The political history of the West is about 2,500 years of permanent fighting both internally and externally. The first battle of the “external” war was the Battle of Marathon in 490 BC. The last battle of the “internal” war was the Allied Central European operation between March 22 and May 11, 1945. The West’s virtually unchallenged political and military dominance in international affairs, which has lasted for 500 years, was the result of external war.
Internally, an unparalleled community formed in the middle of the previous century, with relations between members relying on principles unlike those underlying the international system in general. This community of values and interests, in fact, represents the physical content of the concept of the West that has taken root in journalism. Social organizations professing values that are different from the ones accepted in Europe or its offshoots in the new world, such as Japan, South Korea or Singapore, have become partially or fully included in that concept as well. Therefore, the fact that they will remain allies of the United States is due not to the unique nature of the relationship between them, but strategic military considerations that are local in nature.
These “two wars” shaped the behavior and the strategic culture of the Western countries to the same extent that the steppe shaped the strategic culture of Russia in the days of the early Moscow State. The idea that overcrowded Europe – from Greek polices to sovereign monarchies of the 17th century – has always been an ideal breeding ground for conflict is a truism. Hence, the bullying nature of European nations. The vast spaces of the external world historically appeared to Europe as an object of inevitable expansion and colonization. The permanent internal conflict was a matter of routine as long as it was not too depleting and no external threats existed. A defining feature of the West is that it never stops fighting and never sits on its hands. Fighting is its natural state and there’s no alternative. It stops only when the enemy disappears from the map as an autonomous entity, generally by absorption into the West.
A new “peaceful” war, which has essentially already been declared, will be characterized by the reluctance of all its participants to descend into a full-scale conflict that would only kill everyone involved, while at the same time creating a multitude of risky situations which may lead to such a conflict. In this regard, it is similar to the last decades of the Cold War of the second half of the 20th century, which is the main reason for the widespread temptation to equate it with the current confrontation. However, this appears to be a fatal analytical simplification both from the point of view of systemic signs of a new global conflict, and the potential strategic decisions of its participants.
However, the newly emerged situation cannot be considered a mere extension of the history of the past Cold War, as, for example, World War II was an extension of World War I and corrected the systemic distortions that had arisen in its aftermath – a Germany that was defeated but not totally, and a Japan that had its trophies unjustly ripped from its possession. In the event of Russia’s strategic defeat, it is unlikely that the country will be allowed to rise again. The most radical scenario may even include the physical division of the country. However, the context has changed completely, both internally and externally. This did not happen during 1919 – 1939 between the wars, when the main participants in international politics remained the same and only Russia shed its imperial uniform and donned a Bolshevik jacket. In purely tactical and stylistic terms, Russia-West relations are currently closer to relations between the West and Soviet Russia in the 1920s-1930s.
Strategically, everything has changed since the end of the Cold War. First, much has been said about the absence of a clear-cut ideological component in the West’s new stage of “external” war. The opponent does not profess a radical ideology that denies basic European values. Moreover, pluralism of values is on the rise internationally. Second, all the contexts have changed. The uniqueness of the situation, as has been written on repeatedly, is that the policy of the US and its allies in the Western international community is aimed not at a local third-grade dictatorship, but an industrially developed Russia, a nuclear superpower, backed by China.
The internal context that defined the confrontation in the second half of the 20th century was different in nature. Amid the overwhelming poverty found in, but not limited to, most Asian countries, the West was able to offer an appealing economic development model. China, in particular, benefits from this model, while simultaneously insuring itself against the threat from the North. Now, this resource has been largely, if not completely, exhausted with respect to the strategically important states of Asia. Russia, too, is a country with a critical growth deficit, but, thanks to the market economy, it is not a poor country without toilet paper, the lack of which tripped up the great Soviet Union.
On the other hand, the West has passed the unique period in the history of capitalism where the inevitable inequality in the distribution of income was offset by the stunning economic growth of the 1940s-1970s. The reserves have been mostly depleted by now, resulting in the growth of populism and feelings of insecurity among the public. There is little real investment of resources in the attempts to galvanize society with conflict, in this case with Russia.
The external context has also undergone a radical transformation. The era of Europe ended in 1914, and the era of America is coming to an end before our eyes. The era of China will never come as everyone will seek to contain it, but the 21st century will become the century of Asia, when the defining conflicts will erupt in this most populated part of the Earth. The new global political geography is perfectly represented by China and India, which are emerging as global powers with global ambitions. In 1840, Britain attacked China and started the First Opium War. This is how the Middle Kingdom became part of the international system against its will.
However, it took over 150 years after China was made part of the Westphalian system for it to start fundamentally changing the principles and physical conditions of that system’s development and existence. After gaining independence in 1949, India was included in the Westphalian system. However, it has only recently become a factor that can influence the state of affairs and the alignment of forces in the world. Perhaps, this predetermined the simultaneous attack on Russia and China. Of course, the West has experience with taking on two opponents at a time. However, back then Russia, with its enormous natural, geographical and mobilization resources, was on its side. Now, we can see the efforts to make India an ally. But the likelihood of it ever happening will depend on whether permanent alliance is part of India’s strategic culture.
Thus, the external and internal environments in which the conflict is unfolding make its outcome vague. Perhaps, this factor is behind Russia’s resolve, which stirs up real indignation in the West. Hence, another truism, unfortunately: Russia’s relations with the United States and its allies are unlikely to improve in the foreseeable future. However, this removes the problem of mixed signals. It appears that Moscow should strive to develop strategic habits that can help it benefit from changes in the internal and external context.
First, Russia needs to stop even thinking that it can establish a status quo and introduce new rules. This is impossible simply because the West can only stop fighting on the “external” front after incorporating the enemy and making him part of the West on certain terms. This happened to Germany in 1945, and this is what astute Western politicians and scholars suggested doing with regard to Russia after 1991. No one heeded their advice back then. A similar strategy, only involving other means, was used against China after market reforms began. US and Chinese strategists entered into a kind of competition.
China needed to peacefully build up its power until the moment when victory would no longer require war, whereas the US needed to maintain its market growth to the degree necessary for inevitable political liberalization. According to the leading Russian sinologist Alexander Lomanov, the turning point was reached before our eyes. Beijing realized that “staying in the shadow” was no longer an option, and Washington came to a realization that highly developed China wouldn’t be a comfortable partner for strategic reasons. As a matter of fact, liberal illusions of the 1990s gave China a head start of two and a half decades.
Second, we need to look carefully at how the actions of the United States and its allies affect the prospects for implementing the strategic plans of the main beneficiaries of confrontation with Russia, that is, Asia’s largest countries China and India. So far, they’ve been rejoicing, but systemic shifts which the total nature of the West’s campaign against Russia are very likely to affect the linearity of the processes, especially in the economy, which allowed Beijing and Delhi to look to the future with optimism. So far, both countries have been showing restraint with regard to the Russia-West conflict. However, the likelihood of the existing globalization infrastructure collapsing may devalue elements of their relations with the West.
Third, Russia should entertain no illusions about its place and role, which remain entirely undefined. The emergent conflict with Russia is, most likely, the first episode in the much larger process of the West’s adaptation to a new internal and external context. So far, Moscow has sought to become a universal balancer in the international system which will emerge in the coming decades. However, for this to happen, it is necessary to create an internal environment for certainty. The tactical game can be successful for quite some time. However, without constantly building up internal sustainability, any new change in context will consign the country to extinction.