If Putin backs off Ukraine, who wins and who loses?
A tentative scorecard.
Vladimir Putin may still decide to turn around and invade Ukraine; his modest troop withdrawals might be a feint, and a prelude to a surprise attack. If that’s the case, then this post will end up being fairly useless, except as a thought experiment about what might have been. But let’s assume the withdrawal is real, and that Putin has decided to pull back from the brink of Europe’s biggest war since World War 2. Who wins and who loses? What are the long-term ramifications?
Usually, these scorecards come in the form of a list of winners and losers. But I think this generally represents and oversimplification. Most events are complex, with each participant gaining something and losing something else. So instead of winners and losers, I want to try to think about the gains and losses for each of the interested parties — Ukraine, Putin and Russia, Biden, extremist factions within the U.S., and other countries in Europe and Asia.
Ukraine — and especially Ukrainian nationalists — come out looking pretty good here. In the face of massive Russian intimidation and the near-certain conquest of their country, they remained calm and resolved — calmer, in fact, than most of the other parties involved. The country’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, has remained a bastion of optimism and sanity throughout the episode. The populace of Ukraine didn’t flee or panic, but quietly prepared to defend and if necessary retake their country. In refusing to blink — or to cede an inch of sovereignty in the face of foreign bullying — Ukrainians showed that they’re not a restive province of Moscow’s, to be brought to heel by a show of brute force. They also showed unity, which is a positive sign regarding the nation’s future.
What’s more, though there’s still no chance of it joining NATO anytime soon, Ukraine managed to improve its precarious security situation slightly. It managed to get a hold of some of the weapons it had long sought, like Javelin and Stinger missiles, as well as other forms of military aid. NATO has now put a few troops in Poland and Romania, signaling an increased military presence of the alliance in East Europe going forward. Ukraine also now has some idea of how a Russian invasion might proceed.
And most importantly, Ukraine clearly won the moral battle in Europe. Polls show very few Europeans taking Russia’s side in the conflict, with strong majorities in every country surveyed supporting either diplomatic or military action to halt a Russian invasion. The Russian narrative that Ukraine is illegitimate due to corruption or economic failure failed to take root; the specter of one sovereign state invading another, which is a big taboo everywhere but especially in post-WW2 Europe, overwhelmed any other narratives. Europe is now more likely to pay attention to Ukraine and support it economically and diplomatically.
The big question now is whether Ukraine can translate national unity and international sympathy into economic progress. Ukraine’s failure to grow beyond Soviet levels of income remains the biggest problem for the government’s popular legitimacy, in addition to making it much more difficult to buy the arms needed to defend the country against Russia. There is simply no future for Ukraine as a corrupt agricultural backwater that sells crops and distributes the proceeds to a few well-connected oligarchs. The country must reduce the oligarchs’ political power, improve tax collection, and invest in manufacturing capability — preferably in industries that have some defense applications. It can leverage some of the remnants of the Soviet-era defense industry, such as the rocket manufacturer Yuzhnoye. Foreign investment might be hard to attract with the Russian threat looming, so Ukraine will need to raise its domestic savings rate, which has been trending dangerously downward:
Putin has handed Ukraine a golden opportunity to strengthen their fledgling nation, but exploiting that opportunity will still take a lot of work.
Putin and Russia
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