The Capitol uprising on January 6 marked a grave crisis in American institutions, when a sitting President refused to transfer power peacefully and sought to actively overturn an election. The Republican Party, rather than repudiating the uprising and marginalizing its organizers, instead rallied in subsequent weeks to normalize the event. These developments, while bad in themselves from the standpoint of U.S. politics, also sent an unmistakable geopolitical signal that the Biden presidency would not represent an American return to “normal” internationalism. The administration would lead a deeply polarized country uncertain of its own global role.
It is not an accident that, one year later, Russian troops are massed on the borders of Ukraine, seemingly ready to extend the scope of an invasion of that country that began in 2014. Russian President Vladimir Putin stated clearly last year that he does not believe that Ukraine has its own identity as a nation separate from Russia. As the price for de-escalating, he has demanded not just that NATO commit to no further expansion, but that it agree to a broad East-West security conference that would effectively roll back the clock to the period before the alliance’s expansion in the early 2000s. Other NATO member states would not be allowed to station forces or conduct military activities in any former Warsaw Pact state (e.g., the Baltics or Poland), as they have been doing since the Crimean and Donbas invasions of 2014. Indeed, the United States would be prevented from stationing forces anywhere outside its own territory, including places like Japan. He has stated this as a non-negotiable demand, and is threatening not just Ukraine but the whole of NATO with military attack if it is not met.
Putin is acting now as a result of what he perceives to be a shift in the “correlation of forces,” that is, the power balance between Russia and the United States and its allies. Since the high point of American power in the mid-2000s when the Bush administration talked favorably about admitting both Georgia and Ukraine to NATO, Western and particularly American power has steadily declined. The United States was hit by a massive financial crisis in 2008, and Europe likewise fell into distress with a euro crisis in 2010 and a refugee crisis in 2014. The rise of populist politicians and parties in the United States and Europe from the mid-2010s on signaled deep social divisions within Western liberal democracies. In Donald Trump, Russia found an active collaborator who was happy to use military aid to Ukraine as a bargaining chip by which he could extract campaign benefits. Russia, in the meantime, has undergone a massive modernization of its military, which is no longer the debilitated organization that got bogged down in Chechnya in the 1990s.
This is the point at which geopolitics and domestic unrest come together. The single greatest weakness of the United States today does not lie in its economy or military power, but in the deep polarization that has affected American politics. This is not just speculation, but something underlined by Kremlin-linked commentators, as Françoise Thom has detailed: in the words of one, “the decrepit empire of the Stars and Stripes, weakened by LGBT, BLM, etc.” makes it “clear that it will not survive a two-front war.” They see that a significant number of Republicans believe that the Democratic Party represents a bigger threat to the American way of life than does Russia. A country that cannot rally around sensible public health measures during a pandemic will not rally around defense of freedom abroad. This is the significance of January 6: it has hardened partisan divisions rather than being the occasion for national soul-searching. The Trump presidency was a gift to Russia that did not stop giving, even after Trump’s departure from office.
The prospects for 2022 are not necessarily so bleak. As Kori Schake has pointed out, Russia may well be deterred by Western actions, both present and threatened for the future. No one expects the United States to fight for Ukraine, but the latter has started to receive serious military aid from Washington and other NATO member states. Ukrainian forces have improved significantly since the Crimea/Donbas occupation; half a million Ukrainians have had military experience and now have much better weaponry at hand. The grinding war in Donbas has, not unexpectedly, strengthened Ukrainian national identity, and a majority of Ukrainian men declared themselves ready in a recent poll to resist a Russian occupation.
The readout from the talks between Biden and Putin on December 30 make it clear that the fears of some that the U.S. President would sell out Ukraine over the heads of its people and U.S. allies are greatly overblown. The weakness that the Russians are counting on in the core NATO states (that is, France and Germany) has not materialized; the Green coalition partners in the new German government of Olaf Scholz have taken a tougher stance toward Russia than Angela Merkel.
Putin may thus back down in the coming weeks. However, he has proven to be a much bigger risk-taker than any other Russian leader of the past century, and the people around him are talking about possible conflict in a completely unhinged way—for example, how they would be much better prepared to rebuild after a nuclear war than the Americans.
Waiting on the sidelines are the Chinese. Like Russia, China has an irredentist claim against the territory of another democracy, Taiwan, and is increasingly ready to act on it. Beijing will be watching developments in Europe closely, and will take its cues from what it perceives as the American will to act. Should either Russia or China get away with naked territorial aggression in the coming years, the credibility of U.S. support for world order will collapse, and the American Century will be at a clear end.
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