By Samir Saul and Michel Seymour,
Published in French on Le Devoir, Jan 11, 2023:
We are publishing a translation into English from the original French of an article that appeared in the leading Quebec intellectual paper Le Devoir. Written by Samir Saul and Michel Seymour, it assesses what has happened in 2022 in the Russian SMO in Ukraine, as opposed to what the collective west hoped, expected, to happen.
Translated from French into English by Arnold August
Lien vers l’article original en français: En Ukraine: vers de nouvelles surprises?
As we approach 2023 and await new developments in the Ukraine conflict, let’s step back and make a tentative assessment. A box of surprises, this confrontation is peppered with surprising characters, unexpected situations and unforeseen behavior.
Following the dismantling of the Eastern bloc, the United States enjoyed an undivided hegemony. But since 2007-2008, the unipolarity it embodies has been challenged by the multipolarity, or polycentrism, advocated by Russia and China.
Their promotion of sovereignty is similar to what other countries want, but given the capabilities of Russia and China, it is far more worrisome for U.S. primacy and U.S. control of the world economy. This is the cause of the conflict between the United States and Russia and China.
Continuing the endless wars in the Middle East, the U.S. is making a “pivot to Asia” to confront China. Under the guise of apostolate for “democracy,” their attention is devoted to this country whose GDP will soon exceed their own.
China is defined as a “systemic rival,” the only one able to put an end to their domination. As for Russia, it is only second in the list of targets and those despised, even though it produces all the weapons they possess and is ahead of them in some cases.
Everything changes in 2020. With Biden in the White House, neoconservatives and liberal imperialists are in the saddle. At home, Russophobia is more intense than Sinophobia. The clashes in the Black Sea will multiply in 2021.
Surprise: Russia is now first in Washington’s sights, although the Pelosi provocation in August 2022 indicates that China is not forgotten. No doubt they plan to dispatch Russia in a flash and focus on China.
Russia raises its head
The U.S. action leads to a Russian reaction. In November 2021, for the first time, Moscow puts its fist on the table with the demand to stop the expansion of NATO and to sign an agreement on a European security structure. The tone is supported by an army massed on the border with Ukraine. Russia was refused.
Desperate to join the Western world, persisting in wanting to get along with “partners” who conspired against it, post-Soviet Russia seemed destined to bend its back indefinitely. So much stoicism became embarrassing, even dangerous, because it emboldened its opposite numbers. From polite discourse to courteous exchange, Russia could plead for the common good and appeal to the rationality of her interlocutors; this brought more pressure on her and reinforced their entrenched belief that Russia was weak. But the advance of NATO and the war in the Donbass eventually produced a sudden reversal.
A new surprise emerges from its intervention in Ukraine. Beginning “in the American style,” with an air assault, it points to a rapid takeover of the country. Then some unusual facts appeared: the organs of the Ukrainian state were not targeted, Western dignitaries were received in Kiev without their visited being disturbed, civilian infrastructures were not affected, contrary to the fate of Baghdad and Belgrade, and finally the expeditionary force of 190,000 men was insufficient to occupy a large country of 44 million inhabitants. On the other hand, a negotiation is strongly sought.
It is clear that a military victory is not the objective of the “special military operation.” Russia is only making a show of force in support of its quest for a diplomatic settlement.
The situation is incongruous. Obviously, the page has not yet been turned on the hope of reasoning with the “partners.” While the West denounces a ruthless blitzkrieg, the critics in Russia are getting impatient: when will they be serious?
In fact, the strategy is inadequate. It relies on the will of the West to avoid a war that could get out of hand, even though they proclaim unambiguously that their goal is to crush Russia, with Ukraine acting as a battering ram in a proxy war. Negotiation is out of the question.
Russia’s turn to be surprised. Its forces are then launched into battle in the Donbass against a Ukrainian army modernized by NATO, superior in numbers and entrenched in solid fortifications built since 2014 with the help of NATO.
From April, a real war unfolds, and its pace is unexpected: classic artillery duels evocative of the pre-high-tech era. Reversing the doctrine, the Russian offensive is carried out in numerical inferiority. One fifth of Ukraine was taken, but the problem of under manning remained.
The breach of a bald front near Kharkov in September led to the mobilization of 300,000 reservists. The operation that was expected in early 2022 will probably be carried out in 2023. The resolution will be military; diplomacy will await the verdict of arms, an approach to which the Ukrainian side also subscribes, but for opposite reasons.
The debacle that didn’t happen
The speed of Russia’s defeat was to be the result of the country’s collapse under the devastating effect of the seizure of its foreign currency assets and “nuclear” intensity of sanctions “packages.” Western leaders are making predictions about the short time before the collapse of the Russian economy, while speculations about social unrest, the collapse of the regime and the disintegration of the state are on the rise. The banishment of Russian culture would erase even the memory of this outcast.
Great is the surprise to see Russia getting away with so little, as it has been preparing since the sanctions were imposed in 2014. Worse, Putin’s approval rating is insolently over 80%, far ahead of his Western counterparts. Not for the first time, the apprentice-conquerors misunderstand Russian patriotism.
In Russia, the invasions and misfortunes of the “opening” of the 1990s do not make one nostalgic. The unexpected failure of the avalanche of sanctions foreshadows the obsolescence of this overused weapon. A related surprise is that Russia is not short of shells and missiles, its initial restraint having been misunderstood by Western “analysts.”
The final surprise is that it should not be surprising if the military outcome in Ukraine, whatever it may be, does not lead to a settlement. Recent conflicts have remained unresolved, even after one side has won, as in Syria.
The U.S.-Russia confrontation is general; it goes beyond Ukraine. Since Russia has not collapsed as expected and the United States cannot take a setback, the NATO-Russia face-off will be prolonged.
An increase in Russian forces to 1.5 million soldiers has just been decided to counter this. In the meantime, the prioritization of the European “theater” will tend to postpone hostilities in the Asian “theater,” a short-lived positive consequence of a colossal mess.
Samir Saul and Michel Seymour are professor of history and retired professor from the University of Montreal, respectively
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