- James Landal
- Diplomatic Affairs Correspondent
Russia’s war on Ukraine has unified the West, and the conflict has highlighted the values it espouses, but how long can this unified stance last when the conflict enters the next stage? Here are five issues that could eventually lead to divisions within the Western alliance.
Before the war, Western democracies at times seemed uncertain about their future goals, some questioned their alliances, while others succumbed to nationalist sentiments. However, the conflict reminded the West of the values it represents, which are freedom, independence of the state, and the rule of law. This, in turn, led to a united position on Russian aggression against Ukraine.
But despite all the diplomatic efforts of UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres and other leaders, this war could go on for some time. Is it possible that what we are witnessing today is the peak stage for the Western alliance? There are difficult choices ahead that may make it difficult for Western powers to pursue the same diplomatic path.
The objectives of the war against Russia are perhaps the most important source of tensions. Currently, the West is uniting behind the slogan of defending Ukraine, providing economic and military support to help the country resist.
But what is the long-term goal? Cessation of hostilities, of course. But should Russia be defeated? Should Ukraine win? What would defeat and victory look like in practice?
“We simply have to do everything we can, collectively, to ensure Vladimir Putin’s failure, his total failure,” British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said at a meeting of Parliament last week.
But what does the word “failure” mean? That’s what Johnson didn’t say. The only thing he refused was the pressure for regime change in Moscow. “It is very important … not to make it an objective to remove the Russian leader or change policy in Russia. It is about protecting the people of Ukraine. Putin will try to make it look like a conflict between himself and the West, but we cannot accept that,” he emphasized.
However, this is increasingly what the United States is doing. US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin indicated that defeating Russian forces would not be enough. “We want to see Russia so weakened that it cannot do what it did when it invaded Ukraine,” he said.
This could mean imposing sanctions targeting the Russian defense sector, or equipping Ukraine with sufficient means to destroy a significant portion of Russia’s military forces. Either way, these ambitions may not be shared by all Western allies, as some may fear that Putin will use this rhetoric to claim that the West is indeed an existential threat to Russia.
Military support for Ukraine
The West is largely united in supporting Ukraine militarily. But it’s different about the details. Some countries are reluctant to supply heavy weapons to Ukraine, fearing that this will prolong the bloodshed. While other countries are increasing their shipments to Ukraine of ammunition and more lethal weapons.
In Britain, for example, British parliamentarian Tobias Ellwood, chair of the Defense Committee, wants Britain to do more. “We are doing everything possible to prevent Ukraine from losing, but there is not enough to guarantee that it will win,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
“We need to help Ukraine win outright rather than just defending the existing lines,” he adds.
Here it can simply be seen how Elwood links the discussion here of means to the discussion of ends.
Conversely, others in the West may fear that turning the defense of Ukraine into a full-fledged proxy war could prompt Putin to escalate the conflict, either by attacking other Western targets, launching cyberattacks, or even using weapons of mass destruction.
It is not in vain that Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov warned of the “serious and real” danger of nuclear war.
Supporting a political settlement
At some point, a military stalemate may arise, and pressure may build for a political settlement. The assumption is that the West will support Ukraine in whatever choice it makes. But what if this is not the case?
What if some Western countries put pressure on Ukraine to reach a peace agreement, but the leadership in Kyiv wants to keep fighting? Can some countries begin to reduce their military support to Ukraine? Or alternatively, what if Ukraine agreed to a political settlement that the West opposes, and is believed to be a reward for Russia? Could some countries refuse to lift sanctions on Russia, and perhaps block a supposed peace agreement?
There is a lively debate going on among Western policymakers about what kind of political settlement can be agreed upon in Ukraine. Will the priority be to regain control of the territory captured by Russia — or to ensure the future security, safety and viability of what remains of Ukraine after the fighting has stopped?
A senior Western official expressed this tension, saying, “Putin cannot be seen as having succeeded in modifying Ukraine’s sovereign borders by force,” before adding, “Our long-term plan for Ukraine is for it to succeed as an independent and sovereign state.” These two goals are not necessarily the same.
In practical terms, this means that there will be difficult choices when it comes to agreeing on a political settlement. Should the West, for example, pressure Russian forces to withdraw fully to the pre-February 2022 borders or leave only some of the areas they occupied?
For Ben Wallace, the UK’s defense minister, neither option will suffice. “For my part, what I want Putin to not only not go beyond the pre-February limits,” he told parliament. “He illegally invaded Crimea, illegally invaded Donetsk region, and he has to comply with international law and eventually leave Ukraine,” he added.
It is a view that may not be shared by others in the West.
Fuel sanctions against Russia
Western powers may differ on sanctions against Russia. For now, she agreed to disagree about how difficult it would be to punish Russia, particularly over whether more sanctions should be imposed on Russia’s oil and gas exports.
Countries that depend on Russian energy say their economies cannot survive without it. But if the fighting continues for some time, there may be counter pressures. Some countries may want to increase sanctions on Moscow to try to end the stalemate, while others may want to reduce energy sanctions because their people have become less tolerant of the rising economic cost.
It is also possible that the West will disagree about Ukraine’s long-term future. What will happen if there are divisions within Ukraine? And what if different factions emerge, such as the nationalists who want to continue the fight, who favor compromise and want an agreement? Will the West then have to take sides?
And how bitter can divisions be within Ukraine? Some analysts have even speculated about the possibility of civil war, drawing comparisons to the divisions within Ireland in 1922.
Or what if Ukraine started making policy choices that the West might oppose?
Fiona Hill, a Russia expert and former official on the US National Security Council, has suggested that Ukraine may even go so far as to pursue a nuclear weapon to ensure its future security.
At a symposium held at the “Changing Europe” think tank, she said, “The longer Putin continues to threaten nuclear weapons…the more pressure will be on countries like Ukraine to believe that the only real way to defend themselves is to quickly acquire a nuclear weapon.”
In such a case, would the West be willing to supply Ukraine with conventional weapons? Or even consider the possibility of accepting its membership in the European Union?
The point here is that political positions in a conflict are rarely static, and thus it may be a mistake to assume that Western unity will automatically persist through the challenges ahead.