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Timothy Ash: The West shouldn't worry about what would happen if Russia is defeated in Ukraine
We should give Ukraine the tools it needs to win this war
Author of the article:
Timothy Ash, Special to National Post
Published Jan 28, 2023 • Last updated 11 hours ago • 8 minute read
Russian President Vladimir Putin PHOTO BY SPUTNIK/ILYA PITALYOV/POOL VIA REUTERS
I have been in various workshops and settings in recent days where people have broached the question of whether we should worry about what a Russian defeat in Ukraine means for Russia.
Generally the line goes that we should worry as: a) we might see Russian President Vladimir Putin’s removal from power and whoever comes next could be much worse — and therein people usually bring up Ramzan Kadyrov and Yevgeny Prigozhin; and b) this war could set off a train of events that could see the collapse/disintegration of Russia, similar to what happened with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Lots of new and unstable states might be created, with a risk of civil war, social and political strife in what is still a nuclear power.
I am somewhat wary as to where the impetus for this question comes from. It may well just be good long-term strategic thinking by some — and sure we should think through the implications therein for our own security. But I fear some of it is being pushed by the usual pro-Russian agents and appeasers. It’s the same crew that have been blaming the war on Ukraine and the West and making excuses for what is actually Russian expansionism, imperialism, war crimes and genocide against Ukraine. And now I think the narrative is being pushed by Russia and its agents so as to encourage the West to stop arming Ukraine, and not to give it the tools to defeat Russia. I think it is testimony to how badly Russia is losing the war that these same agents/appeasers are now actually using the threat of Russian collapse — they seem to have moved on from the prior thrust that Russia would use weapons of mass destruction against Ukraine, and possibly the West, unless we stopped arming Ukraine, and allow Russia a victory in Ukraine. The latter threat seems to have been called out as a bluff, hence the agents/appeasers have moved on to different pro-Russian talking points.
There are few points I would make in response, in addition to the above.
First, if Russia ends up getting defeated in Ukraine, well that is because of Putin and Russia’s decisions. Putin started a chain of events (he invaded) that could end up in Russia’s defeat in Ukraine and thereby risk Russian stability and unity. But as Putin started it, so he can end it. He can still today hold up the white flag, withdraw Russian forces from Ukraine and likely benefit from major sanctions reductions and the prospect of an improvement/rebuilding of relations with the West and his neighbours. There is an off-ramp for Putin, there always has been, and we should not feel an obligation to help him secure some kind of “win” in Ukraine for fear about how poor old Russia will handle defeat. It’s all his fault. Not ours, and certainly not the people of Ukraine. The responsibility rests solely and squarely with Putin. We should not be Putin and Russia’s social worker or psychiatrist.
Second, as to whether the West should respond to the risk/threat of Russian collapse because of its likely defeat in Ukraine by slowing arms deliveries to Ukraine — by pulling punches to prevent Russia’s defeat — this is clearly ridiculous:
- Such action (stopping arming Ukraine, to allow a Russian victory) rewards the aggressors, shows that violence, terror, intimidation and driving a tank, literally, through international law and the territorial integrity of sovereign Ukraine, is somehow OK, and pays off.
- It would surely then be a green light for further Russian expansion elsewhere in Europe (Moldova, the Baltic states), and perhaps even Central Asia (northern Kazakhstan). The broader region would not be safe. It’s notable here that while the global south might have sold itself to Russian oil, dollars and influence, countries around Russia understand the risks and threats, and few, if any, are actually backing Russia in any significant way. Even in the Collective Security Treaty Organization, countries know that if Russia succeeds in Ukraine, they are next.
- Russia is now — because of the actions and decision of Putin, and regardless of whether or not the West continues to arm Ukraine — set on a course of instability, decline and likely disintegration. This war has already had such a devastating impact on Russia, and populations in its regions (Muslim majority regions taking a disproportionate share of the casualty count), that Putin has yet again set off centrifugal forces in Russia — those same forces that were already present and building under the Yeltsin administration and which Putin sought to nip in the bud through his brutal actions in Chechnya soon after taking office.
We, the West, are not responsible for political trends in Russia — Putin and Russians are. Putin’s actions have got him where he is today, where the prospect of his own demise and the collapse of the Russian Federation is actually a real possibility. We should not feel responsibility, or liability, here. And we should not now think that our actions really have any sway in determining how this ends in Russia.
Instead, we should make our decisions on the back of what is right, and best for us, the collective West. And, undeniably, ensuring the defeat of Russia in Ukraine, ensuring Ukraine is able to defend itself against Russian aggression and, by so doing, that Ukraine acts as a critical defensive buffer for Europe against Russian aggression, has to be the right choice, because this outcome is in our best interests. A weaker Russia, through its defeat now in Ukraine, is in our interests. That is just surely fact.
As an aside, I did smile upon hearing a representative of the German military whinge that Germany had to be mindful not to supply too many tanks to Ukraine so as to ensure Germany had enough tanks to defend itself. Well maybe this German military person has not looked at the map recently — Russian tanks would surely first have to drive through Ukraine and Poland to get to Germany. And I would have thought he would rather have those tanks in the hands of motivated and determined Ukrainian troops who know the threat and risk from Russia, rather than his own country’s troops who just might not really understand what is at stake here, or take that all for granted. I trust Europe and NATO’s defence at this point in time more in the hands of Ukrainian troops than NATO troops.
Third, I don’t really buy the line that what comes next after Putin will inevitably be worse, and that we should somehow take actions, or not take them (pulling punches), to keep Putin, the devil we know, in power. On this note, how is it actually possible to get something worse than Putin? He has invaded a sovereign European country (actually several now, in Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova and more recently Azerbaijan), his troops are carrying out war crimes and genocide in Europe, he has cut energy supplies to Europe, used cyberattacks, attacked western utilities networks, interfered in our elections and political systems, threatened to use WMDs against Ukraine and actually used them twice (Alexander Litvinvenko and Salisbury) against a NATO member. Seriously, what can be worse? And I don’t buy the line that Kadyrov or Prizoghin are naturally the successors — I think they would be the first to be taken out by the shadowy elements in the siloviki should Putin meet a painful end. And actually my base case is that the successor to Putin would be a silovick but someone eager to at least stabilize the relationship with the West — attempting some kind of reset to perhaps help stem those centrifugal forces I mentioned above. Meanwhile, there is still a possibility, however small, that all this ends up in positive change in Russia — a coloured revolution in Russia, which sees reform forces emerge and take power.
We simply don’t know the outcomes in Russia, but on balance of probability, what comes after Putin cannot be much worse.
Fourth, and related to three, should we be worried about the collapse of the Russian Federation into a host of new countries? Was the collapse of the U.S.S.R. a bad thing? I don’t think so, and if you ask the 14 other states that emerged from the collapse of the U.S.S.R., I don’t think any of them would say it was a mistake. Or certainly not a majority. There are no movements of any popularity in these other 14 states that now call or campaign for the reconstitution of the U.S.S.R. Same also in the Warsaw Pact space — do the Poles, Bulgarians, Czech or Slovaks hanker for to the good old days when they were dominated by Moscow? Not talking about Viktor Orban in Hungary here — I am not sure with that dude.
Back to 1991, institutions like the International Monetary Fund were terrified of the prospect of 14 new states being created, but it turned out as no bad thing. It was actually positive — unless perhaps you are sitting in Moscow.
Net-net, we could see new countries emerge, such as Tartarstan, Dagestan, yes even Chechnya, and I think the international security order could handle that, as it did in 1991. And this time around we have new global powers and regional powers, including Turkey and China, who could help ensure the outcomes were not necessary disastrous.
So in conclusion, I think those in the West calling for restraint in arming Ukraine with the armaments to win this war because of concern over how defeat would go down in Russia, and what this could all mean for stability in Russia, are either plain wrong or just agents of Russian influence. We should not change our actions from what is in our interest because of worries about hypothetical outcomes in Russia — which in the end have as good a chance of being positive as negative. We should focus on what is in our best interests, and defending Ukraine, and the West, through our support for Ukraine is now absolutely in our best interest. And if Ukraine defeats Russia, as I think it will, and Putin falls from power as one of the consequences of his actions, I think that is a positive for the West.
Timothy Ash is a senior sovereign strategist at RBC-Bluebay Asset Management in London and an associate fellow at Chatham House on its Russia and Eurasia program. He has covered Russia and Ukraine for 35 years, first visiting Moscow in 1987 and Kyiv in 1988. He is a regular writer and blogger on Ukraine, Russia and Europe and has advised various western governments on Ukraine and Russia policy. This article was originally published on his Substack and has been reprinted with permission.