Over the past thirty years, the West has fallen prey over and over again to mirror-imaging its adversaries, and as a result, it continues to find itself repeatedly in a situation where the same mistakes are repeated over and over again, and the same national security problem set is forced upon us yet again.
Nowhere has this been more evident than in how the West behaved in the run-up to the second Russian invasion of Ukraine.
The majority view amidst the pundit class before the beginning of the Russian invasion of Ukraine was that the Ukrainian army was overmatched and that it would only be a matter of days before the country would collapse.
Three days into the war, none of these predictions have come true. In fact, the Ukrainian army is putting up stubborn resistance, Russia does not control the air space over the country, and its four-pronged attack axes, with their failing logistical chains, proved to have been too clever by half.
Now Putin is trying to up the ante by insinuating he would resort to nuclear weapons (sic!) – a sign of a man trapped in his own design and increasingly out of ideas on how to prevail.
It has been the patriotism and dedication to the nation that the Ukrainian people have displayed since the first shot was fired that is changing history. Suddenly the vaunted Russian army looks much less impressive, Putin’s threats sound hollow, and the West is united as it has not been for decades. Today German Chancellor Olof Scholz gave a seminal speech in the Bundestag, committing Germany unequivocally to stand by its NATO allies in opposition to Putin’s aggression.
Twenty years of Russian foreign policy that sought to sow discord within NATO and to build a bilateral relationship with Germany as a pre-condition for a new “Concert of Great Powers” in Europe lies in ruins.
Momentum is building in the opposite direction, with the West sensing how weak Russia actually is today, as though waiting for the first boy to yell that the emperor has no clothes. And so even if the invasion force overpowers the Ukrainian army in this campaign, the war will not end and the guerrilla resistance that follows will make the Soviet encroachment into Afghanistan look like child’s play.
Western Ukraine, with its supply chains anchored in Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, and Romania will have the ability to keep the fight going and to bleed the Russians without pause.
The source of Russian revisionism post-Cold War lies in Putin’s narrative of what transpired in 1990, i.e., that Russia was never really defeated, that it was betrayed by its own elites and the West. The truth was much more pedestrian – the Soviet Union simply ran out of gas, unable to stay in the game and compete with the United States at a time when the digital revolution was about to remake power indices and reshape the world.
And yet the story stuck, with Putin building his power base around this retelling of Russia’s alleged grievance. This all but guaranteed that Putin’s Russia would sooner or later re-emerge to demand its place in the sun yet again. Putin has capitalized on his narrative of grievance, transforming the three post-Cold War decades of peace in Europe into a de facto armistice, within his view – the great question of Russia’s place in the new European order unsettled and in need of adjudication.
Thus, from Moscow’s perspective the second Ukrainian war is in effect the final battle of the Cold War – for Russia a time to reclaim its place on the European chessboard as a great empire, empowered to shape the Continent’s destiny going forward. The West needs to understand and accept that only once Russia is unequivocally defeated in Ukraine a genuine post-Cold War settlement will finally be possible.
Until then, Putin’s Russia will remain the militarist camp planted on the Continent’s periphery, determined to undermine peace and stability in Europe and to return it to the past where Russia would once again become the “prison of nations.” Under no circumstances can the West become complicit in this Russian project. The battle for Ukraine is one campaign Putin must lose, completely and unequivocally. The future of the West is at stake.
Andrew A. Michta is Dean of the College of International and Security Studies at the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies in Garmisch, Germany. He is also former a Professor of National Security Affairs at USNWC and a former Senior Fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis in DC. The opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies, the U.S. Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.