So much is being written about the Russian invasion of Ukraine that more on the situation on the ground is unnecessary. Certainly, it is premature for a post-mortem on causes and responsibilities of a conflict that came on so quickly and unexpectedly. But it is not a bad time to think about medium- and long-term consequences of Putin’s dramatic action, and how the West can recover its equilibrium and face up to a new global challenge.
Historians like to argue about whether history is caused primarily by underlying objective forces or by the will of powerful individuals. The Ukrainian case presents that very question. How we in the West answer will influence how we move forward. In this case, some basic forces that have always existed in the central European arena made this confrontation inevitable, as many predicted at the time of the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the expansion of Western influence, and NATO, into the region. But the differences between Moscow and the West over security in central Europe need not have developed into the violent manifestation it has taken, if not for the actions and psyches of key actors.
The critical actors
Donald Trump—Trump’s “America First” policy was interpreted in Moscow as giving a green light to Russian assertive goals. Trump’s rhetoric to the effect that NATO was irrelevant, his undermining of American institutions and processes, his break with European allies, his withdrawal from the Trans Pacific Partnership agreement and the Paris Climate Agreement and withdrawal from other international processes all gave the Kremlin (and Beijing) a feeling that this was a time to assert power against what they continued to see as a weakened United States (and Western) hegemony within the international system.
Vladimir Putin—emboldened by successes using military forces in Georgia, Crimea, Syria, and Kazakhstan, relatively popular at home with respect to his assertive foreign policy, supported by a strong energy market and consumed by deep grievances and a belief that the geographic contours of the Soviet Union were the natural borders of a secure Russia, he steadily moved to accomplish his plans for Ukraine, and made no secret of his goal.
Angela Merkel and Boris Johnson—two accomplished European leaders—both actually undermined the strategic position of Europe. Merkel, a wonderful leader of Germany and a global role model, affirmatively made Germany more dependent on Russian energy and failed to use her years in power to strengthen the military power of Europe because she bought into the view that the world had moved into a new paradigm where military power was no longer paramount; Johnson, a clever but non-strategic political actor took advantage of British discomfort with European bureaucracy and Britons’ yearning for a more independent role, and acted to undermine the European vision further, withdrawing the United Kingdom from the European Union, and thus seriously weakening the EU precisely at a time it needed strengthening.
Xi Jinping—who probably wins most out of all of this, watches with satisfaction the West and Russia square off, and acts as a sort of calm world leader ready to take advantage of new opportunities to assert China’s leadership role not only in their immediate neighborhood (Taiwan) and the broader neighborhood (the Asia-Pacific) but also globally. Xi carefully formulated his position at the pre-Olympic summit with Putin, explicitly or more likely implicitly implying to Putin that Beijing would not object, and might even quietly support, action by Russia in Ukraine.
Nota Bene: among critical actors, Joe Biden is not mentioned. He was an actor certainly and played a limited hand reasonably well. But after the messy withdrawal from Afghanistan, the mishandling of domestic legislative initiatives, the popular frustration with continued COVID mandates, the steady fall in his popularity (perhaps unfair to him but nevertheless real), and his early announcement that use of military force by NATO was off the table, Biden negotiated with very few chips.
The end of the old world order
All this said, and recognizing the importance of these actors, there are broad historic forces at work that led to this crisis and will lead to a continuation of instability in the world order. Ultimately, nations use their power to pursue what they consider 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 has called for a new architecture of European security to protect Russia and Russian speakers outside its borders. One cannot help but think that this argument sounds very similar to that which Hitler made with respect to Germany’s place in Europe, and about German speakers in the Czech Sudetenland and elsewhere. One has to ask again: where does it stop?
Putin’s decisions will lead to widespread death and destruction, and also a revision of Europe’s security framework. However, if the West plays its hand well, this new configuration will not be what Putin had in mind, although it might well give Russia a greater voice in the future of its region. Whether that will be more benign or more ominous depends a lot on Western resolve and future years of positioning and negotiations, accompanied by increased military budgets in Western countries.
Looking ahead, we need to accept the fact that two important pillars of the post-WWII order have broken down. The first is the high-minded principle embodied in the UN Charter that international disputes will be resolved peacefully. The second is the understanding that international borders should be changed only by consent, however inadequately and fitfully adhered to during the last 75 years.
Two additional pillars of the post-WWII order remain—that the Great Powers not fight each other directly, and that nuclear weapons not be used. These remain, but with less certainty that they will not be violated or encroached upon than before. Whether the old structure can be restored, or an acceptable new set of principles developed, will take time to work out. Xi Jinping will be at the table too, let’s not forget.
Over the past decades, much has been said and written about “soft power.” And soft power is certainly useful. But the Ukraine invasion makes it clear that hard power trumps soft power, and if a leader like Putin is ready to use hard power, soft power is off the table. So now the European Union needs to face the hard decision—as the major world exponent of soft power, are the EU states going to build up their forces and play Europe’s rightful role in world affairs going forward, which will be much more brutal and nasty, or shall we say Hobbesian, than in past decades?
Much has been made of sanctions as an instrument of power, but how effective are they really in achieving desired goals? From what I can discern from watching countries impose sanctions minor and major over many decades, we see massive adverse effects on populations, on food and medical supplies and other necessities, reducing living standards and causing hardship for ordinary citizens in affected countries. But do we see major policy changes by determined governments? More often than not, what actually occurs is an increase in popular support for their governments as populations suffer and resentment flourishes 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 throughout the world live close to the edge of survival as a normal part of life and accept suffering and intermittent reductions in standards of living 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 chance (based on his reading of how the Russian people have accepted suffering over and over again in past and recent history) that Russia will withstand sanctions longer than the West will withstand the loss of Russian energy and commodities.
The nuclear question
The nuclear dimension is also worth considering. Just before its invasion, Russia conducted a nuclear exercise. Not that it was needed, but it demonstrated to all that Russia was going to act in Ukraine as it wished, and that anyone who even considered intervening had better think about Russia’s nukes.
As we know, Ukraine itself had nuclear weapons when it left the Soviet Union. But Ukraine renounced its nuclear status, and returned nuclear material 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 from all this? What lesson do the Iranian mullahs take: certainly, go nuclear and don’t rely on agreements to safeguard your security. What lesson does Kim Jong Un take from this: the same surely. Many military strategists around the world will be reassessing their nuclear option in light of the Ukraine invasion. Of course, even if Ukraine had kept its nuclear option, it is not at all clear it could or would have been able to use it, but giving it up made Putin’s calculation easier by far.
The effects on other actors will be important to watch. Hopefully, the Ukraine invasion will lead the United States to pull itself together, reassess priorities, and face the reality of an increasingly dangerous world environment in both Europe and Asia, as well as in the Middle East (which will not let itself be forgotten). Some serious thinking among Democrats and Republicans about the realities facing the country in a multipolar and more dangerous world is a first but critical step in setting the United States on a better road to facing several decades of tough decisions. These must also include dealing with climate change and future pandemics and increased cyber conflicts in our decision-making process relating to American and Western security. Europe needs to wake up to realities of power, as noted earlier. Xi Jinping needs to consider the consequences of imitating his impulsive junior ally, Vladimir Putin, by initiating an Asian military conflict over Taiwan and think instead more long term about working with the West to develop a peaceful and accommodating global security and economic environment.