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The Russia-Ukraine War at Two: A Critical Appraisal of Western Policy

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Despite offensives undertaken by both sides, the frontline in the ongoing war between Russia and Ukraine has barely moved since the late autumn of 2022. One should not take this to mean that we have arrived at a permanent stalemate – the war has already featured several unanticipated developments, from Ukraine’s heroic resistance during the Battle of Kyiv to its stunning advances in the Kharkiv and Kherson regions.

Yet, as we enter 2024 and the war nears its two-year mark, the fact that neither the Russians nor the Ukrainians have achieved their strategic objectives offers an opportunity to re-evaluate the successes and failures of American and Western policy to date.

The West Reborn

If the purpose of US policy toward the Ukraine war is to bolster American primacy within NATO and Europe, then it appears to have succeeded.

After crisis-management operations in the former Yugoslavia, Afghanistan and Libya, NATO has rediscovered its old mission of collective defence. And although the EU has demonstrated growing aspirations in the realm of security and defence, the effect of the war has been to expose – and even deepen – Europe’s dependence on the United States. Despite continued uncertainty over the future of the transatlantic relationship, the EU has neither the ability nor the aspiration to assume responsibility for the territorial defence of Europe.

Although the EU has demonstrated growing aspirations in the realm of security and defence, the effect of the war has been to expose – and even deepen – Europe’s dependence on the United States.

The EU’s core strategic aims in response to the war, such as becoming a “geopolitical actor” and reinvigorating the enlargement process, are inherently long-term in nature and have thus served to strengthen US primacy in Europe even further. Enlargement remains one of the few clear competencies that the EU can wield to geopolitical effect, but it will invariably take time to bear fruit, not only due to the difficulty of aligning a war-fighting country with the EU acquis, but also because of the budgetary and decision-making reforms that existing members must pursue to make a larger union viable. To these goals, one could add “strategic autonomy”, first endorsed by the European Council more than a decade ago but which remains a diffuse – even contested – concept outside Brussels and Paris.

A slow-moving approach evidences a certain raison de système, facilitating careful trust building among member states and allowing the EU to pursue its (very) long-term ambition of transforming the continent in line with its norms and values. But the immediate effect is to punt decisions on the shape of the European security order, which will be forged in the process of conflict resolution in Ukraine, down the road. A policy process that often favours agreements rooted in the lowest common denominator can sideline the EU as an actor, revealing a tension between the EU’s normative foundations and geopolitical ambitions.

Primacy's Pitfalls

By contrast, if the purpose of US policy is to weaken Russia, as Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin asserted in the war’s early months, then the record is mixed.

Russia has undoubtedly seen its strategic room for manoeuvre reduced since the invasion, owing to the rupture of its relations with the West and its increased dependence on China. But in a prolonged war of attrition, Moscow’s ability to develop a wartime economy offers a decisive advantage. By the end of 2023, Russia was able to fire roughly five times as many artillery rounds per day as Ukraine. And despite the Western sanctions, Moscow’s production of missiles, tanks and ammunition all now exceed prewar levels, with the Russian economy growing by 3.5 percent last year.

Relying on Iranian and North Korean assistance was undoubtedly not Moscow’s first choice when the war began. And the longer-term impact of Western sanctions on Russia’s economic and technological development are yet to be seen. But the West must confront the likelihood, already taking shape, that Russia will emerge from this war intact, relatively wealthy and militarily menacing for years to come.

Hopes that Western financial and Ukrainian military pressure might engender regime change or even Russia’s collapse as a state were especially misplaced. In no small part, this is owed to the demographic preponderance and broad territorial contiguity of the ethnic Russian population in post-Soviet Russia, as well as popular aversion to instability flowing from the legacy of the chaotic 1990s. The outcome of the Prigozhin rebellion, from his march on Moscow to his ultimate demise, further underscores how difficult it can be to ascertain regime strength in Russia. A policy that logically (albeit not explicitly) posits political change inside Russia as a precondition for the return of “business as usual” is replete with pitfalls.

After two years of the West pursuing its policy of backing Kyiv for “as long as it takes”, the most likely outcome to the current phase of hostilities will see Ukraine’s territorial integrity still significantly compromised, even as a resentful and irredentist Russia continues to pose an ongoing threat to Ukrainian independence and European security. And it remains highly uncertain whether Western publics are prepared to support Cold War-like elevated levels of defence spending – the necessary price to pay for security in the absence of a cooperative pan-European security order.

It remains highly uncertain whether Western publics are prepared to support Cold War-like elevated levels of defence spending – the necessary price to pay for security in the absence of a cooperative pan-European security order.

This leads us to the final goal of US and Western policy – to help Ukraine preserve its independence and, ideally, restore control over its internationally recognized borders. Nearly two years after the Russian invasion, it remains unclear whether the Western aim is to help Ukraine win the war or rather merely to prevent it from losing. But at the very least, beyond offering credible security guarantees to Ukraine (which NATO members have thus far proven reluctant to provide), a successful Western policy here would see Kyiv advance along the path to European integration.

However, growing support for populist leaders – most recently on display in Slovakia and the Netherlands – casts doubt on the reliability of Western commitments undertaken today. The political priorities of these nationalist forces lie closer to home, focused more on addressing the challenge of migration than the external security threat from Russia. If their fortunes continue to rise on both sides of the Atlantic, it could deal a mortal blow to future Western support for Ukraine – and not just when it comes to military and financial assistance. Given her domestic electoral base, a hypothetical French President Marine Le Pen in 2027 may be highly unwilling, for instance, to endorse the changes to the Common Agricultural Policy necessary for Ukraine’s EU accession.

While Western assistance has allowed Kyiv to defend itself against Russian aggression so far, the West’s diplomatic posture since late 2021 has helped foster a dynamic in which Russia will pose a persistent threat to Ukrainian sovereignty. Although it was Vladimir Putin who pulled the trigger, Western states eschewed the possibility of a mutually acceptable compromise over Ukraine’s status in the leadup to the war, then elevated the stakes once the war had begun to include the survival of the “rules-based international order” writ large, making a face-saving climbdown more difficult. The result has been to take certain options for conflict resolution, such as Ukrainian non-alignment, off the table unless Russia imposes them by force.

The West in a Multipolar World

A wider gaze reveals an even starker picture – one filled with strategic missteps and missed opportunities.

Failure to anticipate the ambivalent reaction of the Global South to Russia’s invasion has ensured that it will be the global – and not just European – order that will become more fragmented and competitive. The sweeping tech restrictions that the Biden administration imposed on China in October 2022, adopted as Ukraine’s military gains reached their apex, made it more difficult for Washington to count on Beijing’s help to settle the conflict on favourable terms. And the Western response to the Israel-Hamas war has, rightly or wrongly, recast the Ukrainian cause in a geopolitical rather than moral light. These moves have made the West more vulnerable, more distracted, and less able to marshal support for Ukraine.

The unipolar moment has passed. When it comes to the more difficult tasks inherent to navigating a multipolar or polycentric world – listening, compromise, and nuanced statecraft – Western foreign policy remains wanting.

In sum, when operating according to the familiar logic of primacy, the US and its European partners have excelled. But the unipolar moment has passed. When it comes to the more difficult tasks inherent to navigating a multipolar or polycentric world – listening, compromise, and nuanced statecraft – Western foreign policy remains wanting.

It may have been an exaggeration to suggest that the “rules-based international order” itself was at stake in Ukraine. Russia’s aggression against its neighbour was far from being the first violation of international law or territorial integrity that the world has witnessed since World War II. Ironically, however, the West now finds itself in the uncomfortable position of needing to choose between shaping a truly global order based on compromise, or accepting that Western norms may increasingly become relegated to a condensed geographic space.

Written By:
Zachary Paikin
Dr. Zachary Paikin is a Senior Fellow at the Institute for Peace & Diplomacy. He is also Senior Researcher in International Security Dialogue at the Geneva Centre for Security Policy and a part-time Research Fellow in Grand Strategy at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft in Washington, DC.
Panel 4: Pathways to Manage Non-Proliferation in the Middle East (4:30 PM - 5:45 PM ET)

The Western powers have failed to effectively manage the increasing threat of proliferation in the Middle East. While the international community is concerned with Iran’s nuclear program, Saudi Arabia has moved forward with developing its own nuclear program, and independent studies show that Israel has longed possessed dozens of nuclear warheads. The former is a member of the treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), while the latter has refused to sign the international agreement. 

On Middle East policy, the Biden campaign had staunchly criticized the Trump administration’s unilateral withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), more commonly known as the Iran Nuclear Deal and it has begun re-engaging Iran on the nuclear dossier since assuming office in January 2021. However, serious obstacles remain for responsible actors in expanding non-proliferation efforts toward a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East. 

This panel will discuss how Western powers and multilateral institutions, such as the IAEA, can play a more effective role in managing non-proliferation efforts in the Middle East.  


Peggy Mason: Canada’s former Ambassador to the UN for Disarmament

Mark Fitzpatrick: Associate Fellow & Former Executive Director, International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS)

Ali Vaez: Iran Project Director, International Crisis Group

Negar Mortazavi: Journalist and Political Analyst, Host of Iran Podcast

David Albright: Founder and President of the Institute for Science and International Security


Closing (5:45 PM – 6:00 PM ET)

Panel 3: Trade and Business Diplomacy in the Middle East (3:00 PM - 4:15 PM ET)

What is the current economic landscape in the Middle East? While global foreign direct investment is expected to fall drastically in the post-COVID era, the World Bank reported a 5% contraction in the economic output of the Middle East and North African (MENA) countries in 2020 due to the pandemic. While oil prices are expected to rebound with normalization in demand, political instability, regional and geopolitical tensions, domestic corruption, and a volatile regulatory and legal environment all threaten economic recovery in the Middle East. What is the prospect for economic growth and development in the region post-pandemic, and how could MENA nations promote sustainable growth and regional trade moving forward?

At the same time, Middle Eastern diaspora communities have become financially successful and can help promote trade between North America and the region. In this respect, the diaspora can become vital intermediaries for advancing U.S. and Canada’s business interests abroad. Promoting business diplomacy can both benefit the MENA region and be an effective and positive way to advance engagement and achieve foreign policy goals of the North Atlantic.

This panel will investigate the trade and investment opportunities in the Middle East, discuss how facilitating economic engagement with the region can benefit Canadian and American national interests, and explore relevant policy prescriptions.


Hon. Sergio Marchi: Canada’s Former Minister of International Trade

Scott Jolliffe: Chairperson, Canada Arab Business Council

Esfandyar Batmanghelidj: Founder and Publisher of Bourse & Bazaar

Nizar Ghanem: Director of Research and Co-founder at Triangle

Nicki Siamaki: Researcher at Control Risks

Panel 2: Arms Race and Terrorism in the Middle East (12:00 PM - 1:15 PM ET)

The Middle East continues to grapple with violence and instability, particularly in Yemen, Syria and Iraq. Fueled by government incompetence and foreign interventions, terrorist insurgencies have imposed severe humanitarian and economic costs on the region. Meanwhile, regional actors have engaged in an unprecedented pursuit of arms accumulation. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have imported billions of both Western and Russian-made weapons and funded militant groups across the region, intending to contain their regional adversaries, particularly Iran. Tehran has also provided sophisticated weaponry to various militia groups across the region to strengthen its geopolitical position against Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Israel. 

On the other hand, with international terrorist networks and intense regional rivalry in the Middle East, it is impractical to discuss peace and security without addressing terrorism and the arms race in the region. This panel will primarily discuss the implications of the ongoing arms race in the region and the role of Western powers and multilateral organizations in facilitating trust-building security arrangements among regional stakeholders to limit the proliferation of arms across the Middle East.



Luciano Zaccara: Assistant Professor, Qatar University

Dania Thafer: Executive Director, Gulf International Forum

Kayhan Barzegar: Professor and Chair of the Department of Political Science and International Relations at the Science and Research Branch of Azad University

Barbara Slavin: Director of Iran Initiative, Atlantic Council

Sanam Shantyaei: Senior Journalist at France24 & host of Middle East Matters

Panel 1: Future of Diplomacy and Engagement in the Middle East (10:30 AM-11:45 AM ET)

The emerging regional order in West Asia will have wide-ranging implications for global security. The Biden administration has begun re-engaging Iran on the nuclear dossier, an initiative staunchly opposed by Israel, while also taking a harder line on Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen. Meanwhile, key regional actors, including Qatar, Iraq, and Oman, have engaged in backchannel efforts to bring Iran and Saudi Arabia to the negotiating table. From a broader geopolitical perspective, with the need to secure its energy imports, China is also expected to increase its footprint in the region and influence the mentioned challenges. 

In this evolving landscape, Western powers will be compelled to redefine their strategic priorities and adjust their policies with the new realities in the region. In this panel, we will discuss how the West, including the United States and its allies, can utilize multilateral diplomacy with its adversaries to prevent military escalation in the region. Most importantly, the panel will discuss if a multilateral security dialogue in the Persian Gulf region, proposed by some regional actors, can help reduce tensions among regional foes and produce sustainable peace and development for the region. 


Abdullah Baabood: Academic Researcher and Former Director of the Centre for Gulf Studies, Qatar University

Trita Parsi: Executive Vice-President, Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft

Ebtesam Al-Ketbi: President, Emirates Policy Centre​

Jon Allen: Canada’s Former Ambassador to Israel

Elizabeth Hagedorn: Washington correspondent for Al-Monitor

Panel 4: Humanitarian Diplomacy: An Underused Foreign Policy Tool in the Middle East (4:30 PM - 5:30 PM ET)

Military interventions, political and economic instabilities, and civil unrest in the Middle East have led to a global refugee crisis with an increasing wave of refugees and asylum seekers to Europe and Canada. Moreover, the COVID-19 pandemic has, in myriad ways, exacerbated and contributed to the ongoing security threats and destabilization of the region.

While these challenges pose serious risks to Canadian security, Ottawa will also have the opportunity to limit such risks and prevent a spillover effect vis-à-vis effective humanitarian initiatives in the region. In this panel, we will primarily investigate Canada’s Middle East Strategy’s degree of success in providing humanitarian aid to the region. Secondly, the panel will discuss what programs and initiatives Canada can introduce to further build on the renewed strategy. and more specifically, how Canada can utilize its policy instruments to more effectively deal with the increasing influx of refugees from the Middle East. 



Erica Di Ruggiero: Director of Centre for Global Health, University of Toronto

Reyhana Patel: Head of Communications & Government Relations, Islamic Relief Canada

Amir Barmaki: Former Head of UN OCHA in Iran

Catherine Gribbin: Senior Legal Advisor for International and Humanitarian Law, Canadian Red Cross

Panel 3: A Review of Canada’s Middle East Engagement and Defense Strategy (3:00 PM - 4:15 PM ET)

In 2016, Canada launched an ambitious five-year “Middle East Engagement Strategy” (2016-2021), committing to investing CA$3.5 billion over five years to help establish the necessary conditions for security and stability, alleviate human suffering and enable stabilization programs in the region. In the latest development, during the meeting of the Global Coalition against ISIS, Minister of Foreign Affairs Marc Garneau announced more than $43.6 million in Peace and Stabilization Operations Program funding for 11 projects in Syria and Iraq.

With Canada’s Middle East Engagement Strategy expiring this year, it is time to examine and evaluate this massive investment in the Middle East region in the past five years. More importantly, the panel will discuss a principled and strategic roadmap for the future of Canada’s short-term and long-term engagement in the Middle East.


Ferry de Kerckhove: Canada’s Former Ambassador to Egypt

Dennis Horak: Canada’s Former Ambassador to Saudi Arabia

Chris Kilford: Former Canadian Defence Attaché in Turkey, member of the national board of the Canadian International Council (CIC)

David Dewitt: University Professor Emeritus, York University

Panel 2: The Great Power Competition in the Middle East (12:00 PM - 1:15 PM ET)

While the United States continues to pull back from certain regional conflicts, reflected by the Biden administration’s decision to halt American backing for Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen and the expected withdrawal from Afghanistan, US troops continue to be stationed across the region. Meanwhile, Russia and China have significantly maintained and even expanded their regional activities. On one hand, the Kremlin has maintained its military presence in Syria, and on the other hand, China has signed an unprecedented 25-year strategic agreement with Iran.

As the global power structure continues to shift, it is essential to analyze the future of the US regional presence under the Biden administration, explore the emerging global rivalry with Russia and China, and at last, investigate the implications of such competition for peace and security in the Middle East.


Dmitri Trenin: Director of Carnegie Moscow Center

Joost R. Hiltermann: Director of MENA Programme, International Crisis Group

Roxane Farmanfarmaian: Affiliated Lecturer in International Relations of the Middle East and North Africa, University of Cambridge

Andrew A. Michta: Dean of the College of International and Security Studies at Marshall Center

Kelley Vlahos: Senior Advisor, Quincy Institute

Panel 1: A New Middle East Security Architecture in the Making (10:30 AM -11:45 AM ET)

The security architecture of the Middle East has undergone rapid transformations in an exceptionally short period. Notable developments include the United States gradual withdrawal from the region, rapprochement between Israel and some GCC states through the Abraham Accords and the rise of Chinese and Russian regional engagement.

With these new trends in the Middle East, it is timely to investigate the security implications of the Biden administration’s Middle East policy. In this respect, we will discuss the Biden team’s new approach vis-à-vis Iran, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and Israel. The panel will also discuss the role of other major powers, including China and Russia in shaping this new security environment in the region, and how the Biden administration will respond to these powers’ increasing regional presence.



Sanam Vakil: Deputy Director of MENA Programme at Chatham House

Denise Natali: Acting Director, Institute for National Strategic Studies & Director of the Center for Strategic Research, National Defense University

Hassan Ahmadian: Professor of the Middle East and North Africa Studies, University of Tehran

Abdulaziz Sagar: Chairman, Gulf Research Center

Andrew Parasiliti: President, Al-Monitor