Why Putin’s War Is the West’s Biggest Test Since World War II

There is every indication the Russian invasion of Ukraine has been plotted for maximum global impact.

hirsh-michael-foreign-policy-columnist
hirsh-michael-foreign-policy-columnist
Michael Hirsh
By , a columnist for Foreign Policy.
Black smoke rises from a military airport in Chuhuiv, Ukraine, on Feb. 24.
Black smoke rises from a military airport in Chuhuiv, Ukraine, on Feb. 24.
Black smoke rises from a military airport in Chuhuiv, Ukraine, on Feb. 24. ARIS MESSINIS/AFP via Getty Images

For the democratic West, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine is the biggest test of its power and integrity in the 77 years since Nazi Germany surrendered. In some ways, Putin’s gambit may be an even bigger test than Adolf Hitler’s, since Russia possesses nuclear weapons and Putin has suggested he might even use them if the West strikes back.

“Putin has just threatened us with the use of nuclear weapons if we attempt to help Ukraine. That is effectively the end of the post-Cold War arrangement,” said Constanze Stelzenmüller, an expert in European relations at the Brookings Institution. “We have to understand this attack on Ukraine is an attack on all of us that ranges well beyond Europe and trans-Atlantic relations.” 

In the aftermath of World War II, the United States and its allies installed a system of peacekeeping and economic institutions designed to prevent another major war. For nearly eight decades, this system has worked fairly effectively, even in the face of the Cold War. But it is now facing its biggest challenge by far. That’s in part because with his Security Council veto, Putin can easily turn the United Nations into the League of Nations, an ineffectual talking shop that Hitler and Italian fascist Benito Mussolini laughed off the world stage in the 1930s. 

For the democratic West, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine is the biggest test of its power and integrity in the 77 years since Nazi Germany surrendered. In some ways, Putin’s gambit may be an even bigger test than Adolf Hitler’s, since Russia possesses nuclear weapons and Putin has suggested he might even use them if the West strikes back.

“Putin has just threatened us with the use of nuclear weapons if we attempt to help Ukraine. That is effectively the end of the post-Cold War arrangement,” said Constanze Stelzenmüller, an expert in European relations at the Brookings Institution. “We have to understand this attack on Ukraine is an attack on all of us that ranges well beyond Europe and trans-Atlantic relations.” 

In the aftermath of World War II, the United States and its allies installed a system of peacekeeping and economic institutions designed to prevent another major war. For nearly eight decades, this system has worked fairly effectively, even in the face of the Cold War. But it is now facing its biggest challenge by far. That’s in part because with his Security Council veto, Putin can easily turn the United Nations into the League of Nations, an ineffectual talking shop that Hitler and Italian fascist Benito Mussolini laughed off the world stage in the 1930s. 

Every major nation will be forced to take some kind of stand, Stelzenmüller and other analysts believe—including erstwhile Putin-friendly countries such as China and India, whose leaders have been reluctant to criticize his incursions into Ukraine and other neighboring states such as Georgia in the past. For European nations in particular, such as Germany, it’s also time to rethink their critical infrastructure, especially their energy dependence on Russia. 

Most of the other major global crises since World War II look like relatively minor affairs compared with what Putin has just set in motion. When the Soviet Union invaded Hungary in 1956, the hands-off response of U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower provoked domestic criticism, but the world then was starkly divided between East and West. It was the height of the Cold War, and with the Soviets totally in control of the isolated Eastern Bloc, there was no real international system to disrupt. The same was true when the Soviets crushed the Prague Spring in 1968, pretending their invasion was a Warsaw Pact joint maneuver. 

When Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990, he found himself totally isolated by the international community as U.S. President George H.W. Bush successfully mustered U.N. Security Council resolutions against him, as well as a multinational force. Yugoslav dictator Slobodan Milosevic was also isolated when he launched his genocide against Bosnian and Kosovar Muslims—though, in that case, Russia sat mainly on the sidelines and even helped with a diplomatic solution in the case of Kosovo.

In the end, each of those crises, though terrible, remained fairly isolated. This one seems to be much more far-reaching. “While the post-1945 norms of not taking your neighbors’ territory by force have been bent in the past, this looks more like broken,” said former senior U.S. diplomat Joseph Nye, a scholar at Harvard University.

Another analogy to Hitler in the 1930s is that Putin has based his actions on a delusional blending of myth and fact. The Nazi dictator justified his early moves, such as the occupation of the demilitarized Rhineland and the Austrian Anschluss, on the idea that he was reuniting the German-speaking peoples and unwinding the injustices of the Treaty of Versailles. Similarly, Putin likes to speechify about the long history of Russian-speaking peoples in Ukraine and other former Soviet bloc nations such as Georgia (which he also invaded), as well as NATO’s eastward expansion into the former Soviet bloc.

“Ukraine is not just a neighboring country for us. It is an inalienable part of our own history, culture, and spiritual space,” Putin said in an angry speech on Monday that must now be viewed as the justification for his invasion.

Putin also appears to have made the calculation that the moment was ripe to realize his career-long ambition to restore Russia to its past imperial greatness, on the level of the Soviet Union at its height. He has appraised the effect of the sanctions on his country since his initial incursion in 2014, when he annexed Crimea and partly took over Ukraine’s Donbass region, and decided they were endurable. And he apparently decided that if he did not act now, then Ukraine might realize its ambition of joining NATO, which under Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty might obligate a military response by the West.

The Russian president would be aware, too, that his country is less integrated into the global economy than other major nations such as China, with the exception of its energy exports. U.S. Sen. John McCain once derided Russia as “a gas station masquerading as a country.”

“We have much less leverage” because of Russia’s relative economic isolation, said former U.S. Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg, who is now dean of Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies. “I’m sure Putin is counting on the fact that eventually people are going to come back to buy because they need the oil and gas. I think he’s thought this through.”

Above all, Putin knows that beyond his nuclear deterrent, he has built up a powerful cyber-capability. In late January, CNN reported that, according to a U.S. Department of Homeland Security intelligence bulletin, Moscow might respond with a large-scale cyberattack on the U.S. homeland if a U.S. or NATO response to a Russian invasion of Ukraine were deemed to threaten Russia’s “long-term national security.” The bulletin said that “Russia maintains a range of offensive cyber tools that it could employ against US networks—from low-level denials-of-service to destructive attacks targeting critical infrastructure.” 

There may be a silver lining, however. At a time when nationalist sentiment has engulfed many countries and international cooperation has flagged, Putin’s aggression could supply an opportunity to appreciate anew the need for democratic unity—which U.S. President Joe Biden has said is one of his major goals in office. In remarks Thursday, Biden said the long-term response of the United States and NATO will be to degrade Russia’s military and economic capability through heavy sanctions on its leadership, corporations, and banks. He called Putin’s invasion ​​an “assault on the very principles that uphold the global peace.”

Much depends on the actions of a man whose mind is unknowable at this point, and there is the lingering question of whether he is even acting rationally. But at a minimum, Putin is pushing the West and the postwar international system to limits never before tested. “This is a wake-up call for people to recognize the limitations of what has been built since World War II,” Steinberg said.

Michael Hirsh is a columnist for Foreign Policy. He is the author of two books: Capital Offense: How Washington’s Wise Men Turned America’s Future Over to Wall Street and At War With Ourselves: Why America Is Squandering Its Chance to Build a Better World. Twitter: @michaelphirsh

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