How Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine Changed the World

From a Wall Street Journal Politics & Ideas column by William A. Galston headlined “How Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine Changed the World”:

Events in the past week show how the invasion of Ukraine has forced the major powers both to reconsider their relations with Russia and to rethink how to pursue their long-term interests.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi delivered a face-to-face rebuke to Vladimir Putin, despite his country’s near-total dependence on Russian weaponry and its interest in maintaining a close relationship with Moscow as a counterweight to Beijing: “Today’s era is not an era of war,” he said, “and I have spoken to you on the phone about this.”

Chinese leader Xi Jinping forced Mr. Putin to acknowledge China’s “questions and concerns” about the war in Ukraine during an in-person meeting in Uzbekistan last week—quite a change from Beijing’s pledge of “limitless friendship” seven months ago. In a statement after the meeting, Mr. Xi called on Moscow to work with him to “inject stability into the turbulent world,” while meeting with leaders of Central Asian countries, who have not backed the invasion of Ukraine despite Russia’s long-dominant role in their region.

On Sunday night, CBS reporter Scott Pelley asked President Biden a carefully worded question: “So unlike Ukraine, U.S. forces—U.S. men and women—would defend Taiwan in the event of a Chinese invasion?” Mr. Biden replied bluntly: “Yes, if in fact there was an unprecedented attack.”

As always, White House staff insisted this statement wasn’t a policy change. But it was clearly another long step away from the strategic ambiguity that has long shaped American policy toward Taiwan. Let’s call it “strategic disambiguation.”

Mr. Biden clearly believes clarifying U.S. policy will help deter a Chinese invasion. Many China experts argue that Mr. Xi is watching how the West is responding to the Russian invasion, and this is a clear message that if Beijing attacks, it can expect Washington to show Taipei the same firm solidarity it has given Kyiv.

At a Brookings forum on Monday, scholars explored the consequences of Mr. Putin’s history-changing decision. International relations expert James Goldgeier argued that it will be impossible for the West to restore normal relations with Russia or enjoy stability in Europe so long as Mr. Putin remains in power. All we can do is punish him.

Energy expert Samantha Gross predicted that Russia will soon turn off Europe’s natural-gas spigot entirely, making this winter even harder to endure. Germany expert Constanze Stelzenmüller sharpened the point: Although Germany has succeeded in filling its storage tanks, this reserve will last for only two months; she added dryly that winter will last “considerably longer.” Things will become even more difficult if, as seems likely, worse-off European nations ask Germany for fuel.

Several Brookings scholars expressed doubts that the American-led effort to cap Russian oil prices will intensify pressure on the Russian economy in the short term, though they concede that Russia’s long-term prospects have been weakened. To decouple from Russian energy, Europeans are building infrastructure that will make it hard for Russia to win them back, including the technology needed to accept liquid natural gas from other producers such as the U.S., Qatar and Nigeria. In the long run, the invasion will likely accelerate Europe’s transition from fossil fuels, though it has temporarily increased coal’s role and may delay planned shutdowns of nuclear power plants as well.

Panelists agreed that the war has generally weakened Russia. Ukraine’s defense has punctured the myth that Mr. Putin had rebuilt the invincible Red Army. His military’s logistics are weak, its weapons second-rate, its tactics inflexible, and its top-down command structure obsolete. Criticism of the invasion is spreading in Russia, and Mr. Putin’s reputation for strategic infallibility is being called into question. The West is more united than it has been in decades, the number of U.S. troops stationed in Europe has increased, and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization is strengthened by increased military spending and the impending membership of Sweden and Finland.

As defense policy expert Caitlin Talmadge remarked, the war in Ukraine has reminded us of the key role that “nonmaterial factors” play in armed conflict. Motivation and morale make a huge difference. The invasion instantly made possible in Ukraine the sort of national mobilization that Mr. Putin hasn’t dared force in Russia. The Ukrainians know why they are fighting. Except for Wagner Group mercenaries, the Russians don’t.

Robert Kagan also emphasized the role of nonmaterial motives in U.S. foreign policy. By the standards of classic “realist” theory, defending Ukraine isn’t in America’s core national interest. But during the past century, Americans have embraced a broader view of U.S. foreign policy. Experts and ordinary citizens alike care about defending a peaceful world order in which dictators don’t change boundaries by force of arms and don’t suppress peoples’ desires for self-government. The American response to the invasion of Ukraine proves that this idealism remains at the core of our national identity and that we can’t conduct a viable foreign policy without acknowledging its enduring impact.

William A. Galston holds the Ezra K. Zilkha Chair in the Brookings Institution’s Governance Studies Program, where he serves as a Senior Fellow.

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