Nicholas Khoo: Russian invasion of Ukraine shatters conventional wisdom


Our deep sympathies with Ukraine’s population and outrage at Russia should not blind us from an uncomfortable truth.

That is, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has shattered some deeply embedded conventional wisdoms that took root after the end of the Cold War.

Conventional wisdom number one is that the utility of military power is declining in our globalised era. In fact, military power never really declined in value and is now arguably more important than ever.

The ongoing Russian military intervention in Ukraine is Moscow’s fourth since the end of the Cold War in 1991.

And the reason Russian leader Vladimir Putin keeps using force is simple — it keeps working for him. The current intervention in Ukraine comes on the back of three successes.

In reaction to Nato’s declaration at its April 2008 Nato summit that Georgia and Ukraine “will become members of Nato” at an unspecified date, Moscow used force against Georgia in August 2008, detaching the Georgian regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia from Tbilisi’s control.

Russia repeated the act in 2014, annexing Crimea from Ukraine.

In September 2015, Russia intervened in Syria and has subsequently sustained a client state led by Bashar Hafez al-Assad.

Indeed, on the issue of wielding military force, Russia needs to look no further than the US for guidance.

As University of Chicago academic John Mearsheimer points out, in the post-Cold War era, the US has fought seven wars and has been at war in two out of every three years.

Conventional wisdom number two is that economic interdependence strongly incentivises states against using force.

And should a state nevertheless use force, sanctions will then be imposed, to disincentivise a repeat of its use.

The powers of economic interdependence and economic sanctions have been exaggerated.

As the examples highlighted above show, when vital national interests are at stake, dense economic interdependence has had little deterrent effect on Russia’s use of military force.

Russia has now had the proverbial kitchen sink thrown at it.

The US and its allies have announced a variety of sanctions against Russia, including restricting Russian banks from access to global financial markets and freezing the assets of Russian oligarchs. Numerous other sanctions are being considered.

But let’s not assume that sanctions will work well, or that they won’t be quietly watered down in time, and even abandoned.

Indeed, the sanctions have been watered down by the EU at the outset. Russian energy has been left off the list of items that the EU has placed sanctions on.

The reason is straightforward – The EU cannot find a substitute source. Russia supplies 40 per centof the EU countries’ gas, and more than 25 per cent of their oil.

The European vulnerability to Russia’s energy supply policy cannot be news to Brussels. The truth is that this vulnerability is widely understood and accepted.

And once this crisis passes, we can be sure that the Nord Stream 2 energy project that supplies gas from the Russian state-owned Gazprom to Western Europe, and which is now suspended as part of the sanctions imposed on Moscow, will be running at full throttle.

But what about the conventional wisdom that has got us into this mess? Conventional wisdoms become the accepted narrative for a variety of reasons.

First, bureaucracies at both the government and international organisation level come to adopt a view.

Thus, in the aftermath of the Cold War, the view took root that increased economic interdependence, the expansion of democracy, and the widening remit of international organisations would bring peace and prosperity in our time.

It is in this context that Nato’s bureaucracy and its decision-makers believed that, with US power at its peak, it could expand the organisation at little or no political cost, up to Russia’s borders, and offer Ukraine the prospect of membership.

And this occurred despite Moscow’s strongly stated objections over three decades.

Second, academics and think-tanks of a particular theoretical persuasion, whose views line up with what the bureaucracies advocate, reinforce the conventional wisdom.

Third, the general public assumes that the experts must know what they are talking about because they are “the experts”.

But when conventional wisdom is at variance with the facts on the ground, reality wins every time.

The surprise is not that Russia has used force in Ukraine. The surprise is that so many individuals suspended their critical thinking and came to the view that this was unlikely, even unthinkable.

The “person on the street” is perfectly entitled to ask where the problem lies. Does the problem lie with the proponents of the conventional wisdom, or does it lie with the facts on the ground? The answer is obvious.

The hard truth is that there is no substitute for thinking through the issues ourselves, and for a triple dose of healthy scepticism toward conventional wisdom.

And the home truth is that this is even more valuable than ever in our current era of spin and fake news.

• Nicholas Khoo is an Associate Professor in the Politics programme at the University of Otago.

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