence in our countries of media under their control and the use of social networks under their influence. The combined efforts of these operations succeeded in disrupting the course of elections and fueling conspiracy theories.
China and Russia have concluded that after the long period that began with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the acceleration of globalism — which both experienced as a period of secrecy, submission and humiliation — that the time had come for these two major powers to go on the offensive. In this regard, 2012 was a pivotal year. Indeed, since then, Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping have met forty times — including during the pandemic, even though the two leaders were said to have been totally isolated during this period.
Beyond the frequency of these interactions, Putin and Xi have forged a friendship that they describe as “eternal and without limitations”. This pact has never cracked: not over Syria, nor Iran, nor North Korea. It has held firm over Ukraine through all kinds of economic, commercial, energy and military cooperation… Its impact is explicit: Russia is now China’s second largest supplier of oil and its main supplier of arms. The two countries conduct joint exercises, naval operations, and air patrols.
But this relationship goes beyond the affirmation of shared interests. Putin and Xi detest the same things: the West, which they wish to weaken and repress where it intends to act, and democracy, which they believe leads to the decline and downfall of nations. They have adopted the same methods: fear at home — sometimes mild, sometimes cruel depending on the circumstances — and domination abroad. There is, however, a considerable difference given the respective places of China and Russia within globalization. For its growth, and therefore for its domestic stability, China needs to trade with the rest of the world and to receive investments from it, whereas Russia can live in relative autarky — but for how long? In any case, Putin and Xi believe that no matter what, time is working in their favor and that, since their power is unlimited in its duration as well as in its execution as long as there is no apparent counter-power, they will remain eternally linked to each other.
They are aware that this is where they have the advantage over democracies. They can allow themselves patience and delays, whereas democratic leaders know very well that their future is inevitably limited, that others will systematically succeed them and that they are obligated to act in the short term; it is never guaranteed that they will be able to inscribe their actions in the long-term.
This asymmetry, which has always existed between dictatorships and democracies, is taking on a specific dimension today. In order to preserve popularity — for autocrats always need to measure support of their opinions — authoritarian regimes play the overblown patriotism card and pretend to be under attack from Western imperialism and neo-colonialism in order to better articulate their ambitions. With ideologies that today are different — communism for Xi Jinping, Slavophilia for Putin — they are converging towards the rejection of what has been the global order. This is their message to the populations they want to enlist in this struggle. This is why, even if it is very difficult to exactly measure the Russian people’s support for what is going on in Ukraine, we cannot underestimate the effectiveness of propaganda on a large part of the social body, which sincerely believes that its country is under attack from NATO and threatened by Ukrainian “Nazis”.
Finally, if Beijing and Moscow act separately in increasingly large geographic areas, which do not necessarily overlap, they are careful to never be in competition with each other and to never publicly show any differences. These two powers, while they do not necessarily need to reiterate at every opportunity that they are allies, agree on a series of objectives.
The first is to counter the United States, which remains their main adversary. It is difficult to imagine how much Putin detests the United States. He undoubtedly hates the Americans’ ambitions to impose a particular economic system, and he abhors them for their way of life and their supremacy since the fall of the Berlin Wall. These grievances remain his driving force. The second objective is to impress Europe. This is clearly one of the goals of the war in Ukraine. To frighten. To bring about, through fear, retreat and division. Their third objective is to exert as much influence as possible in conflicts affecting regions that are particularly rich in raw materials, rare earth minerals, and fossil energies. From this viewpoint, Russia is succeeding in its African operations. Russia has also taken strong positions in the Middle East by maintaining good relations with the Gulf countries and Iran as well as with Israel, all while making sure that it, along with China, controls the straits and the seas.
The ends of the war in Ukraine
This great alliance, which remains nameless, is founded on a contract that is less and less implicit, which no longer thinks of itself as a rebalancing of worlds but as the creation of a new hierarchy. The global upheaval begins with a challenge to our values of freedom, democracy and fundamental rights. It is in this context that the Ukrainian conflict takes on its full meaning. What is at stake goes far beyond territorial battles. The issue at play is the balance of power on a global scale and setting a precedent that could justify the use of force to modify borders, or even the integrity of several nations. A new international landscape will depend on how the war is resolved and how peace is achieved.
In this regard, the alternative is relatively simple. Should Vladimir Putin obtain even a partial victory, by absorbing the four regions whose annexation he has already announced — even if he has not conquered them militarily — in addition to Crimea which has been annexed since 2014, it would mean that, despite all the aid bestowed on Ukraine, the United States and Europe did not succeed in beating back the invasion. The risk would therefore be of exposing the Baltic nations, Moldova, and perhaps even Poland to other threats; perhaps not invasion but certainly pressure on their own stability. This would also be interpreted by China as fresh proof of the West’s weakness in its support for its allies and of the aversion of democracies to acknowledge the possibility of war — which is another major difference with dictatorships. In this scenario, there is reason to fear that Taiwan could be targeted before long.
This scenario would also be interpreted by nations who hold dreams of imperial destiny — such as Turkey, Iran, and Saudi Arabia — as an authorization to wade further into repression at home or conquest abroad. Emerging countries such as India, Brazil, or South Africa would be reassured in their position of equidistance or indifference regarding the attitude to adopt towards other conflicts.
In contrast, let us consider the second possibility: if Vladimir Putin were to suffer a defeat in Ukraine, if he was forced to retreat behind the lines that existed before the invasion, and if he was even forced to surrender all the territories that he has been occupying since 2014. In that case, beyond the domestic consequences this would cause in Russia, this retreat would be a death knell for any temptation to make force prevail over law. China would shelve its desire to reclaim Taiwan through military means for quite some time, though it would not necessarily abandon it. China’s alliance with Russia, however eternal, would remain. But this solidarity would become an economic burden for the former as well as a political millstone with the prospect of a long isolation. China could then have to worry about the sanctions that would inevitably be imposed, penalizing its growth, which has already been affected by the pandemic; in particular, it would fear trade restrictions, which would ruin its hopes of becoming the world’s leading economic power.
In order for the best scenario to occur, several conditions must be met. The first is renewed American commitment. Admittedly, the United States’ position as a superpower may have elicited rejection, hostility, and even confusion during the Bush years. However, their retreat from the world stage that began under Obama, and which was expanded by Trump, has proven to be disastrous as it created a vacuum that has been rapidly filled by rival powers, opening the door to Russia’s expansion.
While it was feared that Biden would move in the same direction, particularly during the Afghanistan debacle, we must admit that he has taken a firm and courageous stance on the Ukrainian conflict. The United States has committed considerable sums of money and continues to do so to aid the Ukrainians. But will the Republican majority in the House of Representatives allow him to continue this effort? And will the next president, to be elected in November 2024, pursue a policy that combines the trade protectionism already in place with political isolationism? This is undoubtedly Putin’s calculation, which focuses on the long term. He will bide his time and freeze the Ukrainian conflict if he can.
The second condition for envisioning a return to peace is ongoing support of Western public opinion. Before the invasion of Ukraine, there were several factors that could explain the resurgence in inflation: there was the ample money supply caused by the accommodating policies of central banks, the imbalance between supply and demand following the health crisis, as well as “whatever the cost” policies in Europe, that in a certain manner stimulated purchasing power, etc. But the war in Ukraine has further amplified the rise in prices and a portion of public opinion attributes today’s difficulties not so much to the end of the health crisis, but to the beginning of the conflict. Consequently, fears of shortages, skyrocketing bills, and energy insecurity necessarily challenge the picture of a public opinion in total support of the Ukrainian cause.
A union under new terms for Europe
There is every reason to believe that certain political groups, and even some European states, will call for negotiations or accommodations regarding sanctions. There are already tensions emerging in a Europe that has responded rather well to the Ukrainian crisis. These tensions will center on this highly sensitive point: the opportunity of a transactional solution with Russia. One country — Turkey — is preparing to play a key role in this. It has even laid out a strategy: to take Ukraine region by region, and to look on a case-by-case basis at what could be conceded by one side or the other. Additionally, Turkey has a dual relationship that adds to this ambiguity since it is a member of NATO and Russia’s best enemy. This means that Turkey and Russia can be in competition in all areas that concern them, but they always come to an agreement. We have seen this in Syria as well as in the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan.
This is Vladimir Putin’s second hope: believing that public opinion will eventually falter, and that Europeans prove to be more attached to their way of life over their values, to their comfort over democracy, and to their economy over security. This is the question facing the European Union today: what is its destiny? Does it want to be an important economic and trading power, whose achievements would ensure internal cohesion and external respect, if not political influence? Does it want to be an entity with a strong economy at the global level and no political ambitions? Germany has taken this view for a long time. Today, the limits of this view are apparent.
Does Europe want to retreat to its own continent? Since its way of life has become such an exception in the world, should it not be protected at all costs by putting up borders as high as possible in order to limit immigration and to ensure industrial and energy sovereignty so as to not be affected by crises? Europe would be hard pressed to unanimously accept this choice. But it is already being promoted by some. Today, the populists no longer want to dismantle Europe. This is a paradoxical victory stemming from Brexit: no one wants to leave the Union anymore. They want to turn it into a fortress, an enclave that no longer worries about what happens outside, all the better to protect what is happening within. However, this kind of isolation requires a security guarantee. This can only be provided by the United States — and this was Donald Trump’s gamble — which will naturally impose its conditions. But an alternative path is possible, and that is the path of a political union capable of ensuring the strength of these values — and therefore of making an effort in terms of defense and security — in order to better carry a message of stability and balance in the world. This direction has long been pushed aside in European debates. Now, it can no longer be postponed.
We know the hesitations and contradictions of our partners: Northern and Eastern Europe have placed their trust in the Atlantic Alliance to the point of blindness. France, for its part, is calling for strategic autonomy within the framework of NATO, but with the aim of building a European defense industry and of creating joint forces in the future. Germany, for its part, would like to combine all of these elements, in other words, to make a greater budgetary effort, to move towards joint production, although it is already buying the equipment it needs from the United States — it will never break with the United States — while making sure that it makes as much progress as possible with the Europeans.
Nevertheless, it is futile to hope that the Europe of 27 can form a union in which security is a major axis. It is therefore not with the Europe of 27, but through a Europe of certain countries in the context of strongly reinforced cooperation, that a defensive Europe will be built. The Ukrainian conflict has made it possible to clarify these different options without singling out one in particular.
Towards a new multilateralism
A new era in international relations is beginning. What will it look like? Globalization, understood as the general opening of markets and an increased intensity in trade, has reached its own limits. Let us remember that in 1975, the share of trade in world GDP was 30%; it has increased to 60%. The health crisis began a decline in this share, a decline that will become more pronounced through the relocation of activities, paired with the enactment of new constraints and rules that will restrict the growth of international trade — to which must be added the effects of sanctions against China and other “offending” countries. There are also value chains being set up to bypass China and Russia through protectionist measures (friend-shoring): the United States has already taken action in this area and the Europeans will have to follow. Additional taxes will be introduced and subsidies to domestic industries will increase. Finally, the generalization of environmental standards will also contribute to reducing the role of world trade in production. We are not in a phase of de-globalization, as some have said, but rather of a decline in world trade.
At the same time, a multi-polarization is taking place along new axes. On the one side, the Sino-Russian pact will be strengthened and will support all authoritarian regimes, whatever they may be. In places where people are executed or hanged, one of the two will always support the government in place — sometimes Russia, sometimes China.
On the other side will be the alliance of democracies, assuming that the United States is willing to make a decision on the solidity of this relationship in light of its own interests — which do not necessarily align with ours — and if Europe has chosen the option described above to ensure its own defense, and that other countries, such as Japan, Korea, Australia and Canada, will be included in the alliances. The increase in defense spending among democracies is proof that alignment is possible. Between these two blocs, other countries will be tempted to play their own part, including by launching peripheral confrontations: new, smaller powers are asserting themselves and playing a role in Africa, like Rwanda, or in Asia, like Indonesia. Not to mention Turkey. Finally, terrorism will not necessarily disappear from the picture, because whenever unresolved conflicts remain, and religious elements can be added, there is bound to be spillover that affects us.
Multilateralism will be the great loser in this new state of affairs. The Security Council is permanently paralyzed by vetoes and every day, UN peacekeeping missions demonstrate their total ineffectiveness and prohibitive cost, both in Mali and in the DRC. The UN Secretary General courageously makes statements that are only heard by those who share his values. While this system is politically stalled, health crises, global warming, or the challenge of digital technology or communications on a global scale paradoxically force cooperation and even decision-making. If our emissions prevent us from breathing, if certain regions of the world are subject to recurring disasters, if Big Tech threatens our security, we are all concerned and therefore called upon to mitigate the causes. This explains why, on major issues such as climate change, international agreements are still possible, so there is, ultimately, a ray of hope. Public opinion and the people have not had their last word. They could emerge at any moment to demand the creation of a common order.
The recent example of China’s zero-covid strategy is enlightening. Public opinion finally manifested itself when least expected; a government can certainly confine a population for a year or two, but there comes a time when, even with brutal authority and almost unlimited means of repression, it comes up against something irrepressible: the need to live. There is a global public opinion. It is this public opinion that will challenge all ambitions.
It is the only bright spot we can see in the dark place that the world has become. The series of crises that we have not managed to overcome should, however, lead us to a new democratic commitment. In short, the lesson of this confrontation that is taking place on a global scale, of this ambition of force to disregard the law, and of this challenge to freedom, which is not a regression but a plan, is that democracies are superior to all other regimes — provided that the citizens concerned are convinced of this so as to better defend them.
François Hollande, The War In Ukraine And The Conditions For World Peace, Jun 2023,
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