The Ukraine crisis has shown that the use of force in the 21st century can cause serious public backlash. And even in countries that are party to the conflict, the public antagonizes against harming civilians.
Reports that only 12 percent of the Russian population is supporting the war against Ukraine – if accurate – illustrate this point. While some Russian soldiers in Ukraine are hesitant to use their weapons and parts of Russian society protest against the war, these realities will not cause Putin to reverse his course.
And while public outcry in the West is also important, it does not automatically lead to western policies that will force his hand either. Polls suggest that an overwhelming majority of Americans oppose Putin’s war but 73 percent of Americans are also opposing direct US intervention in Ukraine. Especially with support for President Joe Biden declining since the Afghanistan withdrawal fiasco and concerns about his health rising, he does not enjoy the political mandate needed to take decisions that can lead to American casualties. The fact that Vice President Kamala Harris isn’t able to fill this (perceived) leadership vacuum makes matters more concerning. Adding to this dynamic is Mr. Donald Trump returning to the political arena as an isolationist presidential candidate with 40 percent of Americans believing the last Presidential elections were stolen from him.
American and European indecisiveness exposed
Biden was already on shaky ground among allies. His failure to properly manage the withdrawal from Afghanistan caused further disappointment among European friends of the United States. European citizens are also questioning the leadership qualities of their own politicians. The Prime Minister of United Kingdom, mr. Boris Johnson, doesn’t instill trust, and French President Emmanuel Macron is not taken seriously either. The other European power, Germany, is still mourning the loss of Angela Merkel, while her successor Chancellor Olaf Scholz has clearly difficulty filling her shoes.
Like their American counterparts, Europeans are tired of policing the world and anti-war sentiment in European countries is higher than ever. With the pandemic nearing an end, the average citizen wants to enjoy European prosperity while avoiding tension and conflict. This popular sentiment rendered European defense budgets lower than ever and the appetite for military adventures even lower.
While all of the above was already well known, the Ukraine crisis caused these realities to be more visible. If Russia hadn’t overplayed its hand in Ukraine, it would have been very difficult to establish harmony on the need to focus on collective security among NATO member states. But instead, we are now withnessing a growing realization that Russia’s recent violations of international law pose a clear and present danger to the rule-based order the West was enjoying for the past 7 decades. NATO allies are now closing ranks to an extent that was difficult to imagine only weeks ago.
Putin wants to settle Cold War scores
The Ukraine crisis in many ways served as a wake-up call to a world that was moving away from a rule-based order, and brought about a consensus that a new version of the Cold War is loading bringing about extreme risks for humanity.
The West under American leadership brought Soviet Russia to its heel 30 years ago, but neglected building a security infrastructure that anticipated the needs of the 21st century. Blinded by their excitement of “winning” the Cold War, our leaders didn’t realize solidarity among NATO members was slowly but surely weakening. While many analysts today like to speak about a new cold war with China, Russia’s attack on Ukraine exposes that some scores of the old Cold War were not yet settled. The international community is now realizing the need to truly end the cold war that began in the 20th century.
Russia’s KGB-trained leader was clearly more aware of the disintegration of the West and was looking for an opportunity to avenge its defeat in the cold war. He decided that it was time to hold us accountable for the collapse of the Soviet Union, an historic event which he described as “the disaster of the century”. And by attacking Ukraine, he has taken a road of no return.
Is reconciliation possible?
It is no longer likely that a compromise can be reached with Russia and considering a nuclear escalation is no longer unimaginable. Similarly, the West cannot back down as policymakers realize that every concession made on Ukraine would result in fundamental concepts such as sovereignty and territorial integrity losing their significance. Consequently, the Ukraine crisis now poses a clear and present danger to global peace and security. While many commentators make references to the Cuban crisis of 1962, expressing hopes that common sense will eventually prevail, the comparison is flawed. The Soviets were ruled by a political elite with a head of state acting as a representative of the ruling class. While it was a totalitarian state in many ways, ultimately, the Soviet Union was not ruled by a classical dictator that resembles what mr. Putin has transformed into today.
The crisis is just beginning
The international community is trying to cope with externalities caused by the pandemic, while struggling to develop solutions to structural problems such as climate change, refugee crises, income inequality and energy security. These challenges leave little time to formulate, build and protect a balanced security architecture.
Moreover, global political leadership lacks the skills needed to manage these issues without causing a metaphorical hull-loss accident. And to make matters worse, recent developments such as the threat of terrorism and a global pandemic have already eroded our fundamental freedoms, while populist politics have undermined our democratic culture.
The lack of consensus culture and growing populism is leading to more authoritarianism and less international cooperation. And since it is not possible to solve the challenges we face without such essential ingredients, it is going to be very difficult to agree on a new and equitable global security architecture. The problem is that we must find a way to succeed despite these odds as the alternative is an unimaginably bleak future for humanity.