While Vladimir Putin remains beholden to nineteenth-century ideas and twentieth-century means, he has forced the rest of the world to consider what really matters in the twenty-first century. The decisions that European, American, and Chinese leaders make today will shape global power dynamics for many years to come.
BERLIN – The world is probably at the start of a decade of jittery peacelessness. Though we are not necessarily entering a period of perpetual war, we should be prepared for more – and more intense – trade conflicts, economic and financial sanctions, cyberattacks, disinformation campaigns, and the use of military force as an instrument of geopolitics. Russia’s war against Ukraine is not the beginning of a new era, but rather the consequence of an era that is ending.
Beyond his obvious desire to reconstruct the Russian Empire, President Vladimir Putin clearly does not want to leave the reorganization of the world to the United States and China alone. He wants Russia (or at least himself) to become a great power again, with a real say in determining European and Eurasian affairs.
For more than 30 years, Russia has had no significant role to play in Europe other than that of embittered spoiler. By the time it illegally annexed Crimea in 2014, the country had sunk in many Europeans’ estimation to the status of energy supplier whose threats against some of its immediate neighbors reflected weakness, not strength. And yet Putin needs to be able to influence the future of Europe if he is to have any chance of reconstituting Russia as a global great power. That means more is at stake in his war than Ukrainian sovereignty; in fact, Ukraine is just a means to Putin’s revanchist ends.
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