A Double Retreat?

Saturday, April 9, 2022

The news these days, of course, is that Russian forces have been withdrawing from most of Ukraine as part of an effort to establish more defensible positions in the east of the country.  

But alongside this retreat to the East that we've seen this week, there have also been some hints of a retreat to the West.  

Retreat to the East

The retreat to the East is easier to detect. As I wrote about two weeks ago, this is Putin's "Mission Accomplished Moment" whereby he can declare victory and, I think, begin to try to cut his losses somehow. JMB readers, of course, knew long ago that this war would likely go badly for Russia. But what is the conflict going to look like now?

Searching for Plan B
Putin's "Plan B" now consists, I would say, of a few points. The first would be to get the hell away from Kyiv and other parts of Ukraine where Russian forces have been marooned since the earliest days of the invasion. Secondly, the goal is to make Ukrainians suffer as much as possible. Thirdly, do what is possible to destabilize Ukraine for years, even decades

So, the lesson here is: if you can't defeat your enemies, at least you can make life hell for them--and in the meantime send a strong message to other post-Soviet neighbors regarding the wisdom of adopting closer ties to the West.  

Eastern Ukraine before the war 
was not exactly the Crimea
Other than all of the suffering that Russia has inflicted upon Ukrainians, this is what Moscow will be gaining: a slew of post-industrial factory towns that were relatively poor and had high unemployment rates even before Putin's adventure began. And now, Russia gets to control a region that would probably be worth more to Moscow as a part of Ukraine. As I've been saying for years, Luhansk and Donetsk are more strategically valuable to Putin as unstable regions of Ukraine than as unstable regions of Russia.  

Putin has been bungling through this crisis for months. Now, however, he's trying to bungle his way back "home" to an eastern region of Ukraine that he assumes will be easier to control. Perhaps it will be--but my guess is that even Luhansk and Donetsk would have been a lot easier to absorb if Russian forces just grabbed them a couple of months ago. Now that the Russian Army has been exposed as something of a paper tiger, I wouldn't be surprised if even these regions prove a lot more difficult to control than expected. While war is inherently destabilizing, and therefore something that is in all of our interest to end as quickly as possible, the prospect of the Russian Army continuing to bleed out in eastern Ukraine--as opposed to menacing NATO members further to the West--is not necessarily the worst of all scenarios, at least from the perspective of Washington and Brussels.   

Retreat to the West

While most of us are glad that Russian forces appear to be retreating to the East, it's the retreat to the West that has me more concerned. In this case, I'm referring to signs that the isolationist/anti-immigrant wave of politicians in the West--who were initially knocked off balance by the actions of their hero in Moscow--now appear to be re-grouping. This can be seen most clearly in the victory of Viktor Orban's Fidesz Party in Hungary. Fidesz won a little more than 54% of the vote and 83% of seats in parliament. While this is clearly a sign of gerrymandering, it's also worth bearing in mind that this year Orban's party won roughly 5% more of the popular vote than in the previous elections in 2018. France may well experience a similar reckoning with the anti-immigrant/isolationist right in elections this month--the first round of which is to be held tomorrow. 

In the United States, meanwhile, there are also signs that the isolationist crowd might be stronger than we assume. Even early on there were, predictably, some voices blaming the West and NATO expansion for Putin's war of aggression. On the right, meanwhile, DJT caught a lot of flak for his comments about Putin being a "genius," but then appeared to back off, for the most part, in publicly airing his admiration for the Russian leader. So far, both Democratic and Republican voters appear to support measures to defend Ukraine against Russia. 

But I wouldn't be surprised if a market developed in American politics for a more isolationist stance. Last week in the US House of Representatives, 63 members--all from the GOP--voted against a resolution that: 

(1) reaffirms its unequivocal support for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) as an alliance founded on democratic principles;

(2) urges NATO to continue to provide unwavering support to the people of Ukraine as they fight for their sovereignty, territorial integrity, and a democratic future;

(3) calls on the President to use the voice and vote of the United States to adopt a new Strategic Concept for NATO that is clear about its support for shared democratic values and committed to enhancing NATO’s capacity to strengthen democratic institutions within NATO member, partner, and aspirant countries; and

(4) calls on the President to use the voice and vote of the United States to establish a Center for Democratic Resilience within NATO headquarters.

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