When the Gaza War and the threat from ISIS pulled global attention away from Ukraine, you could almost hear the sighs of relief emanating from the Western capitals: Finally, something to distract us from this Eurasian conundrum! This isn’t to say that Western leaders don’t understand that the war in Ukraine has implications for both the international order and the West’s own internal workings. By now they appreciate the stakes (or at least they ought to); they just haven’t been able to come up with an answer.
Meanwhile, Russia itself faces a conundrum of its own. By attempting to shift Russia backward to an older civilizational model, Putin has already inflicted a deep strategic defeat on his country. His efforts to turn Russia back to the “Besieged Fortress” model will only rob Russia of its chance to become a modern society. Moreover, Putin has also unleashed forces he can’t hope to contain, thus accelerating the agonizing decay of his own regime. Nevertheless, though he has lost the battle with history, Putin has been moving from one tactical victory to the next by forcing the West to constantly react and try to accommodate his reckless behavior.
Russia’s recent “humanitarian invasion” of nearly 200 trucks -- which crossed the border and then returned, the Ukrainian government alleges, with stolen factory equipment -- is only one of the more recent Kremlin experiments aimed at testing both the global rules of the game and Western leaders’ readiness to confront Russia. This alleged mass theft, in particular, took place just before Ukraine’s Independence day, on the eve of German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s visit to Kiev and before the meeting between Putin and Poroshenko. It was an intentional slap in the face, meant to bring across a simple message: “Screw you! We don’t care what you say!”
The Kremlin has been intentionally escalating tensions in order to ready us for Putin’s attempt to assume the role of Peacemaker -- albeit on his terms. Peacemaking, for the Russian leader, is merely a means to another goal: forcing the West to accept the Kremlin’s right to change the rules of the game whenever it suits its interests. Indeed this is precisely what he demonstrated at the recent meeting in Minsk between the EU, Russia, and Ukraine, where Putin stubbornly refused to admit to the Russian military’s involvement in the war in Ukraine.
What this means is that there are no concessions on the part of the West and Ukraine that can satisfy the other side. This is true not because of bellicosity or incompetence of the Russian leader; he is quite rational and competent. Rather, he understands all too well the logic of personalized power in Russia -- that, at this late stage of regime decay, it requires him to keep Russia in a state of war with the outside world. The war with Ukraine has thus become an existential problem for the current Russian political regime. It can’t afford a defeat. Yesterday Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko claimed -- and NATO satellite imagery appears to confirm -- that Russian troops have openly invaded the Ukrainian territory, proving that the Kremlin is no longer interested in forestalling an escalation. Hell is unfolding…
Several years ago the famous Polish political philosopher and sociologist Zygmunt Bauman reintroduced into our political lexicon the term “interregnum” (a word once used by the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci to describe the early 1930s). The term means “a time without a trajectory,” or “a time outside of time,” when the old is dying and the new has not yet been born or is too faint to notice. It is a treacherous time to interpret: Is it just before dawn, or just after dusk? “Interregnum” is also an apt description for the times in which the world found itself during the first decades of the 21st century: a time of ideological fuzziness, political ambivalence, and normative relativism.
Having flipped the global chessboard with his annexation of the Crimea and an undeclared war against Ukraine, Putin effectively ended the most recent period of interregnum and inaugurated a new era in global politics. However, no one yet knows what this era will bring. The global community is still reeling in shock, when it isn’t trying to pretend that nothing extraordinary has in fact occurred. This denial of the fact that the Kremlin has dealt a blow to conventional ideas, stable geopolitical constructs, and (supposedly) successful policies proceeds from the natural instinct for self-preservation. It is also quite natural that the political forces that have grown accustomed to the status quo will try to look to the past for answers to new challenges -- this is precisely what those who were unprepared for a challenge always do. It was easy enough to predict that many politicians and political analysts would explain what Putin has done to the global order by using Cold War analogies. Drawing these historical parallels is potentially useful in only one respect: if they help us to see what is truly new about the current situation, and the scale of the risks involved.
The Cold War of the past century was not merely a competition of two global systems; it was also a clash of two ideologies that sought world domination. Russia, having entered a stage of decline, no longer possesses a global ideology and cannot play a role in counterbalancing the West. Nevertheless, the new containment policy initiated by the Kremlin should concern the West, since in one important respect these times differ from those of the Cold War. Back then, the opposing sides attempted to follow the rules of the game (the Cuban Missile Crisis was the sole exception that highlighted the need to play by the rules). The current confrontation with the West instigated by Putin’s Russia, however, is characterized by a new set of circumstances:
Thus, the Western proponents of the two opposing courses on Russia are quite confused now. After all, the Kremlin seeks to contain the West even as it maintains an active presence there, which prevents the West from either successfully containing or engaging Russia. Аs for the dual-track approach -- that is, the combination of both containment and engagement -- the West has never had success with this. The crisis of these past foreign policy models has become obvious in the case of Ukraine, where the West still struggles to find a solution that would end the Kremlin’s undeclared war. Meanwhile, the Kremlin has managed to force the West to accept the aggressor in this conflict as a peacemaker and mediator. Not only that, but it is also now trying to force the West to agree to a new status quo, without offering its own pledge to respect it.
In other words, we face a new reality in which neither Cold War schemes nor post-Cold War settlement approaches appear to work. This means that we will have to revisit a number of traditional views, including our views on the collapse of the Soviet Union -- which, as we now should understand, merely served to sustain the Russian Matrix of personalized power at the cost of dismantling the old state. The same understanding applies to Yeltsin’s role: He was in fact an architect of anti-Communist authoritarianism, creating the constitutional grounds for Putin’s regime. We will have to take a fresh look at the policies the West has been advancing over the past twenty years, ranging from the European Union’s roadmaps for Russia’s inclusion in Europe to the U.S. “reset” and the EU’s “Partnership for Modernization.” We will need to ask ourselves to what extent Western policies were actually means of including Russia in Western normative space, and to what extent they merely facilitated the revival of the Russian personalized power system. Having cast aside imitations of partnership and democratization in Russia, Putin seriously damaged the reputation of Western intellectual and political communities. Just think how many analytical publications, speeches, and dissertations have now been rendered superfluous, if not just plain wrong! How many political decisions and constructs have been exposed as futile, or even deleterious to the liberal democracies! Even a short list of misguided political actions, op-eds, and academic research would offer a stunning example of a collective failure to analyze, predict, and react to the obvious.
Meanwhile, Russia’s war against Ukraine could have consequences reaching even further than those of the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union. The Soviet collapse was unexpectedly peaceful (again despite numerous predictions to the contrary). The Soviet Union just cracked and crumbled like a clay pot. This painless demise to a large extent resulted from the fact that the old and frail Soviet elite was unable to struggle for survival, and a significant number of Russians wanted change and looked up to the West. The situation is drastically different today: the Russian elite will fight tooth and nail to survive, using every means at its disposal—including, we now see, external aggression, blackmail, and the threat of undeclared war. Besides, the Russians of today, zombified by television war propaganda, fear change and view the West suspiciously. The 1991 Soviet collapse spawned a democratic euphoria and hopes for the ultimate victory of liberal democracy. Today the world finds itself in the midst of the authoritarian surge. In its final days, the Soviet Union could barely attract worldwide, let alone Western, support; Putin’s Kremlin, meanwhile, has managed to find supporters in the West all across the political spectrum—many of whom aren’t always aware of whose tune they’re dancing to. Today’s Russia is an advance combat unit of the new global authoritarianism, with China acting as its informal leader and waiting in the wings to seize its own opportunities. Indeed, by destabilizing the Western world and exposing its weaknesses, Putin is effectively doing Beijing’s dirty work.
Putin’s Kremlin challenged the West at the same time that the liberal community was losing its mission and normative dimension. This is essentially a civilizational rather than a geopolitical challenge: Apart from testing the liberal democracies’ ability to defend the global order, it is testing their ability to reintroduce the normative dimension to their foreign policies. That is exactly what Ukrainian crisis is about: Here Putin is trying to explore how strong the West’s positions are. The Kremlin isn’t fighting for the rights of Russian-speakers in Ukraine, or for greater autonomy for the east. These issues are ultimately of little significance to the Kremlin. Instead, what we have in Ukraine is a battle waged by a declining but ever more desperately aggressive authoritarianism against a hostile civilization. And today’s Russian elite will not leave the battlefield voluntarily, as the impotent Soviet leaders once did. After the Kremlin turned Ukraine into an internal political factor, and turned containment of the West in Ukraine into a tool for mobilizing Russians around their leader, it cut off its avenues for retreat. Retreat would lead to a loss of power and control over the country, which under current Kremlin conditions, would be tantamount to suicide (and not just the political variety). Putin’s retreat would spell defeat for global authoritarianism. Therefore, we can expect that Beijing will lend Moscow a helping hand where possible. (Beijing will also force Moscow to pay for this help -- the recent Russia-China gas contract, which exclusively caters to Chinese interests, is a clear illustration of what’s to come).
To be sure, it’s possible to reach the same diagnosis I have here and nevertheless draw precisely the opposite conclusions: “We should accommodate Russia. Ukraine is a failed state no matter what we do. Let the Russians have this twilight zone.” So say those who believe that it is still possible to fall back to the familiar “Let’s Pretend!” game of the past. Even those who understand that the world now faces a much more formidable challenge calling for new and far reaching solutions still haven’t fully grasped the meaning of the new reality unfolding before our eyes.
Ironically, the 1991 Soviet collapse did not guarantee the gradual rise of liberal civilization. We are witnessing its crisis twenty years later. Perhaps, the West needs rivals like the former Soviet Union to sustain itself and remain true to form. The West needs to return to its mission and core values in order to respond to Putin’s Russia, but doing so calls for taking stock of the mistakes and dashed hopes of the past. It requires an overhaul of long-standing and ostensibly immutable institutions and principles, including: the European security system (particularly as it pertains to energy security); issues involving democratic transitions, war and peace, and global government and responsibility; and the role of the normative dimension in foreign policy.
What a mess Putin has gotten us all into! But let’s also give him his due: He has paved the way for the emergence of new trends -- or at least he’s called the existing ones into serious question. He has also facilitated the formation of Ukrainian national identity, ensuring that the country will never again become a mere extension of Russia. He has thus undermined his own dream -- that of creating the Eurasian Union. He has precipitated a crisis in his own country, making its future path completely unpredictable. And finally, he has reminded NATO of its mission and prompted the liberal democracies to reflect on their own principles.
Now, it is entirely up to the West. The liberal democracies may choose to return to their foundations. If not, the accommodators -- those who hope for a return to the old “Let’s pretend!” game -- will win. If they do, this will give a green light to the Authoritarian Internationale, signaling that the West is weak and can be trampled underfoot.