The world has seen several potential turning points signaling the end of the post-Cold War era: the global financial crisis, the Arab Spring, the Covid-19 pandemic. Now, with great power competition sparking a major war on the European continent, we have it.
The West is now a far cry from the rosy outlook of the 1990s, when America forged a global coalition to fight the short and victorious Persian Gulf War, when it looked like the power and influence of the United States would help the liberalism and democracy to thrive in the world. Today, America faces the stark reality of power politics: a conflict we could not prevent and the very real risk of military escalation.
Russian troops stage a full-scale attack on Ukraine from several directions. For so long, American policymakers have wondered how to prevent such a moment. Now they must answer a different question: how should the United States adapt to this new reality?
The challenge is both immediate – preventing the war in Ukraine from escalating into a wider European war – and longer term – responding to a new security environment.
The attack on Ukraine was as sudden as expected. After weeks of heightened tensions, Vladimir Putin announced that he was launching “a special military operation” to “demilitarize” Ukraine. Explosions heard in the capital, Kyiv, and Russian troops advancing on Ukraine’s second-largest city suggest this is no idle boast.
We have a good idea of what’s to come: continued airstrikes on military infrastructure, a ground invasion, potential beheading strikes on Ukrainian leaders. This fight is unlikely to end well for Ukraine: it is simply outgunned and outmanned.
The Western response is also predictable. The threat of massive sanctions – including against major financial institutions, Russian trade and even Mr. Putin’s cronies – has failed to deter aggression. They are now imposed, but we should have no illusions that they will change Mr. Putin’s calculation.
To be fair, there are no other good policy options. Diplomacy is exhausted. And the Biden administration has wisely ruled out sending US troops to Ukraine. Yet the stakes are high and require a coordinated, coherent, and robust response from the United States.
The Biden administration must first try to mitigate the spillover effects of the conflict from Ukraine to its neighbors. There will undoubtedly be flows of refugees to Western Europe; intelligence estimates indicate that up to five million Ukrainians may flee. Washington is expected to offer humanitarian aid, financial support to European states and temporary protected status to Ukrainians wishing to travel to the United States. While migration has been a central area of disagreement among European Union nations, inaction now would not only lock millions of Ukrainian refugees into legal purgatory, but also drive a wedge between European states as they most need to be united.
There is also the serious risk of economic contagion. Russia is a major supplier of raw materials; market watchers expect higher inflation and weaker growth globally (with perhaps more severe disruptions in Europe).
To meet these challenges, the United States needs European unity. Otherwise, it will be much more difficult to maintain sanctions against Russia and to obtain a coordinated response from NATO against further Russian aggression.
The most important thing from a security point of view is to prevent the fighting from spreading beyond Ukraine’s borders. A spillover would potentially call into question America’s Article 5 commitment to NATO – an attack on one is an attack on all – and would likely result in a long and bloody conflict like we don’t. haven’t seen since World War II. Anything from a spiral of tit-for-tat cyberattacks to accidental contact between Russian and NATO forces could trigger such a dangerous escalation.
A scenario such as escalating cyberattacks would require restraint and caution in using America’s economic art to respond, passing the needle between punitive sanctions without accidentally collapsing the entire economy. Russian. The alternative – a potentially vicious and protracted cycle of economic warfare – could bring down the global economy.
And averting catastrophe from something like an accidental skirmish will require close coordination with allies in Europe on the issue of next steps in Ukraine itself. American allies in the Baltics and Eastern Europe have been more willing to defense cooperation and providing arms to Ukraine. They might be inclined to consider arming or training a Ukrainian guerrilla force to resist the occupation, which could spread the fighting beyond its current borders and attract NATO. The Biden administration should vigorously resist such moves and clarify that the provisions of Article 5 of NATO would not necessarily apply in such cases.
Second, the administration must consider the wider implications of this conflict for European security. This war will probably end with a new militarized line that divides Europe in two, separating Russia and its vassal states from NATO countries. It would be a visible reminder of the ever-present threat of military or nuclear conflict, increasing the likelihood of clashes or skirmishes that could escalate into all-out war.
Indeed, while Russia now effectively controls Belarus and is likely to control part of Ukraine, NATO must reinforce its own permanent eastern military defences. Much of this buildup will have to come from European states themselves, as America’s strategic position and growing focus on China will limit what Washington can and should engage. Now is the time for European leaders like Emmanuel Macron, who have long spoken of Europe’s capacity for strategic autonomy, to show that they mean business.
It is also vital, given the dangers of escalation and nuclear risk, that the administration maintain diplomatic relations with Moscow while seeking ways to mitigate worst-case scenarios through, for example, arms control measures. .
Mr. Putin’s attack on Ukraine represents, in many respects, a failure of the Western approach to European security of the past 30 years, which prioritized NATO enlargement and the promotion of democracy rather than considerations of collective defence. Now, the United States and its European partners must navigate this new reality without accidentally falling into a hot war with Russia.
Perhaps no one summed up the zeitgeist of Washington’s heady post-Cold War moment better than Madeleine Albright, who described America as the “indispensable nation.” It was shorthand for an expansionist and transformative American foreign policy that aimed to solve all the world’s problems.
The war now unfolding in Europe marks the end of that era, showing Americans – and the world – that American power is not absolute. It must also mark a turning point for the United States, reflecting the understanding that we are once again in a world where other great powers can thwart American ambitions and where the threat of nuclear escalation is relentless.