So much has been written about the Russian invasion of Ukraine that it is not necessary to know more about the situation on the ground. Admittedly, it is premature to make a post-mortem on the causes and responsibilities of a conflict that arose so quickly and unexpectedly. But now is not a bad time to think about the medium and long-term consequences of Putin’s dramatic action, and how the West can regain its balance and face a new global challenge.
Historians like to ask whether history is caused primarily by underlying objective forces or by the will of powerful individuals. The Ukrainian case poses precisely this question. How we respond in the West will influence how we move forward. In this case, certain fundamental forces that have always existed in the Central European arena made this confrontation inevitable, as many had predicted at the time of the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the expansion of influence. Western and NATO in the region. But differences between Moscow and the West over security in Central Europe need not turn into the violent protest it has taken on, if not for the actions and psyches of key players.
The critical actors
Donald Trump—Trump’s “America First” policy has been interpreted in Moscow as giving the green light to Russia’s stated goals. Trump’s rhetoric that NATO was irrelevant, his undermining of American institutions and processes, his rift with European allies, his withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement and the Paris climate accord and his withdrawal from other international processes all gave the Kremlin (and Beijing) the feeling that now was the time to assert their power against what they continued to see as a weakened American (and Western) hegemony within of the international system.
Vladimir Putin – emboldened by successes in the use of military forces in Georgia, Crimea, Syria and Kazakhstan, relatively popular at home in terms of his assertive foreign policy, backed by a strong energy market and eaten away by deep grievances and the belief that the geographical contours of the Soviet Union were the natural borders of a secure Russia, he resolutely moved to accomplish his plans for Ukraine and made no secret of his objective.
Angela Merkel and Boris Johnson, two accomplished European leaders, have both undermined Europe’s strategic position. Merkel, a wonderful leader of Germany and a global role model, effectively made Germany more dependent on Russian energy and did not use her years in power to build Europe’s military might because she believed the world had entered a new paradigm where military power was no longer paramount; Johnson, a clever but unstrategic political player, took advantage of Britain’s unease with European bureaucracy and Britain’s yearning for a more independent role, and acted to further undermine the European vision, removing the UK from the European Union and thereby seriously weakening the EU precisely when it needed to be strengthened.
Xi Jinping, who is probably making the most of it all, watches with satisfaction as the West and Russia face off and acts as a sort of calm world leader ready to take advantage of new opportunities to assert China’s leadership role no only in their immediate vicinity. (Taiwan) and the wider neighborhood (Asia-Pacific) but also on a global scale. Xi carefully formulated his position at the pre-Olympic summit with Putin, hinting explicitly or more likely implicitly to Putin that Beijing would not oppose, and might even quietly support, Russian action in Ukraine.
Nota Bene: among the critical actors, Joe Biden is not cited. He was definitely an actor and played a limited hand quite well. But after the disorderly pullout from Afghanistan, the mishandling of domestic legislative initiatives, popular frustration with continued COVID mandates, the steady decline in his popularity (perhaps unfair to him but nonetheless real) and his early announcement that the NATO’s use of military force was off the table, Biden negotiated with very few chips.
The end of the old world order
That said, and recognizing the importance of these actors, vast historical forces are at work that have led to this crisis and will lead to the continued instability of the global order. Ultimately, nations use their power to pursue what they see as vital national interests and, in Putin’s mind, Russia is an aggrieved party. Now, Putin believes, Russia has the power to rectify a perceived imbalance. To achieve his ends, he called for a new European security architecture to protect Russia and Russian speakers outside its borders. One cannot help but think that this argument is very similar to the one Hitler made about Germany’s place in Europe and German speakers in the Czech Sudetenland and elsewhere. We have to ask ourselves again: where does it stop?
Putin’s decisions will lead to widespread death and destruction, as well as an overhaul of Europe’s security framework. However, if the West plays its game right, this new setup will not be what Putin had in mind, although it may well give Russia a bigger voice in the future of its region. Whether this is more benign or more ominous depends very much on Western determination and future years of positioning and negotiations, accompanied by increased military budgets in Western countries.
Looking ahead, we must come to terms with the fact that two important pillars of the post-World War II order have collapsed. The first is the lofty principle enshrined in the Charter of the United Nations that international disputes shall be resolved peacefully. The second is the understanding that international borders should only be changed by consent, even if they have not been adequately and irregularly respected over the past 75 years.
Two additional pillars of the post-World War II order remain: that the great powers do not fight each other directly and that nuclear weapons are not used. These remain, but with less certainty that they will not be violated or encroached on than before. It will take time to determine whether the old structure can be restored or whether an acceptable new set of principles can be developed. Xi Jinping will also be at the table, let’s not forget that.
Over the past few decades, much has been said and written about “soft power”. And the soft power certainly helps. But the invasion of Ukraine makes it clear that hard power trumps soft power, and if a leader like Putin is willing to use hard power, soft power is out of the question. So now the European Union has to face the difficult decision – as the world’s leading representative of soft power, will EU states step up their forces and play Europe’s rightful role in world affairs? in the future, which will be much more brutal and nasty, or shall we say Hobbesian, than in decades past?
Much has been said about sanctions as an instrument of power, but how effective are they really in achieving desired ends? From what I can discern from watching countries impose minor and major sanctions over many decades, we are seeing massive negative effects on populations, on food and medical supplies and other necessities, reducing living standards and causing hardship to ordinary citizens of affected countries. But are we seeing major policy changes by determined governments? More often than not, what really happens is an increase in popular support for their governments as populations suffer and resentment blossoms against the foreigners who imposed the sanctions.
I suspect this is likely to happen in Russia. Those of us who live in the affluent West forget that most people in the world live on the edge of survival as a normal part of life and accept suffering and intermittent reductions in living standards at the hands of powerful natural and human forces as an accepted feature of life. We need to impose tough sanctions, but those sanctions will hurt both sides, and Putin will take the risk (based on his reading of how the Russian people have accepted to suffer again and again in past and recent history) that Russia will resist sanctions longer. that the West will resist the loss of Russian energy and raw materials.
The nuclear issue
The nuclear dimension also deserves to be considered. Just before its invasion, Russia conducted a nuclear exercise. Not that it was necessary, but it demonstrated to everyone that Russia was going to act in Ukraine as it wished, and that anyone even considering intervening had better think about Russian nuclear weapons.
As we know, Ukraine itself had nuclear weapons when it left the Soviet Union. But Ukraine renounced its nuclear status and returned nuclear materials to Russia after the breakup of the Soviet Union. In return, Ukraine received assurances from the US, UK and Russia, embodied in the Budapest Memorandum of 1994, that its sovereignty would be assured. So much for the Memorandum.
What are the lessons of all this? What lesson do the Iranian mullahs take from this: definitely go nuclear and don’t rely on deals to protect your security. What lesson Kim Jong Un draws from it: the same surely. Many military strategists around the world will reassess their nuclear option in light of the invasion of Ukraine. Of course, even if Ukraine had retained its nuclear option, it is not at all clear that it could or could have used it, but giving it up made Putin’s calculation far easier.
The effects on other actors will be important to monitor. Hopefully, the invasion of Ukraine will cause the United States to pull itself together, reassess its priorities, and face the reality of an increasingly dangerous global environment in Europe and Asia, as well as the Middle East (which will not be forgotten) . Serious reflection among Democrats and Republicans about the realities facing the country in a multipolar and more dangerous world is a first, but essential, step in putting the United States on a better path to deal with decades of decisions. difficult. These must also include the management of climate change, future pandemics, and increased cyber conflict in our American and Western security decision-making. Europe needs to wake up to the realities of power, as stated earlier. Xi Jinping must consider the consequences of emulating his impulsive junior ally Vladimir Putin in unleashing an Asian military conflict over Taiwan and instead think longer-term about working with the West to develop a peaceful and accommodating global security and economic environment. .