Ukraine war: trigger for global change

Ukraine war: trigger for global change

Anne Applebaum, Pulitzer-winning historian, author and Eastern Europe expert, argues that Ukraine has what it takes to win the war in the next few months, striking a blow against autocratic regimes around the world. This is a summary of her recent talk given at Pictet.

The war in Ukraine breaks the illusion that economics can solve everything. This is a war that was begun by a leader who no longer wants his economy to be integrated into the rest of the world and who also doesn’t measure his success by the growth of his national GDP.

There is the question of what is the trigger of change.

I am going to argue that this war might be that trigger. It is a kind of a hinge moment; the world could go in very different directions depending on its outcome. I’d also say that many of the most important events that might determine what that outcome finally is could happen in the next few months. So pay attention.

Why is it hard to make predictions about Ukraine and why have so many people misunderstood the Ukrainian army? I was just in Ukraine last month and I was taken to see a drone workshop in a provincial Ukrainian city where former computer software engineers were [working] ... All of the intellectual capital of the country is now focused on that. 

Try to imagine that everyone from Silicone Valley is now working on behalf of the American army and fighting a war; that’s what’s happening in Ukraine. I was also introduced to people who are working on writing and using some of the most sophisticated military software ever used before in history.

So it’s a very hard army to analyse and it’s also a hard society to explain and understand. It’s organised in a grass roots way, rather than in a hierarchical way. And you can make a lot of mistakes in analysing it, as Putin did, and, actually, as we did. We misunderstood how well they were going to fight the Russians.

Having said that it’s hard to make predictions, I will go ahead and make one.

It is a kind of a hinge moment; the world could go in very different directions depending on its outcome.

I think that the Ukrainians can win. For them, victory means three things. It means they take back most of their territory (including Crimea). They also believe that they need to be then in some kind of security set up after the war. It probably won’t be NATO because that would require parliaments of NATO states to agree and that might not happen, but some kind of coalition. And also [victory] would have to include some kind of element of justice, some recognition of what happened.

They think about the war ending not just as a military victory but as a kind of political victory. That doesn’t necessarily mean regime change [in Russia]; it just means a change of attitude. They need the Russians to recognise that the war was a mistake that was bad for Russia and they need, at least within the Russian elite, a conclusion that Ukraine is now an independent country and you can’t invade it. 

The best comparison in history I have is the French decision to leave Algeria in the early 1960s. It’s a similar kind of decision: “we are not going to fight there anymore, we are not a colonial power in that sense any more and we are going home”. That kind of transformation has to happen inside Russia and Ukrainians think a lot about that.

The counter offensive will take place over the next two or three months. It is my view that a Ukrainian victory would be really quite transformational. It would affect perceptions of the West in the world ... They will win because of better technology, they will win because of better organised politics, they will because of the grassroots democratic organisation of their society. 

And it will be seen as a democracy has defeated an autocracy, and that will begin to affect people abroad. There is no such thing as an autocratic bloc; these are countries with different ideologies and different tactics, but they do cooperate and coordinate in one sphere and that is helping one another repress their own democratic oppositions and push back against democratic ideas. You can see it in Venezuela, Belarus, Hong Kong, and you can see it through the Iranian help for the Russian invasion. It’s one of the reasons why the Chinese decision to talk to Zelensky is so interesting.

The Chinese, I think, are beginning to understand that Russia cannot win the war on Russian terms and are beginning to look for a different role for themselves in this. I would also say that the outcome of the war will affect the US elections. [US President Joe] Biden has been to Kyiv, he has identified himself as a supporter of Zelensky. Certainly, between now and the election, US support will continue.

I suspect it will become an issue in the US elections if it’s not resolved by next year, and the administration knows it. It’s another reason why the next couple of months are so important – because the American administration would like a corner to be turned before 2024 begins.

What would failure look like? If the Ukrainians in the end are pressured to concede a lot of territory, if their counter-offensive that you are going to see in the next few months fails, first of all you would see political problems for Zelensky. There is certain amount of opposition to him in the country, which is muted. You don’t hear it because there is a war on, but it would become open and you could then see a political conflict inside the country. Putin, of course, would be re-empowered. And you would think then Xi shift back again to his side.

You would see a reinforcement of autocracy internationally, of these countries that loosely work together. Ukraine, I think, will continue to exist after the war, I don’t see a scenario right now where Russia occupies the whole country. But you could imagine a very weak Ukraine that continued to be a basket case. Because the security issues aren’t resolved, the refugees don’t go home; it’s not possible to make investments. You could see it being an ongoing problem in that way.

And then finally, of course, Ukraine is understood by the Chinese and the Taiwanese as a kind of metaphor. One of the reasons why the US was so clear about wanting to defend Kyiv was as a way of sending a message to China. It’s my view that China is not interested in having a war in Taiwan, that they are interested rather in finding political and maybe using it to change the politics of Taiwan, but I would anticipate a stepped-up influence campaign. This has been happening anyway for the last nine to ten months.

A negative outcome of the war would encourage the Chinese to go further.

I don’t want to say that the war determines everything, but the outcome of it will affect the perception of the success of autocracy and the success of democracy around the world. The choices that are made in elites even in places very, very far away from Eastern Europe will be shaped by this war. Whose technology is better, whose political system is better – the war will shape a lot of those arguments. 

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