Thursday

20th Jan 2022

Opinion

Even without war, Russia has defeated Europe already

  • Vladimir Putin (second left) with senior military officers on Moscow's Red Square. 'Washington just cannot afford a war with Russia now that China has become so powerful' (Photo: Romania Libera)
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Whether or not Vladimir Putin moves his troops into Ukraine, he has once again confronted Europe with a most painful reality: while being too weak to defend itself, it can no longer rely on the United States to come to its rescue.

We are facing a reality in which Russia, despite its economy only having the size of Italy's, can bully and intimidate a continent thanks to its energy reserves and its readiness to project vast military power.

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Sure, any Russian invasion of Ukraine would cost Russia a fortune and likely degrade into a grinding war of attrition. Invasion is unlikely to be president Putin's preferred option. Yet, this game of brinkmanship has another part of the equation. If Russia invades Ukraine, the costs for Europe will be equally devastating.

It will force gas-addicted European countries to find expensive alternatives and to severe billions in infrastructure, from pipelines, over pumping stations, to dedicated storages.

Russia also remains a key export destination and a supplier of other resources than oil and gas. Think of titanium. While the Kremlin has long prepared a gradual decoupling from Europe, the opposite remains unthinkable for most Europeans.

While a sizeable part of the Russian population would support an intervention in the eastern part of Ukraine, citizens in many European countries will find it hard to accept soldiers to die for what they consider a strange, peripheral country: Ukraine.

Countless times, I have heard very senior European business leaders sympathise with the leadership of Putin, to the point that one got the impression that they were more attracted to Russian strong leadership than Western liberalism.

Cannon fodder

Let's also be fair. If, at this stage, European countries would have to stand up to a large Russian land invasion, many soldiers would end up as cannon fodder.

Western European land forces have decayed into a bulky peace corps, their wheeled armoured vehicles hardly suitable for combat in the muddy battlefields in eastern Europe, their fire power no match for Russia's, and their command and communication infrastructure highly-vulnerable to Russia's immense electronic war-fighting capabilities.

Chasing poorly-equipped terrorists is one thing; facing a formidable conventional army, ready for sacrifice yet another.

Many European land forces struggle with a predator complex from the 'Global War on Terror'. They are used to being superior, at least in terms of technology and fire-power, and have huge difficulties imagining that the hunter of the last decade might become the hunted in a large-scale conflict.

The whole strategic mindset in that regard has become skewed towards defense; tactics towards limited surgical offense, often even from a distance.

Stand-off, it is called. Land powers like Russia have also trained in precision and long-range strikes, yet always combined with blunt power: wearing volleys of missiles and artillery and big division-size units moving in.

Sacrifice and attrition

If everything in Europe is about efficiency; armed forces like Russia still factor in sacrifice, redundancy, and attrition. Clean wars do not exist in the Russian strategic lexicon.

Europe has a lack of everything. Even if it tries to steer clear of frontline involvement, supporting from behind will not be much in evidence either. Many countries lack stand-off missiles or their ammunition stockpiles are dangerously low. Advanced fighter jets, capable of penetrating Russia's air defence, are still rare. Special forces that would, a crucial asset, are stuck in Africa and struggle to enlist enough quality recruits.

The US is slowly restocking their arsenals, with new long-range precise ammunitions, but will prefer to send them to the Pacific. It preserves a sizeable conventional deterrence in Europe, including 70,000 troops, hundreds of prepositioned armoured vehicles and dozens of fighter jets.

Yet, this is not sufficient to counter a Russian invasion in a country like Ukraine - and Washington just cannot afford a war with Russia now that China has become so powerful.

We can endlessly reflect on what drives Russia in amassing its vast military presence on Ukraine's border, on how we came to this point, the misgivings and frustrations on both sides.

What is clear, however, is that we enter a new tournament of great power politics and that Europe arrives at the start not as a strong, unified team, but as throng of plump puerile pygmies.

Author bio

Jonathan Holslag teaches international politics at the Free University Brussels and guest lectures at the Nato Defense College. His latest book is World Politics since 1989 (Polity, September 2021).

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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