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How Russia's war in Ukraine is taking the world back to the future

A journalist coming out of a decades-long coma on 25 February 2022 would find a world radically changed since the end of the cold war
A Ukrainian soldier stands near a destroyed Russian tank in the northeastern town of Trostyanets on March 29, 2022 (AFP/Fadel Senna)

Our narrative opens on the night of 26 December 1991, the date of the official dissolution of the Soviet Union and the creation of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), including Ukraine. Our imaginary journalist, Jules Dupond, has fallen into a coma that very day. Fast-forward to the day he wakes up, 25 February 2022, day two of the Russian army’s invasion of Ukraine

The fictive scenario throws light on the dramatic changes in international relations that have occurred over the past three decades, a power shift accentuated by the tragedy in Ukraine.

The current conflict is more akin to what Lenin called an 'inter-imperialist war' between rival capitalist powers with no real ideological background.

Dupond’s first surprise? War has broken out in Europe once again. Unlike the amnesia-prone mainstream media, he knows nothing about the wars that devastated the Balkans and former Yugoslavia for nearly a decade. He was unconscious from 1991-2001. 

His second surprise? A good number of pundits are calling the war in Ukraine a new Cold War. Nonsense, Dupond naturally replies, having witnessed first-hand the real thing, i.e., a faceoff between two opposing systems, each possessing a nuclear arsenal capable of destroying the planet, against a backdrop of rival ideologies forcing the rest of the world to “choose sides”.

The current conflict is more akin to what Lenin called an “inter-imperialist war” between rival capitalist powers with no real ideological background.

Dupond is thus inclined to agree with Edwy Plenel’s condemnation of “a new imperialism threatening world peace”. A Russian imperialism that the founder of Mediapart describes as an “imperialism of revenge […] an imperialism dictated by a mission, the conviction that it is defending a conservative and nationalistic vision of the world, [and] a nuclear power at the mercy of one man and his oligarchic clan which has moved from authoritarianism to dictatorship.”

Nostalgia more than ideology is spurring the current conflict. A nostalgia for the empire that Vladimir Putin dates back to ancient Rus. His July 2021 article on the historic unity of Russia speaks volumes: “Russians, Ukrainians and Belarusians are the heirs of the ancient Rus, formerly the largest country in Europe.”

According to Juliette Faure, a specialist in Russian political elites, “the national-patriots share a common goal: the restoration of a strong state bridging the different periods of Russian history by merging the traditional and spiritual values of the tsarist empire with the military and technological power of the Soviet Union.” A goal, in other words, that would affirm the “limited sovereignty” of every socialist state as theorized by Leonid Brezhnev. 

Explaining is not the same as justifying

Marked by the reforms and upheavals from 1989-1991, Dupond is surprised that certain observers deny the responsibility of the former western bloc countries in the radicalisation of Russian nationalism. As everyone knew at the time, Europe’s leaders, including Francois Mitterrand, promised Mikhail Gorbachev that, in exchange for the Soviet Union’s agreeing to the reunification of Germany, Nato would not be expanding eastward.

For good reason. In 1962, at the time of the Cuban missile crisis, Washington refused the installation of intermediate-range ballistic missiles within range of the US. Why, 30 years after the collapse of the Eastern Bloc and the dissolution of the Soviet Union, would Moscow expect anything less?

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Thus, the United States was clearly playing with fire when, in 2008, it let Ukraine entertain hopes of joining the North Atlantic Alliance, knowing full well that Nato bloc countries would be unable to defend it in the event of an attack.

The year before, Putin had voiced concerns at the 2007 Munich Security Conference over that very possibility: “Nato expansion does not have any relation with the modernisation of the Alliance itself or with ensuring security in Europe. On the contrary, it represents a serious provocation that reduces the level of mutual trust. And we have the right to ask: against whom is this expansion intended?”

As the former Democratic socialist US presidential candidate Bernie Sanders remarked on 10 February 2022: “Even if Russia was not ruled by a corrupt authoritarian leader like Vladimir Putin, Russia, like the United States, would still have an interest in the security policies of its neighbours. Does anyone really believe that the United States would not have something to say if, for example, Mexico was to form a military alliance with a US adversary?”

But what goes without saying goes even better when you say it, and whether the former French prime minister Manuel Valls agrees or not, explaining is not the same as justifying. Neither the “forgotten” promises of 1989 nor the United States’ irresponsible half-promise of 2008, blocked by France and Germany, can justify Putin’s reckless undertakings and his even more reckless use of nuclear blackmail.

If not, the humiliation and ruin inflicted on Germany by the Treaty of Versailles could be regarded as the sole justification for Nazism and World War II.

The cycle of hubris

What Dupond literally discovered upon coming out of his coma was the cycle of hubris that had consumed first the United States and then Russia. After winning the Cold War, the “American hyper-power,” according to the term coined by Hubert Vedrine, believed for a while it was the ruler of the world, until 9/11 and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq dispelled the illusion.

Meanwhile, the scaling back of America’s commitments overseas initiated by Barack Obama and continued by his successors spurred the Russian power fantasy. After crushing Chechnya (1994-1996 and 1999-2008), Putin advanced his pawns, one by one, into Georgia (2008), Crimea and the Donbas (2014), and lastly in Syria (from 2015), with little or no reaction on the part of the West. 

Hence the escalation on 24 February 2022 of the Russo-Ukrainian War. But by launching a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Putin had taken things one step too far. The now-discontinued Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta announced the next day: “The decision to ‘demilitarize’ Ukraine is suicide. The war is madness. Russia cannot win.”

Protest in Hong Kong to mark the first month of Russia's invasion of Ukraine, 24 March 2022 (AFP/Isaac Lawrence)
Protest in Hong Kong to mark the first month of Russia's invasion of Ukraine, March 24, 2022 (AFP/Isaac Lawrence)

Again, the Soviet perspective alone cannot explain the Russian invasion, which stands in violation of all UN principles. As the former spokesman and advisor to Gorbachev, Andrei Gratchev, reminds us: “A Khrushchev or a Brezhnev would never have had the latitude to make their dreams a reality.”

The anticipated failure of Russia’s “special military operation” can also be explained by the isolation of an authoritarian leader, misinformed out of fear by his military and civilian entourage.

Columnist Brian Klass, a geopolitics professor and columnist for the Washington Post, has come to the same conclusion. “He fell into the dictator trap. How did he miscalculate so badly?” he asks, resuming the situation as follows: “In the span of a couple of weeks, Putin managed to revitalize NATO, unify a splintered West, turn Ukraine’s little-known president into a global hero, wreck Russia’s economy, and solidify his legacy as a murderous war criminal.”

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A month into the war in Ukraine, the remarks of the Russian General Staff Main Operational Directorate head Sergei Rudskoi already implied the defeat of the 200,000 plus Russian military (not counting Chechen, Syrian, and Wagner group mercenaries): “The main objectives of the first stage of the operation in Ukraine have been accomplished. The combat potential of the Armed Forces of Ukraine has been considerably reduced, which makes it possible [...] to focus the main efforts to achieve the main goal, liberation of Donbas.”

In a quickly censored account in the state-run newspaper, Komsomolskaïa Pravda, the Russian military was reported to have suffered 9,861 deaths, including, the New York Times reports, six generals and the deputy-commander of the Black Sea Fleet. In the same article, an expert on the Russian military was quoted as saying: “It has been decades since the Soviet and Russian armies have seen such great losses in such a short period of time.”

The failed invasion is equally alarming for Russia’s struggling economy. In today’s globalised economy, Russia represents 1.75 percent of the GDP of the entire planet – barely higher than that of Spain – compared to 25 percent, 18 percent, and 17.5 percent respectively for the United States, the European Union, and China. 

The cost of the war compounded by western sanctions threatens to push Russia into a “historic recession” with its GDP predicted to contract 5 to 10 percent this year, annual inflation expected to reach 20 percent, and the ruble, which has already lost a quarter of its value, expected to continue its freefall. 

Putin and the 'Natoisation' of Europe

Another major defeat for Putin: the invasion of Ukraine has led to renewed interest in Nato and the genuine “Natoisation” of Europe. In a matter of weeks, the North Atlantic organisation has gone from being “brain dead” to “reborn,” with such historically neutral states as Austria, Finland, Ireland, and Sweden showing an interest in joining. 

Not to mention the historic decision of Germany to commit 100 billion euros to defence spending. In short, in the absence of an independent European military, Washington has been given a boost on the world stage like never before, relying, moreover, on the awakening of anti-Russian sentiment, especially in countries whose populations once had a taste of Russian tanks.

It is above all the refusal of countries in the southern hemisphere to align themselves with the players of a northern war

But Putin’s biggest failure could be the unprecedented isolation of Russia on the world’s diplomatic scene: Russia’s veto alone prevented the country from being condemned by the Security Council on 25 February; and on 2 March, only four dictatorships (Belarus, North Korea, Eritrea, and Syria) joined Russia in voting against the UN General Assembly’s resolution demanding the immediate end of Russia’s military operations in Ukraine. 

It is true that 47 nations either abstained or did not vote. But in most cases, it is not a sign of silent support for the Russian intervention, which is obviously a misfire. It is above all the refusal of countries in the southern hemisphere to align themselves with the players of a northern war. And for good reason: it is the “world’s poor” who ultimately risk paying the heaviest price.

Middle East balancing act

This reluctance can be seen in the difficult balancing act that nearly all of the countries of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) are facing, within a four-pronged framework of common interests and concerns.

First, there is the gradual withdrawal of the United States in the MENA region since 2008, which has deeply affected its credibility as a major player, whether friend or foe, in contrast to the image of strength and reliability that Russia had acquired in Syria up until now.

The diminished authority of the US was exacerbated by the Biden administration with its chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan, and as a result of its decision to broker a new Iran nuclear agreement

The threat posed by Tehran is heightened by fears over the possible resurgence of defeated but not eradicated Arab revolutionary movements, especially in view of the food and energy crises that the Russian-Ukrainian conflict is already precipitating.

In this exceptional context, populations from the Maghreb to the Mashriq are betting to a greater or lesser degree on the Russian counterweight, weakened nonetheless by the increasingly clear failure of its “special military operation”. 

The support of Moscow is arguably more important to Israel than it is to any other MENA nation. For years, Putin has been letting Israeli air forces bomb Iranian forces in Syria, as well as the oil tankers and weapons convoys destined for Hezbollah.

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Moreover, one in five Israeli Jews is from the former Soviet Union, including a number of oligarchs who are more or less naturalised and whose investments weigh heavily in the country’s economy. Naftali Bennett may have voted to condemn the invasion, but Israel has not applied sanctions, is not delivering arms to Kyiv, and only welcomes Ukrainian refugees if they are Jews.

This shows the limits of Bennett’s role as a self-proclaimed “mediator,” whose (later retracted) words of advice to Volodymyr Zelensky will go down in history: “Surrender!”

As for the supreme leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Ali Khamenei, his relationship with Putin is understandably complicated. Iran and Russia may be allied on certain fronts, and above all in Syria, but the alliance is not without a certain degree of hostility, which accounts for the Kremlin’s complacency towards Israel.

Russia’s threat to sabotage the Iran nuclear deal hasn’t helped matters much, though the Kremlin quickly caved given the mullahs’ trump card vis-à-vis both Moscow and Washington: the ruling clergy’s deepening ties with China, already Iran’s leading trade partner, with whom they have signed a 25-year Iran-China Strategic Cooperation Agreement.

Meanwhile, Teheran is handling Moscow and its allies throughout the region with kid gloves, by openly displaying its support of the country it considers its main partner in the “anti-imperialist” struggle.

Though all the Gulf region nations voted in favour of the UN General Assembly resolution condemning the invasion of Ukraine, none of them has implemented sanctions. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates see Moscow as a key strategic partner, as well, first and foremost in terms of oil. 

US President Joe Biden speaks about security and the conlict in Ukraine during a visit to the Lockheed Martin’s Pike County Operations facility in Troy, Alabama, on May 3, 2022
US President Joe Biden speaks about security and the conflict in Ukraine during a visit to the Lockheed Martin’s Pike County Operations facility in Troy, Alabama, on 3 May 2022 (AFP)

Despite the pressure from the United States, Mohammed bin Salman and Mohamed bin Zayed have no intention of significantly increasing oil production. Furthermore, both are counting on Putin to delay the Iranian nuclear agreement negotiations and to temper the hubris of Tehran and its allies, from Lebanon to Yemen by way of Iraq, once the agreements are concluded. In a sense, the Saudi-UAE partnership with Russia is a foil to the Kremlin’s burgeoning alliance with Israel.

Ankara meanwhile is playing the part of mediator. Turkey has denounced the invasion of Ukraine as “unacceptable” but is avoiding a head-on confrontation with Russia, which provides 40 percent of its gas imports, not to mention its S-400 air defence missiles and the bulk of its tourists.

However, this hasn’t prevented the Nato member state from supplying weapons to Kyiv, including its state-of-the-art combat drones. Turkey has also restricted the passage of Russian warships through the Bosporus and Dardanelles straits, evoking the Montreux Convention.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan is attempting to negotiate the tightrope of the war in Ukraine to assert his role as a major international player

In short, Recep Tayyip Erdogan is attempting to negotiate the tightrope of the war in Ukraine to assert his role as a major international player at the crossroads of Europe, the Middle East, Central Asia, and the Mediterranean.

Apart from Bashar al-Assad’s Syria, Algeria is the only country in the MENA region with a long-standing Russian “habit,” in both ideological and strategic terms: Moscow supplies Algeria with the bulk of its weapons. 

But Algiers has more to worry about than the pressing issues of oil and gas, including the expected reopening of the Maghreb-Europe Gas Pipeline. It has serious concerns over Morocco’s participation in the Abraham Accords, and its so-called normalised relations with Israel, including an Israeli military agreement signed with Rabat.

This, together with American support of the Moroccan “autonomy plan” for Western Sahara, represents a second sizeable gesture in favour of the Alawite kingdom. (It is no doubt also on account of the conflict over the Sahel that Rabat has not condemned Russia’s attack on Ukraine.)

Naturally, none of this is set in stone, and much depends on the outcome of the Russian-Ukrainian standoff, and one of its most significant consequences: the sudden awakening of the man a certain former American president mockingly referred to as “Sleepy Joe” Biden.

But as Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s recent trip to the Middle East and North Africa, and the Negev Summit clearly show, the US is reaffirming its leadership role in the region by promoting an Arab-Israeli alliance and peaceful negotiations with Iran. But averting what UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has called the “hurricane of hunger and a meltdown of the global food system” as a result of this war is perhaps the biggest danger of all.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

This article first appeared on Middle East Eye's French website

Dominique Vidal, journaliste et historien, est membre du bureau de l’Institut de recherche et d’études Méditerranée Moyen-Orient (iReMMO). Il dirige avec Bertrand Badie l’annuel L’État du monde (LLL). Il a aussi écrit de nombreux ouvrages sur le conflit israélo-palestinien, dont dernièrement Antisionisme = antisémitisme ? Réponse à Emmanuel Macron (Libertalia, 2018).
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