On February 24, 2022, as Russian forces attacked Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital, the doomed and irresponsible path of appeasement pursued by Western diplomacy for eight long years from the start of Russia’s illegal war of aggression against Ukraine in 2014, was exposed to be the abject failure it was always destined to be.
Although Moscow’s 2022 large-scale military offensive forced the West to replace its disastrous policy of appeasement with meaningful support for Ukraine’s defence of its nationhood, we must acknowledge that the present Western strategy suffers from a major shortcoming. It doesn’t capture the stark reality that, while the goal of Moscow’s genocidal war of territorial conquest is the destruction of the Ukrainian nation and people, Russia is also using it as a battering ram to bring down the Western-led international order. Despite this, the West continues to pursue policy objectives which do not adequately address Moscow’s aggressive ambitions.
What is at stake in Ukraine is not just territory – as many in the West prefer to pretend in order to avoid more decisive action – but the historic trajectory for the world democracies.
The Kremlin regime is determined that the tipping point for toppling over the Western dominated world order is within reach. Moscow believes it just needs to push harder, stay on its aggressive course, and its victory in Ukraine will start a domino effect around the world leading to the decline of the West in international relations.
The West must devise its strategy for Russia’s war on Ukraine in a way to prevent the Kremlin’s scenario from unfolding, because Ukraine’s defeat will become Western strategic defeat, and Ukraine’s victory will be a joint victory for the future of world democracies.
Aggressive Russia is a common enemy which demands joint action to remove its threat to Ukraine and the free world.
Russia’s defiance of the West
Russia’s obdurate actions leave no doubt that it is betting its future on defying the West. In its quest for domination, Moscow seeks to shatter the fundamental pillars of Western global power which it regards as obstacles for Russia’s revanche – the hegemony of the U.S. dollar, NATO, and the European Union.
The dictatorial regime in the Kremlin believes that its successful defiance of the Western-dominated international order will put Russia above international law, and will give it power to shape the world as it sees fit.
Russia is using its war of annihilation against Ukraine to demonstrate its blatant disregard for any and all moral, political, or legal limits limitations. Putin is determined to humiliate the West by showing that Moscow will not be subdued by any measures restraining its revanchist global ambitions.
Moscow is convinced that it is leading global opposition to the West, and as such, will be able to rely on substantial support in many parts of the world. Russia is deliberately crippling the current international order with the hope of forging a formidable anti-Western coalition. The Kremlin believes its objective is achievable because of its mutually beneficial strategic alliance with China to sideline the West, as well as the gravitational power of Beijing to bring over other major regional actors. While the West spent almost two decades appeasing Putin, he was forging an anti-Western axis which is getting ready for confrontation.
Inadequate Western response to Russia’s aggression
From the start of Russia’s illegal armed aggression against Ukraine in February 2014, the focus of the international community was on Russian territorial conquest in Ukraine, while the source of the problem – Russia’s perilous threat to world order – was largely avoided.
The Western response to Russia’s large scale offensive of February 2022 relied on the “realist” objective of “not letting Putin win” which implied helping Ukraine preserve its nationhood in whatever territory the Ukrainian government could manage to defend. As the Ukrainian Army pushed the Russians out from newly occupied territory, the Western policy objective shifted to restoring the February 23, 2022 pre-escalation status quo, in which Russia remains in Ukraine, occupying Crimea and a large portion of the Donbas region.
Recently, there was an attempt to break with this dangerous and misguided strategy by the signatories of the Tallinn Pledge, who declared that their aim is to help Ukraine liberate the entire territory. While Estonia, the United Kingdom, Poland, Latvia, Lithuania, Denmark, Czech Republic, Netherlands, and Slovakia meaningfully reformulated the goal, we are yet to see their declarations to be translated into a united and concerted Western policy.
In fact, the latest Western mantra of “We will support Ukraine as long as it takes” is inevitably followed by rhetoric about “helping Ukraine to strengthen its position at the negotiating table to end the war with an acceptable settlement”. This notion of achieving an “acceptable settlement” is fantasy thinking. Russia formally annexed Ukrainian territories – including those it didn’t even manage to occupy – to ensure that any negotiated settlement is a crushing defeat for Ukraine and the West. There should be no mistake – any pressure on Ukraine to negotiate a settlement, including by delaying or refusing military supplies, is a conscious effort to protect Russia from losing on the battlefield in Ukraine.
We must not be afraid to acknowledge that present Western Russia policy is crippled by largely irrational self imposed red lines justified by the objectives of containing the war in Ukraine, and avoiding dragging NATO into a direct military confrontation with Russia, with the risk of nuclear escalation.
The arbitrary nature of this approach is exposed by the American position on Taiwan. U.S. President Joe Biden rightly signals that American forces would defend Taiwan against Chinese invasion. But we would like to ask: how is China less dangerous than Russia that the United States is prepared for a military face off? China is a nuclear state, it is a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, its human and economic resources are vastly more superior than Russian, and the West is by many magnitudes more dependent on China than on Russia. Notably, Taiwan has very limited international political recognition, while Ukraine’s sovereign status and territorial integrity are recognized and supported by the international community.
So, the distinction between the Western approach to Ukraine and Taiwan is not one of degree of potential risks, but rather a matter of political will. However, if the argument is made that Russia is a more dangerous immediate threat to NATO than China, then there should be, in fact, a greater sense of urgency in defeating the evil regime, and the will and determination to do so.
Defending Ukraine is not enough for Russia’s defeat
Repelling Russian aggression on the battlefield and restoring Ukraine’s sovereignty over the whole territory within the internationally recognized borders as of 1991 is certainly the minimal condition for repairing international law broken by Moscow. Restoring Ukraine’s territorial integrity must encompass a complete removal of all Russian forces, irregular troops, as well as Russian occupation administrations from all Ukrainian territory. Anything less than that would be a defeat for Ukraine with far reaching consequences for its future, and a fateful blow to the international order.
However, while full de-occupation will be a historic military achievement for Kyiv, it will likely not result in the full cessation of Moscow’s military aggression, nor will it quell the threat of fascist Russia to the world.
Drawing the line at liberating Ukrainian territories will not secure its future, and instead allow Russia to put its aggressive plans for conquering Ukraine on hold and to regroup to rebuild its potential for a new military offensive, similar to Russia’s second war against the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria.
In fact, Russia’s war of obliteration has already achieved substantial gains in weakening the Ukrainian state through devastating human losses; depopulating whole regions and cities; destroying critical infrastructure, wrecking Ukraine’s economy, healthcare, and education systems; causing colossal material damage to the country, businesses, and people, as well as enormous environmental damage, etc.
Russia, by contrast, will not have suffered any comparable losses, as long as the war is contained to Ukraine’s territory. Moscow will be able to exploit Ukraine’s weakened state for mounting new attacks.
Despite failing to achieve its goal of the total takeover of Ukraine in 2014 and again in 2022, Russia continued pursuing hostile foreign policies, and forming closer ties with countries which share its anti-Western position. Iran, China, and North Korea do not regard Ukraine as their foe. Their partnerships and support for Moscow are not because they share the Kremlin’s goal of destroying Ukraine, but because they have a common goal of creating an anti-Western world order.
In the short term, the increasing militarization and rearmament of the aggressive Russian state are bound to be directed not just against Ukraine, Moldova, Kazakhstan, or other former republics of the USSR, but also several NATO members, which are under direct threat resulting from Kremlin’s proclaimed objectives of “restoring historic Russia” and repelling NATO. The track record of Moscow’s bold actions proves its not just empty rhetoric.
Moscow intends to – and will – strike when ready, not when mythically “provoked” by Ukrainian defence, or by robust Western military support for Ukraine. The biggest escalation risk is not by trying to defeat Russia, but by not fully defeating it.
As long as Russia remains a rogue outlaw state which is captured by a revanchist mafia regime professing the totalitarian ideology of russism, it will continue to pursue aggression as its fundamental policy.
Policy objectives for Russia’s strategic defeat
To achieve an enduring and just peace in Ukraine, and to secure international peace, the West must pursue a concerted and forceful policy of bringing about a decisive victory over Russia, by achieving the following main objectives:
- the cessation of all forms of Russian aggression against Ukraine, foremost military attacks, which may necessitate coercing Russia to demilitarize regions bordering Ukraine and submit to international inspections;
- the annulment of any and all illegal acts of the Russian government violating Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity;
- doing justice by holding responsible all Russian belligerents who committed war crimes and crimes against humanity, as well as putting on trial top Russian leadership for conducting a war of aggression and genocide against Ukraine and Ukrainians;
- imposing obligations on Russia to pay reparations to Ukraine for its illegal aggression and compensations to all victims;
- expelling Russia from the United Nations Security Council to remove its power to subvert the international security order;
- coercing Russia to reform by replacing its criminal regime with a new government that will adopt policies to reverse Moscow’s aggressive course, such as denunciation of its chauvinist, imperialist, totalitarian ideology of “russism”, ending of its hateful and dehumanizing propaganda, termination of all forms of foreign subversion, restoring respect for fundamental human rights and freedoms in Russia, etc.; and, absolutely necessarily,
- Ukraine’s immediate accession to NATO and EU to remove Ukraine’s critical security vulnerability of remaining a “buffer state” between Western and Russian military blocks. Until Ukraine is integrated into the Western club, subjugation of Ukraine will be perceived in Russia as a fair game.
A failure to thwart Russia’s aggressive ambitions with such comprehensive policy will not only exacerbate the ongoing tragedy to the Ukrainian nation, but it will result in disastrous consequences for the West.
Knocking out Russian potential for aggression is the only way to prevent the rise of a powerful anti-Western alliance. If the Western framework of thinking about Russian aggression is limited to Moscow’s territorial gains in Ukraine, as Russia appeasers are trying to convince us, the world will not be able to pursue effective policies for Moscow’s strategic defeat to remove its global threat.
It cannot be overemphasized that coercing Ukraine into making concessions to Russia for some illusion of peace, or even sacrificing Ukraine for “avoiding direct confrontation with Russia” is not going to solve the problem of aggressive, revanchist, totalitarian Russian state. Political actors in the West who poison public opinion with such “peace solutions” are inviting harm to their own people, as an emboldened Russia-led anti western axis will certainly grab the opportunity to exploit Western weakness.
The West cannot expect that Ukraine’s courageous fighting spirit will serve indefinitely as a European shield against Russia’s expansionism and its quest for overturning international order. The West must finally start acting with full resolve to bring about a joint victory over Russia – one for all the forces of democracy and freedom.
The authors have led a years long international public advocacy campaign “Truth for Peace,” calling for recognizing Russia as the aggressor state waging unlawful interstate war against Ukraine since 2014, and designating Russia as a rogue state and a state sponsor of terrorism.