As Russian tanks roll into Ukraine, the unfolding crisis reverberates around the world. The war for Ukraine is an indication of the frightening direction of global geopolitics to come. But it didn’t look this way just 30 years ago. The long American struggle against global authoritarian threats seemed to have been won with the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991. Just about everywhere, dictatorships were collapsing—Indonesia, Myanmar, Brazil, South Korea, the Philippines, Chile, and even Russia itself. That year Ukraine declared independence from the Soviet Union. The communist Supreme Soviet (parliament) of Ukraine proclaimed that Ukraine would no longer follow the laws of the USSR and only the laws of the Ukrainian SSR. Despite independence, for 20 years Ukraine was largely part of the Russian sphere of influence and had little association with Europe other than some small partisan groups in the eastern part of the country. But in 2014 that all changed with the Ukrainian Revolution and overthrow of the then president of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych. Russian President Vladimir Putin retaliated by seizing the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine.
A Man Shaped by History
Who is Russian President Putin? Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin was born on 7 October 1952 in Leningrad now Saint Petersburg. He was the youngest of three children all of whom died as children. Spiridon Putin, Vladimir Putin’s grandfather, was a personal cook to Vladimir Lenin and Joseph Stalin. His father Vladimir Spiridonovich Putin was a conscript in the Soviet Navy, serving in the submarine fleet in the early 1930s and his mother, Maria Ivanovna PutinaIn was a factory worker. They were a stalwart Russian family of the then Soviet Union. At the age of 18, Putin began his study of law at the Leningrad State University in 1970 and graduated in 1975. But his life took a new course when he joined the KGB the year he graduated. He worked in the Second Chief Directorate (counter-intelligence) before he was transferred to the First Chief Directorate. There he monitored foreigners and consular officials in Leningrad. In 1985 he was sent to Dresden in the GDR (German Democratic Republic) using a cover identity as a translator. In the 80s the Soviet Union began to collapse under its own weight. Bread lines and shortages of essential goods became common. Putin, being isolated in East Germany was largely isolated from the collapse and cultural change unfolding back home.
In 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev, then General Secretary of the Soviet Union, introduced Perestroika with hopes of jump-starting the sluggish economy. This “restructuring” included laws that allowed for the creation of cooperative businesses, peeled back restrictions on foreign trade, and loosened centralized control over many businesses. Gorbachev’s government also introduced the policy of Glasnost, meaning “openness and transparency”. This would transform the way government institutions and activities were conducted in the Soviet Union. Glasnost reflected a commitment of the Gorbachev administration to allow Soviet citizens to openly discuss the problems of the Soviet system. The Soviet propaganda machine, foundational to the Soviet Union, essentially lost its legs. Gorbachev took it even further encouraging scrutiny and criticism of leaders, as well as a certain level of exposure by the mass media. These drastic reforms undermined the very structure and stability of the Soviet Union. Unlike many of his colleagues who praised the reform, Putin saw it as a betrayal. He was right as the reforms ultimately hastened the collapse of the Soviet Union. But perhaps what disturbed young Putin most was the absence of a plan—for a suitable replacement of the Soviet Union and communism. All that was available was Western principles and ideas which liberty, freedom, and democracy. Putin saw that these would make Russia and its people weak. He once said, “The demise of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.”
There Will Be No Peace
As Russian troops lined along the borders, surrounding Ukraine, Putin put a stranglehold on the country. Most armchair warriors knew the war was foreseeable—perhaps it was only a matter of time. Ukraine and the West, in a precarious position, were left with few options, but to wait it out. War was coming. Negotiating with an autocrat is purely an illusion. The British Prime Minister Chamberlain learned this the hard way in 1938, attempting to negotiate with Hitler over the occupation of the Sudetenland. An autocrat does not play by the same rules in negotiations as democratic leaders. They only yield to what favors their goals and objectives. French Prime Minister Macron’s looked eerily similar to Chamberlain’s “Peace for our time” just 8 decades earlier.
In retrospect, the West failed and now look foolish for even wasting their strength. Putin, now 69 is bent on achieving his goal of restoring the greatness of the Russian empire and he goes to any length it takes, sacrificing as many lives and resources as necessary to achieve it. After all, he would rather Russia be poor than come second to the US and the West. He is done with them breaking their promises and treating Russia like an orphan. He has been waiting for this moment for 30 years and he plans not to waste it. The West should have seen it coming, and perhaps they did. The development of Russian weapons, military expansion, and increasing Russian aggression over the last 2 decades would have been a clear indication that war was on the horizon to any junior politician or corporal. It’s right from the playbook of Hitler himself.
Putin’s military aggression is a sign of what’s to come. Authoritarian powers believe the moment has arrived to push back against the US and reshape the world. It is unclear whether the Western allies have the will, resources, or unity to fight another battle. They are still weary from a long-drawn-out battle with the Covid-19 pandemic that battered their economies and societies and a dismal withdrawal from a 20-year occupation of Afghanistan last year. The thought of jumping into another conflict that could be a long-drawn-out one, particularly for the US, surely is a bitter pill to swallow. As the US faces rising political divisions and drowns in $30 trillion of debt there are serious doubts whether they can engage in a conflict overseas, especially a prolonged one. US public opinion for fighting another foreign war is as unpopular as the President himself.
The US and its allies have strived for a common purpose, but have fallen short in garnering results. Europe’s leaders want to chart their own course, but their much-touted “strategic autonomy” is looking more and more like “strategic indecision,” in which short-term economic and political gains take precedence over long-term strategic interests. To make the situation all the more difficult for the US and the allies, China and its leader Xi Jinping back Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. But the motive for this is self-interest for China. They want Taiwan added to the collective and eventual domination of Asia. Should the US set a foot in Ukraine they risk a declaration of war which would mean a two-front war in which the US could not survive.
Putin may very well have his way with Ukraine. Afterall, the clock is ticking and he has a legacy to leave. The question on the minds of those looking on around the world is how much collateral damage will the Ukrainian people inflict on the Russian war machine and will the West intervene and send military support to Ukraine? Time will tell. The future for generations to come very well could be in the making.
- Is Taiwan Next? The Atlantic. February 24, 2022.
- How the 1980s Explains Vladimir Putin. The Atlantic. February 14, 2013.
- Did Perestroika Cause the Fall of the Soviet Union? History. February 22, 2019.
- Putin has Made America Great Again. The Atlantic. Feburary 19, 2022.