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Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal speaks as a video of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen is displayed on a screen during the Ukraine Recovery Conference (URC2022), in Lugano, Switzerland, July 4, 2022. Michael Buholzer/Pool via REUTERS
Op-Ed

What are the West’s strategic goals in the Ukraine war?

Editor's Note:

This op-ed was originally published by Project Syndicate.

The Ukraine war and the world’s reaction to it will be a decisive factor in shaping the global political and economic order in the decade ahead. In particular, the Western allies’ actions, narratives, and planning regarding both Russia and the role of the Global South in Ukraine’s postwar reconstruction will indicate what their long-term strategic goals are. Does the West simply want to see Russia defeated and NATO enlarged and strengthened, or can it envisage a “victory” in Ukraine that lays the foundations for a world in which democracy is more secure and global governance more inclusive and effective?

While the outcome of the fighting remains uncertain, the West’s strategic aims, particularly how it intends to treat Russia in the event that Ukraine prevails, will have huge consequences. The big question is whether the allies will seek to punish Russia as a whole by imposing severe reparations or instead target President Vladimir Putin’s autocratic regime in a way that limits the burdens imposed on the Russian people.

At the beginning of the war, the Western allies emphasized that defending the United Nations Charter and democracy were their primary objectives. In late spring, some U.S. strategists and officials advocated permanently weakening Russia as a strategic goal, although it is not clear whether this would still be an objective in the event of regime change in Russia.

While any overall settlement of the Ukraine conflict must require Russia to bear some part of the reconstruction burden resulting from a war that it started, the severity of the terms imposed on the Russian people will have political ramifications. The harsher the terms, the more likely it will be that Russia embraces China even more closely, so that a tight Sino-Russian bloc becomes part of the postwar geopolitical order.

The effect of such an alliance should not be underestimated. While China would be the bloc’s center of gravity, Russia’s relatively small GDP (which is less than that of Italy) should not lead one to dismiss the country’s scientific capabilities, the size of its nuclear arsenal, its natural-resource wealth, and the strategic importance of its vast territory.

By pursuing measures that treat the Russian people differently than Putin and his autocracy, the world’s democracies might hope to prevent a long-term outcome in which Russia would be “lost” to them. Banning all Russians from entering the European Union, as some policymakers now propose, is the type of measure that will push the country toward China. And misleadingly dividing the world into democracies and autocracies comes from the same ineffective, polarizing playbook. When dealing with dictatorships like Putin’s, a key element of any successful diplomatic strategy is to distinguish between political leaders and ordinary citizens.

True, Russia’s veto power in the U.N. Security Council made it impossible for the U.N. to play a coordinating role in countering Russia’s aggression in Ukraine. But the Western allies that assumed that task made little effort to consult the Global South in their decisionmaking, or to involve it in the postwar planning process.

It is of course also true that much of the Global South abstained from voting on the two major U.N. General Assembly resolutions condemning Russia in March. But the West should have recognized that developing countries’ response to the war reflected old and deep-seated reflexes—namely, the bitter collective memory of European colonialism and recollections of the Soviet Union’s support for many of these countries during the struggle for independence.

Moreover, the Lugano conference organized by the Western allies in early July to launch a platform for Ukraine’s reconstruction did not include any countries from the Global South. One could argue that this was primarily a donors’ meeting, but it excluded rich Gulf states and included countries such as Albania and North Macedonia, neither of which is likely to be able to contribute.

Rebuilding Ukraine will require hundreds of billions of dollars. This effort thus risks diverting substantial aid from the Global South, which is still trying to get rich countries to fulfill their longstanding pledge to provide $100 billion per year to support climate-change mitigation and adaptation in poorer countries. It will also be interesting to see the extent to which the procurement rules for reconstruction projects in Ukraine will allow non-donor developing countries to bid effectively.

But it may not be too late for the West to involve the Global South—particularly countries like India and South Africa, which have good technical capacities in certain sectors—in Ukraine’s reconstruction. The West should also include developing countries in setting the rules regarding possible remaining sanctions against Russia after the first phase of a settlement, as well as the regulations governing frozen Russian assets.

In the event that Ukraine prevails, the West’s treatment of Russia and its stance toward the Global South during Ukraine’s reconstruction will determine whether the war’s outcome serves as the launchpad for global progress toward a more inclusive and equitable multilateralism. In the worst case, the West will have a achieved a pyrrhic victory that ends up strengthening autocracy and further deepening global divisions.

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