This one is baked. The West will lose the round.
How will Ukraine end up? My prediction: effectively partitioned, with the western portion of the country nominally left independent (for now), but under permanent threat from Russian forces in eastern Ukraine. There may well be an open-ended period of inconclusiveness, framed as an ongoing “negotiation” between an eastern government and the western government in Kiev, with the U.S. and EU clucking ineffectually over the process. Then again, there may not be; it will depend on whom Vladimir Putin is trying to impress – and what impression he’s trying to leave.
The important factor in all of this is that it is happening without the slightest regard to the preferences or desires of a “global community” – the putative entity led for the last two decades by the United States. Without U.S. leadership, there is no such entity. And that means all bets are off, and anything is possible.
Americans need to wrap their heads around this. The status quo is being proven as we speak to have no force. There’s nothing there: no firewall, no dike, no safety net. When a tidal wave hits our shores, probably first through economic consequences of some kind, it will be because we relinquished, several years ago, the leadership that could have deterred Putin from this course before he started on it.
That leadership never needed to be antagonistic to Russia, nor, conversely, did it have to accommodate unreasonable demands from her. But in being absurdly weak against key threats to Russia (China, radical Islamism) – or even in actively abetting them – America’s leadership has had the effect of eroding Russia’s strategic position and sense of security. Russia can’t afford to sit by and let the status quo be transformed out from under her because the U.S. isn’t guarding it anymore.
Make no mistake. Vladimir Putin started out with predatory instincts. He didn’t need to be induced into invading Ukraine. The West hasn’t “driven” him to this. But the West has removed the restraints of Western credibility on his actions, while at the same time raising the cost to Russia of compliance with a sclerotic and increasingly dysfunctional old order.
He had viable alternatives to what he’s done. What Putin should have done is what the U.S. would have done if a problem like Ukraine’s had emerged in Mexico. That kind of scenario, unlike any other, is actually a realistic analogy to the situation in Ukraine. Would the U.S. in 2014 have invaded or occupied a portion of Mexico because of a crisis of government in Mexico City, from which there was zero military threat to American territory? Of course not. Putin doesn’t need to invade and occupy Ukraine either; he could secure Russia’s legitimate interests without putting one booted toe across the border.
But instead of doing what he should, he has done what he could get away with. Now that Russia has made this move, other nations will have the same sense of growing insecurity – because of what Putin has done, as much because of anything else – coupled with an increased sense of latitude for disruptive action.
There’s bad news ahead, before we’ll see good again. That said, there are a couple of positive factors in the mix; I would count three, actually, to start with.
One is that the major powers that might behave disruptively – Russia and China – are not driven by globalist ideologies in the way Hitler and Stalin were. This is not to say that China doesn’t call herself a Communist nation, but it is to say that what we can expect of her will be on a “Chinese” model of power projection, rather than an ideological-revolutionary one. The same is true of Russia.
Indeed, for Russia, today is a very different time from the Soviet revolutionary period. Many in Russia see her as a surviving bastion of Western Christian civilization, and the European West as having – at least in some ways – lost its mind. Russia’s ties with Syria, Greece, the Balkans, and Cyprus are based in large part on a shared religious heritage; the aggressive atheism of the Soviet socialist period is nowhere to be seen now, and Russia’s motives under Putin are conventional, geographical, and historically predictable.
This factor may or may not limit bloodshed. It may at least set some natural limits on predation.
Meanwhile, the ideological element that does exist – radical Islamism – is and will remain alien to non-Muslim societies. It can’t creep into community structures and governments elsewhere while pretending to be merely a part of the local culture, as collectivist radicalisms have done the world over, from Europe to the Far East to Latin America. Islamism has to herald its coming; unlike statist collectivism in its various guises, Islamism can’t dupe the West – or any other culture – into turning, unawares, on itself.
The second factor is the existence today of globally interlinked information. More than the “Internet” itself, we have the model of the Internet. Cut it off, and people will recreate it, whatever limitations are attempted by angry governments. People who don’t accept the narratives of propaganda campaigns have a voice today, as they did not in the 1920s or 1930s – or 1950s or 1960s, for that matter.
The West is not the only source of social or moral wisdom – nor is the ascendant post-modern leftism of the West its only valid civilizational representative. It has never been more possible for diverse voices to make contact, and make their cases, outside of “official” or sanctioned channels. It’s never been easier for the ruling narratives to be challenged. It isn’t clear that we know what to do yet with that latent form of power, but I think it will play a part in deterring imperialism based on Big Lies and false consensuses.
The third factor is the reality that the post-1945 status quo has, to a significant extent, outlived its usefulness. It would have been much better to lurch into a new order with a strong West, and without an existential crisis for Western liberalism, but the outlines of the old order have been brittle for some time. We need to find a new basis for balance and healthy relations anyway. Trying to preserve what was, without modification, was never a realistic option.
So there is a certain amount of time we don’t have to waste in mourning and regret. We’ll spend it better in foreseeing what we want from a new order, and what can be done at this point. About the partition of Ukraine: nothing. About anything else: very little, if anything, while Obama is in the White House. There are realities that will become permanent – that will be irreversible – because he has nearly three years left in office; one of those is the geopolitically meaningful presence of Eastern hemisphere powers, especially Russia and China, in the Americas. That can’t be undone, even with a change of administrations in Washington in 2017.
We will have to see what other developments come to leave indelible scars on history as the next few years unfold. The one thing the U.S. could do unilaterally, with significant and useful effect, we know Obama won’t do. That’s loosen his clamps on the U.S. economy: open the floodgates of American energy production and reduce regulation on American business. These measures would humble Russian gas in the world market, and strengthen the relative position of the U.S. Treasury, increasing revenues to counteract our massive debt.
But Obama won’t do that. So we wait, and take note of how reality changes around us. Alarming, lawless, non-consensual government is not sustainable, and the period we are entering on is not our ultimate fate. Things won’t get better by themselves. It will depend on what we do. But that’s actually good news. The interesting times to come will be signed with our names. Unprepared as we may feel, there is no one else.