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  • Let slip the dogs of war: A tale of futility and bloody-mindedness

Let slip the dogs of war: A tale of futility and bloody-mindedness


In an article published four days before the launch of his country’s invasion of Ukraine, Moscow-based Director of the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC)Dr Andrei Kortunov warned of its tragic consequences for Russia. The de facto partition of Ukraine, he said, as a result of the Kremlin’s recognition of the independence of the People’s Republics of Donetsk and Luhansk, will signify ‘the final formalisation of the division of Europe’ from which there may be no easy retreat. 

Even with the likelihood of a relatively rapid Russian victory on the battlefield, Kortunov was conjuring a darker and more dangerous East/West confrontational future for his homeland. It is an influential narrative that has been widely re-iterated by media spokespeople both within Russian think-tanks such as RIAC and internationally. For Kortunov, it is one to lament: Relations between Russia and the West will be clarified, he wrote, but it will be the crystal clarity of a cold January dawn, when the scorching north wind takes your breath away and squeezes involuntary tears out of your eyes.

I first met Kortunov in 2017, when he travelled to ANU to address a conference on ‘Russia in the wake of the Cold War’ that I had organized. A gentle, humane man and a formidable scholar of international relations, he has a decades-long commitment to post-Soviet integration into a globalized world. This has meant the pursuit of multilateral diplomacy, commentaries on trends in trade and investment and philanthropic engagements with a long list of organizations, including the International Crisis Group, the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and Oxfam in Africa.

Under his directorship, RIAC also fosters research collaborations and educational exchanges with policy forums such as the Brookings Institution and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, as well as with American, British, European and Chinese universities, and with political leaders, not only among his country’s Eurasian neighbours, but globally. A recent Princeton study described the Council as the world’s most influential think-tank on Russian affairs.

Kortunov’s pre-invasion analysis of the impact on Russia and the West of the war in Ukraine has proven to be prescient. The Putin government has become an international pariah, with virtually no allies or, at least sympathetic observers in the West. Even China, with whom it allegedly has close ties, is currently radically reviewing its stance regarding Russia’s belligerence. Confronted with the unified global condemnation of Russia’s actions, a consensus seems to be emerging among Beijing’s policy-makers of the need to distance China from any potential economic and geopolitical impact of what is perceived as an unwinnable war. It is also argued that China may be in a unique position to leverage Putin to stop the war.


'There has been some talk of the need for bringing a mediator to the negotiation table. Both China and India have been suggested as candidates.' 


Kortunov’s other predictions add up to a catalogue of human misery, in which Russia is relegated to the role of an isolated rogue state. These include an expanded, very costly and protracted arms race, both nuclear and conventional, in which over time a wealthier and more advantaged Western alliance inevitably would surpass the formidable Russian arsenal; the impoverishment of the economy, not only through draconian sanctions; European countries, the UK and the US already are seeking out alternative sources, for example of hydrocarbons and agricultural imports; and the exclusion of Russian research scientists from participation in the further development of the 4th Industrial Revolution technologies of a world economy already in transition. In other words, the brutality and cruelty of the Russian invasion of Ukraine has been deservedly described as an abomination which will mark the country’s relations with the West for decades to come.

What continues to be an enigma is that, despite his high-profile analyses of his country’s foreign policy challenges, Kortunov’s bleak warnings went unheeded behind the closed doors of Putin’s inner circle. In contrast, anecdotally, it has been repeatedly claimed there was a shared assumption among Russia’s intellectual and business elite that any plan to conquer Ukraine was geostrategic insanity. Among many long-term Russia watchers in the West, it was also assumed that geopolitical commonsense would prevail.

Four weeks into the war it is hard not to share Kortunov’s poetic lament. As the humanitarian catastrophe intensifies and murderous devastation is wrought on cities across Ukraine, diplomatic solutions remain as elusive as ever. At this stage, carrying only a modicum of hope, there has been some talk of the need for bringing a mediator to the negotiation table. Both China and India have been suggested as candidates. 

What remains uncertain is how intransigent is Putin’s commitment to his conditions for peace-making. There is the question too of the extent to which America’s long-standing diplomatic obtuseness, warmongering and self-righteousness, of which its dominant role in NATO is emblematic, will undermine any diplomatic attempt to bring to an end the conflict. To paraphrase geopolitical realist Henry Kissinger’s resonate observation, the vilification of Putin and by implication post-Soviet Russia is not a constructive policy. It is the alibi for not having one. Or as Kortunov put it, what is needed now is empathy, flexibility and compromise.



Dorothy HorsfieldDr Dorothy Horsfield is currently a Foundation Fellow at the ANU's Australian Studies Institute. Her most recent book is titled Russia in the Wake of the Cold War Perceptions and Prejudices. 

Main image: People stand in front of a school hit by a Russian attack in March, 2022 in Zhytomyr, Ukraine. (Chris McGrath / Getty Images)

Topic tags: Dorothy Horsfield, Russia, Ukraine, Foreign Policy, Peace Talks



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Existing comments

Dorothy one could hardly expect a fair deal from China or invoke their mediation as a fair umpire, complicit as they are in assisting Russia to invade a peaceful neighbour. They have refused to criticise Putin and seem content to offer him as many lifelines as he needs.
Russia has gone to the Mafia dogs, dons or oligarchs led by Putin. Now we have show trials to imprison the rival he failed to murder by poison a couple of years back. The semblance of normality.
Back to the Gulags.

Children kidnapped en masse. Women, old men and children blown to smithereens. One of our demented arch bishops, Vigano calls this a holy war to re unite the Christian Orthodox church backed up by that other braying crucifix waving fanatic, Patriarch Kirrill.
So now that Putin has unleashed the hounds of hell on Ukraine with imminent threats of nuclear blasts and chemical weapons to bring them to their knees, what is the West going to do about it?
If Russia succeeds in its Putanic quest to "liberate" Ukraine from democracy, assisted by Belarus, then other neighboring states will be next.
The west and NATO need to bite the bullet and mobilise or forever live fear and loathing of another militarily powerful fascist regime.

Francis Armstrong | 23 March 2022  

If France doesn't have any business invading Canada to liberate Quebec, why has Putin any business invading Ukraine to liberate Donetsk and Luhansk?

You mind your own business walking down a street. A person blocks your path and demands money or else. A busybody wearing a clerical collar walks up and suggests you be flexible. Perhaps you can 'negotiate' something with the accoster?

Actually, in logic, you can't negotiate. Like Ukraine, you'd be 'negotiating' how much space in your wallet to make available to the accoster. But, it's your space, not his. Negotiating is when you exchange spaces with the other person. Maybe you can give him five dollars if he allows you to shoot him in the toe. Five dollars less in your space and half a million nerve cells less in his. That's what negotiating is, an exchange of spaces.

Anything else is just giving in to bullying.

roy chen yee | 23 March 2022  
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France was defeated in the Seven Years War in 1763, and defeated fair and square. And the civilised English have governed Canada very well since, at least with respect to the rights of the Francophones. Less kindly to the natives.

Bob | 08 April 2022  

I do not think Putin pays much attention to the likes of Kortunov. Like Hitler, he is becoming increasingly isolated and surrounded by yes men. He is ex-KGB and the KGB's way of dealing with perceived opposition is to eliminate it. Ukraine was right on Russia's doorstep and was everything that Russia was not: a functional democracy with ties to Western Europe. An autocephalous Ukrainian Orthodox Chuch was recently set up, breaking with the Moscow Patriarchate. No wonder Patriarch Kiril supports Putin! Unless Putin is assassinated, as there are rumours Stalin was, he will continue to attempt to destroy Ukraine, whatever the cost.

Edward Fido | 23 March 2022  

Curious that Horsfield's analysis has been pooh-poohed so categorically in a Jesuit publication! I'd ask: what qualifications beyond the exercise of freedom of expression her critics have on which to base their assertions?

Could it be that their prejudices are part and parcel of the same outdated anti-communism that swept through the West during the Cold War?

Are these aged Cold Warriors in favour of the same NATO that removed the elected Mossadegh government in Teheran to replace it with the Shah, as Horsfield reminds us in her closing paragraph, and which has plunged the Middle East into a cauldron that not even the Israelis want to be part of?

Horsfielld's analysis is complemented by that of several eminent Australian peace scholars, members of Pax Christi and who include Joe Camilleri, Stuart Rees, Glenn O'Brien and John Langmore.

The reaction that Horsfield has evoked, with the possible exception of Edward's milder remonstrance, is straight out of the propaganda arsenal of the DLP proto-fascists who supported the Nazis over the Communists, and whose time has now passed.

Good that ES provides a vehicle for 'sounding-off' and 'letting off steam' for hotheads whose vitriolic fulminations would otherwise drive us towards nuclear war.

Michael Furtado | 02 April 2022  

I must say I thought Dr Horsfield's article quite excellent, Michael F and I hope it came through in my comment on it. Dorothy, who is as intellectually on-the-ball as you are, reminded me very much of the Quakers who speak out for peace. Putin is beginning to remind me of Hitler, who brought ruin down on Germany, as well as wreaking havoc and mass murder everywhere. The economic and social consequences of the war on the Ukraine are dire for ordinary Russian citizens, many of who do not support it. Putin is surrounded by Yes men, as was Stalin. Only someone like the great Soviet military hero, Zhukov, could stand up to Stalin. Sadly, there appears no one like that around Putin. Ukraine is winning the war. Zelensky, who is Jewish and thus hardly a Nazi, as Putin calls his government, will probably go down in Ukrainian History like the great Cossack heroes. The defeat of the siege of Kviv is Ukraine's Stalingrad. If this were France, Dorothy Horsfield would be a national celebrity. I regret this is not the case in Australia, where sporting stars get all the limelight.

Edward Fido | 10 April 2022  

Zelensky is a populist, who ousted his democratically-elected predecessor. Under him the Ukrainian police, armed forces and public services are controlled by extreme paramilitary nationalists. Israel has stayed out of it!

Ukraine has simply been a semi-autonomous region for a thousand years, highly contested between Catholics and Orthodoxy, who in that part of the world detest each other.

The Tsars brought stability to the region which is the bread basket of Europe (a bit like The Punjab). The Cold War exacerbated the fault-line that runs through the middle of it because Western Ukrainians, Catholic and regarding the Nazis as liberators, generally hated Communists and Jews!

Ukraine has relatively poor educational and democratic standards and a huge emigration rate. Since +Francis became Pope, its hierarchy, like the Polish and Hungarian, has steadfastly rejected Pope Francis' reforms.

Eastern and Western Ukrainians are like the Serbs and Croats, the former Orthodox, the latter Catholic. Their mutual enmity exceeds their joint hatred of Islam.

The widespread use of the term 'The Ukraine', like 'The Punjab' before partition, reveals its geographic integrity but little else.

The Russians don't want to annex Ukraine. They just don't want the CIA and NATO stirring up trouble next door.

Michael Furtado | 18 April 2022  
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No 'Russians', just the political monopoly of the Putingarchy, Inc. Liberal democracies do not stir up trouble for each other. What the Putingarchy needs to do is compress 807 years of Western political civilisation from Magna Carta into maybe the next two or three years by doing the Gorbachev or de Klerk thing and letting Russia become a liberal democracy.

Perhaps Australia can give the parliament of the new Russia liberal democracy a copy in good outback opal of the copy of Magna Carta that we have at Parliament House in Canberra.

roy chen yee | 20 April 2022  

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