Did the end of the Cold War make conflict in Ukraine inevitable?

11 March 2022

6:00 PM

11 March 2022

6:00 PM

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine shows, once again, that seismic shifts in the international order are inexorably followed by war. The adjustment invariably involves a declining power – in this case Russia, following the collapse of the Soviet Union – and a rising power – the West. So are we on the brink of a wider conflagration? Or might Putin’s war result in a return to some semblance of peace, if a treaty between Ukraine and Russia can be thrashed out?

Whatever happens, one thing has become clear in recent weeks: the Cold War ‘defeat’ of the Soviet Union – albeit morally not militarily – should have led to an adjustment of all the parties to the new international order. It didn’t. This is at the heart of Vladimir Putin’s war on Ukraine. The Russian president readily admits this as he rejects the post Cold War order, cries foul at former Soviet bloc states joining Nato and pleads encirclement, like the Kaiser’s Germany with the Triple Entente.

An outbreak of fighting amidst a backdrop of an unsettled international order is not new. In the eighteenth century, French decline and Britain’s rise were finally played out in the Napoleonic wars. In the late nineteenth century, Britain’s relative decline and Germany’s rise contributed to the Great War.

As for the Second World War, that conflict fundamentally adjusted the international system to consecrate American and Soviet power. Putin’s subsequent refusal to accept the seismic changes in the international system resulting from the USSR’s implosion and the, albeit hubristic, ‘triumph of the west’ after 1989 have finally, once again, led to war. How far that war goes and the outcome will determine whether the three decade ‘international unsettlement’ continues. In the absence of a modern Vienna congress, the post-Cold War system required Russian moral capitulation; an acceptance by Moscow of a more modest role in the international order befitting an imploded and discredited political system and a stricken economy that had ‘lost’ the Cold War.

At the end of the Second World War, Japan and Germany accepted moral capitulation and lesser roles. This ‘loser’s consent’ allowed the new international order to take hold and ensured its longevity. By contrast, Germany did not accept the new post First World War international order and railed against its charter, the Versailles Treaty, which contrary to Keynes’s claims, was not a Carthaginian Peace. The Weimar Republic, while publicly feigning acceptance of the system, broke Versailles disarmament stipulations by secretly developing aeroplanes and tanks with the Soviet Union in the 1920s. It also falsely claimed it could not pay reparations, when, in reality, modern historians have shown that the state’s coffers were fuller than was claimed. But it was from 1933 that a new German leadership publicly declared its refusal to accept the international system and vowed to overturn it.

As early as 1920, Marshal Ferdinand Foch, who believed that Versailles carried insufficient safeguards against a resurgent Germany, declared: ‘This is not peace, it is a 20 year truce.’ This is the route Putin is taking in refusing to accept the post Cold War system. Whether the West engaged in misplaced triumphalism, or should have indulged Russia more effectively, is moot. What is important is that the post Cold War international system was built on neither Russian moral capitulation nor consensus among the parties to the Cold War. The result has been a ‘thirty year truce’, worsened by the West’s determination to take a peace dividend, like in the 1920s and 1930s.

So where do we go from here? Naturally there is a pessimistic and an optimistic scenario. Pessimism suggests that Putin’s Russia, as now impelled, will not stop until his initial war aims are satisfied, which include rolling back Nato’s military presence at its borders. This could provoke a full-blown war with the Alliance. Other than a Third World War, Russian defeat at the hands of Nato could result in the moral capitulation necessary for Moscow to accept a long-lasting European post-war settlement.

More optimistically, if Putin were to moderate his war aims to specific areas of Ukraine, a postwar consensual international settlement could be the harbinger of a new European international order. But would peace last? Or could this simply take the form of a ten-year truce, leading to an even more devastating war?

Whatever role Russia decides to play, there’s further bad news. In the East, China under president Xi will continue its trajectory, presenting another case of a rising power rivalling a ruling power and threatening the international order. It does so in much the same way that Athens challenged Sparta in ancient Greece, as historian Thucydides described, or as Germany challenged Britain in the late nineteenth century.

This ‘Thucydides Trap’, as Harvard political scientist Graham Allison calls it, shows that in 12 of the past 16 cases in the last 500 years, the challenge has resulted in bloodshed. Nevertheless, in those cases where parties avoided war it was necessary for challenger and challenged to make huge, painful adjustments in attitudes and actions. But are Putin and Xi – and indeed the West – willing to make such sacrifices?

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