Ukraine's Consequences in 2022

There has been so much published about Russia's invasion of Ukraine that more information regarding the situation on the ground is unnecessary. Certainly, a post-mortem on the reasons and responsibilities of a conflict that erupted so fast and abruptly is premature. But now is a good time to consider the medium- and long-term ramifications of Putin's spectacular action, as well as how the West can regain its equilibrium and tackle a new global challenge.

Historians frequently debate whether history is primarily caused by underlying objective factors or by the will of strong individuals. That is precisely the question raised by the Ukrainian instance. How we in the West respond will have an impact on how we move forward. In this situation, the fundamental dynamics that have always existed in the central European arena made this confrontation unavoidable, as many foresaw at the time of the Soviet Union's breakup and the growth of Western power, including NATO, into the region. However, if not for the actions and psyches of major actors, the differences between Moscow and the West over security in Central Europe would not have erupted into the violent form that they have.

The crucial players

Donald Trump—Moscow interpreted Trump's "America First" approach as a green light for Russian forceful ambitions. Trump's rhetoric about NATO being 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 his withdrawal from other international processes all gave the Kremlin (and Beijing) the impression that now was the time to assert power against what they saw as a weakened United States (and Western) hegemony within the international system.

Vladimir Putin—empowered by military successes in Georgia, Crimea, Syria, and Kazakhstan, relatively popular at home for 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—moved steadily to carry out his plans for Ukraine, and made no secret of his intention.

Angela Merkel and Boris Johnson, two accomplished European leaders, both harmed Europe's strategic position. Merkel, a wonderful leader of Germany and a global role model, affirmatively increased Germany's reliance on Russian energy and failed to use her years in power to strengthen Europe's military power because she bought into the view that the world had moved into a new paradigm in which military power was no longer paramount; Johnson, a clever but non-strategic political actor, exploited British dissatisfaction with European bureaucracy and Britons' yearning for a more

Xi Jinping—who probably wins the most out of all of this—watches the West and Russia square off with satisfaction, and acts as a sort of calm world leader ready to seize 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. At the pre-Olympic summit with Putin, Xi carefully crafted his position, hinting to Putin that Beijing would not object to, and might even discreetly encourage, Russian intervention in Ukraine.

Nota Bene: Joe Biden is not named among the critical actors. He was an actor, to be sure, and he played a limited role rather effectively. But, after the bungled withdrawal from Afghanistan, mishandling of domestic legislative initiatives, popular dissatisfaction with continued COVID mandates, a steady drop in his popularity (perhaps unfair to him, but nonetheless real), and his early announcement that NATO would not use military force, Biden negotiated with very few chips.

The old world order has come to an end

Having said that, and while acknowledging the role of these actors, there are broad historical dynamics at work that have led to this crisis and will lead to continued volatility in the world order. Finally, governments use their power to pursue what they perceive to be important national interests, and Russia, in Putin's opinion, is an aggrieved party. Putin feels that Russia now has the ability to correct a perceived imbalance. To that aim, he has advocated for a new European security architecture to defend Russia and Russian speakers living outside its boundaries. This argument sounds suspiciously similar to Hitler's arguments about Germany's place in Europe, as well as regarding German speakers in the Czech Sudetenland and elsewhere. Again, one must ask: where does it end?

Putin's decisions will result in extensive death and destruction, as well as a rethinking of Europe's security architecture. However, if the West plays its cards correctly, this new structure will not be what Putin had in mind, even if it will offer Russia a greater say in the destiny of its region. Whether this is more benign or more alarming relies a lot on Western commitment and coming years of positioning and talks, which will be followed by greater military budgets in Western countries.

Looking ahead, we must acknowledge that two major pillars of the post-WWII order have crumbled. The first is the lofty concept enshrined in the UN Charter, which states that international disputes will be settled amicably. The second understanding is that international borders should only be changed with permission, which has been followed insufficiently and inconsistently throughout the last 75 years.

Two further foundations of the post-WWII system remain: that the Great Powers do not directly confront one other, and that nuclear weapons are not employed. These are still in place, but with less guarantee that they will not be violated or encroached upon. It will take time to determine whether the previous framework can be restored or an acceptable new set of principles can be formed. Let us not forget that Xi Jinping will be present as well.

Much has been said and written about "soft power" during the last few decades. And soft power is unquestionably useful. However, the invasion of Ukraine demonstrates that hard power outweighs soft power, and if a leader like Putin is willing to deploy strong force, soft power is off the table. So the European Union must now make a difficult decision: as the world's leading exponent of soft power, will the EU states build up their forces and play Europe's rightful role in world affairs in the coming decades, which will be far more brutal and nasty, or should we say Hobbesian, than in previous decades?

Much has been said about penalties as a tool of power, but how effective are they in obtaining desired outcomes? From my observations of countries imposing small and big sanctions over many decades, we witness tremendous negative consequences on populations, food and medical supplies, and other requirements, lowering living standards and increasing suffering for ordinary residents in afflicted countries. But, are we witnessing significant policy shifts by determined governments? More often than not, what happens is that popular support for their regimes grows as locals suffer and hatred grows against the foreigners who imposed the sanctions.

This, I believe, will occur in Russia. Those of us who live in the rich West forget that most people across the world live on the brink of survival on a regular basis and tolerate suffering and occasional drops in living conditions at the hands of tremendous natural and human forces as an accepted element of life. We need to impose tough sanctions, but those sanctions will hurt both sides, and Putin will bet that Russia will withstand sanctions longer than the West will withstand the loss of Russian energy and commodities (based on his reading of how the Russian people have accepted suffering over and over again in past and recent history).

The nuclear issue

The nuclear dimension is also important to address. Russia performed a nuclear exercise just prior to its invasion. Not that it was necessary, but it indicated to all that Russia would act in Ukraine as it saw fit, and that anyone considering meddling should remember Russia's nukes.

Ukraine, as we all know, possessed nuclear weapons when it left the Soviet Union. However, following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Ukraine renounced its nuclear status and returned nuclear material to Russia. In exchange, Ukraine gained assurances from the United States, the United Kingdom, and Russia, expressed in the Budapest Memorandum of 1994, that its sovereignty would be guaranteed. That's the end of the Memorandum.

What are the takeaways from all of this? What is the Iranian mullahs' takeaway? Certainly, go nuclear and don't rely on treaties to ensure your security. What is Kim Jong Un's takeaway from this? Probably the same. In light of the Ukraine incursion, many military strategists throughout the world will be rethinking their nuclear options. Of fact, even if Ukraine had retained its nuclear option, it is unclear if it could or would have been able to use it, but giving it away made Putin's calculation far easier.

It will be interesting to see how the impacts affect the other actors. Hopefully, the Ukraine invasion will cause the US to gather itself, review priorities, and face the realities of a more perilous world situation in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East (which will not let itself be forgotten). Some serious thought among Democrats and Republicans about the reality of the country in a multipolar and more dangerous globe is a first but crucial step toward putting the United States on a better path to face several decades of difficult decisions. In our decision-making process about American and Western security, we must also include climate change, potential pandemics, and rising cyber warfare. As previously stated, Europe must awaken to the reality of power. Xi Jinping must examine the long-term ramifications of imitating his impulsive junior buddy, Vladimir Putin, by starting an Asian military conflict over Taiwan, and instead focus on developing a peaceful and accommodating global security and economic environment with the West.

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