In May 1941, with Britain isolated and the US not even in the Second World War, John Maynard Keynes flew to America to discuss a simple question with his counterparts: what will the world economy look like when we win?
In August that year, Franklin D Roosevelt and Winston Churchill issued the Atlantic Charter – the basic design for the United Nations. By December 1941, when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, the Allied commanders had already decided their overall strategy for the war: to fight Germany first, Japan second.
Compared to that, the West’s response to Russia’s aggression against Ukraine – and the implied destruction of the order created by the UN Charter – has been distinctly unstrategic. The major EU powers – France, Germany and the Commission itself – blundered into the war protesting its impossibility. The US, while frantically declassifying evidence that the conflict was about to start, failed to persuade its democratic allies to defend Ukraine with anything more than small arms shipments.
The sanctions, though fast enough to grab half of Russia’s foreign exchange reserves, were not strong enough to paralyse its economy, because much of Europe had got itself into acute energy dependence on Russian oil and gas. As a result, even as its soldiers rape, torture and execute Ukraine’s civilians, the West continues shovelling dollars into Vladimir Putin’s bank account through oil and gas payments. There has, in short, been an acute absence of the kind of strategic thinking shown by Western leaders in the last big global showdown.
Though he declared a Zeitenwende, or sea-change in German policy, Chancellor Olaf Scholz has found it difficult to persuade his party or himself that selling heavy weapons to Ukraine won’t trigger nuclear retaliation, before finally committing to send anti-aircraft tanks. Boris Johnson, though he readily shipped weaponry to Ukraine, runs a cabinet and a party still enmeshed in Russian financial influence. Joe Biden the trade unionist asked, out loud, how the West could allow Putin to stay in power; Joe Biden the president walked the idea of regime change back a few hours later.
The West, in short, has been dragged into a conflict it did not prepare for; it has been dragged from crisis management into heavy and continuous supplies of heavy arms and ammunition. It has moved from the assumption that Ukraine would be occupied to the assumption that Ukraine can win.
But it is still unable to answer the question that the giants of the 1940s knew was obvious and which they engaged with even as their backs were to the wall: what does winning look like in Ukraine? And what do we need to do to bring stability, rather than chaos, to a post-ceasefire Black Sea region?
In part, this failure is due to the way free-market capitalism has eviscerated strategic thinking among the West’s political elite. The defence analyst James Sherr, at the Estonian think tank ICDS, complains: “What used to be great departments of state are now dominated by policy managers rather than strategic thinkers.” The only influential figures to buck the trend, he says, are the celebrated “realists” who’ve urged the West to consign Ukraine to Vladimir Putin’s sphere of influence.
Sherr offers no explanation for how this came about, but long-time critics of neoliberalism know the answer. As Goldsmiths economist Will Davies puts it: neoliberalism is “the disenchantment of politics by economics”.
Keynes’s generation used economic tools to achieve universalist social goals: national self-determination, labour rights, full employment and universal human rights. They were unashamed utopians in their plans for the post-1945 peace. But for this generation of leaders, everything is economics. That’s why it has not produced a rival modern utopianism to match the conservative realist John Mearsheimer, who would hand the Donbas over to Russia. But without a desired end state there can be no strategy, and without a strategy there can be no military and logistical coherence.
This week the US defence secretary Lloyd Austin made the first strategic counterplay of the conflict. He announced, in clear terms, America’s new goal: “We want to see Ukraine remain a sovereign country, a democratic country able to protect its sovereign territory. We want to see Russia weakened to the point where it can’t do things like invade Ukraine.”
Given that Austin is a retired four-star general, with lifelong training in the precise statement of objectives, it’s worth analysing this statement closely. For the US, winning now means Ukraine surviving not as a neutral buffer state, but with a substantial military and a democratic system. More importantly, winning means the Russian army will be so depleted that it can neither reinvade Ukraine, nor threaten anywhere in eastern Europe.
Are those goals realistic? Yes. And they leave Putin with a strategic choice. After the US-hosted Ramstein summit in Germany, it is clear that – whatever France and Germany do – America is committed to supplying arms that will enable Ukraine to destroy the advancing Russian forces in Donbas. Thus, Putin can have a world-class army able to match his global-scale narcissism, or he can have the Donbas region, but he can’t have both.
America is now committed not only to long-term economic sanctions but to a proxy war with Russia. What it’s not committed to is regime change, nor even destabilisation of the Putin regime. It sees an opportunity to bleed Russia as a long-term threat, leaving itself to turn, eventually, to its major preoccupation – which is the containment of China.
Into the space that winning would create, it is time for politics to intervene, including left-wing politics. There’s been a lot of criticism – justifiably – of the Ukrainian elite’s softness for the country’s Bandera tradition of far-right nationalism; and for its tolerance of the far-right Azov movement and the Pravi Sector, both of whom maintain politicised military units. But during the war, the left-oriented Ukrainian trade unions, human rights groups, independent media and internationalist left parties have also thrown themselves into the defence of the country.
If winning now means a sovereign, democratic Ukraine, then progressives – ranging from Greens and liberals to social democrats, the trade unions and the radical left – have to start building the capacity of our counterparts in Ukraine, Russia and Belarus to make their own mark on the peace. At home we need to find politicians who can do strategy – where strategy means not how to privatise Channel 4, or sink the Northern Ireland protocol, but the creation and maintenance of alliances and security agreements that can restabilise eastern Europe. Above all, we need politicians who believe in social progress. The 1941 Atlantic Charter, even in its archaic language, contains a vision still worth striving for: “The fullest collaboration between all nations in the economic field with the object of securing, for all, improved labour standards, economic advancement, and social security.”