What the two-front war in Ukraine means for the world

Is the war in Ukraine entering a new and, perhaps, even more dangerous phase? The answer to this question depends on seeing Ukraine as a two-front war. There is the battle being fought in Ukraine, where the country has admirably held back Russian power, and cut it to size. But it is still not clear what the endgame of this struggle is going to be. It is not very likely that Ukraine will be able to enforce all its territorial claims. Nor is it likely that Russia will want to simply walk away from this war under a narrative of total defeat. How much territory in Ukraine will Russia want to hold on to so that the war does not count as a complete political disaster for Vladimir Putin is an open question. What means it is willing to deploy to devastate Ukraine is also an open question. In many ways, Ukraine has suffered massive devastation already, with more than 10 million people displaced and the country’s infrastructure destroyed. It has found immense reservoirs of national resolve, and support from the West. But whether that will be enough to achieve its objectives is not clear. The risk of Ukraine overplaying its immense success is real. There could be a protracted stalemate, but one that will continue to impose massive humanitarian costs on Ukraine. Putin could escalate, not for purposes of winning but to inflict punishment.

What may be more determining for the war is the second front — the political and economic effects that are being played out in the rest of the world. On this front, it is not clear that is losing as badly Putin as the West might like to think. Putin has driven Sweden and Finland into the arms of NATO and for a moment resuscitated the idea of ​​the West. But from a longer-range perspective, several things on this second front are becoming clear. First, the West has not been able to secure as deep and meaningful a consensus on isolating Russia as it might have hoped. So, the idea that global pressure or sanctions will work on Putin has turned out to be something of a non-starter. It might have worked if China, India and the rest of the world had exerted more pressure on Russia. But operationally, it is the West that found itself more isolated.

Second, the Western resolve has proved to be half-hearted at best. There is something reassuring about publics not wanting to rush to war. But what we have seen play out in countries like Germany is the refusal of the political class to invoke even the slightest whiff of a language of political sacrifice. Big objectives like standing by a proud independent country of 40 million, or pushing back against autocracy (if that is the objective), do not come without forthright talk about some necessary sacrifice. That unwillingness has been striking. Even in the US, most recent polling is showing slipping support for the effort in Ukraine.

Third, the United States was in this bind — for prudential reasons it sought to avoid a direct confrontation with Russia. The risk still exists that if Russia escalates, it could force the US’s hand. But even standing by Ukraine meant telling some grand story or narrative that could rally support for it. But this sweet spot — showing enough resolve to rally domestic support behind Ukraine, sending a signal to the Russians about American resolve but not risking all-out war or a path of no return for Russia — is not an easy one to sustain. It has been sustained up till now, but that window could close very fast indeed.

Fourth, the disruptive effects of the war are now beginning to reverberate throughout the world. The global economy is facing a serious and deeper crisis crisis: Inflation at the highest levels in a generation, unpredictable supply shocks, very little global political coordination, deep intellectual disarray about what ails the major political polarization, and even political polarisation. Inflation was already an issue before the war started. In fact, the war may have provided some political cover for an incipient economic crisis in many economics. Across the world, there were too many complacent assumptions about monetary policy and the economy. After the 2009 financial crisis, G-20 was supposed to adopt something of a role as a steering committee for global capitalism and the stability of the global economy. But the closing in of China, the intensification of America First policies, have meant that the world is without credible mechanisms of global economic coordination. To top it all you have China’s continued insistence on zero-Covid policies, which just increases the probability of supply-related shocks.

Something creative may emerge from this crisis as restructure. But that is in the long run. Under present conditions, the second-order effects of the war in Ukraine have magnified a great deal. In the US, inflation could potentially deepen America’s political woes. It certainly hands Republicans an advantage. A slump in European growth could still produce unexpected political outcomes. If Russia is going down, it is not going down without inflicting serious costs on the rest of the world. If Putin’s endgame has always been to assert Russian relevance by not just playing spoiler, but causing disruption in the rest of the world, he has managed enough — even when he is being humiliated in his own backyard.

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How much of this disruption is the world willing to endure? Will the uncertainties on the second front — global economic disarray, and deepening political uncertainty — actually prompt a rethinking in the West about the endgame in Ukraine? Does the calculation shift from the need to show resolve to an understanding that even the current hard-won gains in Ukraine may be frittered away the longer the war drags on? No Western leader can count on the deep and continued support of their publics. President Joe Biden is just embarking on a tour of Asia. But it has been characteristic of the Biden Administration that it tries to conduct global diplomacy without committing any serious economic resources behind its efforts. So is it the moment, where both West and Ukraine become conscious of how to walk away with major gains, or risk that time and the disruption of the global economy, produce a debilitating stalemate that takes everyone down? The only trouble is, no one knows what is Putin’s endgame: An apocalyptic vision of a world in disarray, or is he amenable to a respectable way out? It is not a comforting thought that any answer to this question is just speculative.

The writer is contributing editor, The Indian Express


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