The West is getting in too deep in Ukraine
Bloomberg Opinion January 30, 2023
A treacherous new era in global politics has begun with fresh and dramatic military commitments by Europe and the United States to Ukraine. We should recognize its dangers quickly, without self-deception or euphemism.
Despite almost a year of harsh economic sanctions, and even severe setbacks on the battlefield, Russia appears no readier to negotiate an end to the war. Rather, it has responded by mobilizing additional troops and battering Ukraine’s civilian infrastructure. Russian President Vladimir Putin is only likely to escalate further, and more viciously, in response to the West’s decision to send battle tanks to Ukraine.
Meanwhile, there are no signs that a significant number of Russians have grown angry or disillusioned with their reckless leader. Few appear to contest his much-amplified conviction that a morally decadent West is ganging up against their country.
There is no evidence either that the people and governments of the Global South, who are suffering most from the economic consequences of the war, are turning decisively against Putin, or that most of the world’s population see Russia’s assault on Ukraine as qualitatively different from the U.S. invasion of Iraq. In India, supposedly allied to the West, a recent poll found that more respondents blamed either NATO or the U.S. than Russia for the war in Ukraine.
It’s not even plain, in the absence of public debate, that most people in Western nations support a deepening of their confrontation with Russia. In fact, their opinion is hardly being sought. A German population sharply divided over the question of sending Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine at least conducted a long internal discussion. The U.S. and U.K. governments barely informed their citizens before committing more advanced weaponry to the conflict.
Western governments benefit today from a broad and largely unchallenged consensus among think tanks and mainstream periodicals: Russia’s defeat, if not outright capitulation, is crucial to ensuring Ukraine’s territorial integrity and future as a sovereign nation. This may be right. But any faith that our political and media elites are assuming correctly and acting wisely should sit uncomfortably with memories of their record in recent years.
All major countries in the Western alliance were complicit in military fiascos that ravaged entire regions of Asia, the Middle East and Africa. Political leaders marched into easily predicted disasters accompanied by a supporting chorus of media outlets, ranging from Fox News to The Economist, that drowned out or deliberately delegitimized dissenting voices. There is good reason to worry when, still unpunished for their calamitous bungles, many in the West’s intellectual-industrial complex again cheerlead a military intervention, this time against the fanatical leader of a nuclear-armed country.
Worse, the rest of us don’t seem disturbed enough by this spectacle of blunder-prone elites yet again making history- and geography-altering decisions without adequate democratic oversight. In the countries where the political earthquakes of recent years occurred, the fault lines between rulers and the ruled could easily widen again. As Donald Trump has ably demonstrated, demagogues always stand ready to exploit disaffection with endless, expensive and unwinnable wars.
The future of Ukraine as a democracy, too, grows cloudier when you consider the recent fate of countries showered with weapons and dollars. One of the world’s most corrupt countries before the war, Ukraine seems further away from the prospect of an honest and accountable elite. In the eventual accounting of financial and moral malfeasance during the war, the recent scandal involving officials close to President Volodymyr Zelenskyy will likely prove minor.
There are too many signs that the search for allies in what is effectively now the West’s war against Russia is affecting political and moral judgment. Thus, India is routinely presented in the West as a counterweight to Chinese and Russian autocrats even as its Hindu supremacist government intensifies its assault on democracy and the country ramps up its purchases of Russian oil. A bizarre forgetfulness about two world wars prevails as, to wide cheers in the West, Germany rearms and dispatches military hardware to its old killing fields.
Among the simple historical lessons being neglected is that governments everywhere are prone to grow more reckless as military escalation begins to seem the only route to peace. The leaders of Japan, another militarist terror of the 20th century, are rearming their country on a dramatic scale even at the cost of inflating its already extraordinary fiscal deficit.
Needless to add, the Japanese government has not offered a detailed account of the risks involved in this militarization (from China and Russia, two countries with which it has fought wars), let alone explained how a country with an acute shortage of young people will fill the ranks of a bigger and more sophisticated military.
Such signs of irresponsibility are equally apparent among Western political establishments, who are trying to expand their military footprint abroad even as they struggle against economic crises at home. They are the clearest warning we have of a deeper and more extensive conflagration ahead.
Pankaj Mishra is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is author of “Run and Hide.” This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.