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19 April 2017

Are We All Losers?

On the negative sum games of the 21st century

Sam Charap and Tim Colton, two prominent American Russia watchers, have published a new book with an alarming title: Everyone Loses: The Ukraine Crisis and the Ruinous Contest for Post-Soviet Eurasia.

Their main idea: the ongoing Russian–Ukraine conflict is unprecedented,  because in classical terms, it is not a “win-lose” or even a “zero-sum”, but rather a “lose-lose”.

The authors see our ever greater global interconnectedness as the reason. Modern conflicts span far beyond traditional conflict zones. War between two countries can impact countries on all corners of the planet, and these same countries can protect their interests by backing one side or the other or perhaps even both. The means of influencing either side in the conflict are extensive; distant nations can even inflict serious damage on the stronger opponent (as demonstrated by sanctions against Russia). It means clear victory by one side or the other proves impossible. At the same time, cutting economic ties with an aggressor also harms those who originally introduced the trade limitations – which brings us full circle; it becomes apparent that everyone has lost.

At first glance, this all seems quite logical, but I think that any book positing such a revolutionary change in international politics demands more scrutinous attention.

First of all, I do not believe the Russia–Ukraine conflict is at all the first example of a new type of confrontation. Even under the authors’ definition, the Russia-Ukraine conflict was preceded by other wars in recent years which meet the authors’ criteria: the “coalition of the willing” in Iraq in 2003, the intervention in Libya, the Syrian civil war, to name a few.

A war in which all sides lose – I would emphasise, according to the opinion of observers – can occur in two cases. The first case has been frequently observed in the past: it concerns conflicts in which one side has underestimated its opponent’s strength and been drawn into a struggle which, in the end, led to no major border changes and neither side gained an advantage over their opponent, or received any additional strategic capacities; yet at the same time it considerably depleted resources and led to significant loss of life on both sides. A fitting example of this would be the Iran–Iraq War, which lasted from 1980 to 1988 and involved over two million soldiers by its final stage: according to various estimates, it left at least 600,000 soldiers and civilians dead, about one million wounded and mutilated, and the economic damage was $1.1–1.2 trillion. At the same time, neither side gained any territory or major geostrategic advantages.

The second option is much less-known. It concerns confrontations in which at least one of the sides has goals which are overlooked by conventional political wisdom, but which could also be perceived as “gains”. Charap and Colton fail to notice a number of these. The two most blatant I would describe as “(illusory) national self-perception goals" and “(private) realist interests”. If factored into one’s analysis, the ongoing conflicts in ex-communist countries may not seem so irrational after all, and not all the sides are losing.

Firstly, we can recall those countries’ “divorce history” – starting from the former Yugoslavian republics and finishing with the problems in Karabakh, Abkhazia, and even Chechnya. In all these cases, serious armed conflicts caused tremendous damage to all sides and were accompanied by significant loss of human lives and, to a certain degree, damaged even the most successful sides’ image in the eyes of the international community. However, in all cases, confrontation led to a radical strengthening (and sometimes even emergence) of a perception of national identity, which is why citizens of those countries regard these wars either as some sort of founding points, or important milestones on the road to national revival. Even the victory of the strongest side (Russia) over the weakest (Chechnya) in a war was a significant factor for the development of the modern Russian political nation. This is how, with seemingly mutual losses, some sides gained undeniable advantages – not material, but rather psychological and ideological ones.

However, in my opinion, the conflict raging in Eastern Ukraine today generally has different “motivators” and offers its participants another kind of benefits. In this case, the war is fuelled more by “private realist” interests than illusory national ones. It is well known that Vladimir Putin needed to raise his rating in 2012–2013, when Russia’s economic growth was slowing and his regime’s political manipulation was becoming increasingly obvious. In this context, the occupation of Crimea resulted in soaring public support and new national consolidation – and, as a direct consequence, extended the elite’s ability to loot Russia unimpeded for at least a decade. It is hard to disagree with the book’s authors that Russia lost out both as a country and a society – but it should be pointed out that no such political entity exists today: as Vyacheslav Volodin rightly said a couple of years ago, Russia is Putin. He and his closest associates have definitely lost nothing due to the war with Ukraine.

No matter how irrational it may sound, something similar is happening on the Ukrainian side, too. In their case, millions of Ukrainians have lost their homes and property, thousands of people have died in the conflict, the economy collapsed and people’s incomes have fallen, but at the same time the politicians have managed to reformat the “elite” and use the war to obscure the issue of corruption, while effectively embezzling budgetary funds and pushing those they accuse of insufficient patriotism away from the “feeding trough”. I will not even mention the benefits gained by political nobodies who appeared out of nowhere to become leaders of new Russian “regions” or separatist “republics”: gigantic “gains” here are simply obvious. In other words, new conflicts only illustrate the gap between nations’ interests and those of their leaders – but still, to the leaders, they continue to be “win-win” stories, as they often were in the past.

In summary, it must be said that, by and large, the authors came to the wrong conclusion about the uniqueness of modern post-Soviet conflicts. They failed to take into account the fact that there are no states – in the classical Western sense of the term – in post-Soviet territory (except those countries that successfully completed their transition to the European Union). The new “units” in that territory are fiefdoms ruled by tribal chiefs and barons, whose interests only ever coincide with state interests due to methodological errors. To see this, one only needs to look at Azerbaijan, with its almost-developed “democratic monarchy”, or Moldova and Transnistria, where state bodies have been overtly bought up by two oligarchs. In such cases, a loss for the denizens is easily converted into benefits for their masters, since only their opinions and wishes define those countries’ actions on the international scene.

Continuing this line of thought, we have to admit that the “losers” in this situation are primarily external players – Europe and the United States. By assuming that Moscow’s and Kyiv’s actions were in the context of traditional geopolitics, they attempted to impact the sides in the conflict as if those countries’ leaders were truly acting in their people’s interests. If this were the case, the chances for a ceasefire would probably have been greater than zero. Their assumption was flawed from the outset, however – in the new circumstances, lose-lose wars can be waged almost indefinitely, because, I will repeat, they are quite beneficial to the authorities on both sides. Therefore, instead of discovering new types of conflicts, contemporary Western political scientists should start thinking to what extent intervention in such conflicts corresponds to Western interests and principles, and what methods seem optimal to influence all the sides involved.

I suppose that so-called “captured states” – countries “seized” and “privatised” by their rulers and rulers’ associates – have become a new reality in the 21st century. Such countries have no national interests, only the desires of the elite. And no matter how irrational their behaviour may seem from the point of view of “normal” countries, this is not the case. When (and if) the West will be really willing to influence the sides in new conflicts, it will only be able to do so in one way: by radically damaging the interests of those countries’ senior leaders by seizing their bank accounts and assets; cancelling passports and residence permits for political leaders themselves and their family members; closing borders; terminating all political dialogue; and introducing radically stricter measures to fight money-laundering and purchase of assets by citizens from those countries. Such measures would be much more effective in ending conflicts than imposing sanctions on one side’s industries and offering financial support to the other – simply because such steps force countries that have nothing to do with the conflict to contribute to paying its expenses.

So if Western researchers see modern conflicts as some sort of lose-lose game, they should first pay closer attention to whether anyone actually has something to gain, and only then should they try to build strategies to prevent Western countries from becoming losers themselves.

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