How Putin United the World Against Him

How would you persuade Europe to send weapons to a war zone? Germany to increase its military expenditures. Inspire the famously neutral Switzerland into imposing sanctions on Germany’s home for some of its largest banking customers. To encourage Finland and Sweden into NATO membership Turkey should consider blocking shipping from entering the Mediterranean from the Black Sea. To get Europeans to sanction the nation that provides 40% of their natural gasoline? To support severing the access of a military superpower’s largest banks to the global financial system?
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What would it take to guarantee that the opening of President Joseph Biden’s State of the Union address to Congress this week would be greeted with strong and sustained applause—from both sides of the aisle?

All of these events were impossible to imagine before Vladimir Putin made a huge-scale invasion against Ukraine. But as Russian soldiers continue their onslaught on Ukraine’s largest cities, all these things have either happened or are under serious consideration. World leaders debated before the war whether NATO was a useful organization and if transatlantic relations had any future. America’s “pivot to Asia”—Washington’s long-promised shift of strategic focus from Europe and the Middle East to opportunities and risks related to China—now falls somewhere between last week’s news and painful punchline. Russia’s president now has the U.S., British French, and German governments marching in lockstep. He reached deep beneath the earth to discover one of very few issues where Democrats and Republicans can both congratulate each other.

Can this unity endure? Yes, on this matter. Having pushed this far down the road to Kyiv, Putin can’t back down and lose face. Russia’s government has the weapons and the will needed to intensify a conflict that will kill thousands of Ukrainians and Russians. Millions of people will have to flee their homes before the guns stop working. Putin demonstrated that Europe-Russia relations cannot be reduced to the cynical, pragmatic pragmatism he has maintained over the last two decades. Ukraine’s government will almost certainly be forced into exile, but Europe and America will actively support resistance, perhaps even an insurgency, against the pro-Russian government that Putin installs in Kyiv.

Read More: Even If Russia Wins, It Won’t Do So Easily

European leaders will probably slow-play Ukraine’s new bid for membership in the E.U., but they will not explicitly refuse it. Russia will retain the status of a pariah that Putin brought with it. The U.S. will be more rigid in Europe and the United States if Moscow threatens to attack the Baltic states, or create trouble in the Balkans. If Putin responds in cyberspace to international pressure by launching into more traditional weapons or by placing nuclear weapons in Belarus as an example of his rule, Western resistance will only increase.

The result of all this is a permanent breach between Putin’s Russia and the West, one that cannot be mended. The Russian president’s historic miscalculation and the West’s forceful and well-coordinated response will leave Putin convinced that every new step taken to pressure his soldiers out of Ukraine represents a threat to his political survival. That’s especially true as the value of Russia’s currency plummets and its largest banks teeter.

This is why, though Russia’s move to place its nuclear forces on high alert doesn’t move us to the brink of World War III, nor is it a threat that other governments can afford to ignore. It’s easy to say Putin won’t start a nuclear war with NATO. Just as it was easy two weeks ago to say that Putin isn’t reckless and foolish enough to launch an all-out invasion of Ukraine.


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