At a recent international conference in Delhi, a western diplomat spoke about the ongoing war in Europe. For a moment, the audience was baffled. Then, of course, they realised what he was referring to. That’s how far Ukraine is from the rest-of-the-world’s public consciousness.
But this is the biggest conflict in Europe since World War II. The drumbeat of western media coverage rose to a crescendo to mark the war’s first anniversary. To an independent observer, this war is marked by not just unintended consequences, but by tragic ironies and bewildering contradictions.
Sergey Aleksashenko, Russia’s former deputy finance minister and now a Washington consultant, exposed this when he said that in their daily life “European citizens are feeling the impact of this war, but Russian citizens are not so affected”.
Sanctions have hurt, but not crippled Russia—its economy is still expected to do better than Germany’s and UK’s. Sanctions have also boomeranged with European citizens and businesses reeling under high energy prices. Christmas illuminations were dimmed in the west, but Moscow glittered like an enchanting fairyland. London in February was miserable with empty shelves in grocery stores—no leafy vegetables also because British and Dutch farmers could not afford the heating bills for their greenhouses.
Many countries still trade with Russia, but sanctions also do not bite because businessmen find ways to outsmart politicians. Unable to export to Russia, European entrepreneurs export to Russia’s neighbours, who re-export them. In 2010, when the Nobel peace prize was awarded to Chinese dissident Liu Xiabo, China retaliated by banning Norwegian salmon imports. Vietnam suddenly began importing huge quantities of Norwegian salmon.
Russia expected Kyiv to fall and Ukrainians to surrender, wrapping up this war in days. That did not happen. NATO-supported Ukraine expected Russia to retreat in weeks. That did not happen either. Russian public buildings are intact, but Ukraine has been devastated; its southern and eastern regions lie in ruins. Over 2,000 schools, 1,000 clinics, churches, apartment blocks, energy infrastructure, theatres, libraries, churches, even whole towns reduced to rubble.
Europe, which went into a tailspin in 2015 by the influx of a million Muslim refugees, has welcomed eight million Ukrainian refugees. Russian and Ukrainian soldiers have died in tens of thousands. The brutal war grinds on, tying itself into a giant Gordian knot—Russia cannot win but won’t lose either, Ukraine cannot lose but won’t win either. This war has destroyed millions of lives, but it may yet only be a blip in the 21st century. In 2022, the crucial issues that most countries battled with had little to do with the Ukraine war—health, poverty, corruption, low investment, weak growth, debt, climate change.
President Biden promises to support this war for “as long it takes”. This goes down well in Ukraine, but not so much in the American heartland, where people have begun to criticise Biden’s costly “blank-cheque policy”. The US is no different from other democracies. At election time, domestic issues rule.
Florida governor Ron DeSantis, a potential Republican presidential candidate who aims to topple Biden in the 2024 Presidential elections, asks “why is Biden focusing on Europe’s borders when he should be focusing on ours”. The US-Mexico border, a conduit for illegal migrants, is a hugely divisive election issue. History shows wars are easier to start than to end. American history shows that presidents start wars, but voters often end them. If this war does not end in 2023, it may in 2024 because of the battleground imperatives of the US presidential elections.
Pratap is an author and journalist.