We stand on the threshold of great change. Vladimir Putin, the most aggressive enemy of democracy in the world today, has committed a historic mistake by ordering the invasion of Ukraine. The Russian bear has stepped into a trap; its desperate thrashings in search of escape may have already begun.
The nations of the democratic West have arrived at the end of two decades that witnessed a growing crisis of confidence, disunity and weakness, all exemplified by the catastrophic rout of American forces from Afghanistan. They can emerge from this decisive moment in a position of dominance, with regard not only to Russia but all anti-democratic forces, China included. The suffering in Ukraine can be transformed into the birth pangs of a better world, the elements of which are already visible in the middle distance.
The potential for a vast pivot comes with an equally large caveat. The political leadership in the Western democracies remains confused and reactive. The Biden administration, in particular, is singularly ill-placed to lead an ideological struggle. It has been captured by people who consider the United States to be the Great Satan of oppression and racism, both at home and abroad. If American democracy is a mask for white supremacy, then those who oppose it must be viewed as having merit on their side. The administration’s abject posture toward Iran reflects this peculiar form of self-loathing.
There is, in addition, a fairly complete lack of understanding of the way the world works. Barack Obama, in his day, claimed to be building a “rules-based” international order—a fatuous enough phrase with which to confront the likes of Putin or Xi Jinping. For his part, Joe Biden seems to make up foreign policy on the fly. He treated the Russian invasion of Ukraine like the second coming of Covid-19: On both occasions, he was panicked by public opinion into applying the most extreme measures without pausing to ask which were the most effective. To this day, Biden has failed to articulate U.S. interests and strategic objectives in the conflict.
Skepticism about our puerile elites is warranted. They are Putin’s best hope. But we are talking about a long game, and sympathy with Ukraine’s plight has awakened a new spirit in the Western public. From various points in the political spectrum, one hears praise for the shared values and institutions of liberal democracy in a fashion that, only a month ago, would have fallen under suspicion of imperialism if not racism. With luck, the political class will follow in the public’s footsteps.
What would tomorrow look like, if our leaders and their allies and successors seize every advantage in the global quarrel now before them? As an exploration into the field of possibilities, my analysis assumes that they will do so. I also take it for granted that the superiority of liberal democracy is obvious enough to eliminate self-flagellation—though not, of course, self-criticism. If, in fact, the Ukraine war marks a grand realignment of systems and nations, then we’d better be clear about who we are, what we want and how we go about getting it.
The collapse of the Soviet Union weakened the spell of ideology but did nothing to end geopolitical strife. Putin, once in power, proclaimed a pseudo-ideology wholly personalized to his geopolitical cravings. I have no wish to waste time on the murky dogmas of Putinism: In brief, they entailed a long list of grievances about the injustices visited on Russia and a sincere loathing of Western democracies as the root of all that evil. They also provided the pretext for his military adventures.
In August 2008, Putin launched the first war on European soil of the 21st century, trampling on Georgia and slicing off the Russian-speaking regions of that country. President George W. Bush, headed for retirement and chastened by Iraq, called the attack “unacceptable” but accepted it with a shrug. The Europeans did nothing. Putin took notice.
In February 2014, Russia invaded and annexed the Crimean Peninsula, which formally belonged to Ukraine. In response, President Obama relegated Putin to “the wrong side of history” but did little of consequence. The Europeans wrung their hands.
In September 2017, Russia intervened in the Syrian civil war, investing land, sea and air forces in what proved to be a successful effort to save the brutal Assad regime. President Obama warned Putin that he had stumbled into a Vietnam-like “quagmire” but did nothing to impede Russia’s return to the eastern Mediterranean after an absence of 40 years. Meanwhile, Europe looked the other way.
The current assault on Ukraine took place within a historical context. Every time Putin advanced, the global opponents he so deeply despised took a step backward. His agents tried every trick to sow confusion and disunity among the democracies, yet there has been no price to pay. When Putin observed President Biden’s performance in Afghanistan, he must have concluded, not unreasonably, that neither a decadent U.S. nor a deconstructed Europe would stand in the way of Russia’s will to power.
The decision to invade contained a fatal miscalculation, however. Putin apparently had come to believe his own ideological nonsense. As a result, he greatly overestimated the effectiveness of Russian military power and failed to account for the ferocity of the Ukrainian resistance.
Going into the second month of the war, the situation on the ground has grown increasingly treacherous for the aggressors. The plan for a quick, overwhelming victory has failed. The alternative is a relentless grinding forward in the style of Putin’s favorite historical episode: Stalin’s victory over Nazi Germany in World War II. But Putin isn’t Stalin and Russia in 2022 isn’t the Soviet Union of 1945. Everyone and everything is diminished.
Today, the Russians can advance only so far, and hold on only for so long. Putin, on the other hand, will find it almost impossible to retreat even under the cover of negotiations. Given his political image as avenger of Russia’s injured dignity, he will be tempted to fight to the last soldier, the last bullet, the last ruble. Yet those resources will be exhausted in a matter of months, not years. While it still may be possible for Russian troops to capture Kyiv and install a puppet government there, doing so will only make the war less sustainable by exponentially increasing its cost.
For the first time this century, the advance of tyranny has been stopped cold. Since Russian casualties are said to be extremely high and the Russian economy has been battered by Western sanctions, a reversal in momentum is entirely possible. A failure cascade that leads to the fall of the Putin regime can, at a minimum, be entertained. That is the new reality now facing the democratic nations.
The Ukraine war has been like a bolt of lightning that reveals a harsh and unfamiliar landscape. For years, we fondly imagined that we had transcended history—that we existed on a higher plane than the marble and bronze heroes whose statues we have overturned. The savagery in Kyiv and Mariupol, repeated endlessly online, has put an end to such delusions.
American troops are not directly involved in the conflict. That’s as it should be. We have a moral imperative to support the Ukrainians but no obligation to take on Putin’s mess. By the same token, American power is the only credible protection for those NATO member nations that border Russia. Our people stand in the front lines facing a regime that has chosen war and mayhem multiple times. In both a human and a geopolitical sense, the stakes are far from trivial.
President Biden has said that the U.S. stands ready to “defend every inch of NATO territory.” Given the president’s constant refrain that war with Russia would lead to “World War III,” we need to ensure that our intentions are clear and our actions commensurate with our words.
The path ahead is more dangerous than we once thought but also potentially more favorable to the cause of democracy. Above all, we need to understand the altered landscape: And the place to start, let me suggest, is with the revelations that have emerged from the war.
ONE: Russia is our enemy.
The Obama thesis has been falsified in blood. Putin’s Russia isn’t an anachronistic nuisance the U.S. can afford to abandon to the benign influence of history. It’s the wolf at the door. China may be our most powerful potential enemy; Putin, who has his finger on the nuclear button and can access a vast stack of petrodollars, is an actual enemy. We should remember the difference and treat Russia accordingly.
TWO: Economic dependence on an enemy is geopolitical suicide.
For environmentalist reasons, Europe is addicted to Russian oil and natural gas. That may sound like a contradiction but it’s really a death wish. The green dream of which Germans in particular are so proud has paid for the weaponry now obliterating Ukraine—which, given the chance, would do the same to Germany. If NATO is to be taken seriously, all member nations must increase energy production from every source until they can declare independence from Russia. Anything else is an empty gesture.
THREE: Democracy is worth fighting for.
In a magnificently ironic moment, Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, referred to Mount Rushmore with reverence during his address to the U.S. Congress. Every one of the four presidents carved on that mountain has had his statue toppled and his name removed from some elite institution. Few right-thinking U.S. politicians would bring up their names today. Zelensky knows what so many of us have forgotten: That this is a war of systems as well as nations, and that the alternative to American democracy isn’t utopia but Putin and gangsterism. We should internalize this truth before the Ukrainian dead rise from their graves to remind us of it.
FOUR: Information is the weapon of the weak.
The Russians have nuclear bombs, loads of high-tech weaponry and the big battalions on their side. The Ukrainians have Zelensky and the smart phone. So far, it’s been no contest. Absent the Ukrainians’ masterful information campaign, Western leaders might have opted for the kind of sanctimonious condemnations President Obama favored in his relations with Russia. Instead, they have been stampeded by their own public into providing massive material and intelligence support. Meanwhile, Putin—he of the absurdly long tables and claims of Nazis in Kyiv—appears to be running a highly effective information campaign against himself.
FIVE: A democratic Russia is our strategic objective.
The Ukrainians have earned the right to dictate the terms on which they will accept peace. Western pressure must be applied entirely on the Russians: We should not be in the business of saving Putin’s face. But cessation of hostilities won’t end the broader conflict—and, if we allow our attention to wander, Putin will recover his balance and strike again. That’s been the pattern of his long, unhappy reign.
Sanctions should stay in place until the Russians offer credible guarantees. Pressure must be maintained on the regime. The U.S. must make clear that its long-term interests are to see a peaceful Russia integrated with the democratic nations of Europe. Even if he clings to power, Putin won’t live forever. Just as Ukraine has meant the awakening of the democratic spirit in the West, the Putin years may inoculate Russians against the lure of despots. The emergence of a democratic Russia is no less improbable than was the disintegration of the Soviet Union. We must advocate clearly for the former as we did, against all hope, for the latter.
Francis Fukuyama considers the Ukraine war a historic turning point that will induce “a new birth of freedom.” Niall Ferguson, a more cautious scholar, observes that history must first turn before we can reasonably talk of turning points. My sense is that the Rubik’s Cube has already been scrambled. Whether Putin conquers or suffers defeat there can be no going back to the prewar normal. The question is what kind of world we get after the doors of fate swing open on their rusty hinges. At the moment, the initiative rests with the nations of the democratic West.
The place of China in any future scheme must necessarily be fractious and unstable. Xi and his ruling class have embraced Putin and share his ambition to swallow a neighbor—in this case, Taiwan. They rightly hold democracy, and the nations that practice it, to be the most enduring threat to the survival of their dynastic arrangements. Nevertheless, the communist mandarins seemed as shocked as the rest of the world by Putin’s plunge into war. The abrupt demolition of the old order left them unprepared and isolated.
Rather than utter threats from a position of impotence, as President Biden keeps doing, the anti-Russia coalition should invite China to join the club. Its neutrality, if honestly observed, would be a severe blow to Putin. Any material support of the aggressor would deepen China’s isolation, which, from an American perspective, is a favorable outcome. The Chinese leadership appears not to have made up its mind yet whether a crippled Putin would turn Russia into a valuable economic colony or a vexing burden. Here is the remarkable conclusion of a well-connected Shanghai analyst, posted online in Mandarin and English:
China cannot be tied to Putin and needs to be cut off as soon as possible … Being in the same boat with Putin will impact China should he lose power. Unless Putin can secure victory with China’s backing, a prospect which looks bleak at the moment, China does not have the clout to back Russia. The law of international politics says that there are “no eternal allies nor perpetual enemies,” but “our interests are eternal and perpetual.” Under current international circumstances, China can only proceed by safeguarding its own best interests, choosing the lesser of two evils, and unloading the burden of Russia as soon as possible.
The post was allowed to garner a million views before being blocked by the authorities.
Picking a fight with China during a confrontation with Russia would be strategic idiocy. Yet China is a potential enemy. The revelations of the Ukraine war apply. The alliance struck with Australia and Britain to maintain a “free and open Indo-Pacific” shouldn’t be allowed to wither like so many previous U.S. commitments. The supply chain “decoupling” that began with Donald Trump and the Covid-19 pandemic must be greatly intensified, or else our economy will remain hostage to the whims of another unfriendly despot. Taiwan must be provided with the best defensive weaponry that technology can build and money can buy.
None of this should be construed as a provocation. It’s about clarity of purpose—about awakening, post-Ukraine, from our dogmatic slumbers. The world is a dangerous place. We can’t expect gaseous abstractions like “the international community” or “history” to carry our burden. We can’t gamble our security on policies of colonial guilt or self-loathing. Together with our allies, we must be prepared to advance our interests and ideals—just like every nation in actual history has done.
Prediction is a fool’s game always—but never more so than when events are in the saddle. Nothing has been settled. The conflict in Ukraine has been a source of multiple shocks and surprises, and no reason exists to think that will change. Those who love catastrophe, like the news media, will have plenty of opportunity to find it: A chaotic Russia triggering a nuclear holocaust is not unthinkable, for example.
By the same token, certain potential outcomes have emerged into view that would have been laughed off as insanely optimistic one short month ago. I offer below a short list of positive outcomes as the analytical equivalent of the glad game: In my experience, reflexive gloom tends to shut down productive thinking. Consider it a vision—not a prophecy—of a better world.
ONE: The prewar geopolitical order is gone.
Remember when Covid-19 was the most horrendous disaster in the history of humanity? You probably can’t. We live in a different planet now. A future pregnant with interesting possibilities is being forged in the tumble of events: We have little choice but to participate.
TWO: Putin is stuck in the muck and may be on the way out.
Remember when Afghanistan proved the appalling incompetence of the U.S. government? It turns out that you can do worse. A defeated Putin, like any weak strongman, would be something of a contradiction in terms: Without the capacity to inspire fear, the personage clinging to his gilded chair in the Kremlin would be more like a shell of his old troublemaking self. How long that can last is anyone’s guess.
THREE: A democratic Russia is possible.
The West has little control over events inside Russia. Political instability in a nation bristling with nuclear weapons will make for an unnerving spectacle. For all that, I wouldn’t bet against the emergence from the wreck of the Putin regime of a “normal” Russia—that is, a country more interested in economic prosperity than revanchist aggression. A fully democratic Russia, I admit, is a long shot devoutly to be hoped for.
FOUR: The Chinese are watching.
Your most important ally has been wounded and may be finished. A single determined soldier with a rocket launcher can take out your best aircraft and armor. Taiwan is Ukraine only wealthier, more sophisticated and surrounded by water. When your economy is tanking, why alienate your best-paying customers? You are Xi Jinping and you decide, after thinking it over, that the conquest of Taiwan should be left to the next generation, which you have so carefully trained in the principle of the “complete reunification of the motherland.”
FIVE: Democracies are standing tall, shoulders squared.
Ukrainians aren’t fighting Russians over pronouns. We have been reminded that all systems and nations are not equal. Some, like our own, provide more freedom, tolerance and decency than could be dreamed of by a Putin minion. In spite of what elites have been preaching at them, the vast majority of Americans of all races and conditions believe this. Expect them to come out of the closet.
The twilight struggle against tyranny can never really end, and the arc of history bends toward those who engage with it.
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