Ukraine’s sovereignty cannot be questioned. The invasion of Ukraine is illegal and must be condemned. The mobilization of civilians ordered by the Ukrainian president can be read as a desperate act, but it does suggest that a guerrilla war looms in the future. Putin should remember the experience of the US in Vietnam: no matter how powerful, an invader’s regular army will ultimately meet with defeat if the people being invaded rise in arms against it. All this makes us antecipate an incalculable loss of innocent human life. Still barely recovered from the pandemic, Europe is bracing itself for a new challenge, one of unfathomable proportions. In the face of all this, one’s perplexity could not be greater.
The question to be asked is this: how and why did we get here? After its defeat and dismemberment in the wake of the Cold War, 30 years ago, Russia (the then Soviet Union) opened its doors to Western investment and dismantled the Warsaw Pact – the Soviet counterpart of NATO. At the same time, the countries of Eastern Europe broke free from Soviet rule and, across a vast area of the continent, seemed ready to become liberal democracies. What was it that happened since then that led to this new face-off between the West and Russia? Given the power gap that existed between Russia and the Western powers in 1990, the obvious answer should be that the reason lies in the sheer ineptitude of Western leaders to capitalize on the dividends of the Soviet Union’s collapse. Certainly, this ineptitude is evident and it has characterized the behavior of the European Union over the years. In fact, the EU has proved unable to provide European security with a solid foundation, which would obviously have to be built with Russia rather than against Russia, if only to honor the memory of the twenty-four million dead – the price that Russia had to pay to free itself and the whole of Europe from the Nazi yoke.
But such an answer does not suffice if we consider US foreign policy over the last 30 years. With the end of the Cold War, the US felt that it owned the world and that this was, at long last, a unipolar world. The nuclear powers that could pose a threat were either neutralized or friendly. Such notions as the correlation of forces and power balance vanished from its vocabulary. The repose of the moment was such as to suggest that the end of NATO was a forgone conclusion, for it had lost its purpose. But there was Yugoslavia, the country that General Tito, following the end of the Nazi occupation in 1945, had turned into a federation of regions (Croatia, Slovenia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Montenegro, Serbia, Kosovo, Macedonia) bound together by a regime that claimed to steer an independent course between the Soviet Union and the West. With Germany’s enthusiastic support, the US figured it was time for Yugoslavia to collapse. The grave domestic conflicts and the financial crises that marked the 1980s were used to foment division and hatred. A whole region that once had been known for interethnic and interreligious coexistence was turned into a field of hatreds. Thus it was that the new Balkan War, fought in the early 1990s, became the first war to be waged on European soil since 1945. Unheard acts of violence were committed by all sides. In the eyes of the West, however, only the Serbs were the villains, while all the other peoples involved were heroic nationalists. The Western countries (with Germany at their head) rushed to recognize the independence of the new republics, invoking the cause of human rights and the protection of minorities. In a referendum held in 1991, Kosovo voted in favor of independence from Serbia. Eight years later, NATO bombed Belgrade to enforce the will of the Kosovars.
How is Kosovo any different from Donbas, where the ethnically Russian republics held referenda in which they voted for independence? It isn’t, except that Kosovo had the support of NATO and the Donbas republics are supported by Russia. The Minsk agreements of 2014 and 2015 granted these regions a high degree of autonomy, but Ukraine refused to comply with them. The agreements were torn up long before Putin tore them up. How is the security threat felt by Russia in the face of the advance of NATO any different from the “missile crisis” of 1962, when the Soviets tried to install missiles in Cuba and the US, feeling its security was under threat, vowed to defend itself with all the means available to it, including nuclear war?
As for the question about how and why we got here, the answer is basically that the US and NATO have made the strategic mistake of failing to see that they never were the rulers of a unipolar world. At the moment the first cold war ended, China was on the rise, enthusiastically cheered on by US companies on the lookout for low wage workers. This provided the context for the emergence of the new US rival and, with it, the new Cold War that we are now entering – which, by the way, has the potential to be more serious than the previous one. Stubbornly refusing to admit its decline, recently made even more plain by its chaotic exit from Afghanistan and mediocre performance during the pandemic, all the US does is double down and drag Europe into its strategy. Europe is going to pay a high price for what is happening. The brunt will fall on Germany, whose economy is Europe’s engine and the US’s only serious competitor. It is easy to conclude who stands to benefit from the coming crisis, and I do not mean only who will be the supplier of oil and gas. At the same time, the attempt to isolate Russia, especially since 2014, is ultimately aimed at China. To think that China can be weakened by this will prove to be another strategic mistake. China has just declared that there is no comparison between Ukraine and Taiwan, because, according to China, Taiwan is Chinese territory. The implication is obvious: for China, Ukraine is not Russian territory. Still, it is delusional to think that a wedge is being driven between China and Russia.
I do not doubt that Europe will fare better in a multipolar world based on rules of peaceful coexistence between the great powers than in a world dominated by a single country, because if this ever comes to pass, it will be at the expense of much human suffering. The invasion of Ukraine is unacceptable. What cannot be said, however, is that it was unprovoked. Russia, being a great power, should not have allowed itself to be provoked. Is the invasion of Ukraine a sign of weakness rather than of strength? We will not have to wait long to find out.
Boaventura de Sousa Santos is Professor of Sociology at the School of Economics, University of Coimbra (Portugal), Distinguished Legal Scholar at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Law School and Global Legal Scholar at the University of Warwick.