The BDN Opinion section operates independently and does not set newsroom policies or contribute to reporting or editing articles elsewhere in the newspaper or on bangordailynews.com.
The Ukraine War wasn’t supposed to happen.
At the end of the Second World War, Americans and others drank their own bathwater, as the saying goes. They imagined that the winning alliance – the U.S., Britain, the Soviet Union, France and China – had finally halted the endless land wars for territorial gain.
In 1945, their dream was wrapped into the United Nations, a forum for negotiating settlements and avoiding war. The five big winners would run it, though really it would boil down to the U.S. and the U.S.S.R.
Within four years, they failed. After stealing American nuclear secrets, the Soviets occupied much of Eastern Europe. To stop their advance, the U.S. organized NATO with Britain, France and others. Meanwhile, China crumbled, paving the way for a Communist takeover. Quickly, the post-war world evolved into opposing blocs: democratic countries and dictatorships.
The Soviet Union was really Russia and the neighboring countries it controlled. Eastern European satellite states were a buffer between Russia and the West.
Russia suffers from historical paranoia. With flatlands on its western border, the Russian Empire and later the Soviet regime always feared invasion, and with good reason. Napoleon in 1812 and Hitler in 1941 marched on Moscow. Only because they were overextended, outnumbered and seriously cold were they forced to retreat in defeat.
The history of national boundaries in Eastern Europe shows almost continual change. At times, Ukraine was a key part of the Russian Empire, but it was also a maltreated part of the Soviet Union. When the U.S.S.R. folded in 1991, Ukraine achieved independence. In effect, it took its place near the end of the decolonization that had swept the world after World War II.
In the 1990s, it appeared that Russia’s paranoia could be cured by closer economic links with the West. But then Vladimir Putin came to power. He lamented the end of the Soviet Union, and hoped to revive the Russian Empire. Otherwise, he feared that the Russia he ruled would be nothing more than “a regional power,” just as Barack Obama had labeled it.
In Putin’s view, Ukraine, home to second-rate Russians, had to be recovered. As it became more attracted by the EU and NATO, Putin saw Russia’s buffer disappearing. The West would be at the door, able to invade. He had to stop Ukraine’s drift westward.
Based on his largely unopposed take-over of Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula, Putin seemed to believe he could capture the rest of the country in a matter of days. With the UN having become ineffective and NATO having lost its mission as it still hoped for amicable relations, Putin could imagine winning a land war in Europe.
If Putin were a throwback to the bad old days of Nazi aggression, he surprisingly faced Joe Biden, an American president who was a throwback to the Cold War with the Soviets.
Putin made two mistakes. He badly underestimated the Ukrainians, and he mistakenly believed that the only weapon in the U.S. arsenal was words. The impact of his errors was huge, disastrously affecting Russia and undermining the world economy.
Russia emerged as no longer worthy of a seat among world powers. Its only weapon was nuclear, more effective as a threat than as an instrument of war. By revealing his country’s essential weakness, Putin turned Russia into the junior partner of China. His timing was bad.
Xi Jinping, China’s president, is at an earlier place on the dictator’s learning curve than Putin. He dislikes the instability that Putin created, though he exploits it to boost China’s standing in the world. If Xi opposed Putin, the Ukraine war might come to an end. But he may reason that Putin taking even part of Ukraine by force is a helpful model for China taking over Taiwan.
And Putin could succeed at least in gaining some territory. After a one-sided war in which Russia could pulverize Ukraine while Ukraine was restrained by its backers from touching Russia, a negotiated settlement might allow the Russians to save face by dividing Ukraine.
The world economy will never be the same. Overdependence on others can be dangerous, as Russian oil and gas customers have learned. Or as China’s TikTok users are learning. Globalism is reverting somewhat back to national self-sufficiency. But this can bring higher prices.
It will also cost more to be prepared. The Ukraine war has shown the limits of Russian readiness and war production, but it has done the same in the West. This is not merely a matter of armed forces and weapons. It’s also about the domestic economy ranging from modernizing manufacturing to advanced research.
Above all, it is critically important to recognize that the post-war world is gone. The times call for the U.S. to reassert itself as the world’s leading economic and military power.