In the field of international relations, the term “zero-sum game” is a familiar one. It’s a term from a world seemingly long past, a world of winners and losers, where both sides cannot harbor some ambiguous sense of victory, and where objective truth supersedes bizarre notions such as “subjective truth.”
In today’s world, awash in postmodernism, such terms have fallen by the wayside. But there’s the rub: Despite all the efforts to blur the picture, here we are watching a crisis unfold between Russia and the United States, making it seem as if we’ve truly gone back in time.
This is apparently the world’s “return to reality” moment, in which everything that happened in the past 30 years since the collapse of the Soviet bloc is revealed to have been a passing episode. In which we discover that American hegemony failed to change the world and prevent it from reverting to this state of inter-superpower balance. We are now witnessing the “correction” in financial terms as well.
What do we have here, essentially? Two global powers, one in the East, the other in the West, and one continent, Europe, in the middle, which, it must be said, is still post-traumatic from the Second World War. In the eye of this storm, meanwhile, is Ukraine, a buffer state upon which the future hinges.
Analyzing Russian President Vladimir Putin’s behavior over the past 15 years and his consistent strategic modus operandi, his aim is clear: He wants to reestablish Russia’s status as a global superpower and an equal counterweight to dissipating American hegemony.
Truth be told, from his perspective, he’s justified. Since the 1990s, the West has appropriated, one after another, all the countries west of the Ural Mountains that once belonged to the Soviet bloc. And the Russian bear openly and declaratively feels the noose closing.
Putin has acted decisively against insurrections and has sought to create a clear line beyond which the West cannot gain a foothold. Not in Abkhazia, not in Georgia, not in the Baltics and not in the Crimean Peninsula. Russia will not let the West reach its doorstep. The Russian leader has also proven he isn’t afraid to use force—and sure enough, when he did so, those same buffer countries fell into his hands like a house of cards.
And now to Ukraine. For many months Putin has amassed his forces around this buffer country, essentially signaling to the West: “until here.” This signal caught Washington at a bad time, and Europe at an even worse one. They are busy with their own problems, and war from their point of view is a hellish prospect with which they have no true desire to contend. In this context, Putin is nothing more than a nuisance. Yet while Putin is maintaining a consistent strategy, the West is wavering and irresolute.
Right now, Russian military divisions, capable of firepower we haven’t seen in a very long time, are prepared for a ground operation in Ukraine’s north and east. The Russians are trained and ready, and the methods Putin will employ are diverse—cyber, domestic subversion, fomenting chaos, and finally, yes, charging armored divisions.
Rest assured—you won’t see a war of East vs West here. This war has already been decided; the West does not intend to spill blood for Ukraine. Even if we do see Russian tank columns moving against Ukraine’s brittle defenses—a scenario that most likely won’t materialize—the West doesn’t actually have the appetite for, or the ability to provide a sufficient countermeasure.
This war was over before it began. Putin won, and now just wants a formal surrender and a captivating victory image. It turns out that our modern world is in many respects similar to the world of yesteryear—it is still a world in which you don’t mess with the Russian bear and a culture that eats geopolitical strategy for breakfast.
Col. (res.) Ronen Itsik is a former commander in the IDF Armored Corps and author of “A Man in a Tank.”
This article first appeared in Israel Hayom.