28th Feb 2024


Russia, the West, and the geopolitical 'touch-move rule'

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In chess, if you touch a piece with the intent to move it, you are obliged to move that piece if legally possible. It is called a "touch-move rule". After touching the piece, you cannot change your mind — for example, while holding the piece above a square — even if you understand that it was a mistake to touch it in the first place: you must move the piece.

A month after the beginning of the Russian full-blown invasion of Ukraine, Western leaders said that Putin's decision to invade Ukraine was "a strategic mistake". This argument holds true if we are talking about the Western strategic awareness of the Russian threat to freedom and democracy regionally and globally — awareness that Putin helped foster among Western nations.

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  • (Photo: Anton Shekhovtsov)

But this argument tells us nothing about the fate of Ukraine.

Guided by the psycho-political version of the touch move rule, the Putin regime feels it is obliged to continue its genocidal aggression against the Ukrainian nation. Even if the full-blown invasion was "a strategic mistake", the consequence of that move does not preclude the violent capture of Ukraine.

Western leaders say that, for its invasion of Ukraine, Russia "will pay a heavy price, both economically and politically, for years to come". This assumption is based on a rationalism that is alien to the Kremlin. No economic or political price is too high for the destruction of Ukraine that Putin has made his historical mission.

Putin's compliance with the touch-move rule is based on the understanding that the very validity of his imagined "Russian civilisation", which includes Ukraine as a subjugated Russian region, now depends on the outcome of the Russian-Ukrainian war. And given this, no amount of pain and blood of Russian soldiers and officers — let alone of Ukrainian civilians — will force him to reconsider his assumed historical role of the devourer of the Ukrainian nation.

But should not the West comply with the touch-move rule too? Through the process of association of Ukraine with Western political and economic structures, Western nations have clearly expressed their willingness to see Ukraine among them and thrive as part of the global community of democracies. And because of that willingness, the overwhelming majority of Western nations have been assisting Ukraine in surviving the existential fight of its people against the Russian aggression.

Abandoning Ukraine now — and not doing enough to ensure restoration of Ukraine's sovereignty and its integration into Western alliances amounts to abandonment — will be a violation of the touch-move rule.

In the Russian-Ukrainian war, it is not only the validity of Putin's 'Russian civilisation' that is at stake — it is also the validity of the entire Western liberal-democratic project. The reputation of the West as the driving force of democracy and freedom is now linked to its ability to help Ukraine decisively win its defensive war.

Ukraine's defeat will necessarily mean not only the triumph of Russian rightwing authoritarianism but also the defeat of Western democracy.

In Europe, it will be followed by the rise to power of combinations of the Kremlin's allies: illiberal anti-establishment forces backed by opportunism, greed and complicity of a various big businesses. The EU will go down with a whimper.

Rasmussen plan

By launching the full-fledged invasion of Ukraine, by violating a range of Russian international and bilateral agreements, by irrevocably linking the success of the war to the foundations of the Russian 'civilisational' project, the Putin regime have entered an uncharted territory and had the opportunity to set that territory as a field of confrontation.

This means that to challenge Russia on its ongoing aggression against Ukraine and to secure the integrity of its own political, ideological and economic project, the West can no longer remain within the boundaries of conventional thinking and needs to enter the uncharted territory too.

In practical terms, this demands devising daring and audaciously unorthodox solutions, teetering on the edge of brazenness, to confront the Russian threat in a ground-breaking and inventive manner.

One of those solutions was recently voiced by former Nato secretary general Anders Fogh Rasmussen.

He suggested admitting Ukraine to Nato now with a limited application of Article 5 (collective defence): "the absolute credibility of Article 5" will deter Russia from mounting attacks inside the Ukrainian territory under Kyiv's military control but Nato will not fight to liberate the territories currently occupied by Russia.

At the same time, Nato will not deter Ukraine from fighting autonomously for the occupied territories, and Ukrainian forces would receive a strong boost in that direction as they would not be needed to defend the territories already under Kyiv's control.

Rasmussen's plan is both intrepid and audacious, and it is precisely what is needed in today's critical showdown between global democracy and global autocracy. Only such valiant and innovative strategies can tip the balance in favour of the triumph of freedom and democracy. Anything less will simply not work.


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


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