The end of the post-Cold War era

27 February 2022

8:00 PM

27 February 2022

8:00 PM

Russia’s invasion is not just an effort to retake what was once part of the Soviet Union. It is a push to use military force to overturn the post-Cold War settlement. In fact, the invasion cannot be understood without first understanding what that settlement looked like and why Russia wants to overturn it, despite the high costs.

In the 1980s, when Vladimir Putin was a KGB agent in East Germany, the Soviet Union had become an arteriosclerotic state. It was unable to keep up with the US in high-technology arms, unable to legitimate its rule with Marxist-Leninist ideology, and unable to afford the cost of maintaining its empire in Eastern Europe.

When its subordinate partners in Eastern Europe sporadically faced uprisings, Moscow had always sent in troops to restore their puppet regimes. Under Mikhail Gorbachev, the Kremlin decided it could no longer afford to send in the Red Army. That decision meant the revolts in Eastern Europe succeeded, the communist regimes were toppled, and the Soviet Union no longer dominated its neighbours. Two years later, the Soviet Union itself collapsed. Region after region within the USSR peeled away and declared its independent statehood. Crucially for today’s politics, that meant independence for territories that had once been fully incorporated in the USSR: Ukraine, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Georgia, Belarus, Moldova, and the ‘stans’ in Central Asia.

Some of these new states maintained close relations with Moscow. Others veered toward the West, culturally, economically, and militarily. East Germany was merged into West Germany and the combined state remained within Nato. The western alliance also extended its reach further east. That included Poland, once a member of the Warsaw Pact, and the Baltic States, which the Soviet Union seized after Stalin’s secret pact with Hitler. For these states, Nato membership was both a symbol of westernisation and a security guarantee, with the vital provision that an attack on one Nato member was an attack on all.

Nato’s expansion under the Clinton administration was less a well-thought-out strategy than a low-cost effort to bring democratising states into the transatlantic world order. It was considered nearly costless because no one believed Russia was still a security threat or would consider Nato’s expansion threatening. The European Union was simultaneously extending membership to the same countries. In short, the West and the US-led world order was expanding geographically, not by force but by invitation.

Russia was never included in that expansion, though it might have been considered later if it had democratised, transformed its economy, and demonstrated peaceful intentions toward its neighbours. Instead, Russia was offered a cooperative arrangement with Nato but never considered for full membership. Moscow later claimed that the George H.W. Bush administration had privately agreed that Nato would never expand eastward. Not one inch. The Bush administration denies it. In any case, the issue was never discussed between President Bush and his Russian counterparts or embodied in any written agreement, formal or informal, as you would expect of such a major undertaking. Later, Russia would claim Nato’s expansion was both a betrayal and threat. Nor was Russia offered membership in the EU, which would have required successful democratisation, as well as a thorough-going transformation of its economy.

Nato and the EU posed a threat to Russia, but not a military one. The principal threat was that thriving, prosperous democracies on Russia’s doorstep were a standing rebuke to its own failures. That rebuke undermined the Russian regime’s legitimacy and, potentially, its stability.

The dual failure of Russia’s efforts to democratise and modernise its economy left the Kremlin with major problems. To legitimate its rule, the post-Soviet regime has relied on traditional Russian nationalism. Putin seized that rationale and fuelled it with his seething anger over his country’s loss of territory and Great Power status. Russia, as he saw it, was a great nation humiliated by the West. And he wanted to end that disgrace and restore Russia to its rightful place. (China’s communist regime has an almost-identical view of its past and future.)

Beyond its borders, Putin’s Russia lacks soft power: the power of attraction. That was clearest in 2014, when Ukraine felt the lure of the European Union. Moscow responded by coercing Ukraine’s government to drop its plans for closer ties with the EU. Ukraine’s ruler, Viktor Yanukovych, was close to Moscow and bowed immediately to those demands. His new plans dropped the EU and proposed closer ties with Russia instead. Almost immediately, the Ukrainian people rose up in the Maidan Revolution of February 2014 and forced Yanukovych to flee for his life. The successor government was democratic, pro-western, and corrupt.

Since Maidan, Putin has been trying to reassert Russian dominance over Ukraine. Without a puppet government or soft power, his only tool was the military. He wasn’t reluctant to use that tool. His army seized Crimea in 2014 and used unmarked forces to control parts of two other Ukrainian provinces, Luhansk and Donetsk, which border Russia. There has been bloody fighting in those border regions ever since.

Putin’s immediate aim in the current war was to overwhelm Luhansk and Donetsk with heavy armour and air power and then extend Russian control to the whole provinces, well beyond the portions it already controlled. It will then want to connect those regions with Crimea, giving Russia a land bridge which it currently lacks.

Putin’s larger war aims were unclear until the fighting started. He wanted to seize all Ukraine and control Kiev, its capital of 3 million people. We’ve also learnt just how hard the Ukrainians will fight to maintain their independence.

The Ukrainian military cannot defeat the much larger, better equipped Russian force. Even so, the resistance poses two fundamental problems for Putin. The first is that his forces are likely to suffer heavy casualties in urban fighting. The second is that popular resistance means occupying the country will be difficult and costly. As the US learned in Iraq and both the US and USSR learned in Afghanistan, is that it is far easier for a powerful military to conquer a territory and destroy an existing government than to install a reliable successor government.

A puppet regime in Kiev won’t be able to suppress popular resistance on its own. It will need Russian troops, lots of them, because Ukrainians won’t submit peacefully to Russian control. They can inflict a steady toll of casualties on any occupying force. That means mourning — and angry — Russian families. The question is whether Putin thinks the political price is worth it. That depends on how high the toll is, how unpopular a long war proves, and how tightly he controls the military, which is essential to avoid a coup and crush popular protests.

It is clear now that the Biden administration’s strategy of deterrence failed. So did the diplomatic efforts by Europe’s largest powers. Washington’s backup policy is an incremental increase in sanctions, ratcheting up each time Putin extends the war. Biden applied the second tranche on Thursday, withholding the most serious banking sanctions and saying we had to wait weeks to know if they worked. This strategy failed, too.

As the Russians began shelling cities, and the scale of the invasion became clear, even the most reluctant policymakers in Washington, Paris, and Berlin decided to impose far harsher sanctions, far more quickly. On Saturday, they announced the biggest one: Russian banks can no longer use the Swift system of inter-bank communications. Without it, they are essentially excluded from international trade since Russian businesses cannot easily make bank transactions.

China is watching these sanctions. Beijing surely saw how reluctant the Europeans were, for fear of the inevitable harm sanctions would do to their own economies. That ‘self-harm’ would be far more extensive if they severed trade with China, should it attack Taiwan.

The failure to deter Russia in Ukraine will certainly lead to recriminations in the US. Republicans and some Democrats will want to know why we didn’t send a lot more small arms and anti-tank missiles to Ukraine. Why didn’t we give them anti-aircraft weapons or anti-ship weapons as well?

Energy prices will be another open wound in the US and Europe. Prices were already sky high. Part of the problem lies in Biden’s green energy regulations and his restrictions on drilling and pipelines. His administration also vetoed a joint effort by Israel, Greece, and Cyprus to supply Mediterranean gas to Europe.

Biden has shown no willingness to change these environmental policies, which would mean confronting a vital wing of the Democratic party. He seems to think it is less politically costly to impose pain on ordinary consumers than it is to cut the green commitments. Will that continue? And how will he respond to European countries that relied on Russian energy that now need substitutes from America and the Middle East? America can supply much of that demand but only if its energy producers are unleashed.

Beyond these immediate problems lies an even bigger one. Putin’s military aggression plus China’s rise form a concerted effort to reshape the global order, not at the margins but at the core. The US is gradually recognising that its grand hopes for China have failed. The hope when America let the People’s Republic into the world trading system was that growing prosperity would encourage China’s peaceful, democratic rise. They didn’t. They solidified an authoritarian communist government, which plays by its own trade rules, systematically steals western intellectual property, uses its wealth to fund an ambitious military build-up, tries to assert unilateral control over the South China Sea, and regularly threatens Taiwan. The more China and Russia have confronted western opposition, the more they have been drawn together. Now, they are challenging the western-led global order. And the Ukraine invasion shows they are willing to use force to do it.

If the US is to maintain the tottering liberal order, which has sustained peace and prosperity for decades, it needs willing partners in Europe and Asia — and it needs to increase its own military budget. Nato’s largest economies, which have spent years free-riding, will have to decide if they want to up their defence spending significantly to deal with Russian aggression. If they are unwilling to make those sacrifices, they can hardly expect Americans to do it for them.

The future of world order hinges on those decisions.

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