Putin’s Catastrophic War of Choice: Lessons Learned (So Far)
It has been only six days since Russia invaded Ukraine, but Moscow’s unprovoked and ill-considered war of aggression has already transformed world order, albeit in ways Russian President Vladimir Putin never anticipated or desired. In one fateful step, the Russian president has managed to revive Western solidarity, reenergize U.S. global leadership, catalyze European integration, expose Russia’s weaknesses, undermine Moscow’s alliance with Beijing, and make his authoritarian imitators look foolish. Quite an accomplishment in less than a week. Amidst the unceasing onslaught of breaking news, it is worth taking a moment to allow some of the lessons of Russia’s incursion to sink in.
Lesson One: The West Is Back
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First and foremost, Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has galvanized the community of advanced market democracies and reinvigorated a transatlantic alliance that was until recently adrift and divided, and even declared “brain dead.” In the three decades since the demise of the Soviet Union, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) has repeatedly sought a new a raison d’être, leading it to go “out of area” (most notably to Afghanistan) and take on new security threats, including terrorism, cyberattacks, energy insecurity, maritime piracy, mass migration, humanitarian crises, and even climate change. The crisis of the West reached its nadir during the U.S. presidency of Donald Trump, who questioned longstanding U.S. alliance commitments and dismissed the concept of a rules-based international order itself—damage that U.S. President Joe Biden has only begun to correct. Putin’s brazen effort to subjugate an independent Ukraine has suddenly reminded the citizens of free societies of the foundational values at the heart of their security community—and how much they stand to lose if they allow Russian aggression to go unchecked and unpunished.
Lesson Two: U.S. Global Leadership Still Matters
Putin’s gamble has also given the United States the diplomatic restart it needed. The Biden administration’s crisis diplomacy on Ukraine, unlike its shambolic withdrawal from Afghanistan and fumbled rollout of the Australian submarine deal, has been adept. The United States’ steady hand has helped restore Western solidarity in the face of Russian aggression, hardening the stances of other advanced market democracies and keeping the thirty-member NATO alliance united in resisting Russian demands and intimidation. Washington has orchestrated punishing international economic sanctions, encouraged forward deployment of allied troops, and leveraged multilateral institutions like the UN Security Council, General Assembly, and Human Rights Council, as well as the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), to shine a light on Russian mendacity and rally the world against its bellicosity.
Lesson Three: Europe Grows a Spine
Besides renewing global appreciation for U.S. leadership and competence, Vladimir Putin has also done more for European integration than anyone since Jean Monnet, as the Columbia University professor Adam Tooze recently quipped. The European Union, long dismissed as an economic powerhouse but geopolitical lightweight, has acted with rare decisiveness, closing its airspace to Russian planes, barring Russian financial institutions from the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication (SWIFT) network, and authorizing military aid to Ukraine. Formerly gun-shy Europeans, whom U.S. leaders have long berated for failing to carry their own weight, are suddenly ramping up their defense spending—nowhere more dramatically than in Germany, whose prime minister, Olaf Schultz, announced a massive national defense budget increase. The crisis will likely also add momentum to EU defense integration and the pursuit of strategic autonomy.
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Lesson Four: Russia Is a One-Dimensional Paper Tiger
While the odds of battlefield victory remain in its favor, Russia’s failure to rapidly vanquish an outgunned Ukraine and its exposure to devastating economic sanctions have laid bare major military weaknesses and the hollowness of its great power pretensions. A Russian victory will indeed be a Pyrrhic one. In invading Ukraine, Putin aspired to reverse the humiliations of the early post-Soviet era—when headline writers likened Russia to a “Burkina Faso with nuclear weapons.” Instead, the military campaign has only underscored the inanity of conscription and the structural weaknesses of a commodity-dependent economy (twenty percent smaller than Canada’s). As Jason Furman, former chair of the U.S. Council of Economic Advisors, told the New York Times: Russia is “basically a big gas station.” Neither armored divisions nor energy supplies can hide Russia’s fundamental debilities.
Lesson Five: The China-Russia Axis Is Wobbly
Adding to an already impressive resume, Putin has also managed to rattle what seemed to be “a beautiful friendship” between a revanchist, money-strapped Moscow and a power-hungry Beijing with cash to spare. Only a month ago, Putin and Chinese Premier Xi Jinping touted their bilateral bromance as a partnership “with no limits,” capable of challenging the Western-led international order. Xi’s ardor has since cooled markedly. Putin’s brazen invasion has put Beijing in an awkward spot, having violated the principles of sovereignty and nonintervention China purports to hold sacred. Senior officials in Xi’s regime have denied any prior knowledge of Russian plans, and China pointedly abstained instead of joining Russia’s veto of a February 24 UN Security Council resolution calling on Russia to immediately cease military operations. China still has massive financial resources to stabilize a Russian economy in free fall, but it could well use this leverage to moderate the policies of its junior partner.
Lesson Six: Putin’s Fanboys and Girls Are Questioning Their Subscription
In recent years a parade of wannabe strongmen and women, including Trump and Marine Le Pen, have held up the authoritarian Russian president as a paragon of vigorous leadership. The widespread global revulsion at Putin’s unprovoked attack on Ukraine has sent many of his admirers, like rightwing Italian politician Matteo Salvini or his French counterpart Éric Zemmour, squirming and scurrying for cover. Instead of elevating his autocratic associates, Putin has managed to make democratically elected (and former comedian) Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky into an international hero. Putin’s own claim to fame has included the televised humiliation of an anxious member of his security council—an episode worthy of the parody film The Death of Stalin. There is nothing more threatening to a despot, it seems, than a functioning (if imperfect) democracy next door.
Lesson Seven: Soft Power Is Real
Global outrage over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the resistance it has stimulated from the democratic world have also reaffirmed the importance of shared principles, norms, and rules in world politics. Self-styled realists, of course, tend to dismiss such factors as mere window-dressing that conceals the ugly reality of international relations, tirelessly invoking Thucydides’ shopworn line: “the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.” When push comes to shove, realists assert, the “Melian Dialogue” is the only conversation that matters. Ivan Krastev suggested as much in Sunday’s New York Times, arguing, “we are all living in Vladimir Putin’s world now.”
I beg to differ. It is at least as likely that Mr. Putin will discover that he is living in ours. To be sure, ideals without power are meaningless. But states and their citizens, at least in the democratic world, are also motivated by a sense of global purpose—and they are often willing to defend international rules in their own enlightened self-interest.