Analysis

The Month That Changed a Century

Putin seeks to destroy not just Ukraine but the entire postwar global system. He may yet succeed.

A Ukrainian service member stands on a destroyed Russian tank.
A Ukrainian service member stands on a destroyed Russian tank.
A Ukrainian service member inspects a destroyed Russian military vehicle in the northeastern city of Trostianets on March 29. FADEL SENNA/AFP via Getty Images
By , a senior correspondent at Foreign Policy.

Putin’s War

In little more than a month, Russian President Vladimir Putin has changed the course of this young and already troubled century. He has resurrected the threat of territorial conquest and nuclear war. He has jolted Western Europe awake from its long postwar torpor, raising the prospect of rapid German rearmament. He has put the capstone on two decades of U.S. misdirection by defying American power and influence.

Above all, with his invasion of Ukraine, Putin is trying to complete work on a vast project of destruction implicitly supported by several other world leaders, especially Chinese President Xi Jinping. Together, these leaders want to break what they see as U.S. hegemony over the international system and undermine the notion that the world is bound by a common set of values embodied in international law and upheld by institutions such as the United Nations.

The new world order they are aiming to install is dominated by competing—and increasingly autocratic—civilizations, each controlling its own geopolitical space. Putin plainly intends that a greater Russia encompassing at least part of Ukraine will be one of these, giving brutal resonance to his 2020 declaration that “Russia is not just a country. It’s really a separate civilization.”

A Ukrainian service member stands on a destroyed Russian tank.

A Ukrainian service member inspects a destroyed Russian military vehicle in the northeastern city of Trostianets on March 29. FADEL SENNA/AFP via Getty Images

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In little more than a month, Russian President Vladimir Putin has changed the course of this young and already troubled century. He has resurrected the threat of territorial conquest and nuclear war. He has jolted Western Europe awake from its long postwar torpor, raising the prospect of rapid German rearmament. He has put the capstone on two decades of U.S. misdirection by defying American power and influence.

Above all, with his invasion of Ukraine, Putin is trying to complete work on a vast project of destruction implicitly supported by several other world leaders, especially Chinese President Xi Jinping. Together, these leaders want to break what they see as U.S. hegemony over the international system and undermine the notion that the world is bound by a common set of values embodied in international law and upheld by institutions such as the United Nations.

The new world order they are aiming to install is dominated by competing—and increasingly autocratic—civilizations, each controlling its own geopolitical space. Putin plainly intends that a greater Russia encompassing at least part of Ukraine will be one of these, giving brutal resonance to his 2020 declaration that “Russia is not just a country. It’s really a separate civilization.”

“This struggle should be viewed in civilizational, not just geopolitical, terms,” said Charles Kupchan, a former senior U.S. official and now scholar at Georgetown University. “It is at once and the same time sui generis, particular to Putin and Russia, but also is part of a broader increase in ethnonationalism and its role in global politics, as well as the backlash to globalization.”

Can Putin still succeed—despite the bloody shambles he has made of his would-be conquest so far? The outcome remains up in the air and, with it, the shape of a post-World War II world that many experts believed was, prior to Putin’s invasion, still functioning in spite of the many failures of globalization and democracy in the last two decades.

It could be many months or even years before an outcome is reached. After two decades of retreat into apathy, nationalism, and autarky since 2001, the international system is reasserting itself in the face of Putin’s aggression. The major Western nations, along with U.S. allies such as Japan, have imposed unprecedented sanctions and sought to strangle Moscow economically. Thanks in part to mutual decisions to cut off several Russian banks from international payments, economists surveyed by Russia’s own central bank have forecast inflation to accelerate to 20 percent and say its economy could drop by as much as 8 percent this year.

And, by almost all accounts, Putin’s war is a military disaster, with its command and control “in chaos” and some Russian soldiers even refusing to carry out orders and sabotaging their own equipment, as Jeremy Fleming, the director of Britain’s signals intelligence agency, assessed in a March 31 speech. Meanwhile, Germany—which in a bold departure from its postwar military restraint has committed 2 percent of its GDP to defense—has led the European Union to rapidly funnel arms to Ukraine. Putin’s war “has united the West, it has united NATO, and it has also united Europe,” German Defense Minister Christine Lambrecht said at an Atlantic Council event on March 29.

Between the devastating Russian setbacks in the war, the ruinous sanctions placed on the Russian economy, and the reported divisions within Putin’s own inner circle, “it is increasingly clear that Putin’s war has been a strategic blunder that has left Russia weaker over the long term and increasingly isolated on the world stage,” White House Communications Director Kate Bedingfield said on March 30.

People wave pro-Russia flags.

People wave flags during a rally in support of the Russian war in Ukraine in Simferopol, Crimea, on April 7. AFP via Getty Images

But how isolated really? There’s the rub. Ukrainians—and their supporters in neighboring countries—are clearly aligned with the West, especially as evidence surfaces of Russian atrocities. But that’s not true elsewhere—even inside Russia. Astonishingly, Putin’s ratings have seen a boost since the start of military actions in Ukraine, with more than 80 percent of Russians surveyed saying they support his invasion. That’s according to the respected Levada Center, which is considered fairly independent of the Kremlin, though the result no doubt reflects the steady diet of Kremlin propaganda being fed to the Russian public. And while in the immediate aftermath of the invasion, 141 countries condemned it at the United Nations, few nations have followed through with action; on the contrary, leaders from Brazil, Pakistan, South Africa, and other nations seem much more open to giving Putin at least a partial pass. The OPEC countries also decided to stand by a deal with Russia rather than comply with U.S. pressure to increase oil production so as to relieve price pressure.

Putin may be gaining political support in key countries as well—or at least not losing it. In Hungary last weekend, in the first major election since the invasion, Prime Minister Viktor Orban, a Putin ally, soundly defeated an opposition that had called for Hungary to support Ukraine. “We won a victory so big that you can see it from the moon, and you can certainly see it from Brussels,” said Orban, delivering a calculated insult to the EU. He also attacked Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky as an “opponent” and a tool of the “international left.” Serbia’s Kremlin-aligned president, Aleksandar Vucic, also won reelection over the weekend. Even in France, right-wing contender Marine Le Pen has been surging in the polls ahead of the first round of the presidential election on April 10 by exploiting French fears of soaring gas and electricity prices. Her opponent, incumbent President Emmanuel Macron, is proposing a cutoff of, or at least steep tariffs on, Russian energy imports.

On the ground in Ukraine, it’s entirely possible that Putin may still achieve some of his key goals. This week, it became clear that Russian forces were turning their attention to securing large parts of eastern and southern Ukraine after being stalemated in their assault on the capital of Kyiv. Without more large-scale military support from the West, Ukraine doesn’t have the capacity to push Russia out. Thus, Putin may be settling in for a long-term unresolved war, one that could work to his advantage geopolitically if he assumes control over the Donbas region, where Russian-backed separatists have been fighting the Ukrainian military for eight years. Brig. Gen. Kyrylo Budanov, the head of Ukrainian military intelligence, said late last month that he believes Putin wants to “create North and South Korea in Ukraine,” an endless standoff like the one that has prevailed for nearly 70 years in East Asia. Putin may well succeed in imposing ugly but indelible “facts on the ground” in Ukraine, much as the Israelis have done for decades in the occupied Palestinian territories. (And Israel, by the way, continues to do business with Russia as well.)

 

Putin is also betting that, for the foreseeable future, much of the world can’t do without Russian oil and gas—and that at least some of these countries, particularly China, share his anti-U.S. and anti-Western ideology. Beijing, indeed, has followed Moscow’s lead in blaming the United States largely for his aggression. Chinese officials have reaffirmed in recent weeks that they abhor the democratic, grassroots “color revolutions,” supposedly orchestrated by Washington, as much as Putin does. After Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi met with his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, in late March, a Chinese spokesperson reaffirmed that “there is no ceiling for China-Russia cooperation” to “oppose hegemony,” which is code for U.S. influence. This cooperation will no doubt extend to what has become known as the “splinternet” phenomenon—by which countries such as China and Russia are sectoring off what used to be a global internet into their own carefully monitored zones. It is no accident, surely, that Beijing has been selling Moscow some of its state-of-the-art firewall technology.

With his invasion of Ukraine—which he considers a historic and inextricable part of Russia— Putin is only taking to an extreme degree what Xi and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi have also sought to do, albeit far more cautiously. Xi has called the rejuvenation of Chinese culture and civilization “the greatest dream for the Chinese nation in modern history.” In his 2012 book The China Wave: Rise of a Civilizational State, the Chinese political theorist Zhang Weiwei boasted that “China is now the only country in the world which has amalgamated the world’s longest continuous civilization with a huge modern state.”

Similarly, Modi’s Hindutva, or Hindu nationalist, ideology and his right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party have also promoted a separate civilizational identity, defined by its opposition to Islam. Since Russia’s invasion, Modi has carefully steered a middle course between India’s ongoing strategic partnership with Washington and its longtime alignment with Moscow against China. Or as C. Raja Mohan wrote recently in Foreign Policy: “India is making the most of being wooed by both sides.”


Volodymyr Zelensky speaks at the United Nations.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky addresses a meeting of the U.N. Security Council via video link in New York City on April 5. TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP via Getty Images

All this temporizing, aided by Moscow’s large war chest of currency reserves, has helped stabilize the Russian ruble, returning it to almost where it was before the invasion, in a range of 80 to 90 rubles to the dollar on Feb. 23. Rising oil and gas prices have helped the ruble along by jacking up Russia’s energy revenues. It is thus not yet clear how seriously sanctions will harm the Russian economy, said Sergei Guriev, the former chief economist at the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. “We just don’t know,” he said in an email, because the March data is not yet in. “Exports have likely declined but prices have grown (but then again Russian oil trades at large discounts). Imports have declined dramatically so Russia indeed is likely to have more dollars than before. It will spend these dollars to buy technology and equipment through third countries.”

Little wonder that even Zelensky believes the grand struggle ahead is not only over Ukraine but also the survival of the international system itself. In a provocative speech to the U.N. Security Council on April 5, Zelensky effectively challenged the legitimacy of the world body, inveighing against its past failures to stop aggression, including Putin’s. He said that if the U.N. can’t free itself of Russia’s veto and act finally, “then the next option would be dissolve yourself altogether.”

But with both Russia and China entrenched in permanent veto-bearing spots on the Security Council, the U.N. may not be reformable. Even France’s Macron, who sees himself as a champion of Western values, worried in a speech in 2019 that “the international order is being disrupted in an unprecedented way” by “genuine civilization states” such as Russia, China, and India. These states have “very forcefully reshaped the political order and the political thinking that goes with it,” Macron added, “with a great deal more inspiration than we have.”

Macron isn’t the only one who thinks the real fight over the future might come down to whose global narrative resonates more. As the political scientist Samuel Huntington presciently observed more than two decades ago in his book The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, for many cultures around the world the concept of a universal world order is just code for “Western cultural dominance.” “In the post-Cold War world, states increasingly define their interests in civilizational terms,” Huntington wrote in his 1996 book. “They cooperate with and ally themselves with states with similar or common culture and are more often in conflict with countries of different culture.”

Putin and other dissenters have picked up on this theme in a big way. In his Feb. 21 speech justifying his war on Ukraine, Putin angrily sought to turn the tables on those who accused him of breaking international law. The biggest hypocrite of all, he declared, was Washington. “The collapse of the Soviet Union led to a redivision of the world, and the norms of international law that developed by that time—and the most important of them, the fundamental norms that were adopted following World War II and largely formalized its outcome—came in the way of those who declared themselves the winners of the Cold War,” Putin said. He then inveighed against the U.S. and Western military operations against then-Yugoslavia, Libya, and Syria, saying they had no U.N. legitimacy either. He added: “But the example that stands apart from the above events is, of course, the invasion of Iraq without any legal grounds.”

To a degree little acknowledged in Washington, that critique of the abuse of U.S. power still resonates around the world—and Beijing has quickly picked up on Putin’s narrative. “As the culprit and the leading instigator of the Ukraine crisis, the U.S. has led NATO in pursuing five rounds of eastward expansion in the two decades or so since 1999,” Zhao Lijian, the Chinese foreign ministry’s fiery spokesperson, said on April 1.

A Ukrainian soldier stands before a fire.

A member of the Ukrainian special forces watches as a gas station burns after Russian attacks in the eastern city of Kharkiv on March 30.FADEL SENNA/AFP via Getty Images

The anti-Western narrative really gained momentum after the 2016 election of Donald Trump as U.S. president. Trump was himself one of the would-be authors of this anti-globalist destruction project, proudly embracing an “America First” agenda. Trump’s former chief ideologist, Steve Bannon, openly sympathized with Putin’s civilizational agenda, saying that, similarly, the “Judeo-Christian West” was at risk, too. Trump, who is vying to retake the presidency in 2024, even praised Putin’s invasion at the outset, calling it an act of “genius.” (He later acknowledged that though Putin invaded a “great piece of land,” it was a “big mistake” to do so.) But Putin made a lot of hay from Trump’s widely mocked and scandal-scarred presidency. In his Feb. 21 speech, Putin noted that U.S. pundits were lamenting how Trump’s lies and misrepresentations undermined democracy, forming an “empire of lies.” He said that, in his view, the “so-called Western bloc formed by the United States in its own image and likeness is, in its entirety, the very same ‘empire of lies.’”

Western-style democracy, in other words, has become irredeemably corrupted in Putin’s view. He had some evidence to back him up. Well before Putin decided to invade Ukraine—itself considered a troubled democracy blighted by runaway corruption—liberal democracies were already in decline. In the last decade alone, the share of the world population living in autocracies has shot up from 49 percent in 2011 to 70 percent in 2021. That takes the world back to 1989 levels, according to a recent study by the V-Dem Institute, suggesting that all hopes for a post-Cold War spread of liberal democracy have been dashed. The monitoring group’s study found that only 34 countries can be considered liberal democracies—in other words, places where free speech, a free press, and fair elections are protected.

As a result, Putin’s aggression has jolted us awake to the reality that a globalized world may be in greater jeopardy than at any time since World War II. Opting for autarky, in one terrible deed peeling back the progress of more than a century, Putin has brought into relief the emerging reality that the world may indeed be one of clashing civilizations, as Huntington predicted.

As much as a clash of civilizations, we are also witnessing a clash of centuries. Armed invasion of other nations by major powers, many once thought, went out with the nuclear age. For almost 80 years, many of us have mistakenly believed that World War II, punctuated at the end by two terrible mushroom clouds, was genuinely the war to end all wars. Not so. When Putin announced in the first week of the invasion that Russia’s huge nuclear arsenal was being prepared for “special combat duty,” even nuclear brinkmanship was suddenly back on the table.


An older woman embraces a Ukrainian soldier.

An older woman embraces a Ukrainian soldier in Bucha, northwest of Kyiv, on April 2. RONALDO SCHEMIDT/AFP via Getty Images

But let’s not write any obituaries for the postwar system just yet. We are all still here, and Huntington was perhaps not entirely right either. Thanks to Putin, the West has rediscovered its raison d’être. Most Ukrainians want no part of Putin’s vicious concept of a separate civilization—especially now that his military is killing men, women, and children indiscriminately in what can only be called war crimes. Democracy, too, has been reinvigorated in the dreams of the Ukrainian people, given voice so eloquently by the charismatic Zelensky. The United Nations is, despite many Russian vetoes, still overseeing Ukrainian aid and refugee relief. That globalized world remains largely intact—and has responded with astonishing force. The international system is still, tenuously, holding.

The brutality of Putin’s actions is changing the calculus within the world’s most powerful country, the United States. This is significant because it was America’s inward turn under, first, President Barack Obama and then Trump that may have done more than anything else to encourage Putin in his imperial aggression. As Chris Stirewalt, a politics expert at the American Enterprise Institute, noted in an email, the foreign-policy portion of every U.S. presidential election since 2004—when Iraq turned into a debacle—“has been litigated around the issues of withdrawal of American power and influence abroad. By 2020, both political parties had come down on the same side of the issue.” Democrats and Republicans alike stood aside in 2014 as Putin annexed Crimea and occupied parts of eastern Ukraine, slapping him with only mild sanctions. Even President Joe Biden embraced Trump’s America First concept to a certain degree by pursuing his predecessor’s plan for rapid withdrawal from Afghanistan and adopting a neo-protectionist economic policy, especially toward China.

That laissez-faire attitude may now be changing, however—even for many Republicans still beholden to Trump, Stirewalt said. “Trump’s America First concept was not a natural fit for a Republican Party that had been in favor of engagement and the projection of American power for 70 years,” he said. “When Putin invaded Ukraine, he not only destroyed the idea of Russia as a partner in stability but turned the page to a new era of global conflict in which most Republican voters would never be able to tolerate the idea of America acceding to the demands of the Kremlin.”

The unprecedented sanctions imposed on Russia also may have begun to affect the calculations of its closest ally, China, which grew rich, after all, on the commerce of the globalized world.

A rally in support of Ukraine in Berlin.

Protesters crowd in front of the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin to demonstrate for peace in Ukraine on Feb. 27. More than 100,000 people turned up at the march, police said. ODD ANDERSEN/AFP via Getty Images

While Beijing officially stands with Putin, dissenters have emerged. Last month, Hu Wei, the vice chairman of the Public Policy Research Center, which is overseen by China’s State Council, wrote that China would become more isolated by the world if it did not move to sever ties with Putin. “China cannot be tied to Putin and needs to be cut off as soon as possible,” Hu wrote. Chinese companies are hardly casting their lot with Russia. According to exclusive reporting by Reuters, China’s state-run Sinopec Group, Asia’s biggest oil refiner, recently “suspended talks for a major petrochemical investment and a gas marketing venture in Russia … heeding a government call for caution as sanctions mount over the invasion of Ukraine.”

The reasons are clear. Despite calls for decoupling from the West, China still does several times more trade with Europe than it does with Russia, and even in the face of current trade tensions, Washington remains Beijing’s largest trading partner, with the United States taking in nearly half a trillion dollars a year in Chinese goods and services.

“To be sure, China’s global geopolitical objectives may in part align with Russia’s,” experts at the Peterson Institute for International Economics (PIIE) wrote last month. “Moscow and Beijing share the view that the United States is weakened economically and that its behavior poses a security threat. But China’s economic interests are different from its security concerns.” Unlike Russia, which is mainly an exporter of energy, China’s economy is deeply integrated into the global economy. The PIIE assessment noted that China’s share of global trade even “increased significantly during the global pandemic as has its share of global direct investment inflows.” It concluded that Beijing’s current caution about assisting Putin materially and financially—despite its harsh official rhetoric—is likely based on its realization “that major efforts to support Russia that violate existing sanctions could bring down similar sanctions on them.”

The bottom line is Beijing simply can’t afford the economic isolation that Moscow is now suffering. Xi no doubt shares Putin’s civilizational ambitions, especially when it comes to seeking control of another country that, in Beijing’s eyes, is considered a breakaway territory like Ukraine: Taiwan. But Xi, who is seeking a precedent-setting third term as president, is likely now looking for a more geopolitically palatable alternative to invading Taiwan. In 2019, responding to hawkish comments from the Trump administration, Xi even declared it would be “stupid” “if someone thinks their own race and civilization is superior and insists on remolding or replacing other civilizations.”

So the struggle for global order will go on, perhaps for a very long time. As Bruno Maçães, a former Portuguese secretary of state for European affairs, wrote in a much-cited 2020 essay titled “The Attack of the Civilization-State”:

“What Huntington failed to see was that the Western conceit of a world civilization has not simply disappeared. We have not returned to the world of the Hapsburgs, Ottomans and Mughals. … In this world, different civilizations are universal in practice if not in aspiration; they may well compete for global power, but they all belong to a common, increasingly integrated political and economic landscape.”

The shape of that landscape is being tested as never before.

Michael Hirsh is a senior correspondent at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @michaelphirsh

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