One of the main lessons of the war in Ukraine is that the cold war never ended. German reunification, the collapse of the Soviet Union, the new NATO entries, the democratic springs in Poland and Hungary, the independence of Ukraine, the withdrawal of nuclear weapons from Eastern Europe. East, including Ukraine, all these events have one day heralded a new era in Europe. Russia would embrace perestroika and glasnost, globalization would fully integrate Eastern European economies into the European Union, and demilitarization would free up funds for social welfare and environmental rehabilitation. American triumphalism was at its peak, with President George HW Bush proclaiming a “new world order” after the intervention in Iraq, and Frances Fukuyama prophesying “the end of history.”
These dreams were shattered by subsequent events in the Middle East, the rise of China and, in Europe, both unforeseen developments – such as large-scale immigration from the Middle East and North Africa and the resurgence of Russian authoritarianism – and reckless ones, such as the uneven impact of globalization on the working classes and NATO’s eastward expansion.
These new sources of European division provided fertile ground for the rise of right-wing populism and white supremacist nationalism. The 1990s proved to be a time of transition, not the start of a new era. We are now in Cold War 1.5, not Cold War II.
Whatever the outcome in Ukraine – a Russian occupation of the eastern regions, an endless insurgency or a Ukrainian victory – the European security order will continue along an East-West divide. As Stephen Kotkin says, geoeconomics has not replaced geopolitics.
Vladimir Putin is trying to create his own new order by force – one in which a Russian-dominated East faces a US- and NATO-dominated West. Neutrality has become a thing of the past as Sweden and Finland seem ready to join NATO, Germany has broken with the tradition of military aid in a conflict and even Switzerland has contributed to the defense of Ukraine. against the Russian invasion. It’s us against them again.
A central tenet of post-World War II international politics was that aggression should not pay. This principle has been attacked fairly regularly since, but never as deeply as today. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said in a statement that the Russian invasion “is not only a defining moment for our continent, but also for our relations with the rest of the world”.
She specifically wanted to include China. General Mark Milley, Chairman of the United States Joint Chiefs of Staff, told CNN:
“What is at stake . . . is the world order of international security that was put in place in 1945 . . . And what underlines this whole concept is the idea that the great nations will not lead of military aggression against small nations, and that is exactly what happened here, by Russia against a small nation.
This is where the importance of ending the war in Ukraine lies.
One possibility is that Putin will not survive, a return to some semblance of democracy in Russia is possible, and the threat to democratic and semi-democratic states bordering Russia will lessen.
Human rights and pro-democracy forces in currently pro-Russian authoritarian regimes such as Belarus, Hungary and Kazakhstan could spark a new wave of color revolutions. Europe would essentially return to 1989-1991 and the post-Soviet upheaval, but with the ever-present danger of Russian revanchism. It would be a difficult peace, however, with parallels to Europe in 1945 when another great power was defeated, the Americans returned home and Europe soon faced political and economic upheaval.
In Asia, China’s close ties with Putin’s Russia have reportedly proven bankrupt, forcing China to reconsider its global strategy and giving China’s military good reason not to rely on a Russian army that is under threat. proved manifestly incompetent.
American alliances in Asia – with South Korea, Japan, Australia and with India in AUKUS and the Quad – would all be boosted. China would instruct all of these countries to seek to contain it and would likely invest more in its naval and air forces. This could lead to problems in the Taiwan Strait and, with North Korea, on the Korean Peninsula. The nuclear issue could then become more salient – with South Korea wanting its own nuclear deterrent against North Korea and Japan not only expanding its military, but considering having a nuclear deterrent against China. A new cold war in Asia, already much talked about these days, could be inevitable.
The most unfavorable futures contracts
If, on the other hand, Putin emerges with new territorial gains in Ukraine, unpunished for his war crimes and determined to restore his army’s damaged reputation, the battle lines for the next confrontation in Europe will be clear.
A new iron curtain is likely to descend on Europe: Georgia, Moldova and possibly Poland could face serious security threats from Moscow, even if the Russian economy has been seriously damaged. weakened, the Russian military has had a black eye in Ukraine and the quality of life for Russians will have been significantly reduced. The US-NATO alliance system will have to be strengthened for another long term.
This scenario may not bode well for the alliance. Long-term economic sacrifices could cause some people in the EU to shift from generosity towards Ukraine to indifference. The security picture in Central Asia could also worsen. Countries that depend on Russia for security and trade, like Kazakhstan, or that host Russian military forces, like Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, may worry about the next evolution of Russian hyper-nationalism.
Europe’s immediate future could be characterized by protracted fighting in Ukraine with no clear outcome. This eventuality means further increases in military spending and armed forces across Europe, deeper political divisions within countries and the dashing of hopes to tackle climate change and other social problems.
Discussions of a nuclear confrontation will become increasingly worrying, not only in Europe but also in East Asia. Above all, think about what Ukraine will be like, in victory or in defeat. It is already a completely devastated country, with a huge refugee population, broken families, industry reduced to primitive levels and severe shortages of food, water and electricity. Ukraine, in short, will be a basket case after the war, dependent on the West for many years and constantly facing threats from the East. Like Western Europe after the Nazi defeat, Ukraine and perhaps its neighbors will need a Marshall Plan and security guarantees. Where will the money and guarantees come from?
The First Cold War was extremely costly for all countries and for the planet. With pandemics and the climate crisis now threatening the survival of species, the last thing the world needs is a new round of Cold War that not only distracts from these existential threats, but adds a new one: the use of a nuclear weapon.
Ukraine must be rebuilt and European security must be strengthened, but we must talk less about the “new order” and the cold war, and more about human and environmental security.
Mel Gurtov, syndicated by voice of peaceis Emeritus Professor of Political Science at Portland State University and blogs at In the human interest.