A War of Wills: The True Battle for Ukraine, Russia, and the West Lies Ahead

A War of Wills: The True Battle for Ukraine, Russia, and the West Lies Ahead

Ukraine will stay the course but, between Russia, Europe, and the United States, who will blink first?

The time has come to seek clarity about the war in Ukraine and determine when and how it can be brought to an end. For this, there is no one better to look to than the Prussian strategist Carl von Clausewitz (1780-1831) who famously laid down a number of principles in his monumental book On War. The two principles that are most relevant in this context are the following.

1. War is not merely a political act, but also a real political instrument, a continuation of political commerce, a carrying out of the same by other means.

2. Fighting is a trial of strength of the moral and physical forces by means of the latter. That the moral cannot be omitted is evident of itself, for the condition of the mind has always the most decisive influence on the forces employed in war.

The meaning behind both principles is that the belligerent with war aims that resonate most with their domestic population is more likely to emerge as the winner.

After first denying that he would invade Ukraine, Russian president Vladimir Putin has oscillated between a variety of war aims, including stating that Ukraine must be “de-Nazified,” NATO enlargement should be preempted, and Russian minorities need to be protected in Ukraine. He still denies that a war is raging, instead calling it a “special military operation.” These are war aims that may find support among many Russians but it is perplexing that he has recently articulated more abstract ambitions.

During a visit to a historical exhibition on June 9 to celebrate the anniversary of Czar Peter the Great (1682-1725), who is widely regarded as the founder of modern Russia, Putin compared himself to the Czar. Referencing the Great Northern War (1700-1721) against Sweden, Putin stated that Peter recaptured territory that had historically belonged to Russia. However, Putin forgot, conveniently in his own context, that Peter the Great also modernized Russia by enlisting a large number of advisers from Western Europe and spent eighteen months visiting European countries to learn about life there. He traveled incognito and worked for four months in a Dutch shipyard to understand modern shipbuilding. 

At a June 15 meeting in St. Petersburg, Putin went further and declared that the “previous world order is finished—irrespective of all the efforts to preserve it, it's a natural way of history.” Just to be sure that the point was not missed, he doubled down by saying that the era of American global dominance was at an end.

We know little about the sentiment of ordinary Russians, the impact of sanctions, and whether Russians associate economic hardship with the war. Until July 18 Putin held back on admitting any costs but finally did so by saying that Russia faced “a huge challenge” in the high-technology sector. Imprecise and shifting war aims hardly strengthen the resolve of the population. Relatives of killed or wounded soldiers may question whether emulating Peter the Great is worth these sacrifices.

Ukraine is not only fighting for its survival but to vindicate the national identity of its citizens. The result is that it is much stronger than almost anybody expected. Military assistance from the West has helped but it is the will of the Ukrainian nation and its citizens that constitute the base of its defense.

Contrary to Russia, Ukraine’s war aims are cast in stone and highly relevant in Ukrainian’s daily lives. The will to survive as a nation cannot be doubted but there is more ambivalence about the borders of the state. A recent poll of Ukrainians found that 89 percent rejected ceding territory to Russia in a peace settlement. Yet, the poll does not include the opinions of people living in Russian-controlled territories where there is more ambivalence about the national government in Kyiv.

Ukraine may ultimately face the choice between being a nation of people who harbor no doubt about their Ukrainian identity or recovering occupied territory irrespective of whether the people living there see themselves as Russian or Ukrainian. This is a vital question to be answered and only Ukrainians can decide what will constitute a lasting solution. The history of Europe, and particularly after World War II, is filled with decisions disregarding this principle. Indeed, Ukraine is itself a result of random and careless demarcation by politicians not familiar with the situation on the ground.

The cardinal sin for Ukraine is to enter into an agreement with Russia that would allow it to gain strength and renew its aggression. To avoid that, Ukraine and the West must gauge whether Russia can be forced to redefine its war aims. If evidence to this effect is not forthcoming, a cease-fire would be counterproductive to achieving a lasting settlement. 

The West must stay united, but this is not a foregone conclusion. Europeans worry about the Peter the Great analogy and Americans about the threat to their global position, with China lurking behind the veil. Although the Western alliance has never looked so robust, one wonders how long it will be before the interests of the United States and Europe do not converge.

It will not be the ability or will of Ukraine to fight that decides the outcome, but the willingness of Europe and the United States to accept the costs of supporting Ukraine and realize that their freedom is also at stake. President Putin is betting that Europe and the United States will buckle under the weight of skyrocketing oil and gas prices. This is becoming a war of attrition based on will. Only when Russia is convinced that the West will stay the course can the door for a settlement open.

The moment of truth will come as war weariness sets in. Ukraine will stay the course, but between Russia, Europe, and the United States, who will blink first?

Joergen Oerstroem Moeller is a former state-secretary for the Royal Danish Foreign Ministry and the author of Asia's Transformation: From Economic Globalization to Regionalization, ISEAS, Singapore 2019 and The Veil of Circumstance: Technology, Values, Dehumanization and the Future of Economics and Politics, ISEAS, Singapore, 2016.

Image: Reuters.