What are the strategic objectives of the West in the war in Ukraine?
The war in Ukraine and the world’s reaction to it will be a decisive factor in shaping the world political and economic order in the decade to come. In particular, the actions, narratives, and planning of Western allies regarding both Russia and the role of the Global South in Ukraine’s post-war 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 envision a “victory” in Ukraine that lays the foundations for a world in which democracy is more secure and global governance more inclusive and effective?
If the outcome of the fighting remains uncertain, the strategic objectives of the West, in particular how it intends to deal with Russia in the event of a victory by Ukraine, will have enormous consequences. The big question is whether the allies will seek to punish Russia as a whole by imposing harsh reparations or instead target the autocratic regime of President Vladimir Putin in a way that limits the burdens imposed on the Russian people.
At the start of the war, the Western allies emphasized that the defense of 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 objective, although it is not clear whether this would still be an objective in the event of regime change in Russia.
While any comprehensive settlement of the Ukrainian conflict must force Russia to bear some of the burden of reconstruction resulting from a war it started, the harshness of the conditions imposed on the Russian people will have political ramifications. The harsher the terms, the more likely Russia will embrace China even more tightly, so that a tight Sino-Russian bloc becomes part of the post-war 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 weak GDP (which is less than that of Italy) should not lead to neglect of the country’s scientific capabilities, the size of its nuclear arsenal, the wealth of its natural resources and the strategic importance of its vast territory.
By pursuing measures that treat the Russian people differently from Putin and his autocracy, the world’s democracies might hope to prevent a long-term outcome in which Russia is “lost” to them. Ban all Russians from entering the European Union, as some policy makers propose now, is the type of measure that will push the country towards China. And deceptively dividing the world into democracies and autocracies stems from the same inefficient and polarizing playbook. When it comes to dictatorships like Putin’s, a key part of any successful diplomatic strategy is to distinguish between political leaders and ordinary citizens.
It is true that Russia’s right of veto in the UN Security Council has made it impossible for the United Nations to play a coordinating role in the fight against Russian aggression in Ukraine. But the Western allies who took on this task made little effort to consult the global South in their decision-making, or to involve it in the post-war planning process.
It is of course also true that a large part of the countries of the South abstained from voting on the two major resolutions of the United Nations General Assembly condemning Russia in March. But the West should have recognized that the response of the developing countries to the war reflected old and deeply rooted reflexes, namely the bitter collective memory of European colonialism and the memories 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 the reconstruction of Ukraine did not include any country of the Global South. It could be argued that it was primarily a meeting of donors, but it excluded wealthy Gulf states and included countries such as Albania and North Macedonia, none of which are likely to be able to contribute.
The reconstruction of Ukraine will require hundreds of billions of dollars. This effort therefore risks diverting substantial aid from the countries of the South, which are still trying to get rich countries to fulfill their long-standing obligations. pledge providing $100 billion a year to support climate change mitigation and adaptation in the poorest countries. It will also be interesting to see to what extent 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 countries of the South, in particular countries like India and South Africa, which have good technical capacities in certain sectors, in the reconstruction from Ukraine. The West should also include developing countries in setting rules regarding any remaining sanctions against Russia after the first phase of a settlement, as well as regulations governing frozen Russian assets.
Should Ukraine prevail, the West’s treatment of Russia and its stance toward the Global South during Ukraine’s reconstruction will determine whether the outcome of the war serves as a launch pad for progress. world towards a more inclusive and equitable multilateralism. In the worst-case scenario, the West will have won a Pyrrhic victory that will end up entrenching autocracy and further deepening global divisions.