A Bad Year For The West?
The BBC's security correspondent thinks so.
BBC security correspondent Frank Gardner expounds on “Why 2023 was an uncomfortable year for the West.”
The past 12 months have seen a number of setbacks for the US, Europe and other major democracies on the international politics stage. None has been disastrous, for now. But they point to a shifting balance of power away from the US-dominated, Western values that have held sway for years.
On many fronts, the wind is blowing in the wrong direction for Western interests.
By and large, I think this is wrong. But he makes some interesting points.
Despite some recent successes in the Black Sea, the war is not going well for Ukraine. That means, by extension, it is going badly for Nato and the EU, which have bankrolled Ukraine’s war effort and its economy to the tune of tens of billions of dollars.
This time last year, hopes were high in Nato that, supplied with modern military equipment and intensive training in Western countries, Ukraine’s army could press home the advantage it had gained that autumn and push the Russians out of much of the territory they had seized. That hasn’t happened.
The problem has been one of timing. Nato countries took a long time making their mind up about whether they dared send modern Main Battle Tanks like Britain’s Challenger 2 and Germany’s Leopard 2 to Ukraine, in case it provoked President Vladimir Putin into some sort of rash retaliation.
The Russian army may have performed abysmally in its attempts to seize Kyiv in 2022, but where it excels is in defence. All that time that Ukrainian brigades were getting trained up in Britain and elsewhere during the first half of 2023, and while the tanks were being shipped eastwards to the front, Russia was building the biggest, most extensive lines of defensive fortifications in modern history.
For Ukraine and the West, the metrics are nearly all going in the wrong direction. Ukraine is running critically short of ammunition and soldiers. Congress is holding up the White House’s attempts to push through a $60bn military support package. Hungary is holding up the EU’s €50bn aid package.
One or both may eventually get through, but that may be too late. Ukrainian forces are already having to switch to the defensive. Meanwhile, Moscow has put its economy on a war footing, devoting one-third of its national budget to defence while throwing thousands of men and thousands of artillery shells at Ukraine’s front lines.
Obviously this situation is deeply disappointing for Ukraine, which had hoped by now to have turned the tide of war in its favour. But why does it matter to the West?
It matters because President Putin, who personally ordered this invasion nearly two years ago, needs only to hold on to the territory he has seized (roughly 18% of Ukraine) to proclaim a victory.
Nato has emptied its armouries and committed everything short of going to war in order to support its ally, Ukraine. All potentially ending in an embarrassing failure to reverse the Russian invasion. Meanwhile, the Baltic states – Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, all Nato members – are convinced that if Mr Putin can succeed in Ukraine, he will come for them within five years.
Gardner’s factual recitation is irrefutable. But I disagree with his conclusion. Indeed, the notion that anything but a complete humiliation constitutes victory for Putin is absurd.
The war began with the expectation that Putin’s forces would simply roll over Ukraine’s, annexing the country in a matter of days. Most of us were surprised at both the resiliency of the Ukrainian people and the degree to which Western militaries had trained up their forces in the years since the 2014 invasion of Crimea. For a time, some observers got too giddy at the prospect of a complete rollback.
It’s true that some in the West, particularly the United States, are starting to rethink the cost of this long-term commitment to Ukraine. But it remains true that NATO is stronger now than at any point in the post-Cold War period—if not its history. Two long-neutral countries, Sweden and Finland, have agreed to join the alliance. How that’s not a victory for the West and a defeat for Putin escapes me.
The Russian president is a wanted man. In theory.
In March 2023, he was indicted by the International Criminal Court in The Hague, along with his Commissioner for Children’s Rights, for war crimes committed against Ukrainian children.
The West hoped this would make him an international pariah and bottle him up in his own country, unable to travel for fear of arrest and deportation to The Hague. That hasn’t happened.
Since that indictment, President Putin has been to Kyrgyzstan, China, the UAE and Saudi Arabia, getting a red-carpet welcome each time. He has also taken part virtually in the Brics summit in South Africa.
Round after round of EU sanctions were supposed to bring the Russian economy to its knees, forcing Mr Putin to reverse his invasion. Yet Russia has proved to be remarkably resilient to these sanctions, sourcing many products through other countries such as China and Kazakhstan. True, the West has largely weaned itself off Russian oil and gas, but Moscow has found other willing customers, albeit at a reduced price.
The fact is that while Mr Putin’s invasion and brutal occupation of Ukraine is abhorrent to Western nations, it largely isn’t to the rest of the world. Many nations see this as Europe’s problem, with some putting the blame on Nato, saying it provoked Russia by expanding too far east. To the dismay of Ukrainians, these nations seem oblivious to the widescale torture and abuses committed by Russia’s invading troops.
Again, this is all true. But it hardly represents either a “setback” or “a shifting balance of power.” That the global south doesn’t share Western values is not a new thing. Ditto the fact that Putin is welcomed by autocrats.
The West, Arab ministers told me recently at a summit in Riyadh, has double standards. “Your governments are hypocrites,” I was told. Why, they asked me, do you expect us to condemn Russia for killing civilians in Ukraine when you refuse a ceasefire in Gaza, where thousands of civilians are being killed?
The Israel-Hamas war has clearly been catastrophic for all Gazans and for those Israelis affected by the murderous Hamas raid into southern Israel on 7 October. It has also been bad for the West.
It has diverted global attention away from Nato’s ally, Ukraine, as it struggles to hold off Russian advances this winter. It has diverted US munitions away from Kyiv in favour of Israel.
But most of all, in the eyes of many Muslims and others around the world, it has made the US and UK appear complicit in the destruction of Gaza by protecting Israel at the UN. Russia, whose air force carpet-bombed the city of Aleppo in Syria, has seen its stock rise in the Middle East since 7 October.
Again, it’s not as if the Muslim world was pro-Western on October 6. But, yes, the US-UK support of Israel has weakened whatever support we had there. The notion that we could be allies with Israel while simultaneously being partners with its enemies was always a fantasy.
Iran is under suspicion of secretly developing a nuclear weapon, which it denies. Yet despite Western efforts, it is far from isolated, having extended its military tentacles across Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen and Gaza through proxy militias that it funds, trains and arms.
This year, has seen it forge an ever-closer alliance with Moscow, which it provides with a seemingly inexhaustible supply of Shahed drones to launch at Ukraine’s towns and cities.
Designated as a hostile threat by several Western nations, Iran has benefited from the Gaza war by positioning itself in the Middle East as a champion of the Palestinian cause.
Again, this is status quo, not some new development. Iran has been an American enemy since 1979. The Soviet Union and Russia have been its primary weapons supplier since the fall of the Shah. And the two countries have gotten closer over the years as they’ve both been under Western sanctions. Pariah nations seeking comfort with other pariahs is the natural order of things.
One by one, the countries of the Sahel region of West Africa have been succumbing to military coups that have seen the expulsion of European forces that were helping to combat a jihadist insurgency in the region.
The former French colonies of Mali, Burkina Faso and Central African Republic had already turned against the Europeans when in July, yet another coup saw the ousting of a pro-Western president in Niger. The last French troops have now left the country, although 600 US troops remain there in two bases.
Replacing the French and international forces are the Russian mercenaries of the Wagner group, which has managed to cling on to its lucrative business deals despite the mysterious death of its leader, Yevgeny Prigozhin, in a plane crash in August.
Meanwhile, South Africa, once seen as a Western ally, has been holding joint naval exercises with Russian and Chinese warships.
I must confess that African politics is not prominent on my radar screen. But, yes, Russia and China have made substantial inroads there. That US aid, trade, and investment comes with all manner of strings tied to human rights puts us at a severe disadvantage.
The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is supposed to be under strict international sanctions because of its banned nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programme.
Yet this year, it has forged close links with Russia, with its leader Kim Jong Un visiting a Russian spaceport, followed by North Korea sending a reported one million artillery shells to Russian forces fighting in Ukraine.
North Korea has test-fired several intercontinental ballistic missiles, which are now believed capable of reaching most parts of the continental US.
See Iran above. Pariahs gotta stick together.
To some extent, 2023 has seen an easing of tension between Beijing and Washington, with a largely successful summit between Presidents Biden and Xi in San Francisco.
But China has shown no sign of backing down on its claims over most of the South China Sea, issuing a new “standard” map that extends its claims almost right up to the coastlines of several Asia-Pacific nations.
Nor has it given up its claims over Taiwan, which it has vowed to “take back”, by force if necessary.
This has been the status quo for decades now. It’s not a sign of a weakened West.
Gardner shifts gears here:
Reasons for optimism?
Against this gloomy backdrop for the West, it is perhaps hard to see glimmers of hope. But on the plus side for the West, the Nato alliance has clearly rediscovered its defensive purpose, galvanised by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The Western unanimity shown so far has surprised many, although some cracks are now beginning to appear.
But it is in the Middle East where there is the greatest potential for improvement. That’s partly because of the horrific scale of events which have unfolded on both sides of the Gaza-Israel border.
Before 7 October, the search for a solution to the question of a future Palestinian state had largely been abandoned. A certain complacency had crept into Israel’s dealings with the Palestinians that this was a problem that could somehow be managed through security measures, without having to make any serious moves towards offering them a state of their own.
That formula has now been shown to be fatally flawed. One world leader after another has proclaimed that Israelis will not be able to live in the peace and security they deserve unless Palestinians can do the same.
Finding a just and durable solution to a problem that stretches back into history is going to be incredibly difficult and will ultimately involve painful compromises and sacrifices on both sides if it is to succeed. But now at last, it has the world’s attention.
I have little hope for a solution to the Palestinian problem. There will be no two-state solution and there’s not a one-state solution that’s acceptable to both sides.
Honestly, while I concede that Gardner’s focus is on the “international politics stage,” the main setbacks for the West have come from democratic backsliding in so many countries. The Trump phenomenon in the United States is of course the most prominent but we’ve seen growing support for far-right, anti-democratic parties across much of Western Europe. That’s a far greater danger to Western values and influence than any of those listed in the article.