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Russia vs the West: Facing the Long-term Challenge

Ben-Gad, M. ORCID: 0000-0001-8641-4199 (2022). Russia vs the West: Facing the Long-term Challenge. Economic Affairs: the journal of the IEA, 42(2), pp. 385-394. doi: 10.1111/ecaf.12535


In late February 2022, the prospect of a quick and efficient decapitation of Ukraine's political leadership, followed by the installation of a puppet government in Kyiv, was greeted in Western capitals with a certain grim resignation. Western governments might protest and impose limited sanctions on Russia, taking care that none would inflict an undue burden on their own economies, but nothing could be done to prevent Ukraine – along with Belarus, Moldova and perhaps Kazakhstan – being reintegrated into a resurrected Russian Empire. Over time, relations between Russia and the West would thaw, at least until the next crisis. That was the pattern that followed the invasion of Georgia in 2008 and the invasion of Crimea and the eastern Donbas region of Ukraine in 2014. That explains why sanctions were not imposed to the maximum extent from the start, but instead were gradually escalated as the war dragged on.

Now, thanks to a combination of Russian incompetence and Ukrainian heroism, the West has exchanged its initial pessimism for a growing sense of euphoria. Could Ukraine actually prevail and force Russia to withdraw? Could Russia's military debacle prove so embarrassing, and the sanctions so crippling, that the autocratic regime President Putin has created is forced from power? Unlikely. Russia has not exhausted all the brutal means it still has available to achieve its ends, including high-altitude bombing and the use of non-conventional weapons. Whatever Putin's personal fate, the regime is likely to remain in power for years to come.

In the years after 2014, the Obama, Trump and Biden US administrations, in succession, limited both the type and quantity of weapons that Ukraine could receive from the US. The UK, too, resisted sending weapons lest it impede relations with Russia. Only now is Ukraine receiving in sufficient volume the kinds of weapons that, had they been provided before, might have deterred Russia's aggression. A no-fly zone could help, but it would entail Western pilots becoming engaged in direct combat with their Russian counterparts over the skies of Ukraine, and with Russian air defences – perhaps including those stationed in Russia itself. Could this escalate to the use of nuclear weapons? Almost certainly not, but the key here is the word ‘almost’. During the Cold War the US government lavishly funded the development of game theory to help inform its strategy for confronting the Soviet Union. One of its insights is that bad outcomes can emerge precisely when all actors behave rationally. Confronting Russia's immediate aggression has limits.

So, attention must turn to confronting the long-term threat from Russia. That means relearning lessons from the history of the last century, particularly its two world wars. It also means re-engaging with ideas about deterrence – perhaps forgotten in recent years – derived from formal models of strategic behaviour developed to curtail Soviet expansionism without escalating to nuclear war.1
These lessons and ideas will also need to be applied to the growing threat from China.

Publication Type: Article
Additional Information: This is an open access article under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits use, distribution and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited. © 2022 The Author. Economic Affairs published by John Wiley & Sons Ltd on behalf of Institute of Economic Affairs.
Subjects: J Political Science > JA Political science (General)
J Political Science > JZ International relations
Departments: School of Policy & Global Affairs > Economics
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