The year the West woke up

Was 2022 really the age of the strong man? History might tell a different tale.

President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine addresses a joint session of Congress at the US Capitol in Washington
President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine addresses a joint session of Congress at the US Capitol in Washington. Credit: UPI / Alamy Stock Photo

Talk of war dominated the opening stages of 2022. US and UK intelligence were closely following the Russian military build-up around the borders of Ukraine and were starting to warn that Putin was developing a capability to mount a full-scale invasion even if no decision had yet been made to do so. Diplomatic efforts were underway to defuse this dangerous situation but already it seemed that whatever Putin wanted by way of negotiations the US and allies would be unable to give. The debates on whether Putin really would launch a war, and if so with what ambitions, were intense. At one level these were debates about Russian military options, with those less convinced about Putin’s intentions often also less convinced that he had the military means to subjugate Ukraine: at another, they were about whether Putin was truly convinced in his historical analysis that assumed the border between the two countries was an artificial construct and that only a Western-backed government was preventing closer ties. Then there was yet another level of debate, about Putin’s push against Ukraine as another symptom of a new era of great power competition with which the West would struggle to cope. For many in Washington the potentially greater worry over the long term was the challenge from China, which, unlike Russia, was not only large and menacing but also had the advantage of a formidable economy.

The previous summer’s chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan and the victory of the Taliban had been a blow to Western unity and self-esteem, raising painful questions about what had been achieved at the cost of so many lives and resources over two decades. This could be contrasted with Putin’s swagger as he encouraged foreign emissaries to make their way to Moscow in search of peace, while his landmark meeting with President Xi Jinping of China in Beijing in early February cemented their close partnership and joint challenge to the United States and its allies. An axis of autocracy was being forged, with Putin and Xi representative of a new class of ‘strong men’ who seemed to be on the ascendant.

While Putin warned about the consequences of Ukraine joining NATO the fact was that it was outside the alliance, and that limited what could be done to defend it. Should war occur, the consensus view appeared to be that Ukraine’s best option would be guerrilla warfare following occupation, as its armed forces would be unable to cope with superior Russian air and land forces. This effect would be to show up NATO’s inability to defend a friendly country that had been refused membership. It would soon be scrambling to boost the defences of those existing members now on a new border, replicating the old Cold War as Belarus and Ukraine became part of a new Soviet imperium, with Moldova not far behind.

Such fears were to the fore when the Russian invasion came on 24 February. Despite all the earlier warnings, the shock was still immense. A Permanent Member of the Security Council was violating the core principle of the UN Charter. Hopes that economic interdependence might encourage peaceful and cooperative relations, long to the fore in Germany, were shattered. But then something surprising happened. The toxic mix of aggressive capabilities now expected of Putin’s Russia — disabling cyberattacks and information blitzes on social media, combined with air strikes and armoured thrusts — was launched against Ukraine. Yet they flopped. Putin’s arrogant assumption that no one would fight for Ukraine turned out to be catastrophically wrong. It was Ukraine’s Volodymyr Zelensky who set the tone — demonstrating that if his country was given the support it could blunt and even reverse the Russian advances.

Over the course of 2022, as Ukrainian forces gained in confidence and capabilities, the issue shifted from how Putin might win, or at least exit the war with something to show for an intense military effort, to how he might avoid losing. The prospect of Russia losing was met with deep foreboding as if Putin would be bound to turn to his nuclear arsenal to escape humiliation. The prospect could never be ruled out, and at times there was loose talk on the matter from Moscow. But in practice nuclear deterrence was already doing a good job for Russia — it was the reason why the US had not committed its own forces to the war and ignored Zelensky’s pleas for the introduction of a no-fly zone to protect his cities from Russian bombardment. It was unclear how nuclear use would enable Moscow to turn round the land battle — and Washington at least made it clear, privately as well as publicly, that any nuclear use would lead to severe retaliation, which would not need to involve nuclear weapons to hurt the Russian cause badly.

Exactly what this would entail so that Putin could not hide the loss was unclear. Was it enough that Russia was left military, diplomatically, and economically weaker, with its big energy markets lost, its armed forces depleted and years away from reconstitution, and its reputation for ruthless efficiency — if not for heartless cruelty — shattered?  Or would it require that it had to abandon the gains of 2014 — Crimea and the enclaves of eastern Ukraine? Rather than try to cut a deal to minimise his losses Putin preferred to keep open the possibility of victory by throwing everything at the problem — conscripting hundreds of thousands of men, although they could not be properly trained and equipped before they were sent to the front, launching missile attacks against Ukraine’s critical infrastructure, denying the people heat to add to winter’s miseries, although this made no difference to Ukraine’s ability or willingness to fight, and raising the stakes by insisting on occupying four more of Ukraine’s provinces, in addition to Crimea, although none were completely in Russian hands. When the evacuation of Kherson was announced in November, Russia could be accused by critics of having abandoned a Russian city.

The year ends with Ukraine still with the military initiative after months of gruelling fighting, but no more clarity on the circumstances in which the war might end. Ukraine has vowed to keep on fighting until it has liberated its territory, and in the absence of any hint of compromise from Russia, its international supporters have no choice but to sustain it in its fight, waiting for the moment when reality dawns in Moscow about a future consisting of continued military embarrassment, intensifying sanctions, a declining economy, and increasing isolation.

Many in the West worried that countries in the ‘global South’ did not share their enthusiasm for the Ukrainian cause, because of either their own geopolitical interests which required cooperation with Russia (India and Israel) or just irritation with what they believed to be double standards. Yet those prepared to back Russia were few and far between as evidenced in UN votes and the November meeting of the G20 in Indonesia. China’s readiness to distance itself from Russia was most telling, making it known that Xi had not been alerted in advance to the invasion, that they supported Ukraine’s territorial integrity, and were unimpressed by Russia’s military incompetence. Beijing would be looking closely at Russia’s experience. However much a potential seizure of Taiwan stayed on the agenda, the Chinese military would have to contemplate the ways in which challenging military operations can go badly wrong. Occupying Taiwan would require a long distance amphibious assault: far more difficult than crossing a border. It was already likely, as indicated when the Chinese responded angrily to a visit by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to Taiwan in August, that a blockade might appear as a less hazardous, although also potentially less decisive, option.

Xi, of course, had his own difficult year, if not as difficult as Putin’s. He ended the year as president for life and in control of his country’s political system. But it was evident that there was much in China he could not control. The Omicron virus was as virulent as ever despite claims that it had been squashed. Efforts to get it under control resulted in regular lockdowns for Chinese citizens to endure, whether in residential blocks or whole cities, leading to exasperated demonstrations at the end of the year. With demographic trends continuing to be adverse, with a rapidly aging population, numerous empty or unfinished properties dampening the property market and adding to debt, and overseas customers wary about dependence upon China for vital goods and services, its economic prospects looked far less rosy than for decades. Perhaps this was not to be the age of the strong man. In Iran, the Ayatollah Khamenei, the supreme leader, was believed to be ailing while clerical rule was being challenged regularly in the streets, notably by women refusing to cover their faces. The regime could only answer with repression, lacking compelling answers to a secular challenge, while aware that economic conditions were already deteriorating.

None of this meant that Western countries were all in great shape. It was a difficult year. With the impact of the pandemic still being felt, they had to contend with an energy crunch manufactured by Putin to coerce them into abandoning Ukraine. In that respect Russia failed. If Putin had not matched brutal methods with absurd demands then one could imagine the pressure that would have been placed on Kyiv to seek a compromise, especially if the war appeared to be heading for a stalemate. Yet even countries smarting under the impact of high inflation and fears of shortages at times of peak demand had to assign all the blame to Moscow. Nonetheless the pressures were considerable, with a number of countries lurching to the right in elections (for example, Italy) and in the case of the UK, lurching from one prime minister to another.

One country weathering the storms relatively well was the United States, not least because of its energy independence. All eyes were on Washington. For many of the US’s allies, the period of the Trump presidency had been unnerving and they were alert to signs that he might be getting into a position to regain power in 2024. This was not only because of his distrust of alliances but also because having provoked one major constitutional crisis, he might well provoke another, damaging the reputation of the United States as the leader of the world’s democracies. President Biden had a rocky first year in office and there was concern that economic issues might give Republicans a major boost. In the event, 2022 turned out to be a good year for Biden. He managed some substantial legislative achievements, as Republicans could not put another distance between Trump and his outlandish claims and became associated with an unremitting anti-abortion stance. In the mid-term elections the Democrats held on to the Senate and only narrowly lost the House. With his personally chosen candidates doing badly, Trump acquired the aura of a loser.

Looking forward, the knock-on effects of the war, not only in Europe but elsewhere in the world, will be substantial and possibly damaging, perhaps marked by financial crises and popular discontent. For now, the Western alliance has not only held steady in its support of Ukraine, but appeared as unified as it had ever been (especially after Finland and Sweden moved to join NATO). By keeping Ukraine supplied with weapons and ammunition it had seen Russia and its armed forces experience blows from which it will take years to recover. The big issue for the future is not what will Russia do with its strength, but how will it cope with its weakness, with speculation growing about the potential fragility of Putin’s own position and the bonds holding the Russian Federation together. Having begun the year worrying that they risked losing out in competition to two combative and antagonistic great powers, the Western alliance concluded it in a relatively strong position, with at least one of its great power competitors much diminished and the other looking less confident and unsure.

Author

Lawrence Freedman