The evening before Russia invaded Ukraine, it seemed to many observers – me included – nearly unimaginable that Putin would carry through with weeks of a threatened military attack. As I wrote at the time, Putin is not as erratic or rash as he is sometimes painted.
I had failed to take into account that Putin is, in the words of French statesman and revolutionary Maximilien Robespierre, an “armed missionary.” Writing in 1792, Robespierre explained, “The most extravagant idea that can take root in the head of a politician is to believe that it is enough for one people to invade a foreign people to make it adopt its laws and constitution. No one likes armed missionaries; and the first advice given by nature and prudence is to repel them as enemies.”
Those words seem fitting as Vladimir Putin’s disastrous war in Ukraine reaches a grim first anniversary on Feb. 24, 2023.
Putin’s decision marked the beginning of a year of massive destruction and death in Ukraine and of extraordinary costs – both economic and in lives lost – for Russia.
It was also a colossal blunder on Putin’s part: It has weakened Russia significantly, solidified the NATO powers around the leadership of the United States and created a more unified, nationally conscious Ukraine than had existed before the war.
As a fading power, Putin’s Russia has refused to accept its own limitations, both economically and militarily. In invading its smaller neighbor, Russia made a bid to upset the international system headed by the United States. It also sought to establish its own hegemony over Ukraine, and by implication, over much of the former Soviet Union.
But Russia’s failure to “decapitate” the Ukrainian government, which in turn inspired heroic resistance by Ukrainians, proved a disastrous example of what might be called “imperial overreach” – when a state tries to expand or control other states beyond its own capacity to do so.
It has produced a weakened Russia – an isolated pariah state perceived as a threat to democracies and the rules-based liberal international security system.
Meanwhile, Putin’s diatribes against the West have evolved from complaints about the expansion of NATO to attacking the permissive culture of the West.
Putin deploys rhetoric about dangerously subversive liberal, democratic values and practices – echoing right-wing politicians like Hungary’s Victor Orbán and Giorgia Meloni, the far-right Italian leader. It appears that a new “International” – just as ominous to the liberal West as the Communist International was – is being formed of illiberal and authoritarian states, with Russia a key member.
This view of the Ukrainian war as a cultural struggle plays in the Russian media as an emotional rallying cry to mobilize the basest fears of Putin’s people.
Propaganda disguised as news, social media posts and the screeds of government officials are being deployed to shape ordinary Russians’ perceptions of the war.
Toward a multipolar world?
The consequences of Putin’s miscalculation are not limited to the war itself, or to Europe. Rather, they have had reverberations far beyond the battlefields of Ukraine and the homes of Russians whose sons have been slaughtered or fled abroad.
Putin’s imperial aggression against Ukraine – implausibly proclaimed to be a defense of a united Russia and of Ukrainian peoples against Nazi usurpers – has a long genealogy.
Ever since his famous speech at the Munich Security Forum in 2007, Russia’s president has railed against the “unipolar” military and economic dominance of the United States. What he wants is “multipolarity” – that is, the ability of other great powers to hold sway over their neighborhoods.
In such a multipolar world, Ukraine and Georgia would never join NATO and much of the former Soviet Union would fall under the umbrella of Russia. China would have paramount influence in East Asia, likewise India in South Asia. And perhaps this is Iran’s ambition in much of the Middle East.
To countries hostile to the United States – and even to some friendly states – this multipolar rearrangement of the international order has considerable appeal.
Yes, the war in Ukraine has solidified the Western alliance around its idea of the rules-based international order that has been in place since 1945. But it has also awakened the aspirations of “the Global South” – those countries in neither NATO nor the former Soviet bloc, largely in the Southern Hemisphere.
Countries from Latin America and Africa to Pacific Island nations have urged a greater dispersion and sharing of international clout. The two most populous countries in the world, India and China, have expressed their support for a new multipolar international order and have not been openly critical of Russia’s aggression against Ukraine.
Redefining regional, global power struggles
The war in Ukraine has also had ripple effects on other global tensions.
With Taiwan as a potential flashpoint and saber-rattling by North Korea, Japan, South Korea and the Philippines are gravitating toward closer military cooperation with the United States in East Asia. China and North Korea are moving in the opposite direction, closer to Russia.
The Ukraine war is also reshaping the long-festering conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Both states desire sovereign power over the disputed region of mountainous Karabakh. But with Russia bogged down militarily and economically, Putin has been disinclined to aid Armenia, its one loyal ally in the South Caucasus. This is despite the fact that Azerbaijan has repeatedly violated the borders of its neighbor.
Azerbaijan, by contrast, has been increasingly aided by its regional allies Israel – spurred by a shared hostility to Iran – and Turkey. Both have supplied Azerbaijan with advanced weaponry, giving the country an upper hand in the conflict.
The Ukraine conflict also has an effect on the great global power struggle to come: China and U.S. With EU states and regional rivals to China forging closer ties with Washington, Beijing may eye a growing threat – or even an opportunity to exert its influence more aggressively as regional power dynamics evolve.
American policymakers in both the Trump and Biden administrations have warned that the rise of China, economically and militarily, is a serious threat to the continued position of the U.S. as the strongest, richest state on the globe. To its competitors on the global stage, the U.S. also looks like an armed missionary.
The uncertainty of the Ukraine war, and the still uncertain ways in which it is reshaping geopolitics, will do little to dislodge those fears. Rather, it may encourage international relations scholars, such as Harvard professor Graham Allison, who believe in the “Thucydides’ Trap.” Based on the ancient Greek historian’s explanation for the origins of the Peloponnesian War, the theory has it that when an emerging power threatens to displace a regional or global hegemon, war is inevitable.
As someone trained to look to the past to understand the present and possible futures, I believe that nothing in history is inevitable; human beings always have choices. This was true for Putin on the eve of the Feb. 24, 2022, invasion, and it is true for policymakers around the world today.
But the decision to invade Ukraine underscores a clear danger: When statesmen perceive the world as a Darwinian zero-sum game of winners and losers, a clash between the West and the rest, or as an ideological conflict between autocracies and democracies, they can create the conditions – through provocation, threat or even invasion – that lead to wars with unintended consequences.