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What if Ukraine is a forever crisis?

Jun 01,2022 - Last updated at Jun 01,2022

PRINCETON  —  Russia’s attack on Ukraine is coming to resemble many previous geopolitical crises. Throughout history, episodes that initially seemed like temporary disruptions have become prolonged affairs. What start out as short confrontations very often result in a seemingly endless morass.

The most famous case of such a crisis is World War I, which George F. Kennan accurately described as the “great seminal catastrophe” of the twentieth century. The sheer scale of the mobilisation in August 1914 fostered a widespread belief that the conflict could not last long, that it “would be over by Christmas”. But what followed was a war of attrition with almost no movement on the Western Front. Just as Ypres, Flanders, was the site of fierce battles in 1914, so it was again in 1918. Will there still be battles in Mariupol in 2026?

True, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz has committed his government to the message that Russia “must not win” the war, and the great German philosopher Jürgen Habermas has declared, similarly, that Ukraine “must not lose”. Yet when European political and intellectual leaders issue these dramatic statements, it is clear that they are compensating for an underlying sense of helplessness. What can such statements even mean in a stalemate? Unless Russia collapses or undergoes a sudden regime change and democratisation, it is difficult to imagine how Ukraine can “not lose”.

Crises like the one in Ukraine tend to follow a familiar script of escalation and politicisation. As the conflict stretches on, the participants become more invested in it, not just financially but also spiritually. The sacrifices made for the cause transform the conflict into something sacred, or at least sacralised. This is a necessary step for the people in charge. Since no one wants to be responsible for causing pointless deaths, the loss of life must be furnished with a deeper meaning, as Patriarch Kirill of the Russian Orthodox Church has tried to do by blessing Vladimir Putin’s war.

Once this pattern takes hold, it becomes increasingly difficult to see how the conflict could end without a complete collapse of one side. Interpreting a secretive dictator’s mindset is never easy, and we may never know precisely what power dynamics are playing out in the Kremlin. But it is reasonable to assume that Putin’s strategy is to hold on until Europe and the United States have lost the capacity or the will to continue supporting Ukraine and punishing Russia. The Kremlin is doubtless hoping that rich countries will not be able to bear the hardship of higher fuel and food prices and their effects on the economy and incomes.

In the past, wartime leaders who have found themselves in a stalemate have dreamed of expanding the conflict. Thus, Putin may also be calculating that the global food crisis brought on by the war will trigger political unrest in vulnerable food-importing regions like the Middle East, thereby driving a new wave of refugees toward Europe. Putin and his cronies have already shown that they are not above using desperate migrants and refugees as a weapon against the West.

Alternatively, Russian strategists may be calculating that the West will simply lose interest eventually. In our media-saturated age, attention spans are notoriously short-lived, and the Western public’s imagination is easily captured by sensational scandals, whether a celebrity court clash or a horrific school shooting. To societies with “Ukraine fatigue”, images of Severodonetsk will once again seem remote and incomprehensible.

Moreover, democracies have regular elections, so it may be only a matter of time before key countries’ policies change. The Kremlin was obviously hoping that Marine Le Pen would defeat French President Emmanuel Macron in the second round of the French election last month. What if the conflict stretches on until 2025, while high inflation and dashed hopes of a quick resolution eat away at Western resolve? How would another Trump (or Trumpist) administration in the US approach the issue?

In the meantime, each side will continue to fight for control of political language. In supporting Ukraine, Western leaders proclaim that they are resisting aggression, preventing genocide, checking fascist authoritarianism, and preserving multilateralism. Yet one hears much the same language in Russia, where Putin supposedly has launched a “special military operation” to stop NATO aggression, counter Ukrainian Nazism, prevent genocide, and rescue multilateralism from US hegemony.

While Western politicians call out Putin’s lies, Russian propagandists are creating a funhouse-mirror version of history and reality. According to Maria Zakharova, the director of the Russian Foreign Ministry’s information office, George Orwell’s warning in 1984 was directed not against the Soviet Union or the Nazi regime, but against Western liberalism.

Does both sides’ use of the same language mean that there could be some discussion about ending the war? Or does it suggest the opposite: That words have become meaningless?

Most likely, it is the latter, which implies that winning the war is the only way to recover meaning. But even that would not end the crisis. At the end of WWI, the victors talked constantly about democracy and self-determination while creating the conditions for the conflict to continue in a different form. To avoid that outcome this time, victory must lead to fundamental changes in the international political order.


Harold James, professor of History and International Affairs at Princeton University, is the author of “The War of Words: A Glossary of Globalisation” (Yale University Press, 2021). Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2022.

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