While the West dithers, Russia steams ahead

Dr Oliver Hartwich
12 December, 2023

As 2023 draws to an end, it is time for a stocktake on the most significant geopolitical issue of the past couple of years: Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.


At first, this unprovoked attack seemed to trigger a revival of Western unity and determination. There was a noticeable optimism that the West might regain its lost strength. I wrote about it then (The West is back, 22 March 2021).

During the early stages of the war, the West’s response was remarkable. NATO appeared rejuvenated, and there was an unprecedented level of collective action. The sanctions imposed on Russia were quick and harsh, military support for Ukraine increased significantly, and Western nations showed a rare unity of purpose.

This moment evoked memories of a more unified past and hinted at a potential return to an era when Western democracies united solidly against shared threats.

However, as the war continued, the initial enthusiasm diminished considerably. It exposed profound, systemic weaknesses in the Western alliance. This decline is due to various reasons in global politics and internal issues within Western societies.

Populism and polarisation have weakened the traditional foundations of Western agreement. Within Western societies, the growth of identity politics has caused fragmentation, shifting focus from foreign policy needs to domestic social concerns.

In addition, the temptation of isolationism, particularly in the US under the ‘America First’ slogan, has become a worrying trend. Right-wing fringe politicians with links to the Kremlin often promoted such views (see The far-right European pawns in Putin’s game, 3 April 2023).

This inward focus is not exclusive to the US. Just watch Hungary’s Prime Minister Victor Orbán who has used every opportunity over the past couple of years to undermine Western resolve to stand up to Putin’s aggression (for example, see Who needs enemies when you have friends like Orbán and Erdoğan?, 8 August 2022).

It is telling that over the coming days, Orbán will be in Washington to convince US Republicans to freeze support for Ukraine indefinitely.

A mixture of domestic disunity, right-wing populism and growing isolationism would be bad at the best of times. But these times are tough geopolitically because they throw up a new fundamental challenge every few months.

Issues such as the war in Gaza, the unpredictable policies of Erdoğan’s Turkey, and the growing threat of a nuclear Iran are taxing Western diplomatic and military resources. Each of these crises, although unique, vies for the limited attention of Western policymakers.

China’s strategic positioning following the Ukraine conflict adds even more complexity. Beijing’s indirect support for Moscow and its aspirations regarding Taiwan present another nightmarish challenge.

The multitude of simultaneous crises results in a fragmented approach to Western foreign policy. It also means it remains on the back foot, always responding to the latest event rather than mapping out a more proactive path forward.

The war in Ukraine, while initially a rallying point for Western unity, has laid bare these limitations and internal contradictions in the current Western alliance. The initial hope for a reinvigorated, united front has given way to a reality of fragmented interests, inward-looking policies, and an overarching sense of weariness.

Putin has taken advantage of these divisions, recognising that a divided West will always struggle to provide a unified response to anything.

Remarkably, despite Western condemnation, Russia has been able to strengthen old alliances and forge new ones in this situation. For example, the shift of Gazprom’s gas exports to China helped stabilise the Russian economy and reinforced its relationship with a country that also opposes the Western-led international order.

Additionally, last week, Putin was able to attend a summit in the United Arab Emirates, where he received a military honour welcome. On top of that, Russia has worked hard to build an alliance with countries from the global south, most notably South Africa and Brazil.

While the West is dithering, Russia is steaming ahead. A Ukrainian defeat is, therefore, no longer unthinkable, but its consequences would be serious.

Winning this war might encourage Putin to expand his ambitions beyond Ukraine, as indicated by his recent statements targeting the Baltic states. If the West cannot provide anything beyond symbolic opposition in this situation, it would severely damage the credibility and security of the entire Western alliance.

Looking ahead to 2024 and the forthcoming US Presidential election, the geopolitical uncertainty intensifies. American support for Ukraine has weakened already when the campaign has barely begun. A potential Trump victory would finally signify the end of American protection for Western Europe and encourage Putin to shift its sphere of influence further westwards.

So, the urgent question facing liberal democracies is this: Is the West capable of overcoming its current malaise to meet these challenges, or will it be history soon?

The answer depends on two factors: military strength and moral clarity.

On the questions of military strength, it is evident how the West is struggling to even supply Ukraine with the amounts of ammunition Kyiv requires. Some reports suggest that North Korea is sending Russia more ammunition than the entire EU provides to Ukraine. If Ukraine is a test run for the West’s military capacity, it does not bode well for future conflicts.

But the West also needs to renew its commitment to democratic values and human rights. Autocratic regimes in Russia and China see the West’s internal confusion and moral uncertainty as chances to push their goals against little resistance. To counter this, the West needs a united approach, not only military but also based on shared ideals. Again, if Ukraine is a test case for that, the West is toast.

As 2024 approaches, the West is in one of its toughest times since the Cold War. A Russian victory in Ukraine or, by its proxy, Donald Trump in the US election would topple whatever is left of the old international order.

Not the best prospects for a happy new year in geopolitics.

To read the article on the Newsroom website, click here.

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