Once in a while really big things happen, things that have a great or long lasting impact on the trajectory of world events – think 9/11 or the fall of the Berlin wall. Russia’s war against Ukraine is such an event; it marks the definitive end of the optimistic post-Cold War period and the beginning of a new era.
In 1914, British Foreign Secretary Edward Gray saw the lights go out all over Europe and did not think he would see them lit again in his lifetime. He was right. The First World War – albeit with a pause in the 1920s – led to the second, which then led to the Cold War, which kept the continent in an icy grip until the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Now it seems as if the Cold War may start anew albeit with a thirty-year hiatus. Much will probably depend on the raging war’s outcome, and on its aftermath – this war will be the formative crisis of the new age, just as the Berlin blockade and the Korean War shaped the Cold War.
Vladimir Putin seems obsessed with seeking revenge for Russia’s loss of empire in the Cold War, and tries to turn back the clock in Europe 50 or 150 years. The historical parallels are frightening and ominous. When Ukraine didn’t bend to threats, Putin sent his army to overthrow the elected government and force Ukraine back as a vassal state under Moscow’s rule, counting on that an enfeebled West would sell out Ukraine’s freedom to remain at peace itself. But the Ukrainians have put up a both spirited and so far rather successful resistance. There was little Russian shock and awe to initiate the campaign, early attempts to capture Kyiv fumbled, tanks ran out of fuel mid-road, and unprotected columns were sent into Kharkiv and Kyiv, leading to notable losses of face and lives. While many Russians seem to accept the Kremlin’s propaganda about the conflict being Ukraine’s and the West’s fault, the war is not popular and there have been protests from parts of the elite and demonstrations in Russian cities despite censorship and repression.
Importantly, the West has not listened to the siren song of voices calling for cutting a new Yalta-like deal with Putin, but markedly stiffened its stance and increased its support for Ukraine, causing a frustrated Putin to up the ante by pulling the nuclear card to scare off outsiders. The Biden administration has worked admirably at holding the alliance together, and Britain has risen to the occasion. However, the really important thing is that Putin’s war on Ukraine has triggered a U-turn in Germany’s policies on Russia and on defense, tentatively supported by all major parties. While we do not yet know if this will entail a clean break with the 50-year tradition of Ostpolitik, the implications are nonetheless enormous. The grey chancellor Olaf Scholtz has found his inner Helmut Schmidt, and now not only backs stopping Nord Stream 2 and putting sanctions on SWIFT, but also sending arms to Ukraine, spending at least 2 % of GDP on defense and creating a defense fund with 100 billion euros, and finally recommitting to a nuclear role. By his blatant and brutal attack, Putin has seemingly shot himself in the foot or even possibly the head. Not only has he turned Ukraine decisively against Russia and united the West, he has also awakened the long sleeping German giant.
Putin can still win this war by grinding down Ukrainian resistance with brute force, destroying cities with bombs and artillery as in Chechnya in 1999-2000, or in Syria recently. But, as Clausewitz reminds us – “in war the result is never final”, Putin would have trouble winning the peace, as Ukrainians are bound to detest him and Russia for at least a generation or two, and partisan warfare could be fierce. A new Cold War would then ensue in Europe, pitting a reinvigorated and united West against a sullen and repressive Russia, which looked inward to its empire and to China. Alternatively, if Putin’s war fails, it could lead to his downfall, one way or another, but the West would still need to stay united and strong to guard against relapses. With Germany back in the saddle, it might be possible to build a robust military posture even if the US footprint in Europe becomes lighter over time.
In any case, the changes engendered by this war will be both drastic and irreversible. There is no way back to the idyllic security order many have long clung to in the Western world. Contrary to claims at numerous press conferences, the post-Cold War European security system is not threatened or challenged. It is dead – as dead as John Cleese’s parrot in the Monty Python sketch. Moreover, it has been dead for several years and talking about its beautiful plumage will not change that. The reason for the passing is that the liberal security system designed after the fall of the Berlin Wall had congenital defects. It was of the idealistic type that political scientists call collective security – where all countries are part of the club, are presumed to have good will and to follow the rules, and where club members jointly should punish offenders. The League of Nations during the interwar period was of similar construction, and we should have taken warning from how raw violence paralyzed it. One type of security system that has greater prospects of functioning and surviving is collective defense, that is, where a number of countries unite in common defense against predatory neighbors. This type of construction may well be democratic and civilized in its internal dealings, but can use more tangible and realistic methods against external threats. NATO during the Cold War is a prime example, and thank God there seems to have been enough left of the old collective defense structure and of the transatlantic link to now be able to help protect the security of the Member States. Members, but obviously not all threatened states, which is driving Finland and Sweden towards membership.Much about this war’s outcome and consequences is still highly uncertain, but two conclusions seem certain. First, the post Cold War European security order is dead as doornail and a new system is being redrawn, not deliberately by diplomats or analysts, but by the logic of the maelstrom of events. Secondly, a European security system can either include Russia, or it can be decent and democratic, but not both at the same time. You have to choose either or. It has often been said – especially by Germany and France – that it is only possible to build European security with Russia, not against it. This is nonsense. During much of the Cold War European security was about keeping the Russians out, and Putin has just shown that a violent revanchist Russia has no place inside the European House that Gorbachev once spoke of. The sooner we realize it, the better.