Putin ends the post-Cold War order

The question now is what comes next — and how much will it look like what came before

(Photo by Peter Klaunzer – Pool/Keystone via Getty Images)
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The post-Cold War order, which began in 1989, ended in 2022 when Russia invaded Ukraine and said it had no right to exist as an independent nation. Faced with the largest military conflict in Europe since World War II, the biggest questions are

How much will this new world order resemble the Cold War?
How effective will the Russian war effort be in Ukraine?

Can Russia decapitate the Zelensky government and establish a puppet regime? Can they hold hostile territory in the long term against armed guerrillas, fighting for their homeland? Will a lingering conflict,…

The post-Cold War order, which began in 1989, ended in 2022 when Russia invaded Ukraine and said it had no right to exist as an independent nation. Faced with the largest military conflict in Europe since World War II, the biggest questions are

  • How much will this new world order resemble the Cold War?
  • How effective will the Russian war effort be in Ukraine?
    • Can Russia decapitate the Zelensky government and establish a puppet regime? Can they hold hostile territory in the long term against armed guerrillas, fighting for their homeland? Will a lingering conflict, and the endless funerals it brings, undermine Putin’s rule?
  • Can we avoid a direct, deadly, and unpredictable engagement between nuclear powers?
  • Will the costs the West imposes on Russia be high enough to deter China from taking Taiwan?

The historical setting of this crisis

Russia’s invasion is not just an effort to retake Ukraine, which was once part of the Soviet Union. It is an effort to use military force to overturn the post-Cold War settlement, reached in the early 1990s. 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, which its people no longer believed, and unable to afford the cost of maintaining its empire in Eastern Europe.

When its subordinate partners in Eastern Europe, known as the Warsaw Pact, faced popular 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 would succeed, the communist regimes would topple, and the Soviet Union would no longer dominate its neighbors.

Two years later, the Soviet Union itself collapsed. Region after region within the USSR peeled away and declared independent statehood. Crucially for today’s politics, that meant independence for territory 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 westernization 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 strategic plan than an expected low-cost effort to bring democratizing states into the trans-Atlantic 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 had it democratized, transformed its economy, and demonstrated peaceful intentions toward its neighbors. 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 that NATO’s expansion was both a betrayal and threat. Nor was Russia offered membership in the EU, which would have required successful democratization, 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’s regime’s legitimacy and, potentially, its stability.

The dual failure of Russia’s efforts to democratize and modernize 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 fueled 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 intended 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 what Joseph S. Nye, Jr. called “soft power,” the power of attraction. That was clearest in 2013-2014, when Ukraine felt the lure of the European Union, with its far larger markets. 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 (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 military. He wasn’t reluctant to it. 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.

What is Putin doing now?

Putin’s immediate aim in the 2022 war was to overwhelm Luhansk and Donetsk with heavy armor and air power and then extend Russian control to the whole provinces, well beyond the portions it already controlled. It then wanted to connect those regions to Crimea, giving Russia a land bridge, which it currently lacks.

Putin’s larger war aims were unclear until the fighting started. Was he simply interested in the border area and using the other forces to intimidate? We now know the answer. He wanted to seize all Ukraine and control Kyiv, its capital of three million people. We’ve also learn just how ferociously the Ukrainians will fight to maintain their independence.

The Ukrainian military cannot defeat the much larger, better equipped Russian force. Even so, the unanimity of Ukrainian resistance and its lethality 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, at best, and possibly futile. As the US learned in Iraq and both the US and USSR learned in Afghanistan, it is far easier for a powerful military to conquer a territory and destroy an existing government than to stand up a reliable successor government and maintain it against pervasive local opposition.

A puppet regime in Kyiv won’t be able to suppress popular resistance on its own. It will need Russian troops, lots of them. The Ukrainian response to the invasion should make that painfully clear to the Kremlin. An enraged, determined population can inflict a steady toll of casualties on any occupying force. That means Russian families in mourning — and enraged at the leaders who are responsible.

The political question is how extensive that popular opposition will be, whether it will threaten Putin’s power, and whether he can suppress it. The answers depend on how successful Ukrainian fighters are, how many casualties they can inflict, how unpopular Russians find a long, deadly conflict, and how tightly Putin controls the military, which is essential if he is to crush popular protests and avoid a coup.

Hard questions for Washington and Europe

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 was initially to ratchet up sanctions slowly, incrementally, each time Putin extended 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, as 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 sellers cannot receive payment.

China is watching these sanctions closely since it is a far, far larger player in global trade than Russia. Surely, Beijing saw how reluctant the Europeans were to impose those sanctions for fear of the inevitable harm they 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’s war on Ukraine will certainly lead to recriminations within 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 and why we didn’t give them anti-aircraft weapons or anti-ship weapons. Those questions are on hold during the fighting but they will reemerge soon enough.

Energy prices will be another open wound in the US and Europe. Prices were already sky high before the invasion. They’ve only gotten worse. 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 costly politically to impose more pain on ordinary consumers for gasoline and home heating. Will that continue? And how will he respond to European governments that relied on Russian energy and now need substitutes from America and the Middle East? America can supply much of that demand but only if its energy producers are unleashed and the US builds terminals to transport liquefied national gas across the Atlantic.

The fight to reorder the world

Beyond these immediate problems lies an even bigger one. Putin’s military aggression plus China’s rise and renewed ferocity form a concerted effort to reshape the global order, not at the margins but at the core. The US is gradually recognizing that its grand hopes for China have failed. The hope, expressed when it let the PRC into the world trading system, was that increased economic ties and 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 buildup, 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 drawn together. Now, they are challenging the Western-led global order. And the Ukraine invasion and Beijing’s seizure of Hong Kong show 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. That means a fundamental change in the Biden administration’s budget priorities, which actually propose a decrease in real military spending (a nominal 2 percent increase, when inflation is around 7 percent). NATO’s largest economies, which have spent years free-riding, will have to decide if they want to up their defense 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 these decisions — and on the Ukrainians’ success in thwarting Putin’s war of choice.