Russia’s Ukrainian failure: territorial acquisition versus loss of status within global networks
“The USSR liked to consider itself to be a superpower and Putin wants Russia to reclaim this status. However, he has failed in this ambition…every square metre of Ukrainian territory that Russia captures contributes to the country’s failure in global networks.”
- John R. Bryson, Professor of Enterprise and Economic Geography, Birmingham Business School
The Kremlin’s goals for its special military operation in Ukraine are unclear. The initial invasion was justified by Putin’s belief that the Russians and the Ukrainians were one and the same people. After the collapse of the USSR, Russian nation-building switched to a focus on forming a single Russian nation constructed around Russian language and culture. Thus, Ukrainians who speak Russian must become part of a single Russian nation. There are many parallels here with the German concept of lebensraum that was an ideological principal of Nazism. This concept also included a concern with ensuring all ethnic Germans were under the control of the Reich. Putin’s initial Ukrainian strategy had its roots in Nazism.
The current rhetoric from Moscow is that the special military operation will continue until all objectives have been achieved regardless of Western aid and the sanctions against Russia. It is worth considering the meaning of success and Russia’s military operation. One difficulty is that the objectives of Putin’s war are fluid. The war commenced with Putin justifying his illegal invasion on the grounds that he wanted to de-militarise and de-nazify pro-Western Ukraine. The Kremlin’s objective has shifted to the acquisition of territory, and this could be defined as the Donbas region.
A concern with capturing territory represents a very nineteenth century approach to geopolitics. It is important to reflect on the importance of both territory and hierarchy. Hierarchy has become much more important than territory as a country’s status is defined by the role it plays in global flows of people, knowledge, expertise, money, high-tech components, and raw materials. Putin’s illegal war has successfully severed Russia from these flows. One consequence is that Russia will never regain its former position within the hierarchy of global networks. Being a superpower in 2022 is no longer about military capability, or territory, but is all about being able to influence global economic, financial and knowledge flows.
It is important to reflect on what Russia has achieved thus far. These include what can only be defined as Russian own goals:
- Highlighting major weaknesses in Russian military intelligence, capacity, and capability. Putin has demonstrated that his investments in military capacity have failed.
- There are many examples of Russia’s loss of status in global networks. These include suspension from the UK Human Rights Council and its withdrawal from the Council of Baltic Sea States.
- One of Putin’s paranoias is his fear of NATO expansion. One of the outcomes of Putin’s Ukrainian war has been NATO expansion, enhanced investment in military capability and an increase in collaboration between NATO members.
- Russia’s economy is too dependent on the sale of raw materials including oil and gas. Putin’s war has forced countries around the world to reduce their economic dependence on Russia. The decision to no longer supply gas to Finland, Poland, and Bulgaria is another one of Putin’s failures. This is a Russian own goal as there were no military reasons for this action and the outcome is a loss of income.
- The Nord Stream 2 pipeline was a major geopolitical and environmental threat. The primary beneficiary would have been Russia. Putin’s war has ensured that this pipeline will never be used, and the result is a major Russian loss.
- Foreign direct investment (FDI) plays an important role in national economic development. Another outcome of Putin’s war has been the withdrawal of FDI from Russia and this includes, for example, the closure of McDonalds. One could argue that this represents the de-westernisation of Russia, but it is also a critical indicator of Russia loss of status in global financial and business networks.
- Russia’s economic actions related to the war imply that no company should enter a contract with Russia as the terms of agreed contracts may be unilaterally altered. This includes the 515 leased airplanes worth $10 billion that Russia has acquired through an illegal action. Putin has highlighted that doing business with Russia comes with extreme risks.
- Putin has forced the migration of around six million Ukrainians to other countries. This displacement works against Russia as a new global knowledge network has developed to spread information about Russia’s actions in Ukraine across the globe.
- Putin claims that some Ukrainians are Russian as they speak Russian and yet many ‘Russian’ Ukrainians have been killed by illegal Russian military operations that have targeted civilians. Russia may acquire the Donbas region, but this will have been depopulated.
When I think about Russia, I reflect on ballet, classical music, literature, Peter the Great, Catherine the Great and the rise and fall of the USSR. I also think about a country that does not protect its citizens and has a long history of committing crimes against humanity and climate crimes. Russia should now be associated with filtration camps in which refugees are strip-searched and threatened, as well as the shooting and bombing of civilians and civilian infrastructure, including hospitals and schools.
The USSR liked to consider itself to be a superpower and Putin wants Russia to reclaim this status. However, he has failed in this ambition. Russia is now an isolated state. Unfortunately for Putin, it is now impossible for Russia to re-establish and enhance its role in global flows. The only way Putin can claim success for his Ukrainian war is through the acquisition of territory. Nevertheless, every square metre of Ukrainian territory that Russia captures contributes to the country’s failure in global networks.