For several years now, Russia has been increasingly turning away from the West, culminating in the large-scale invasion of Ukraine, which hardly anyone expected and the meaning of which is even more difficult to understand. What is the intention behind the Kremlin’s sometimes irrational behavior, which is reminiscent of the power politics of past centuries? In particular, the initial phase of the war against Ukraine, described by the Kremlin as a “special military operation,” left many analysts in the West puzzled as to what it was supposed to achieve in its bumbling execution. Even in Russia, most wondered what the point was, and it was only when numerous Western companies closed their doors that many Russians rallied behind Putin. They perceived it as a direct attack on their personal lifestyle and, in some cases, even on their own economic livelihood.
Moreover, the Russian war of aggression went anything but as expected. It was characterized by overconfidence, poor preparation and a miserable level of information. Numerous soldiers in the Belarusian army refused to carry out the order to cut off the neighboring country’s army in western Ukraine from supplies of Western high-tech weapons. Moreover, the Russian troops were uninformed and in many cases believed to be on maneuvers even when they had long since crossed the border into Ukraine. It also proved fatal that the fighting morale of the Ukrainians had been massively underestimated. Instead of the expected support of the civilian population, the Russians were met with their sheer hatred. Even before the war crimes and looting in Butcha and other towns became public, Ukrainian civil society mobilized to provide logistical support for its own army. Mechanics welded steel spiders, IT workers baked bread, and numerous Ukrainians who had fled abroad used the home office opportunities created during Corona to fund their families while volunteering to raise money and organize equipment ranging from flak jackets to bandages.
At the same time, highly motivated Ukrainian soldiers with Western anti-tank weapons and Turkish drones took out the kilometer-long Russian columns that crawled at walking speed along the main roads toward the country’s population centers. The scale of the losses is all the more astonishing given that Russia’s military had already encountered the same tactics in Azerbaijan and Libya, as we will discuss in more detail in the article “Eurasia’s Energy Dealers.” Instead of conquering the megacities of Kiev, Odessa or Kharkiv as if in passing, they are now instead bombing their way forward house by house in a war of attrition in the east – and even there the campaign is marked by setbacks. Yet in the process, the Russian army is destroying the country’s livelihoods: most industrial production as well as agricultural land is located in the devastated affected areas. Even without the Russian army in the country, the future Ukraine would have a hard time becoming a viable state again after the war.
Whether the Ukrainians can rely on Europe for this is questionable, as we will report in the article “The Chocolate Wars” about the country before 2014. For while the Kremlin seems to have trimmed its war aims to a realistic level, European politicians and media give the impression of constantly underestimating their opponent. As was the case when the CO-VID-19 pandemic broke out, people in this country stare at dashboards showing gas storage levels and prepare the population for short-term sacrifices: a few months of cold showers, a slightly thicker sweater. But as
during the pandemic, the long-term, much more profound effects are being ignored: If all goes well, we Europeans will be able to stabilize our energy supply from next year. People are obviously under the illusion that this will also be accompanied by lower prices. Energy-intensive companies, from metal processors to refrigerator manufacturers, have long been planning to relocate their production. The idea that any energy source, whether solar plants or hydrogen pipelines, could provide cheaper energy than a pipeline from Russia, which was already written off during the Soviet era, is simply surreal. As we know from past crises that polarized us Europeans into two camps, we also started this economic war with a sprint, although it was actually a marathon. Without a thought for the impending conflicts over distribution or the will of our own people to persevere. In Hungary, Viktor Orban, with his decidedly neutral attitude toward the two warring parties, once again won a constitutional majority. In France, despite its lowest inflation rate in Europe, the polls of the two pro-Russia blocs on the left and right of center began to show signs of crisis.
Nor do European politicians seem to consider the consequences of putting the gun to the chest of countries like Serbia, India or Africa and forcing them to make a choice: either for our liberal democratic values or for cheap energy from Russia. A failed strategy that had already torn Ukraine apart. At the same time, Europe, with its overwhelming purchasing power, is buying up the world’s LNG markets and jeopardizing the energy security of emerging Asian countries. Sri Lanka has already experienced this first-hand, and Pakistan and Bangladesh are threatening to reach the brink of insolvency. With fatal consequences, not only for their hundreds of millions of inhabitants, but also for the achievement of international climate targets: The high prices for LNG are already jeopardizing investments in capacities such as LNG terminals and gas-fired power plants in East Asia. While Germany’s Minister of Economics sees LNG only as a short-term stabilization measure, in Asia it was intended as a bridging technology to an overall more climate-friendly energy production. If its economic viability is now threatened due to high prices, emerging countries in Asia will have to resort to dirty coal or Russia.
In contrast, the Kremlin thinks not only in terms of time, but also geographically. Anyone arriving in Moscow for the first time does not visit a village, but is first immersed in a multicultural metropolis. One encounters immigrants from Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and other Central Asian countries, who work as cheap laborers doing errands and unskilled labor. In the city center, business people from the countries of the Far East bustle about – although it remains hidden to the outsider whether they are Chinese, Koreans, Japanese or Russian citizens from Siberia. When the Kremlin thinks, it does so in Eurasian dimensions, from the Finnish Baltic Sea to the Caucasus, rugged with mountains and ethnic groups, and from the resource-rich Central Asian countries to the Sea of Japan.
Under the impression of a Europe weakened by the financial and euro crisis, Russian President Vladimir Putin had already announced a reorientation to the East, to emerging Asia, at the Asian Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Vladivostok in 2012. He had Vladivostok in mind as the main beneficiary, which was to become a Far Eastern San Francisco. It was only with Putin that the Russian state returned as a capable actor at the turn of the millennium, after the Far East had been almost completely abandoned to the mafia in the 1990s and the administration of justice resembled the Wild West more than that of a modern industrialized country. Under the specially created Ministry for the Development of the Russian Far East, investments were made in transportation, energy and industry. Even airline tickets to the capital were subsidized. Many of the inhabitants regularly traveled to Seoul, Tokyo or Beijing, but flights to their own capital were not affordable for many until now. But the hoped-for development step failed to materialize. Neither Western capital nor China invested to the extent hoped for, and the population turned its back on the region.
By breaking with the West, this region and its wealth of raw materials will once again become the focus of Russian politics. While the Kremlin has deepened the rift with the West by invading Ukraine, the cards are being reshuffled here in the East. Due to the enormous size of Russia’s territory and the lack of natural borders, such as rivers or mountains, even the Kremlin feels constantly threatened and compelled to protect its own spheres of interest, whether in its almost deserted Far East around Vladivostok vis-à-vis China, the U.S., which wanted to advance into Central Asia via Afghanistan, or NATO in Eastern Europe. Yet the country itself contains countless contradictions: the gleaming metropolises of Moscow and St. Petersburg, fueled by the wealth of raw materials in Siberia and Central Asia, while the cities at the sources of oil and gas often consist of poverty-stricken prefabricated housing estates, where alcoholism and an opium pandemic rage among the population. Countless young people attend universities, taking advantage of the globalized world economy to make a living. In between, indigenous tribes maintain their nomadic traditions as if the new millennium had passed them by. Within Russian borders, Jews and Buddhists meet Shiite and Sunni Muslims. Besides Russian, the peoples in the more than 90 administrative subjects speak Finnish, Mongolian, Persian and Turkic languages.
Kazakhstan and Armenia, which also emerged from the Soviet Union, are still struggling with their fate of being deeply intertwined with the Russian economy, while on the other hand they would like to benefit greatly by opening up to the West. Azerbaijan found its partner in Turkey. The countries of Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan on the Afghan border find pleasure in being supported by Moscow in their authoritarianism and crude personality cult despite centuries of colonialism. While this model seems equally attractive to Belarusian leader Lukashenko, the “last dictator of Europe” may have lost sight of his people, who have been taking to the streets for freedom for several years. For Georgians and Moldovans, on the other hand, it is clear that even if the road is still long, they want to follow the Baltic states and join the European Union. Reason enough for Russia to constantly threaten them with being torn apart. In the end, however, no other country has been subjected to such a comprehensive and prolonged campaign of violence as Ukraine. And despite all the support and high-tech from Western Europe and the USA, the majority of the battle tanks and armored personnel carriers, as well as the largest financial burdens, were provided by the Eastern European countries of the Czech Republic, Poland, the Baltic States and Bulgaria. In the end, therefore, it is less a struggle of the democratic values of the West than a war of the Eastern Europeans against their old hegemon in Moscow.