One hundred years ago Europe was in the process of tumbling, or as Christopher Clark, author of The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914, would say, “sleepwalking” into WWI – a war that claimed 20 million people. On the question whether European diplomacy between 1900 and 1914 resembles today, Clark noted: “I wish I could tell you it would be impossible today. I mean, I must say I was stuck by the opposite insight, namely that it seems to me that our world is more getting like 1914, not less like it.”

During the period behind us, the war in Iraq and the Russian invasion in Crimea and Ukraine laid bare the differences within the international community.  Just as inequality in Russia and the US increased together with the influence of the affluent “rule by the wealthy few” have grown leading to an oligarchy, whereby the influence of the majority is being reduced. Inequality in Russia and the US is at the same dangerous level and is dividing society along major fault lines.

The benign view Americans have about themselves and the fact that they often see the world in their own image reveals that with increasing power comes increasing paranoia often associated with the loss of power, which ultimately equates to loss of control.

From 1993 to 2017, the Clinton, Bush and Obama administration were all committed to pursuing liberal hegemony and both President George W. Bush and President Barack Obama have certainly contributed to the instability in the greater Middle East. Their policies, motivated by liberal logic, were largely responsible for the present instability and the crisis between Russia and the West.

The weaknesses of the Barack Obama administration, which moved away from Europe and failed to commit to its own red lines,  have certainly contributed to the invasion of Crimea and part of Ukraine, just as this added  to the changes and instability in the Middle East. Also, this stalled the democratic advancements in favor of authoritarianism and increased China’s influence (Iran, Saudi Arabia) in the region.

Although the invasion of the Crimea and Ukraine were violations of international law and unjustified, history has taught us that this isn’t as simple as our ideals. It is not really so, as Israel, India, China, Morocco and others show that annexations are “things of the past.” The tragedy of history is that most of European borders are the result of annexations.

The Greeks were in Crimea and Ukraine, as were the Romans, the Byzantines, the Tatars, the Ottomans, and in 1753 the Russians annexed the Crimea. In 1853 the French, British, and Ottomans began a long war against Russia.

As Orlando Figes writes in his excellent book The Crimean War,

this is complicated as Ukraine has been an integral and inalienable part of Russian history for centuries and, indeed, their histories were intertwined before then as modern-day Belarus, Ukraine, and part of Russia share a common heritage—the heritage of a realm known as Kievan Rus (862–1242), which was a loose medieval political federation.

Some of the most important battles for Russian freedom were fought on Ukrainian soil, beginning with the Battle of Poltava in 1709 when the army under the command of Tsar Peter I defeated the Swedish army of King Charles XII. This not only turned the tide of the Northern War (1700-1721), but also changed the place and role of the Russian Empire in the European arena with Crimea being part of Russia from 1783 to 1954.

Jean-Marc Nattier (1685 -1766)

Crimea becoming a part of Ukraine can be viewed as a mistake of history, caused by Nikita Khrushchev, a Ukrainian by birth, when he awarded it as part of the 300th-year celebration of a Russian agreement with the Cossacks.

The Western part of the Ukraine is largely Catholic and speaks Ukrainian; the eastern part is largely Russian Orthodox and speak speaks mostly Russian. The lustration laws of 2014 by the Kiev Government, the attempts at uprooting the cultural and institutional legacy in part of Ukraine, and efforts by Ukrainian politicians to impose their will on the recalcitrant of the country have certainly stimulated the separatist movement when different pro-Russia groups with various interests and strategies became active in the Donbas region of Eastern Ukraine. 

As Dr. Henry Kissinger wrote for the Wall Street Journal in 2014: “To treat Ukraine as part of an East-West confrontation would scuttle for decades any prospect to bring Russia and the West — especially Russia and Europe — into a cooperative international system.”

This warning of the éminence grise Kissinger fell on deaf ears and the following rounds of sanctions against Russian interests, meant to crush the economy, is a US$ one trillion gamble with the global economy, whose effects may be as severe as the 1970s (1973 and 1979) oil crises.

The sanctions gave the orator President Barack Obama his righteous indignation and “feel good and look so smart” moment but confirmed the absence of the pragmatism and the failure to reach out to Russia. Joining the sanctions by the EU was most unfortunate, next to the economic costs to Europe, as Russia and Europe live under the same roof and expelling Russia from the European table has only created additional dilemmas.

The sanctions against Russian interests were the reaction of a 20th century hegemon in economic, political and moral decline. Today we must recognize the US led world order is unravelling, the global balance of power is shifting at a time we are entering the age of multipolarity, and the hegemon is seeking to protect and enforce the 20th century international rule based order and American primacy in the 21st century world.

But looking instead of looking through the prism of Western hegemony but through the prism of the world, the perspective changes. Despite that most countries condemned the Russian invasion at the U.N., more than half of the world population live in countries that have decided not to join the sanctions.

In light of the 21st century’s global challenges posed by climate change, food insecurities, resource scarcity and other more severe epidemics, long term strategic calculations would have served the moment better. The sanctions confirmed Russia’s perception of the strategic pressure the country is under.

It’s fair to conclude that personal animosity, instead of distrust without dislike, is no substitute for diplomacy and have certainly worsened rather than improved a very serious crisis. The demonization of Vladimir Putin, a 19th-century ruler, for a full decade, and  treating him like an abhorrent person who needs to patiently taught rules of conduct by the West, is not a policy; it is the absence of one.

In fact the West and the sanctions, motivated by the objective of Russia’s subordination, have become Vladimir Putin’s best but unwilling ally, his useful idiot that he can use to blame for his own failures to stimulate his brand of nationalism and rally the people around the flag.

As a side effect of the sanctions, instead of keeping Russia’s 140 million people integrated in the global economy, they have now been excluded and isolated. Russia has now, in extremis, become the autocratic country it always has been, with growing dependence on the security apparatus, less free and more controlled. Orlando Figes book The Whisperers might be a good indication for things to come.

The coercive sanctions and excluding Russia from the global equilibrium has resulted in exacerbating the problems and have driven Russia into closer relationship with China. Both Russia and China have common interests and are pushing to limit US influence by consolidating their spheres of influence to shape a world adverse to American values and interests.

This motivation led to the strengthening the China-Russia strategic relationship, despite there is no great affinity between both countries, this has translated into geopolitical leverage for China and gives China influence in the European continent that it didn’t have before. All of this influences the balance of power in the world and increases the instability in the global equilibrium.

Above all there seems to be a failure to understand Russian culture and history and to recognize Russia will hardly change, not with or after Vladimir Putin as the same interests that parachuted Vladimir Putin into power will select his successor.

Despite the smoke and mirrors in the present environment, a world of one-sided narratives and “us versus them” tribalism, polarization, and nationalism, there is the need to better understand history, culture and reflect in order find some balance in the positions we take. Essential is to understand that the most nationalistic and hawkish part of the Russian leadership is not opposed to Western sanctions against oligarchs, banks, companies, national debt, or severing the ties on all fronts.

For Russia’s nationalist hawks, an inward looking and isolated Russia would the ideal scenario, a  sovereign socioeconomic autarky, the end of ties with the West, the complete sovereignization of the elite, and the substitution of everything possible, even if that requires assistance from friendly China. The sanction over the last eight years have only boosted the position of the revanchist and pro-war faction.

Their goal is what the nationalist writer Anatoly Karlin calls the Russian world, meaning “a largely self-contained technological civilization, within its own eco system. A form of civilizational self-containment and as Putin calls it — a unification of “our own history, culture and spiritual space,” and consequential the more Russia divorces itself from Europe, the subordinate relationship with China expands.

To maintain his grip on power, Vladimir Putin is balancing the different interest factions and has never identified with only one group within his regime, but as domestic and external circumstances make one group stronger, that will shift his personal balance in favor of the stronger group.

In this environment, it is remarkable to see how, over the last two decades, the US was short-sighted enough to antagonize Russia, China and Iran, while at the same time confirming that its “diplomacy” is located at the last page of the American dictionary.

Blaming Russia for the breakdown in U.S.-Russian relations has always been popular among American neo-conservatives and the liberal interventionists from across the political spectrum — including Hillary Clinton, John Bolton, and the late John McCain, among others, and it fits the one-sided American narrative of American pre-eminence in the 21st century, which aims to prevent the emergence of a rival power in Eurasia that could threaten U.S. economic and diplomatic interests.

President Clinton made this clear with the Clinton doctrine that the U.S. has no intention to follow international law when he declared the U.S. reserves the right to act “unilaterally when necessary,” including “unilateral use of military power” to defend U.S. vital interests, a doctrine followed by American presidents ever since.

But today with NATO troops within two hours of  Moscow and St Petersburg and the threat of a membership of Ukraine in NATO, this is seen as a legitimate security risk and to Russian citizen similar to the perspective American citizen had during the 1962 Cuba crisis.

With the cancellation of ABM treaties, the U.S. increased the Russian security concerns and by stirring the flames of insecurity and hostility, the West has also played its own part in this deteriorating relationship and is not entirely blameless.

The same mistakes that have been made before in history were made during the last thirty years. When the Cold War ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, it created a power void in Eurasia; the same mistake was made as in 1919, when the post-World War I Europe was shaped in Versailles.

Here some of the seeds were sown that may have contributed to Germany’s revanchism, although there was never a “direct line” between historical developments. But as many historians believe, although there is not complete consensus, the perceived humiliation of Versailles was an important reason for the rise of Hitler. What also contributed was the 1929 banking and economic crisis which was linked to the dependency of foreign capital.

Humiliation of nations, as perceived by the public has never resulted in positive long-term results, neither do regime change attempts and sanctions.

The West, after the end of the Cold War, should have taken a page from the book of Prince Clemens von Metternich, who was not marshalling a superior force, but obtained a voluntary submission to his vision of legitimacy at the Congress of Vienna of 1815, when after the fall of Napoleon, a new security system for Europe was developed that included France.

It was a piece of conciliation and the goal of the two godfathers of the Congress of Vienna, Prince Metternich and Lord Castlereagh, was to create an enduring stability in Europe based on a realistic balance of power. The “peace with dignity” they brokered lasted until the outbreak of World War I.

Instead of a more balanced strategy, the rejection of numerous treaties by the U.S., among them: the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty of 1972, the Biological Weapons Convention of 1972, the nuclear Test Ban Treaty of 1963, the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty of 1987 (INF), and the Open Skies Treaty of 2002 were all nails in the coffin of European stability, a symptom of the decade long erosion of the Russian-US relationship.

Perhaps the hopes and expectation Europeans and Russians had at the turn of the new millennium were not always realistic and even instilled fear in the American Atlanticists about possible European-Russian cooperation, and specifically the German-Russian cooperation, a coalition which would unite German capital and technology with Russian resources and manpower. 

But soon the old differences returned to our world. On the global chessboard, Ukraine has become a pawn in the battle for U.S. influence in the Eurasian Balkans. It’s thereby probable given the grand strategy, after Ukraine the theatre of operations will move east and therefore more interference in domestic policies in Central Asia and the South Caucasus can be expected in the future.

Trying to detach Ukraine from Russia, as has been the aim and the long-standing disregard for Russian security concerns about NATO expansion on its borders ignoring Russia’s security concerns has made this crisis waiting to happen.  Ukraine, a country with its own problems with corruption and the rule of law played its own part by pouring oil on an already burning fire. A NATO membership of Ukraine can hardly be called prudent, desirable or realistic. This was confirmed by Dr Henry Kissinger when he noted in 2014 “Ukraine cannot act as an outpost for either party but rather should act as a bridge between the West and Russia.”

It goes thereby without saying, despite the current objections of Russia, as an independent nation Ukraine has, according to international agreements, the right to apply for NATO membership to further its security interests, but it’s most doubtful such an invitation would ever have been issued given the understanding of the consequences.

Europe should acknowledge it has reached the limits of eastward expansion for both NATO and EU and making the choice for consolidation would be an act of self-defence and the limitation will assist Europe in finding greater strategic clarity.

A more pragmatic and reasonable approach would be to recognize the legitimate security concerns of Russia and find a compromise whereby the territorial integrity of Ukraine would be guaranteed.  Ukraine would need to be a neutral state in world affairs and should undertake to have no formal alliances or military cooperation with either side, whereby NATO and Russia would respect Ukrainian sovereignty, which would be in line with the 1991 declaration of independence and the 1996 constitution of Ukraine.

The world is a jungle and war is always the result of a longer period in history and this war has been in the making for the last thirty years.

With the brutal and unacceptable invasion in Ukraine, an assault on sovereignty, an egregious violation of international law, Russia has unwisely crossed the Rubicon, whereby Russia, as a minor power, is seeking to influence  the balance of power in Europe. But Russia is far too weak to pose a serious challenge to the balance of power in Europe. It’s a misconception to claim Ukraine is of vital interest to the security of Europe or Ukraine is protecting European democracy.

At this stage it’s doubtful the European Union has seriously enough reflected on how the European Union is at an inflection point and how the EU after German unification has allowed itself to remain an American protectorate, to serve U.S. geopolitical and economic interests, a most unhealthy and unwelcome situation negatively affecting European sovereignty.

In its approach towards Russia the US has been expanding its goals in Ukraine, from containment and deterrence as formerly used by the US, to excluding Russia from world politics as an independent factor and the total destruction of the Russian economy, which is also part of the US confrontation with China, limiting China’s expansion in Europe and neutralizing China.

These American goals to push Russia politically and economically into chaos are  extraordinarily dangerous for all of us in Europe at a time when the U.S. is plagued by lack of rhetorical discipline with the calls for “regime change” and “the weakening and total defeat of Russia,” which leave no room for dialogue and compromises.

Notwithstanding the righteous indignation about this war in Ukraine, there always comes a point in time when this will have to give way to cold strategical thinking, as the logic of  coercive sanction does not make sense when the objective of the sanctions is “regime change,” as President Biden expressed in late March 2022 in Warsaw. He also stated that his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, “cannot remain in power,”  although the White House quickly sought to downplay the U.S. leader’s remarks, noting that Biden was not calling for “regime change” in Moscow. But with his remarks President Biden lifted the fog from his motives.

The same applies to the “total defeat of Russia,” as Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin asserted on April 25, and that the United States wants “to see Russia weakened to the degree that it can’t do the kinds of things that it has done in invading Ukraine.” That fits with Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Mark A. Milley’s prediction that the war will turn into a “protracted conflict … measured in years.”

With the war in Ukraine the neo-conservatives and the liberal interventionists have been coming out of their closets where they had retreated since the disasters in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya and have now returned into the full sunlight with their eye set on Russia. They are motivated by the ever present Russophobia, which is leading Ukraine down a one-way street that will ruin the country completely.

As Professor John Mearsheimer predicted in 2015, “Russia would destroy Ukraine rather than allow it to be part of NATO,” and it’s in the process of being destroyed now, with immense suffering and loss of life. Depending on the circumstances on the battlefield makes the unthinkable thinkable.

The support of Russia for Iran and Syria and the loss of influence in the Middle East will be part of the motives of the neo-cons for their hostility towards Russia and the desire to defeat Russia completely. Also, in 1918, there was regime change and the humiliation of Germany, which led to another devastating war.

It cannot be avoided to conclude, this is a very cynical game which is being played and by following this primrose path of the intended weakening and unconditional or total defeat of Russia, preferably leading to regime change in Moscow, interventionists show, like they did with the war in Afghanistan and Iraq, that they are unconcerned with the consequences that will follow.

Most likely the costs to the west of destabilization leading to Russia economic annihilation will exceed the anticipated benefits by the west.

In a pragmatic sense the sanctions, the ceasing of all imports of Russian fossil fuels, even economic war, might be emotionally satisfying for some. Yet, they ignore the unpredictable damage done to the economy, which economic harm will likely exceed the costs of the 1970s oil crises.

With the current attempts to isolate Russia, part of the US ‘encirclement’ and ‘containment and destabilization’ strategy, which started with George F. Kennan, we are sleepwalking to nobody knows where, into a larger conflict and things of the past have become the future again and the unthinkable to humanity has become thinkable again.

With this, the risks will only increase that Vladimir Putin will act more recklessly than previously, before he becomes too weak. As Lance Conrad notes in The Price of Nobility: “Only a fool would underestimate a man with nothing to lose.”

This strategy the US is following is risking military escalation with a nuclear power and does not enhance security in Europe. To the contrary, this will destabilize and endanger the world and will further alter the global balance of power.

There are good reasons for what Scipio Africanus suggested, namely, that the best way to defeat an enemy army was to surround three sides but leave the fourth side open in order to create what he called a “golden bridge” for a possible retreat, much in the same way as Sun Tzu wrote in The Art of War.

It is worth considering the effects and results of the words “submit or else,” which have been written in history from Thermopylae to Afghanistan, when attempting to impose one’s will on another.

This is taking place in an environment in which democracy is declining and is looking for a rebirth and American primacy in the world as a national security strategy is running out of steam with internal priorities and the associated internal burdens being contradicted by the costs of the military overextension of the U.S.

Today with unipolarity over and done with, and with the rules that were once determined by the “unipolar power” no longer the same anymore or seen in the same way, the status of the U.S. as first among equals has been weakened and its ability to dominate others has declined. The U.S. is not seeking to shape the future but is still seeking to preserve the 20th-century framework in the 21st century. This is similar to the way Vladimir Putin desires to preserve his 19th century values and his sphere of influence.

With the US now divided into two economic societies and faced with illiberal challenges, the world is also divided in different spheres and faced with the same illiberal challenges. More realistically, on this defining moment in time, with the rise of artificial intelligence for which we are totally unprepared, nuclear weapons that have the ability to set off Armageddon, we are faced with numerous issues that could result in the evisceration if not destruction or ability to survive of our so-called civilization.

Despite the ideological and differences in values, in the 21th century, we are facing difficult challenges, such as climate and food system disruption; infectious diseases leading to pandemics; poverty and inequality; nature and biodiversity loss; and pollution and waste, all issues that cannot be solved with 20th-century thinking and the conflicts that helped create them. These challenges require changes to our value system and priorities.

How to shape the future in an emerging multipolar world demands cooperation and actualizing capitalism towards a world that is demanding less inequality and more inclusion and shared prosperity.

These questions cannot be addressed by the greater power competitions or a battle between democracy and authoritarianism or the exclusion of parties, but requires new thinking and cooperation, the recognition of the problems and acceptance of a shared vision and the return to the old concept of Prince Clemens von Metternich, balance of power politics.

This diatribe expresses my personal views and observations.


Editor: Marton Radkai

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