POSTMODERN WARS
AND THEIR LESSONS

In August 2008, Vladimir Putin provoked a war with Georgia by giving its president, Mikhail Saakashvili, the poisoned choice of either losing two ‘breakaway’ regions of his country to pro-Russian separatists and Russian ‘peacekeepers’ illegally present there or of risking an attempt to recover them by military action. Saakashvili chose the second course—which was also a Russian trap—and was defeated. Russian troops advanced to within twenty-five kilometres of the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, where they halted and have remained.

At that time I was the executive editor of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) in Prague which broadcast to twenty-two countries in twenty-eight languages. Our Georgian service was an especially influential one, with firstclass journalists in both Prague and Tbilisi. I took the crisis as a chance to visit the Tbilisi bureau, and after a few days of meeting local politicians, diplomats, economists, and journalists, I set down my thoughts in a commentary for RFE/ RL’s English language service.

My first thoughts and my conclusion were that the Russo-Georgian War was a very postmodern experience:

Neither NATO nor the EU covered itself with glory in this crisis. But the EU actively appeased Russia, while NATO at least resisted feebly. NATO can exert real pressure on Russia, in part because it disposes of real military power, in part because it includes states, notably Poland, that have a real stake in Russia not winning outright in Georgia. Moreover, Poland and its ‘New Europe’ allies have an additional motive for their defence of Georgia. They are still conscious of the value of their own democratic sovereignty—hence respectful of other sovereign democracies. More elderly democracies in Western Europe seem to have forgotten the pleasures of self-government.

This postmodern war still continues. Yet it has already proven a great deal: the limits of military power in Russia’s case, the limits of soft power in Europe’s case, and the emptiness of global legalism without roots in real nations, real interests, and real democratic accountability.

That is how my RFE/RL commentary ended in August 2008 (though variations on its argument later appeared in The London Daily Telegraph, The Washington Times, and other media). And, alas, the first thing to be said in response to it is that it underestimated the shrewdness of Putin’s calculation that the West would accept his victory in Georgia and return to business-as-usual after a brief diplomatic resistance.

While Putin saw that military power had limits in the Georgia crisis, he also realized it could be a decisive part of an overall military-cum-diplomatic strategy that exploited the self-deceiving desire of his opponents for a quiet life. He could strike, halt, and propose negotiations—or even just wait for the West to do the last.

Not only did he learn that lesson in 2008, but he applied it six years later in 2014 when he assisted two eastern, Russian-speaking regions to break away from Ukraine and annexed Crimea in a series of ‘salami tactics’ that never provoked the West openly enough to make it oppose him. Quite the reverse. Between 2014 and 2022 most NATO countries, above all Germany, continued two policies— starving their own militaries of money and increasing their dependence on Russian energy—which made it almost impossible for them to envisage resisting any future Russian aggression. And when President Trump asked them explicitly to change these policies, he was dismissed as a dangerous clown by most Western governments and commentators—less so, however, in Central and Eastern Europe even when those countries were themselves spending too little on defence.

All in all, if Putin had continued along this cautious zigzag path, he might well have got the Ukrainian neutrality and the weakened NATO he wanted without arousing the West to serious resistance. But he forgot the limits of military power, became too confident of his own strategic genius, and staked all on a blitzkrieg to seize Kyiv and occupy Ukraine. At that point everything seemed to change. All the NATO countries united around a common policy that Putin’s aggressive war must be resisted and Ukraine helped, both directly through supplies of advanced weaponry, and indirectly through economic and energy sanctions.

The three-way world struggle between authoritarians, national democrats, and global legalists that I described in 2008 still very much existed. But China, though it had proclaimed itself to be Putin’s authoritarian ally, seemed to be sitting this one out as an interested spectator as Putin’s adventurism ran into serious resistance. So did many countries outside Europe once they had formally condemned Russian aggression at the United Nations. It is an exaggeration to argue that only ‘the West’ is critical of Russia’s aggression, but it is also the case that the rest of the world is not prepared to do anything about it. And even though the NATO-minded national democrats and the EU-minded global legalists within Europe were singing the same pro-Ukrainian song, they nonetheless sorted themselves into slightly different formations from those of 2008.

The national democrats had gained recruits—with earlier members like the US, Poland, most of Central and Eastern Europe, and the Baltics being joined by Spain, and the Netherlands, while formerly ‘neutral’ powers like Finland and Sweden were frightened into applying for NATO membership by the threatening example of Putin’s brutal invasion. They are a more powerful faction than before. And this time the Brits (liberated by Brexit to make their own foreign policy) are clearly among them, playing an energetic leadership role alongside the US in drumming up serious military and diplomatic support for Ukraine. That leaves Germany, France, Italy, Austria, and Hungary (an uncomfortable recruit to the EU-minded global legalist camp, with which it differs on other important EU issues) offering different degrees of reluctance to embrace a strong anti-Russian policy. As in 2008 under Sarkozy, France under Macron sought to negotiate Putin out of a jam but he has so far failed miserably. Putin ploughs on. Germany has repeatedly promised to supply modern weapons to Ukraine but temporized and delayed on delivering them. And Hungary—playing interference on behalf of Germany rather than of Russia—has alienated Poland, its closest partner in Central Europe, by its apparently tepid support for Ukraine.

Those divisions do not exhaust the diplomatic and ideological differences in the Euro-Atlantic world over Ukraine. At a time when NATO is seeking to unify Europe’s response to the Ukraine crisis, the EU Commission is pushing ahead with ‘rule of law’ penalties against both Poland and Hungary despite their joint acceptance of several million Ukrainian refugees. Likewise, the Biden State Department has maintained a cold diplomacy toward both allies that reflects the international left’s extreme ideological hostility to the Orbán government rather than any discernible US interest. (The Pentagon has a warmer relationship with the country based on real military cooperation and a growing Hungarian military budget which may well shift administration policy away from its current diplomatically rash hostility.) An intellectually powerful movement in American conservatism, understandably reluctant to see America dragged into another European war, has translated this reluctance not only into strategic criticism of America’s allegedly incautious drift towards a major war but also into an angry hostility towards Ukraine’s President Zelensky because his leadership impresses US public opinion and explains US government intervention. Some US foreign policy ‘realists’ cling to Putin’s favourite historical theory that Ukraine is ‘not a real country’ which, however, Ukrainians are conclusively disproving after a hundred days on the battlefield. All in all, Ukraine is stimulating new partisan and philosophical divisions in both Europe and America, and it is far too early to know what patterns this kaleidoscope of ideas and alliances will shake out.

Within Europe, some of these differences are being acknowledged honestly and even accommodated following a two-day meeting of heads of EU governments in Brussels to discuss responses to the Ukraine crisis. Roughly speaking, the EU summit had to address four possible responses: helping refugees; aiding Ukraine militarily; condemning Russia in strong political and diplomatic terms; and imposing economic and energy sanctions.

There are no disputes over the need to help Ukrainian refugees and general agreement that Hungary is among the countries that have been extremely generous in accepting them. Sending Ukraine military aid is a more complicated matter: Hungary has refused to send weapons to Ukraine on the grounds that prudence (emphasized by geography) dictates to the country a clear policy of staying out of the war. This policy reflects unvarnished national interest rather than alliance cohesion, and it is not very popular with EU and NATO allies. But since it is openly stated, it can be reasonably defended. German policy— promising weapons but inventing reasons not to deliver them—is a policy that by its nature cannot be openly defended. It invites suspicion that Germany—and by extension its close political allies, France and Italy—are half-hearted about resisting Russia, and that their priority is an early diplomatic solution even if at Ukraine’s expense. On the other hand, that policy is now provoking a serious political crisis in the Federal Republic that may either change the government in Berlin or shift EU opinion over a collective Ukraine response, or even both.

Strongly condemning Russia for its invasion of Ukraine is a relatively easy way to join the apparent European consensus without obvious risk or sacrifice. Everyone did so formally—Germany’s Chancellor Scholz to almost universal applause immediately after hostilities broke out. That condemnation is only now wearing thin as policy limps along far behind it. The distance between the Chancellor’s words and Germany’s actions cannot be left unaddressed too long. Hungary too condemned the invasion and agreed in principle to economic and energy sanctions. Sticking to NATO and EU obligations is a fixed element in Hungarian foreign policy even when its mood music is in counterpoint to them. And there have been recent variations in that mood music—expressions of admiration for Ukraine’s fighting spirit, hints that Russia policy might change in the light of NATO’s resurgence, frank admissions that better relations with Poland were an overriding necessity for Budapest. Had the earlier distant tone been adopted to harmonize with the government’s peace message in the April general election (in which it plainly reflected the voters’ opinion)? Was it now surplus to requirements? That is possible. What is certain is that if Hungary is to win practical gains inside the EU’s institutions, its interests include a better understanding of its policies by other EU member states.

That seems to have been achieved in the final decisions by the EU summit on energy sanctions. The key decision here was to exempt Hungary, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic from the EU’s imposition of sanctions on Russian oil delivered through pipelines on the grounds—and this is not an exaggeration— that if those countries were required to forgo such oil completely, their economies would grind to a halt. Conor Cruise O’Brien, the distinguished Irish diplomat and historian, used to say that he never blamed a man for not doing something that he could not do. This principle seems to have the basis for a workable compromise between the EU as a whole and the three landlocked countries dependent on imported oil. Given the Left’s hostility to Hungary in Euro-institutions, it obviously helped that two other member states benefited from the compromise. Battles lie ahead for Hungary therefore on issues such as the rule of law and the disbursement of aid.

Compromise on a much broader range of issues also emerged from the EU summit, with three features: first, the EU and NATO consensus on the unacceptable nature of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine can and will be sustained more or less indefinitely; second, within this consensus, commonsense exemptions from sanctions or other practical measures will be allowed where they damage a state’s overriding national interests; and third, also within but inevitably stretching the consensus, alliances will form to advance different and even conflicting military and diplomatic solutions to the crisis. One can already see the consequences of this compromise starting to unfold, reflecting the divisions between global legalists and national democrats suggested earlier in this article, but going beyond them, and even taking formal shape in new treaties and alliances as well as in informal and shifting coalitions. Let me sketch out the three most obvious new alliances already emerging:

  1. A Franco-German informal alliance, in which the two countries are joined by Italy, Austria, and Hungary, with the twin aims of moderating economic sanctions and of making negotiations and an early diplomatic settlement of the Russo-Ukraine War a higher priority than ensuring an unmistakable defeat for Russia.
  2. An emerging alliance between Britain, Poland, Ukraine, Sweden, and the Baltic states built upon stronger diplomatic and military links between them with the aim of giving its members much stronger conventional defence capabilities vis-à-vis Russia in the Baltic and North European area. The US seems to be either a member or a patron of this new grouping.
  3. A revival and ‘deepening’ of Anglosphere defence links between the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, and the US first seen before the Russian invasion in the AUKUS agreement to develop a new generation of nuclear-powered submarines—and after the invasion in the form of military assistance to Ukraine from Canada and Australia.

All these groups rest in part on the legacy of the cultural and historical past. Each of them envisages a slightly different future for Europe, and in the short term a different outcome to the Russo-Ukraine War. The first group foresees a Russia that remains strong, must be accommodated, and should become an economic partner (along with China) in the post-war world. The other two groups would prefer a weak Russia that has become a ‘normal’ (i.e., post-imperial) country, is more or less incapable of threatening its neighbours, and is content with a subordinate status in a Euro-Atlantic world—the very fate that Putin sought to avoid by invading Ukraine. Both groups seem to be making headway. Momentum is building for a diplomatic solution, but Putin’s grudging acceptance that Russia will not realistically object to Finland and Sweden joining NATO is evidence that the second strategy is also working.

These different imagined futures make the ambitions of Paris and Brussels to establish strategic autonomy for Europe a very ‘problematic’ prospect. And to make matters worse, or at least more complicated, their outcomes will be determined more by the Ukrainian Army than by any of their national capitals.

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