Commentators argue that Vladimir Putin’s war on Ukraine has overturned the post-war world order. But the reality is perhaps more dangerous than that.
But none of this has forged a new world order; Putin has simply (and brutally) reasserted Russia’s role. The old order — with its Cold War attitudes, militaries, alliances and enmities — is reclaiming center stage.
NATO, adrift since the Soviet Union ended, now claims new purpose and energy. Hawks in Russia and the United States alike are emboldened. Weapons-makers are drawing up plans to profit in the coming arms buildup, and ideologues and demagogues are dusting off familiar rhetoric. China, clearly helping Russia mitigate its sanctions, now weighs heavily in the balance.
As this old reality settles back in, we will pay a continuing price for ignoring George F. Kennan, the grand strategist of containment who warned that expanding NATO to Russia’s borders after the collapse of the Soviet Union was bound to lead to “the beginning of a new Cold War” — and all its folly.
Concrete steps are already leading us that way. President Biden has vowed to make Russia pay “dearly, economically and strategically,” and to make Putin a “pariah on the international stage.” Germany announced it will add $100 billion to its military spending, twice its annual level; other European countries will follow. There’s talk of adding Sweden and Finland to NATO. And Putin’s decision to put Russian nuclear weapons on alert will surely launch a new arms buildup, accelerating the trillion-dollar “modernization” already underway in the United States.
Indeed, we should expect ringing calls to arms for a decades-long battle against authoritarianism. These cries will emanate from a foreign policy establishment that has been discredited by its serial debacles from Iraq to Libya to Afghanistan, but that will nevertheless seek to consolidate bipartisan and militarized support anew. Already an armchair warrior at the Atlantic Council has called on the United States to prepare to fight Russia and China at the same time — and double our military budget to do so.
What’s lacking here is any sense of proportion or grasp on reality. The new Cold War will sap resources and attention from pressing dangers we already face. Over 900,000 people have died from the coronavirus in this country alone, with many more permanently injured. Contagions will continue to wreak havoc without a dramatic upgrading of public health capacity at home and around the world.
The plight of hundreds of thousands of refugees from Ukraine is wrenching; at the same time, a report by the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies estimates that the majority of the nearly 31 million people displaced in 2020 were fleeing weather catastrophes. The World Bank says extreme weather will displace more than 200 million people over the next three decades.
So what can stand in the way of this wasteful Cold War revival? In Ukraine, the hope is that the global outrage will lead Russia to negotiate a cease-fire. The Minsk Accords, terms hammered out in 2015 but never implemented, could offer the outlines of a settlement. They essentially guarantee Ukraine independence in exchange for neutrality.
The intense diplomacy spurred by the crisis should also lead to new thinking about security: Could security focus first on building the cooperation needed to address pandemics and climate change? Could it create institutions that divert resources from the entrenched institutions of war?
Rather than build up weaponry in Europe, could the United States initiate negotiations about shared security, disarmament and a military stand-down? Could this war lead us to think more seriously about how to build peace rather than how to build weapons?
What’s needed above all is a courageous and transnational citizens’ movement demanding not simply the end of the war on Ukraine but also an end to perpetual wars. We need political leaders who will speak out about our real security needs and resist the reflex to fall into old patterns that distract from the threats we can no longer afford to ignore.
By invading Ukraine, Putin demands a return to just that archaic and obsolete Cold War order. The world would be wise not to accede.
War in Ukraine: What you need to know
The latest: Russia claimed to have seized control of Soledar, a heavily contested salt-mining town in eastern Ukraine where fighting has raged recently, but a Ukrainian military official maintained that the battle was not yet over. The U.S. and Germany are sending tanks to Ukraine.
Russia’s Gamble: The Post examined the road to war in Ukraine, and Western efforts to unite to thwart the Kremlin’s plans, through extensive interviews with more than three dozen senior U.S., Ukrainian, European and NATO officials.
Photos: Washington Post photographers have been on the ground from the beginning of the war — here’s some of their most powerful work.