Friday, October 21, 2022

Point of Order: War means change

More than most things, you don’t control war. It controls you.

Something about having to commit your life and treasure to a cause, concentrates the mind. Particularly when the cause is run by other people. Established relationships and certainties go to one side, until the immediate problems of survival on reasonable terms are solved.

We’re reminded of this by the latest Russian announcements (carefully curated and dissected by the admirable Institute for the Study of War) preparing for the possibility of the abandonment of Kherson in south-western Ukraine, retreat behind the Dnieper river (sorry folks, wars can’t defeat geography) and the destruction of the river’s dams to obstruct the Ukrainian army’s advance.

That would amount to a shattering strategic defeat for the forces of Vladimir Putin as currently constituted, and suggest that – while defeat is not certain – victory appears beyond them.

But war is a branch of politics. So what is happening on the wider front?

Something of a paradox here. As our friends at ISW also explain, the current Russian government is steadily taking more control (as one is forced to do in war) as it moves towards a greater commitment of Russians’ lives and livelihoods to the conflict. In the short term, that may strengthen the government.

Particularly if you think that most Russians have a strong desire to see Ukrainians humbled (and preferably Americans, Germans, Chinese, lots of other non-Russians, and a few other Russians, for that matter).

But there is probably less willingness – perhaps a great deal less – to participate in defeat.

So if he can’t win, you might think Putin’s best bet is a ceasefire. Then he could take back control and focus on problems behind the front line.

There are worse outcomes to be sure. But if you still yearn for the irrational view that war really ought to lead to a better world, you might hope for something better.

Perhaps a restoration of Russian democracy under the impact of military defeat. The immediacy of its recent failures might make for more success this time round.

Fear of retribution terrifying the security apparatus into playing by the rules. Enforced by a conscript military furious at where they have been led by their failed rulers.

Stranger things have happened. Re-read that chap Fukuyama and his theory on the end of history for encouragement.

The extremes of successful diplomacy could even lead to Russia’s becoming something more of a strategic ally against China.

That would be very successful diplomacy indeed. To take it out of the realm of wishful thinking would probably need some Russian victories. Non-military of course.

Over their rulers would be a mutually acceptable start.

But just go back to the reasons for all that Russian resentment against the outside world. And ask yourself if it is really essential to a better outcome to override the views of the ethnic Russian majority in Crimea (or, for that matter, stateless Russians in Latvia).

Perhaps it does. After all, unpicking the compromises of the former Yugoslavia shows that justice is not always the main driver of outcomes.

But this is looking far ahead. To reiterate, war is rarely directed to an outcome; even the aftermath is not necessarily controllable. But the US, as supplier of key weaponry to the winning side, will be in an extraordinarily influential position to put pressure on both sides.

Which would make the peace theirs to lose.

Point of Order is a blog focused on politics and the economy run by veteran newspaper reporters Bob Edlin and Ian Templeton

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