Stopping This War – The New York Times
Was there any way to prevent a horrific war in Ukraine? Recent history provides at least a partial answer, and it is one that is also relevant to the future of global sustainability.
But let’s start with the past: In the summer of 1990, the autocratic leader of a country with a mighty military decided to take over a vulnerable neighbor. If the armed conflict had only been between those two countries, the invaders would have easily won.
Instead, an international military coalition, led by the United States, quickly came together. Its leaders declared that the invasion would not be allowed to stand, as one country could not easily annex the other. Within months, the invaders were defeated.
There are certainly differences of opinion between Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in 1990 and Vladimir Putin’s Russia in 2022. Some of those differences make it difficult for Russia to cope, especially its nuclear arsenal. But other differences suggest that Putin’s aggression towards Ukraine should have been More Hussein’s takeover of Kuwait likely to inspire an international military alliance.
For one thing, the Iraqi invasion was shockingly fast. It started at midnight and within 48 hours Iraq had taken control of Kuwait. Putin’s invasion, in contrast, required months of construction, accurately analyzed by US intelligence agencies, giving the world enough notice to at least try to stop it. Second, Kuwait is a small authoritarian emirate, representing some grand political ideals in the war-torn region. Ukraine, a democracy of over 40 million people, was home to major democracies on the largely peaceful continent.
These factors make it possible to imagine a very different chain of events over the past few weeks. Once Putin’s mobilization started inside Russia, the Western Coalition could send troops to Ukraine. Evelyn Farkas, a Pentagon official in the Obama administration, wrote in January, “He who wants peace must prepare for war.” “Only a balance of military power—a matching deterrent force and political will—can keep war at bay.”
“Putin is the man who responds to brute force,” Ian Brzezinski of the Atlantic Council told The Times before the invasion.
Yes, such a showdown would have taken great risks. Facing nuclear power is not easy. But doing so successfully has a long history, dating back to the Cold War. (Otherwise, any country with a nuclear weapon could take over any country without one.) And of course the lack of a military response also carried huge risks – which have now turned into dire costs.
Thousands of Ukrainians and Russians have been killed. More than two million Ukrainians have fled their homes. Cities are being destroyed and nuclear plants are being attacked.
Given all this, it is surprising that Western allies paid so little attention to a bold attempt to stop Putin. He merely requested them not to attack and threatened relatively modest economic sanctions (which have since become more aggressive). He ridiculed them.
The modesty of the initial Western response stems from two recent realities: the willful pacifism of the European Union and the failed belligerence of the US. Together, they created a power vacuum that Putin took advantage of.
If that void remains – if today’s democracies are unable to form a coalition like the one that defeated Hussein – then future wars could be more likely.
The American part of this story will be familiar to many readers. America has fought many wars over the past two decades that it did not need to fight. The war in Afghanistan continued long after Osama bin Laden left, and Iraq invaded Iraq long after Hussein had joined. As my colleague Damien Cave wrote, both decisions turned into tragic failures that “undermined the world’s confidence in American intentions and potential.”
The two wars also affected American politics. Many Americans became wary of foreign interference. Public opinion has become so pathetic that not a single prominent American politician has called for defending Ukraine with troops. This was a rare example of a bipartisan consensus in a polarized country.
This new separatism probably won’t disappear anytime soon. For both better and worse, America is unlikely to be the police officer of the world in the coming decades.
The obvious candidate to share the burden of democratic leadership is Western Europe. As noted by Matthew Yglesias of Substack, the region is quite large and quite rich. Yet he has so far refused to do so. The EU’s economic output is similar to that of both the US and China – but China spends 50 percent more on its military than the EU, while the US spends three times as much.
Military spending is not the only issue. Western Europe still had enough combined military power to alter the balance of power between Russia and Ukraine. But the EU never considered sending troops to Ukraine as a deterrent. European leaders have spent so long avoiding the US, effectively outsourcing the security of their own continent, that they could not fathom the alternative.
As a result, Putin assumed that Ukraine was his to take. This was the modern-day version of appeasement.
Since the invasion, European leaders have shown signs of changing their approach. They have sent weapons to Ukraine, and Germany and Denmark have announced more military spending. It was too late to stop the war in Ukraine. But the gruesome reality of war may still alter global politics in ways that may discourage future aggression.
“Until now in the geopolitical landscape, you have a passive actor, which is Europe,” Fareed Zakaria told The Times’s Ezra Klein. “It would be deeply ironic, if the result of what Vladimir Putin has done is to awaken the sleeping giant of Europe.”
“If we get lucky,” said Zakaria, “what we may see is the rise of a powerful, strategic-minded, nationally security-minded Europe ready to defend the liberal order, which in international politics is There’s a big change.”
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