Have you felt the paradigm shift? It’s happening all around us. But I’m not sure most Western pundits have realized what they’re sensing (or perhaps even begun to sense it yet).
George Will’s column from the past week has stood out in my mind. He’s by no means the only one, but he’s been one of the most categorical, putting the Ukrainian crisis in the terms of the Cold War. “Ukraine’s ferment,” he suggests, “is an emphatic, albeit redundant, refutation of Marxism.”
I don’t think I’m alone in recognizing that that formula has been overtaken by events. For more than half the world’s peoples, a refutation of Marxism is redundant today. It’s not, moreover, a motivating factor that looks to the future.
A refutation of Marxism would be misdirected if aimed at Russia and the eastern Ukrainians, in any case. The statues of Lenin being toppled in Ukraine over the last 48 hours are emblems of Russian conquest. Marxism may have been the organizing ideology in the vanguard of the last Russian conquest. But Russian conquest, or at least Russian domination, has been a perennial threat to the peoples of Eastern Europe, and is not less distasteful to Ukraine for being less “Marxist.”
Still, that isn’t precisely where the paradigm shift lies. It’s located, rather, in the melancholy fact that what the western Ukrainians aspire to – membership in a liberal Europe – is no longer a powerful, surging, forward-looking alternative to being held in chains from the East. Western Europe is debt-addled, self-absorbed, and geopolitically inert. More than that, it has sentenced itself to live under a form of “soft” collectivism and forced intellectual homogenization that has been slowly paralyzing its energies as surely as Soviet Marxism ever did.
The “Europe” that Ukrainians want to align themselves with is largely imaginary today. Europe has lucked out for the time being, in that the Ukrainians themselves have managed to scare off their erstwhile president. In the short run, the EU need do no more than extend Ukraine a line of credit and hold some meetings. But the long run will come soon enough. And in the long run, “Europe” won’t necessarily be there to stand up for the Ukrainians, in their fight to avoid being subsumed in an old-style network of devious, corrupt Russian dependencies.
The United States of 2014 has succumbed to the same inertia: our policies and diplomacy under the current president are as limp and ineffectual as those of Europe. Brave Ukrainians have handed themselves to the West as a prize. But it’s the question of our time whether we can keep it.
Practically speaking, of course, Viktor Yanukovych’s goose is cooked; he cannot be restored to power with any semblance of viability as a national-unity leader. But Russia will look for, and is likely to find, a means of re-imposing unity on Ukraine under a Russian-oriented government.
Putin won’t fear to use military power if he has to, with the Olympics over. I believe he’ll look for a way to do as much as possible without making active use of the military. He has a sense now of exercising international leadership, in a way Russian leaders didn’t before, when American presidents were proactive and projected an aura of credibility and authority. There is no one filling that role at present; no primary locus of geopolitical leadership other than Russia’s to triangulate against. Putin will be setting a tone for strategic interest in Ukraine, and I think he sees that it will be better for his reputation, and the future of Russian diplomacy, if he can achieve the outcome he wants without having to roll tanks into Ukraine and suppress an uprising.
That doesn’t mean he won’t use the military. If he deployed it in such a way as to checkmate whatever government is formed in Kiev, and make an armed confrontation pointless, he might at least put a good face on Russian intervention. Perhaps he can make it seem as if there’s more accommodation of western Ukrainians and the “Euromaidan” movement than there really is. He’ll couch that in such terms that he can set up a narrative: that it’s recalcitrant western Ukrainians who are the problem for peace, and not the Russians or eastern Ukrainians, who are only trying to “restore” it.
I may be misreading Putin. It’s possible that he will strike quickly and hard, rather than maneuvering to induce Ukraine to fall to Russia from within. The latter approach could take 1-3 years.
But the one thing we won’t see is Russia simply adjusting to a new reality in Ukraine. Putin, and indeed many other Russians, would consider that an unacceptable blow to Russian security.
Poland has already expressed effective support for the newly proclaimed government in Kiev, announcing that Yanukovych’s ouster does not constitute a coup, and endorsing the Ukrainian opposition’s demand that the long-suspended 2004 constitution be signed into law. It’s natural and inevitable for Poland to make policy comments on events in her region. But Russia will find it intolerable. If Putin can’t turn developments in Ukraine in Russia’s favor, the Russians will interpret every move from Eastern Europe as the build-up of a coalition against them.
The U.S. and EU are out of position to stop Russia from intervening in Ukraine. We don’t have the means to protect the Ukrainians’ power of choice against a concerted onslaught from Russia and a client base in eastern Ukraine. Russia has a significant head start: besides her historical ties to and interest in Ukraine, she has been pursuing the “Finlandization” of Ukraine over the last decade, with economic extortion and back-alley involvement in Ukrainian politics.
No outcome is dictated by fate, however. The big question is whether the EU, in particular, can muster the necessary urgency and determination about extending Western liberalism. What we’re seeing in Ukraine is not an ending – not the last gasp of the Cold War – but a beginning: the first major confrontation since 1914 in a world without dominant American power.
Yet today isn’t “1914 all over again,” for two reasons. One is that the West is paralyzed by a serious mismatch between its peoples’ genius and their governments’ plodding regulatory utopianism. As dysfunctional as Western polities may have been in 1914, they were well-oiled machines compared to the conditions of 2014. Government in the West has become almost literally a form of collective insanity today. In important ways, it serves primarily to indenture and discourage the people, rather than protecting their interests and guaranteeing a reliable environment in which to produce and create.
The other reason is that in 2014, there is no looming prospect of a great competition of political-economic ideas. Whatever crises there are, the modern-day “Bolsheviks” who seek to exploit them will not be card-carrying universalist ideologues. In the Muslim world, there will continue to be attempts at seizing power – like Mohammed Morsi’s in Egypt – by Islamist ideologues. But nowhere around the globe has the stage been set for that dynamic to cross over into crises in non-Muslim nations. The invasive profile of “international socialism” a century ago is not replicated in any revolutionary phenomenon of today. The future we face in 2014 is not less dangerous for that, but it is a different one.
In key ways, it involves the revival of a much older East-West dynamic. It’s about geography, ethnicity, suspicion of neighbors, access to waterways, fear of being surrounded or held hostage. It’s also about a difference in the basic profile of social expectations and political ideas between East and West. That difference has been palpable and irreconcilable since long before the Western Enlightenment.
But the West is in a trough today, on the sine wave of energy and vision: it knows what it doesn’t want, but it’s far less clear on what it does want. It’s impossible to exercise meaningful leadership from that position. The kind of vision without which the people perish is hard to come by. One of the most important elements lacking in Western vision today is a concept of how to make common cause with Russia, while not giving up on the rights and welfare of Russia’s neighbors. It should not be out of the question, in that regard, to consider adaptation for NATO and the EU; the only thing that should be out of the question is being jerked around by Russian faits accomplis where the U.S. or EU has a security interest.
Will the disintegration of the Pax Americana drive the West to sharpen its game again? We’re about the find out. The long detour of the Cold War may shape some of the questions about our geopolitical circumstances today. But it does not hold the answers. Here comes the future.