Putin's Great Illusion
President Putin’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine began with the 1989 end of the Cold War, if not before. In the 1980s an orthodoxy took hold of the political class in Europe that globalisation and growing economic interdependence would promote both political convergence and geopolitical coherence.
By : Professor Dr Julian Lindley-French
CSCIS Advisor, Senior Fellow, Institute for Statecraft, London; Director, Europa Analytica, Netherlands; Distinguished Visiting Research Fellow, National Defense University, Washington DC; Fellow, Canadian Global Affairs Institute; Chair & Founder of The Alphen Group
War is a consequence of events. The cause of the 2022 Russo-Ukraine War, like most major wars in recent European history, involves the wilful unhinged militaristic design of an autocrat impervious to guidance, the denial and distraction of Europe’s democratic leaders, and an over-reliance on economics as the defining change factor in international relations.
In 1910, economist Norman Angell wrote The Great Illusion in which he argued that the interdependence of the economies of Edwardian Britain and Wilhelmine Germany whilst not making war impossible would make it plain stupid as both would suffer. He was right. Unfortunately, Angell had not counted on the power of the emotive nationalist extremism of the Prusso-German military elite and the growing internal struggle over the future of Germany to overcome his economic logic.
The end of history?
President Putin’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine began with the 1989 end of the Cold War, if not before. In the 1980s an orthodoxy took hold of the political class in Europe that globalisation and growing economic interdependence would promote both political convergence and geopolitical coherence. In 1991 the European Community was renamed the European Union and the Soviet Union ceased to exist. The assumption was that the Realpolitik of old had been replaced by a new sense of international community and with it the establishment of a rules-based order that also reflected the belief system of the victorious liberal order. The most eloquent exposition of this belief came in Francis Fukuyama’s 1992 book The End of History and the Last Man, who famously wrote of, “not just … the passing of a particular period of post-war history, but the end of history as such: That is, the end-point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.”
Fukuyama’s primary assumption was not that events, such as the invasion of Ukraine, would or could no longer happen, but that over time (i.e. history) states would inevitably move towards liberalism, free markets and democracy. Fukuyama’s thesis was equally famously countered in a 1993 essay (which became a book in 1996) by Samuel Huntingdon entitled The Clash of Civilizations. Huntingdon said that civilizational clashes would replace any ideological struggle and that the dominant civilisation would ultimately impose its form of government. Huntingdon cited Salafist Islamism as potentially the most powerful opponent to Fukuyama’s thesis, but Putinism, to the extent it exists, is an attempt by a Russian autocrat to re-establish a form on ‘Near Abroad’ imperialism based on his own interpretation of Russian dominance. In other words, a clash within a civilisation over the nature and direction of it.
Euro-world and Russia
Today, Europe and the wider world sits somewhere between Fukuyama and Huntingdon. Ever since the end of the Cold War European leaders have taken geopolitical peace for granted to such an extent that they created a ‘Euro-world’ in which the only real struggle of worth was between the member-states who created the European Union and the Eurocracy who run it over where power should rest and who should control it for best effect. The argument of the latter was that a Europe whole and free and the peace and prosperity it offered could only be guaranteed by ‘deepening’ European institutions and the rules they uphold. However, the historical moment also demanded that deepening take place in parallel with widening. This led to successive enlargements of the EU between 1981 and 2007, much of it to countries that had formerly been part of the Russian-dominated Warsaw Pact and Comecon. In the wake of the Cold War, particularly after 1997, EU enlargements took place in parallel with the enlargement of NATO to former Warsaw Pact countries.
Unfortunately, whilst the Euro-world banished war by institutionalising state power, the world beyond did not. During the 1990s the Western Balkans descended into the most brutal of wars that despite claims (from the Prime Minister of Luxembourg) that “this was the hour of Europe”, and in spite of high-sounding policies such as the EU’s Common Foreign and Security Policy, was only brought to an end when the US acted decisively. Still, the Wars of the Yugoslav Succession also established a crisis management template for ‘war’ in post-Cold War Europe. Europeans might not, after all, have banished war from Europe, but should they happen they would be ‘small’ wars of choice, not large wars of existence.
And then there was Russia. In the wake of the Cold War and the retreat and dissolution of the Soviet Union, Russia came close to civil war. In August 1991. a failed coup attempt by old Communists to re-seize power brought Boris Yeltsin to power. The hope of many Russians was that their country would move westwards and become more open politically and economically. That was also the promise many in the West held out to Russia in the early 1990s. However, a mix of incompetent Western (mainly Harvard) economists and even more incompetent Russian political leadership saw the ‘privatisation’ of Russian state assets turn Russia into a kleptocracy. The only beneficiaries were the Russian political elite, the Russian mafia and a few oligarchs close to the Kremlin with the real losers the Russian people.
The chaotic interregnum (for that is what it was) between Soviet order and Putin’s ‘order’ was also an interbellum because it created ‘in-between’ states, such as Belarus and Ukraine. States that had formerly been at the heart of the Soviet experiment were now outside the collapsed Russian sphere of influence. Russia is nothing if not a vision of its own history, and those around Russia too often its victim. In December 1922, Lenin had created the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics by merging the Belarus and Ukrainian Soviets with their Russian counterpart. It is clearly no coincidence that in 2022 Putin is seeking to ‘de-communise’ both states by forcing them back within the latest old/new Russian empire.
In the 1990s realising such an ambition seemed impossible for Russia. However, power is relative, particularly military power, and the 1990s saw the beginnings of geopolitical trends that would lead to today’s tragedy. First, Western Europe de-militarised. Massive defence cuts began in 1990 with the so-called “defence premium”. Throughout the 1990s half-hearted efforts were made to pool what European forces were left, often under ambitious sounding EU and NATO acronyms that never quote seemed to be realised, such as the Petersberg Tasks, European Security and Defence Policy, European Security and Defence Identity, Berlin-Plus and host of other relatively empty gestures.
Assumptions were also made about the nature of future war, which Europe’s leaders behind that if they happened at would just be the ‘cheapest’ and shortest, such as the 1999 Kosovo War. The future of war, if it had any such future, would be a distinctly Hobbesian ‘war amongst the people’ in which European forces would reinvent themselves as a kind of latter day imperial policing force. Crisis management thus became the be all and end all of ‘European’ security and defence policy, in spite of the 1991 Iraq War which was fought by Europeans with their equipment legacies from the Cold War. The Americans were even concerned that the EU would replace NATO. How quaint that now seems.
The ten great accelerants
And then came the accelerants. First, there was 911 and the apparent fulfilment of Huntingdon’s prophecy. The day after, NATO declared an Article 5 emergency and triggered collective defence in support of the Americans. In truth, 911 also marked the beginning of the great divergence between the Americans and their European allies, first in Afghanistan and then in 2003 in Iraq. Europeans were simply unable and unwilling to fight the war against Al Qaeda in the way the Americans wanted to fight it forcing the Americans to do ever more of the heavy lifting for both expeditionary operations and NATO defence. Even the British. Then came the 2003 Iraq War which tore the Western Alliance apart and badly damaged the credibility of its two erstwhile leaders, the US and UK.
Second, the 1999 launch of the Euro saw a recently re-unified Germany retreat into mercantilism and effectively abandon its role as the core land defence component of NATO. An abandonment that was only brought to an end yesterday with the announcement that Berlin is to invest €100 billion on modernising the Bundeswehr and would (finally) move towards spending 2% of GDP on defence and thus meet its commitment under NATO’s 2014 Defence Investment Pledge. Germany’s abandonment of its Cold War role whilst annoying to the Americans was not really crucial for much of the interbellum between the end of the Cold War and the 2022 Russo-Ukraine War as they found the Allies more of an encumbrance than a support in both Afghanistan and Iraq. Not anymore.
Third, in 2000 Vladimir Putin came to power. His mission was to end the chaos of the 1990s and restore order and the power prestige he believed Russia had lost, mainly at the hands of a perfidious West. In his KBG-trained mind a West that had ‘promised’ in 1990 (it had not) never to enlarge NATO to former members of the Warsaw Pact. Full of a self-important sense of grievance Putin’s chosen method was to rebuild the Russian security state and over time the Russian armed forces by using the increasing dependence of European states on Russian oil, gas and rare metals, most notably mercantilist Germany.
Fourth, Afghanistan and Iraq reinforced Putin’s growing sense of a divided West bogged down in a global counter-insurgency it could never win and led by people who lacked either the political will or determination to prevail.
Fifth, the 2008-2010 Western banking and Eurozone crises effectively destroyed the financial stability of many welfarised European states and forced them deep into debt. This forced many to make a profound and dangerous choice between social security and national security. Many Europeans, including Britain and France, slashed the budgets of their fragile Bonsai militaries were even as their task lists expanded to meet the rigours of the Afghanistan campaign. It also reinforced an American sense that they were on their own, to all intents and purposes.
Sixth, the war in Syria post 2011 and the September 2015 deployment of Russian forces in support of the Assad regime coincided with the crossing of several of President Obama’s so-called ‘red lines’. Once again, the West was demonstrating that it was neither united nor resolute in the face of determined action by an autocrat, something Putin was only too willing to exploit.
Seventh, in 2014 Putin undertook his first invasion of Ukraine by seizing strategically-vital Crimea. This should have triggered a fierce Western response. In 1994, the US, UK and Russia, together with China and France, had signed the Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances guaranteeing the borders and security of both post-Soviet Belarus and Ukraine. In 2014, the West effectively did nothing thus undermining the very utility of such agreements and with it weakened the entire post-Cold war European security architecture.
Eighth, the 2016 election of President Trump, allied to Brexit and Britain’s vote to leave the EU convinced Putin the West was dissolving. Not only did the great age of American internationalism seemed to be coming to an end, the White House incumbent seemed to prefer the company of the Russian autocrat to European democrats.
Ninth, the implicit non-aggression pact Putin secured with fellow autocrat President Xi of an increasingly militaristic China removed for the time-being any direct threat to Russia’s Far East and enabled Putin to concentrate his armed forces on his Western flank.
Tenth, COVID. The pandemic forced many European states even further into debt and deepened tensions with China, the power source of globalisation, over human rights and Chinese policy in Hong Kong and elsewhere. It also revealed a fundamental and dangerous contradiction in European ‘policy’, dependence on states, the values of which Europeans reject, for much of the materials and supplies Europeans needed to fight a virus that had originated in China. Not so much interdependence as dependence.
Putin’s great illusion
In August 2008, President Putin ordered his forces to invade Georgia. Whilst the invasion was ultimately successful it also revealed profound shortcomings in the training, quality and equipment of the Russian armed forces. Given that for Putin military power is the currency of power action had to be taken and he set about modernising the Russian military. As his forces became more powerful he also began to flagrantly break the 1990 Conventional Forces Treaty and the 1987 Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty. This brinkmanship was further encouraged by Europeans retreating ever more into a legalistic view of international relations. In Putin’s mind brinkmanship became his own great illusion as diplomacy was replaced by his own hubristic Realpolitik. A world view reinforced by the yes men he surrounded himself with.
In the wake of the 2014 NATO Wales Summit the Western Allies slowly began to confront the danger of Putin’s brinkmanship, but also made themselves ever more dependent on Russian hydrocarbons which the construction of the Nordstream 2 pipeline has come to symbolise. Then Chancellor Merkel’s decision to scrap German nuclear power in the wake of the 2011 Fukushima disaster only made the gap between intent and reality in European defence seem ever wider. The result was an absurd situation in which Europeans were funding the very Russian forces that were increasingly a threat to fellow Europeans. Those of us who repeatedly warned of this danger were accused of being hawks and of failing to understand the unerring logic of globalisation and interdependence that made war in Europe impossible. To rebuff this nonsense in early 2018 General John Allen, Lieutenant-General Ben Hodges and I began writing Future War and the Defence of Europe.
And then came COVID 19. Like so many pandemics before it COVID 19 accelerated conflict by both destabilising societies and systems and by forcing states to invest in short-term health security at the expense of long term national security. COVID 19 also skewed further an already fast skewing balance of power in favour of the autocracies as economic and military power shifted away from Europe to Asia.
At the same time, the slump in economic activity and the crash in the price of oil and gas also stalled the modernisation of Russia’s armed forces. This created a situation in which Putin would both never have a better window of opportunity to force both Belarus and Ukraine into some form of Union State with Russia, but also only a relatively short such window. A post-pandemic Europe would sooner rather than later begin to offset his temporary nuclear and missile dominance by re-capitalising their own armed forces as part of a new ‘contract’ with over-stretched Americans that would be vital to keep NATO credible as a defensive alliance. In other words, Putin had to act now or never. He did. As I warned he would.
The tragedy unfolding in Ukraine today is not so much the end of history and clash of civilisations but rather the end of a phase of history and a clash within European civilisation. It is also Putin’s great illusion for he has embarked on a war that he simply cannot win. Sadly, it is likely to be as long war in which tens of thousands of fellow Europeans die. Therefore, European leaders would do well to remember the 1919 words of Winston Churchill (Boris???) “The task upon Ministers of the Crown at the present time is really a very heavy one indeed. But at any rate, the difficulties we have to face are only the difficulties of circumstances, and the opposition we have to encounter—the only opposition we have to encounter—is the opposition of events. It is well that that should be so, because the tasks are heavy and formidable.”
This is just the beginning not only of a war but a Second Cold War. It is also the clash of several great illusions. After all, ill-judged wilful power and wilful weakness, and the miscalculations that inevitably drive it, is not only the very stuff of history it is as old as Europe itself.