Welcome Back to 1918, Circa 2023!
Last week, delegates from the Council of European States, along with representatives from the United States, Japan and Canada, met in Reykjavik to create a register designed to force Russians to financially compensate victims of the war in Ukraine.
Commenting on the meeting and its outcome, the Ukrainian Prime Minister said, “Today’s decision to establish this register is without doubt historic. After that, we should prepare the necessary legal framework for the confiscation of Russian assets and establish a compensation fund.”
This meeting was a serious misstep, likely to prolong the war and increase the suffering of its victims.
The Strategy is Not Working
Militarily, the war is at a stalemate. The gains made by Ukrainian forces in the south are not the beginning of the end but mark what many are calling the beginning of a dramatic escalation of the conflict.
To win this war, the West’s current strategy seems to be to supply Ukraine with all the money and weapons it asks for, minus the diplomatic leadership it badly needs. This strategy amounts to the U.S. and Europe fighting a proxy war with Russia, with Ukraine as the foil. The objectives of this proxy war seem to be the global decline of Russian influence and the removal of Vladimir Putin.
The assumptions driving this strategy appear to be as follows: If the U.S. spends billions and billions, Russia will exhaust itself economically, decrease globally, and be forced to withdraw from Ukraine, and/or the Russian people, worn down by international economic sanctions and the death of their sons, will eventually turn on Puitin and force an end to the war.
Assumptions are never a substitute for effective strategy, and the West’s strategy against Russia is not working. The International Monetary Fund predicts the Russian economy will enjoy “healthy growth” in 2024 thanks to increased trade and diplomatic relations with China and India. Globally, the Russian Ruble is gaining strength, and Russia just signed an agreement with Iran to create a cartel that will exercise global control over the supply and price of natural gas, a natural gas equivalent of OPEC.
Russians show no sign of turning on Putin or the war, with support for the war dipping only slightly over the last year, from 80% to 75%.
Now enter the threat from the West to hold Russians financially responsible for the cost of the war, starting with compensation for the victims.
Who Qualifies for Compensation? History Offers a Stark Warning
One can understand the principles at work here. The war is unjust and tragic. But how will these costs be calculated? Who qualifies as a “victim of the war?” As is often the case with reparations, the definition of victim, whatever it is, will likely expand along with the number of groups wanting their “fair share” of promised monies.
Those who are setting up the register for the victims of the war admit that since there is currently no mechanism for enforcement, they have no idea how such reparations will be funded, except perhaps by liquidating frozen Russian assets, both governmental and private.
In 1918, as World War I moved into year 4, the Allied powers made it clear that they intended to hold Germany financially responsible for the war. This demand prolonged the fighting as Germany refused to sign such a costly “peace.” When Germany finally surrendered, the bill presented to them included everything from pensions for French war widows to the cost of the buttons on French military uniforms.
Contrary to popular belief, the reparations demanded of post-WWI Germany did not collapse their economy. Germany defaulted on most of the demands, even as France occupied parts of the country.
The reparations did enrage ordinary Germans and gave the Nazis, the next generation of militant leaders, a platform to convince a war-exhausted Germany that more war was their country’s only option for survival. One day Putin will pass from the world stage, and someone will take his place. What demands the West places on Russia now will play a role in who his successor will be.
Demands for reparation from Russia, especially at this point in the conflict, will likely prolong the war, even if Putin is removed from the picture. If ordinary Russians think that the West will put them on the hook for the runaway cost of the conflict, they will likely dig in their heels and continue to fight, regardless of who is in charge.
Trump Wasn’t Wrong
On May 10, 2023, during a CNN Townhall, Former President Donald Trump broke the internet when he refused to say who he wanted to “win” in the war between Russia and Ukraine. Trump stubbornly repeated that he wanted “everybody to stop dying” on both sides and then pointed out the significant discrepancy between the amount of money supplied by the United States vs. Europe in this conflict. As bombastic as he is, Trump was not wrong, and the U.S. is over-funding this war at a rate of two to one against all European nations combined. For those who think that we can afford this and Europe cannot, note that the GDP of the EU is as large, if not larger (by some estimates) than the U.S. GDP.
Suppose the United States was serious about stopping this war. In that case, the Biden administration might start by telling the European powers that they needed to pay more of “their fair share” for this conflict, which is, after all, in their backyard and not ours. Our footing the bill for a proxy war with Russia disincentivize European diplomats who might negotiate an end to hostilities.
Likewise, any suggestion by the U.S. and Europe that Russians will pay for this war encourages Europeans to drag their diplomatic feet. Why would European nations end a war now that could be so profitable later? If this sounds pessimistic, keep in mind that Europe has an historical knack for starting conflicts, underestimating their potential to spread, and then burning the whole world down. European talk of reparations is likely to deepen resentment of the Russian people towards the West, increasing their willingness to fight, prolonging and perhaps expanding this bloody, no-win war.
Dr. Jeff Gardner holds an MA in history and a Ph.D. in Communication and Media Studies. For over a decade, he has worked in media, writing and taking photographs for various publications and organizations across North America, Europe, Asia, Africa and the Middle East. His work has been featured in numerous national and international publications and broadcasts. He teaches courses in media, culture and government at Regent University. You can reach him at jeffgardner.online.