You've successfully subscribed to American Purpose
Great! Next, complete checkout for full access to American Purpose
Welcome back! You've successfully signed in.
Success! Your account is fully activated, you now have access to all content.
Success! Your newsletter subscriptions is updated.
Newsletter subscriptions update failed.
Success! Your billing info is updated.
Billing info update failed.
Putin's War

Putin's War

The Soviet Union was ruled by an oligarchic clique bound by certain rules. Today, Russia is in the hands of a dictator who rules alone.

Peter Graf von Kielmansegg

One remembers the sentence with which Annalena Baerbock appeared before the public on the morning of 24 February: “We have woken up in another world.” Woken up, one must add, from a long political deep sleep that is now costing the world dearly.

What do we now know about this other world? At least this much: Putin’s goal, one may well say his life’s goal, is to turn back the wheel of history and restore the disintegrated Russian empire. He does not shy away from waging wars of aggression for the sake of this goal. And he is waging them with extreme brutality. Ukraine is fighting back with a bravery and strength that astonishes the West. Russia’s huge military machine, on the other hand, is proving to be weaker than suspected.

The West is united in its moral outrage. It is almost united in its decision to respond to the aggression with tough sanctions. It is not quite so united in its willingness to incur high costs in doing so. And it is again united in its determination to avoid anything that could drag it directly into the war. The West is not the world. The two great Asian powers, China and India, have not joined the West. They do not condemn Russia. They are even prepared to support Russia—within limits.

The conclusion of this first assessment is that thirty years after the end of the East-West confrontation that characterized the second half of the 20th century, we have entered a new world conflict. Like the old one, this new world conflict poses a systemic challenge to the West. On the one hand, the constitution of freedom and an autocratic regime—an autocracy admittedly sui generis—are facing each other. On the other hand, the principle of non-violent, rule-governed interaction between states comes up against the counter-principle of violence.

___STEADY_PAYWALL___ With such initial perceptions, the reflection on the challenges that the Russian tyrant poses to Western democracies has only just begun. It has to start with the question: What distinguishes the new world conflict from the East-West conflict of the 20th century? The first and most important answer is: the Soviet Union, at least in its late years, was in fact a status quo power, regardless of its ruling ideology. Putin’s Russia is no longer a status quo power. It is a nuclear-armed great power that wants to expand its sphere of domination and shift its borders as they were formed in freely made decisions by the peoples of the former Soviet empire.

A second difference: in the post-Stalin era, the Soviet Union was ruled by an oligarchic clique bound by certain institutions and rules; this was true even for the General Secretary of the CPSU, the most powerful man in this clique. Now the potential of the great power Russia is in the hands of a dictator who rules alone and unrestrictedly; an autocrat who pays extreme homage to the principle of violence, from murder to war. This makes the nuclear great power Russia more unpredictable than it was in the times of the Soviet Union. Finally, the East-West conflict of the last century became, in the forty years it lasted, more and more a conflict that was fought out according to certain unwritten rules. At their core, they served to keep the apocalyptic dangers inherent in the balance of terror under control in the interest of both sides. It is hard to imagine that similar rules will develop in the new world conflict. Putin`s aggression has destroyed the preconditions for even a minimum of trust. This means that the new world conflict has its own dynamic of unpredictability.

This dynamic of unpredictability can be described more precisely. The confrontation of the East-West conflict of the years 1946 to 1990 was characterized by the fact that the border between the two power blocs, at least in Europe, was sharply and clearly drawn as the border between NATO and the Warsaw Pact. The possibility of developing rules of conduct was based on this very unambiguousness. The most important of these was that the status quo was respected. After the failure of the Berlin Blockade and Khrushchev’s Berlin Offensive in the late 1950s, the East accepted the enclave of West Berlin. The West, in turn, watched as the uprising of June 17 was crushed in 1953, the Hungarian freedom movement was smothered in blood in 1956, the Berlin Wall was built in 1961, and the Prague Spring was put to an end in 1968.

In the new world conflict, the circumstances are different. From Putin’s point of view, there is a geopolitical conflict zone between Russia and the “old West,” to which his imperial claims are directed in varying degrees of intensity. On the one hand, there are the states that formerly belonged to the Soviet Union and have not become members of Western alliances—Ukraine, which is unquestionably a key country for Putin’s vision of the restoration of empire, Georgia, Moldova, and Belarus. Secondly, there are the states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. Formerly part of the Soviet Union, they are now part of the Western alliances NATO and the EU. And thirdly, there are the states that were not part of the Soviet Union, but that were incorporated into the Soviet empire, and are now bound to the West—the rest of East-Central Europe.

There can be no doubt about Putin’s goals after all that has happened. As to the first group of states, Putin has begun the unwinding of the disintegration of the Soviet Union by attacking Ukraine. He has not left himself a path of retreat. The fact that Ukraine, supported by the West, has confronted the aggressor with admirable courage protects Georgia and Moldova for the time being. But only temporarily.

Everything suggests that Putin also has the Baltic states in his sights. Of course, the Baltic states’ membership in NATO and the presence of Alliance troops on their territory gives them far more security than Ukraine had. But this security ultimately depends on the willingness and ability of the NATO allies, above all the United States, to fulfil their stand-by obligations in such a way that Putin has to include them in his calculations. That is not guaranteed by the very existence of the Alliance.

The states in the third group can feel reasonably secure. But the geopolitical doctrine of the “near abroad,” formulated with the self-image and self-confidence of an imperial power, as well as the demand that NATO withdraw from East-Central Europe, show that Putin takes for granted Russia’s right to keep an upstream sphere of influence under its control. In his view, Russian security interests are as legitimate as the claims of neighboring peoples to self-determination, above all to security in the face of an overpowering Russia, are irrelevant. It is true: The hegemony over East-Central Europe, which had fallen to the Soviet Union as a victory prize after the Second World War, cannot, by human standards, be regained by Putin. Nevertheless, what applies to the second group of states also applies here: Dependence on the American security guarantee is Europe’s Achilles heel. How things would stand at present if Trump had won the 2020 presidential election, one would be reluctant to imagine. And whether Europe will at some point be willing and able to guarantee its own security is written in the stars.

The battle for the intermediate zone is on. If, in Putin’s self-perception, there were a victory at the end of the war over Ukraine, he would feel emboldened to set his sights on the next victim, no matter how high the price for victory in Ukraine may have been. If Ukraine held its own, he would not give up his imperial dream, if only because he had chained his fate as an autocratic ruler indissolubly to this dream by deciding to wage a war of aggression. That is to say, restoring the empire, controlling the apron, for Putin also means not allowing the Western model of political order to assert itself and gain radiance in Russia’s immediate neighborhood.

The West must therefore prepare itself for a conflict of unforeseeable duration. We do not yet know what role the threat of nuclear weapons will play in this conflict. That it will play a role is certain. Putin made it brutally clear on the very first day of the invasion. Anyone who stood in his way would face consequences the likes of which history had never seen. He repeated the threat by putting the “retaliatory forces” on alert a little later, without the West having given any reason to do so. His boasting about the super-fast missiles that left the enemy no chance of defense points in the same direction.


The balance of terror in the times of the old East-West conflict was a reasonably stable one, despite all attempts to gain strategic advantages by further developing the nuclear arsenal. The threat of nuclear weapons was not a political weapon of great significance because, let it be said again, the line between East and West was sharp, clearly drawn, and everyone knew: Whoever crosses it invokes the apocalypse. Things are different now.

In a constellation with many uncertainties, the threat of nuclear weapons is quite capable of limiting the West’s room for maneuver. Putin knows this. He knows that with the nuclear threat he can activate an elementary asymmetry between autocracy and democracy in his favor. And he is working with this threat. The fact that the West seeks to avoid anything that would make it a party to the war already shows its effectiveness. The West accepts that it is Putin who decides which arms deliveries are to be regarded as the entry of Western states into the war and which are not. Even the routes by which weapons reach Ukraine are becoming a problem.

Even where Putin directly encounters NATO, there is scope for the political use of the nuclear threat. If it came to that, Putin would certainly not invade the Baltic states with  open military brutality as he did in the case of Ukraine. That would leave NATO no choice. He would look for ways of subversive destabilization; he would try to act in such a way that discussions would break out in the West as to whether it was really an armed attack on a member state. That the political weapon of the nuclear threat would be effective in such a constellation is anything but unlikely. All the more so when one takes into account that the obligation to provide assistance in Article Five of the North Atlantic Treaty is formulated very openly, thus leaving the member states considerable freedom to decide for themselves on the nature of their support.

The scenarios outlined make clear what is obvious anyway: The nuclear threat confronts the West with a dilemma. To always take it seriously, if one considers it to be possibly serious, would mean leaving it to Putin to define the limits of the political room for maneuver open to the West. Not to take the nuclear threat seriously on principle, because it is always possible that Putin is only bluffing, would mean accepting the risk of apocalypse.

How does one deal with this dilemma in terms of responsible ethics? One might be inclined to conclude that in the shadow of the immense destructive power of nuclear weapons, the ethics of responsibility always require the utmost caution and restraint in cases of doubt. But are not all conceivable cases of confrontation cases of doubt? And especially when, as in Putin’s case, one cannot be sure that the opponent is acting rationally, at least in elementary terms? Doesn’t, then, the maxim of “caution and restraint” ultimately commit us to always giving in? To a capitulation that progresses insidiously because every successful threat results in the next threat? Is it permissible to leave the world in this way to those who have no qualms about making policy with the nuclear threat? This suggestive question, of course, always meets with the counter-question: how close may one approach the danger of an apocalyptic catastrophe?

The debates of the old East-West conflict do not help much in the search for answers. The conflict constellation, to repeat, was different. It included stabilizing moments that are lacking in the new world conflict. The answers that are needed now must be found anew. At least one ought to be sure about the attitude that should guide the West in dealing with its dilemma. It can be described in terms of the classical doctrine of virtue: It is about prudent courage. Kennedy’s policy in the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 is an example of what prudent courage means in concrete terms.

The question of what is ethically responsible is one thing. The question of how democracies actually act under pressure is another matter. Can they withstand a nuclear threat? The experience of the 20th century shows that democracies in existential distress, when there is no evasion, can develop astonishing courage and resilience. The England of the summer of 1940 is perhaps the most impressive example. But when it comes to ambiguous threats; when it comes to obligations to third parties and possibilities of evasion are open, the outcome is much more uncertain. Where the interplay between politicians, who define the options for action, and voters, who ultimately decide on the scope for action in democratic politics, which is constitutive of the democratic political process, will then lead is open. Party disputes are likely, and in the case of a nuclear threat, paralyzing fear may spread and even panic may break out.

That the democracies of the West have nevertheless endured the balance of terror in the East-West conflict of the last century for decades is remarkable. It has probably to do above all with the fact that under given conditions—a tacitly agreed status quo, assured second-strike capability and the rationality of the will to survive on both sides—the thought that it might fail could be suppressed. But not always and everywhere. In Germany in particular, from time to time there has been a passionate rebellion against nuclear reality.

Today, at least one of the three conditions no longer exists. In general, an autocrat who has a huge arsenal of nuclear weapons at his disposal, who wants to shift borders, claims apron control and is prepared to wage war, creates completely new conditions; a dictator, moreover, who masters and consistently uses the new possibilities of manipulative influencing democratic publics created by the internet.


The question of whether democracies can withstand the nuclear threat can also be posed in much more general terms: Can affluent societies endure emergencies? If one asks in this way, it is no longer just a question of existential dangers, but above all of whether people who have come to take a certain level of prosperity for granted can bear painful restrictions on their consumption habits and lifestyle. Specifically: Will the West be able to sustain sanctions that demand tangible sacrifices from citizens even when Putin has wrapped up his loot and invites the world to return to normality?

Germany is a case of particular instability in this field. On the one hand, many indications point to the fact that the Germans, shaped by their recent history, are unusually risk-averse in a politically significant sense. On the other hand, Germany`s political class is convinced that their habitual avoidance of the serious case is proof of the higher morals of a community that has been purified by historical experience. One may add: The blindness with which this political class has deliberately led its country into energy dependence on Putin’s Russia until the last second and has run down the Bundeswehr almost to the point of silent collapse does not exactly qualify it to take the lead on the opposite course.

Any appeasement—the term with all its historical connotations fits our facts exactly—claims good faith. Chamberlain wanted to save the peace with the Munich Agreement in 1938. But one could know at the time that peace could not be saved, if at all, with Hitler, but only against him. But there is a difference: Chamberlain’s appeasement was partly motivated by the fact that England needed time to rearm; and Munich actually gave it time, which it used. Germany’s policy of appeasement toward Putin did not make Germany stronger, but Russia. And the good faith was, to repeat, based on blindness.

Blindness although the signs were clear. Putin’s often quoted sentence that the disintegration of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century was made early, very early. It exposed Putin’s imperial program of rule. Putin also rearmed Russia from the outset and rebuilt Russia into an autocracy centered entirely on himself. In Georgia and Crimea, he started implementing the program of restoring a Russian empire. There was no longer any doubt about Putin’s unprecedented brutality after the orgies of violence in Chechnya and Syria. And for those whose eyes were not yet opened by these experiences, the series of murders in which Putin eliminated his opponents should have opened them. After all, people knew where he came from. The KGB had been his school of politics, and not only politics. There he learned how to deal with the world. More unambiguity is hardly possible.

As much as the presence of the war occupies us, we must not lose sight of the future. What can be expected? The sixth preliminary article in Kant’s On Perpetual Peace reads: “No state at war with another shall permit itself such hostilities as must make mutual confidence in future peace impossible.” In the explanation of this article, Kant continues: “For some confidence in the enemy’s way of thinking must still remain in the midst of war, because otherwise no peace could be concluded, and hostility would turn into a war of extermination.”

There is no longer any confidence in Putin’s way of thinking. He has made lying, in addition to violence, the principle of his rule. So no peace as long as he rules Russia? But then how can this world conflict end?

The war that the world was forced to wage against Hitler until his unconditional surrender—he, too, was a tyrant whom no one could trust—cannot and will not be waged against Putin. It would end up in the apocalypse. When the war in Ukraine is fought out—who does not hope and wish that it will end in such a way that even Putin will have to acknowledge that he has suffered a defeat—it will be about a ceasefire, nothing more, as long as Putin is Russia’s master. Whether there will be opposition forces in Russia strong enough to get rid of him at some point, we don’t know. For the time being, it doesn’t look like there will be.

And what about the time after Putin? It is true that his autocracy is entirely personal, not supported by an ideology and by institutions that are not tied to his person. But all experience so far shows that Russia finds it difficult to break away from its autocratic and imperial traditions in the change of regimes. This means that democracies are not only challenged by the war of subjugation that Russia feels against Ukraine. They will remain challenged, by human standards, far beyond that. They will not be able to afford the naivety of the last decade or two again.

Peter Graf von Kielmansegg is professor emeritus of political science at the University of Mannheim.

This article originally appeared in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, and is translated and reprinted with permission.

Image: Upsplash: Valery Tenevoy, 2021

Russia

American Purpose’s membership model is here! We hope you’ll join us in defending liberal democracy by affirming your support. As we benefit from new members, we will continue to rely on donations, as well.

With warmest thanks,

Jeffrey Gedmin, Francis Fukuyama, and the American Purpose team