The Baltic Sea Became a Nato Lake
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine changed the world forever. Indeed, it has changed many worlds.
Start with the Ukrainians. Their pre-war world has been destroyed. Millions of peaceful happy lives have been shattered by violence, with bereavement, physical and mental trauma, uncertainty and the loss of livelihoods and possessions. This is an appalling stain on the history of our times. Its consequences will last for the lifetime of everyone reading this article.
Ukraine is not just suffering. It is fighting. This has changed its relationship with the rest of the world. This huge country is now at the centre of events; its people are determining their outcome. This is a big change. For years (and decades and centuries) Ukrainians have struggled to assert their agency: their country has mostly not been on the map, not in the cartographical or the mental sense. Its territory was fought over in the First and Second World Wars; millions of Ukrainians died in the Holodomor (Stalin’s artificial famine). But for outsiders these stories and places were part of a larger story – the rise and fall of the Imperial German and Nazi empires, or Stalin’s war on his own people. Ukrainians neither shaped nor told their own story.
Putin has changed that. By asserting, as he does, that Ukraine and Ukrainians do not exist, and by dehumanising them and destroying them, he has disproved his own argument. Ukraine is not a western invention. Its leaders are not a puppet regime. Its language is not a dialect of Russian. Its national identity is not based on myths or Nazi sympathies. Misapprehensions vanish under scrutiny. For years westerners believed that Ukraine was divided between ‘Ukrainian-speakers’ and ‘Russian-speakers’. Now it turns out that Ukrainians are bilingual. Who knew?
Ukraine’s fate will determine the credibility of the West.
Ukraine is not only a real place but one that matters to all of us. Its fate will determine the future of global food supplies, the credibility of the West, the unity of Europe — and indeed Putin’s political survival. Whereas Ukraine was once easy to overlook, it is now impossible to ignore. The Ukrainians’ decision to fight, even when they were outgunned and taken by surprise, has changed their world and ours.
North-Eastern Europe will become a single operational area
Also centre-stage are the countries of eastern and central Europe. For the past thirty years their warnings to the West about Russia were mocked and ignored. The ‘old West’ may have been taken by surprise on February 24th. But for Estonians, Latvians, Lithuanians, Poles and others, it was a vindication. Their analysis of modern Russia — that it may dress in capitalist and democratic clothes at times, but that it is an empire at heart — has proved correct. Friction and conflict are not the result of bad leadership, let alone a response to western provocation. They reflect deep-seated Russian attitudes to history and geography. They predate Putin; they will outlast him too.
Perhaps the best example of this is from Estonia. In 1994 President Lennart Meri gave a speech in Hamburg. He warned of the danger posed by Russian meddling in its neighbours’ affairs, and of the West’s wishful thinking. Now it is Kaja Kallas, the Estonian prime minister, who has taken up Meri’s mantle. It is impolite, she said in a speech to the European Parliament, to say “I told you so”. But it is true. We were warned. And we didn’t listen.
The world has changed too for Estonia’s neighbours: Sweden and Finland. These countries have grappled for decades with the tension between their political and economic systems and their geopolitical position. In short, they were ‘western’ at home but non-aligned abroad. Behind the scenes, security and military ties with the United States were stronger than many realised. Finland maintained robust defences even in the optimistic post-Soviet decades when other countries all but abandoned territorial defence. Some worlds change only on the surface.
The decision to seek NATO membership was abrupt, but it was made against a context of repeated Russian provocation, including air space violations, the ‘Good Friday’ dummy attack on Sweden in 2013, persistent worries about Russian intentions towards (and activity on) the island of Gotland, the troubling pattern of Russian real-estate acquisitions in Finland, the harassment of journalists and increasingly peremptory Russian statements. Both countries had already responded to these threats by tightening ties with the United States and with each other, and by increasing their defence budgets.
The missing pieces of the strategic jigsaw are in place.
Now, NATO membership for Finland and Sweden changes the world for north-eastern Europe. The missing pieces of the strategic jigsaw are in place. It is now possible to treat the region as a single operational area, with a rationalised command structure, a maritime strategy, integrated air and missile defence (AMD), appropriate intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities, and the necessary contingency plans and deployments to protect the most vulnerable countries: the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.
None of this will happen automatically, but the initial conditions for these changes are now in place. The result will be that the Baltic Sea will become a NATO lake. Every country in the region will be more secure as a result (even Russia: constraints on aggression are good for its security too).
Europe’s safety is still dependent on the United States
What has not changed is the main vulnerability: the ‘Suwałki corridor’ between Poland and Lithuania. This narrow neck of land between Russia’s Kaliningrad exclave and its Belarusian ally is the frontline of the new cold war. Lithuania and Poland want a far greater NATO, and particularly US, commitment to defend this piece of territory.
This highlights how the world in Brussels has changed. NATO can no longer be accused of being ‘brain-dead’ (to use President Emmanuel Macron’s unfair characterisation). Its old mission of territorial defence is now central. The alliance faces a daunting agenda as it tries to awaken old muscles. Military mobility (the ability to move large numbers of people and equipment quickly over long distances) is a huge problem. The Black Sea is a black hole, a problem made all the starker because of the progress made in the Baltic Sea region. NATO faces problems. But irrelevancy is not one of them.
For European decision-makers, the war in Ukraine highlights a big but overlooked feature of the world: their dependence on the United States. The reminder of their own self-inflicted weakness is uncomfortable but well-deserved. Europe is bigger and richer than the United States. Ukraine is in Europe. Yet European leaders, whether national or at the EU level, cannot handle the problem because of its military weakness. Europe can (and does) provide money. It imposes sanctions on Russia. But the weapons that stop Ukraine losing the war (and may in time bring victory) are overwhelmingly coming from the United States. Europe is trailing behind in both quantity and quality.
European leaders have been complacent and greedy.
This is not the result of some grave military defeat and a Versailles-style restriction imposed from outside. European leaders did this to themselves. They were ignorant, arrogant, complacent and greedy. But things are beginning to change. Empty talk of ‘strategic autonomy’ has receded. Nobody thinks that the European Union’s ‘solidarity clause’ is going to defend them against Russian aggression.
Perhaps most importantly, the mercantilist mindset which shaped European foreign-policy thinking for decades has been shattered. Promotion of trade and investment is no longer the top priority. Security comes first. This is being applied to Russia now, but it will affect relations with China too. The European Commission has long talked about being a geopolitical actor. The combination of sanctions and military aid to Ukraine mean that deeds are beginning to match words.
The World darkens for China
Rather more deeds, and stirring words, are coming from Britain. Predictions of post-Brexit irrelevance proved to be exaggerated. Leaving the European Union has come with political and economic costs (and Brexit supporters are downbeat these days). But the Ukraine war plays to Britain’s strengths. Its unique combination of military and intelligence assets are in high demand. Ukraine has shifted the EU’s solipsistic focus eastwards, just as Britain stretches it westwards.
The world has changed for the Americans too. For years, policy-makers in Washington preferred to deal with terrorism, or with the rise of China, rather than worry about European security. Any spare attention went on Russia: remember the Obama-era ‘reset’?
But neglected problems often become insistent. Russia, which sought to destroy the transatlantic alliance, has put it back in business. European allies are no longer, in American eyes, the feckless freeloaders of past decades. They are useful.
For US credibility is at stake in Ukraine. If the United States and its allies cannot ensure the survival of a large friendly country in a favourable location, the chances of saving Taiwan from China look slim. Change is afoot inside the United States too. American public opinion strongly backs Ukraine and economic sanctions against Russia (while opposing direct military intervention). The bipartisan consensus in Congress is as impressive as it is rare. Long may it last.
As the world brightens for the United States, it darkens for China. Its strategic partner, Russia, has now been revealed as reckless and incompetent. A sharp confrontation with the West right now has come too early for the patient leaders of the Chinese Communist Party. Worse, the US-led alliances that Xi Jinping believed were in inexorable decline have gained a new lease of life. The spikes in fuel, food and fertiliser prices are bad news for a country that imports all three. These worries do not mean that China will tell Russia to stop the war. But they may be a brake on any dramatic escalation: if Putin is thinking of using a nuclear weapon, for example, he will have to reckon with serious displeasure, or more, from Beijing.
US support helps Ukraine in practical terms but hinders its cause in symbolic ones. Worldviews vary. In much of Africa, Latin America and Asia, the war in Ukraine is seen as an East-West conflict, in which an American proxy (Ukraine) is being taught a well-deserved lesson; a reprise, put crudely, of the war in Afghanistan. Few want to punish Russia. Only 11 African countries backed a UN resolution to suspend Russia from the Human Rights Council, nine voted against, 23 abstained and 11 did not vote. The idea that Putin’s war is an imperial land-grab against a former colony is not widely accepted. Ukraine and its allies have plenty of scope to get their message across better.
The voices of the “‘peace party” become louder
Imperialism is none the less real for not being acknowledged. It is changing the world for Russians. Many tens and hundreds of thousands, even millions, have left. Places like Tashkent, Dubai, Yerevan, Tbilisi and Istanbul are the new centres of the Russian diaspora. Their fate does not compare with that of the Ukrainians. But for the privileged, even pampered, members of the Russian middle classes, who liked to think that politics was boring and irrelevant, the uncertainties and humiliations of their new lives are a sharp reminder of the cost of their complacency. At home and abroad, Russians are wrestling with the consequences of what their leaders have done. Some are in denial. Many have rallied round the flag, and the dystopian worldview portrayed by the Kremlin’s propaganda machine. The war in their view is not just with the Nazi drug addicts in Ukraine, but with the Western puppet-masters. Sacrifices are the price of glory.
Others are suddenly aware that the darkest periods in their country’s past have contemporary echoes. The weaponization of history stokes scrutiny. The more one learns about the Soviet and Russian empires, the more one sympathises with their victims.
A messy disintegration of Russia is possible.
A catastrophic defeat for Putin could speed up the lessons, sparking the reckoning with imperial history that Russia has postponed for a century. The cost of the war is also heightening tensions between the centre and the periphery. These might abate following a leadership change, or increase further. Possible outcomes range from a genuinely federal Russia to the messy disintegration of the country. Those whose ideal world features a democratic Russia, at peace with its past, with itself, and with its neighbours, must be prepared for a long wait.
Worlds change and change again. Some seemingly dramatic shifts may be transitory. In Europe, says Gabrielius Landsbergis, Lithuania’s foreign minister, the ‘honeymoon’ of solidarity and support for victims of Russian aggression is over. A divide is emerging between northern and eastern countries who favour continued and increased military support for Ukraine, further sanctions against Russia and a stronger NATO posture on its eastern flanks, and countries mainly in the southern and western parts of the continent who are uncertain or outright opposed to these policies. In the words of the Germany foreign-policy pundit Ulrike Guérot ‘Wie viel Leid wollen wir noch hochskalieren, bis wir endlich Frieden schaffen? Der ungerechteste Frieden ist besser als der gerechteste Krieg’ (‘How much suffering do we want to stoke before we make peace – the most unjust peace is better than the most justified war.’)
As the strains of the war grow, the voices of the ‘peace party’ (to use a phrase coined by the Bulgarian scholar Ivan Krastev) will become louder. Stop the fighting and start the talking, these people say. Russia is not going to go away. We will have to deal with it. We may not return to ‘business as usual’ but we must talk about issues such as arms control, climate change and space. Bolstering NATO’s eastern flank will be provocative (an alternative, contradictory view is that Russia’s war machine has fared so badly against Ukraine that it will never attack NATO).
The future of Ukraine, Europe and the world hangs on this. Putin’s blunders are many, but he may yet prove to be right on one big thing: the West is divided and unwilling to accept risk. He can declare victory when he wishes and incorporate the territories he has conquered into Russia. Ukraine may wish to fight on, but the ‘peace party’ in the West will be reluctant. The spectre of a crippled, resentful Ukraine and a triumphant, if exhausted, Russia is chilling. Europe will have failed an existential challenge to its security, leaving its credibility in tatters. Authoritarian kleptocrats the world over will rejoice.
It is already clear that the post-cold-war world is over, but we do not know what will replace it. The range of possible outcomes is the widest it has been since 1991. Whatever our decisions, they are already drenched in the blood of tens of thousands of innocent people. Let’s make sure they are good ones.