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The war in Ukraine: Remembering what’s at stake

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 and the ensuing war marked the beginning of new era in international politics. Aptly dubbed as “geopolitical earthquake”, the war has already brought sweeping geopolitical changes, with deepening confrontation between Russia and the West as one of the salient features of the new world (dis)order. We can state with certainty that the post-Cold War period, marked by relative peace and cooperation between the West and Russia is over. The new order, though, is still in the making and its ultimate structure will be vastly determined by the outcome of the ongoing war.

Indeed, the war can shape the world in myriad of ways. Among others, there are three specific issues of particular importance that are currently at stake. Firstly, it is the new security architecture in Europe, that is being carved in Ukraine. The outcome of the war will form the new balance of power as well as the norms for international relations. The potential scenarios as well as the subsequent character of new geopolitical landscape are numerous, with wide array of variables. To simplify, though, without digging into details, we can envisage two broad scenarios: One, in which Moscow emerges victorious, and the other, where it is defeated.

The consequences of the first scenario, can be dire. Putin, with its vision that big powers have right to undermine and subjugate smaller states and with its claim on special zones of influence, will be tempted to further wield the power and try to forcefully change borders of sovereign states as it deems necessary. State of affairs will be especially precarious for countries adjacent to Russia currently having no security umbrella of NATO, including Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine. But, importantly, the danger will not be confined to these countries. Rather, emboldened, it is predictable, that Russia will try to undermine the security of NATO member states as well, especially in the Baltics and other parts of Eastern Europe.  The new world will be a place of severe confrontation, with no prospect of genuine peace for the upcoming decades.

Alternatively, if Moscow is defeated, a more sanguine scenario might unfold, with better prospects for rules-based international system. While being checked militarily and in consequence deterred from further acts of aggression, Russia will presumably have a strong incentive to cooperate, at least for several years to come. Encouraged by the need for removal of sanctions and regaining access to funds from the West, Moscow might change its confrontational stance and try to warm up relations, in a way somewhat reminiscent of 1990s. Furthermore, Russia’s defeat will most likely also imply weakening of its influence in its so called ‘near abroad’ and shift of the balance of power to the advantage of the West. That can bring at least temporary security and stability to Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine (until Russia “comes back” again) and buy the time for strengthening these countries and laying path for their eventual NATO membership.

Apart from the definitive consequences on the security architecture, the war will similarly influence the future prospects of democracy. Indeed, there is a strong correlation between geopolitics and democracy. The possibility of democracy in any given country is determined by multiple factors, such as economic development, political culture, literacy, institutional architecture, inclination of political elite and many more. But, even if all the factors are advantageous, democracies can hardly survive unfavorable international context. That can be especially salient for Georgia, and other countries of the region with fragile democratic institutions, currently situated in the so-called grey zone between Russia and the West. Even though some of them have achieved relative success on their democratization path, they have consistently experienced setbacks and democratic backslidings. Up until now, the democratic form of government is yet not a “one way street”, and if it is to survive, international environment should also be conductive to it.

If Moscow, however, emerges triumphant in the war and preserves its influence and power, free governments will face formidable threat. Russia, a long-establish authoritarianism has numerous effective tools to undermine democracies, and given its long-confirmed interest it is highly likely, it will continue to systematically employ them. Moscow can facilitate authoritarianism either by assisting autocratic leaders, such as in the case of Belarus, by organizing coups, overthrows, or in the extreme case, by intervening and installing puppet regimes. Indeed, that was Russia’s blueprint in Ukraine. But, even without direct engagement, triumphant Russia can bolster authoritarianism, by endorsing and establishing it as a dominant norm, encouraging similar developments not only in the Eastern Partnership countries, but also beyond.

On the other hand, the defeat of Russia will exemplify the defeat of authoritarianism and victory of self-rule and democracy, internationally enhancing democracy’s standing. At the same time, the increase of influence and role of the West in the region, will lead to strong practical support and incentives for further democratization.  That, ultimately, can be a game changer, ensuring that countries under risk do not deviate from their path to democratic consolidation.

Lastly, we should also highlight an important point raised by prominent historian Timothy Snider. In one of his recent analysis, he mentioned that it is not simply authoritarianism that current Russian regime endorses, but also nihilism, hopelessness:

„In the Russian version of what’s happening, we have already given up, nothing is really good, all that really matters is power, anyone who thinks otherwise is a fool, or a dupe and they get what they deserve. So, this war is about competitive hopelessness. It’s about country Russia, which in its official self-presentation has already given up. The only thing which is better about Russia, in this view, is that our hopelessness is better than your hopelessness because it’s ours. And what’s infuriating to Russians who think this way about Ukraine, is precisely hope, the sense that there are some things that are better than other things. Sense that there might be a future that is better than the present.
Russia’s honesty, consists of accepting that there is no truth. Unlike the West, Russia avoids hypocrisy by dismissing all values at the outset. Putin stays in power by way of such strategic relativism: not by making his own country better, but by making other countries look worse.”

The hopelessness is what is a major characteristic of Russia’s regime. Its existing ideology tries to convene the view that political ideals and decent causes humans might believe in, be it democracy or human rights or right of self-governance, rule of law, or many other concepts that emerged with the civilization and human progress are hypocrisies. In this worldview, anyone who believes in them, is immature, while all is fixed by mighty ones. Democracy is a puppet show. What matters is power. And as mature citizens, only viable option is to unconditionally submit to powerful. If Russia is allowed to win the war, that will simultaneously mean victory of this type of gloomy worldview, leaving millions of citizens disillusioned, hopeless and skeptical of human potential.

On the contrary, Ukraine’s victory will herald that doctrine of “might is right” can be surmounted and that concepts such as human rights, freedom, free government, right to self-determination and other achievements of civilized world can truly materialize. Ironically, Ukraine’s success can stimulate change of perceptions and beliefs in Russia itself, bringing hope in humanity, democracy and better future there as well.

As of the time of writing, the brutal war drags on. Russia continues its bloody campaign and spares no effort or force with an aim to eventually bring Ukraine to its knees. Ukrainians, have long demonstrated their resilience and strong resolve, and at a very high cost, continue to defy Russia on the battlefield. But that might not be enough. For Ukraine to have a chance for victory, the Western powers should adequately respond to the challenge, expand its support to Kiev and take substantial steps to prepare for a long war. Otherwise, the world will pay dearly, facing increased security threats, dire times for democracy and hopelessness for generations to come.

About the author:

Sandro Megrelishvili is a EaP Civil Society fellow (2021)

and organisational development manager at GCSD.

It is prohibited to copy, reproduce, or distribute the material for commercial purposes without written permission from the Media and Communication Educational and Research Center "Media Voice". This blog has been produced under the series of "History Keepers" in the frame of the project "Solidarity Journalism for Peace and Security" funded by the European Union, within its Eastern Partnership Civil Society Fellowship Programme.

Its contents are the sole responsibility of the author and do not necessarily reflect

the views of the European Union.


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