A month ago I was asking friends and family members better informed than I to explain why the Russian government had chosen this particular moment in time to launch a military attack on Ukraine. I could understand several reasons for an expensive and unpopular move: fear of NATO’s eastward expansion, fear and loathing of Western culture and capitalism, desire to rebuild the Russian Empire as it was in the years just after World War I.
I could not understand why Putin was willing to risk Russian blood and treasure on a military adventure reminiscent of wars in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Officially, he engaged in a special operation with specific and limited objectives, such as the liberation of fellow Russians from Ukrainian rule. In fact, he engaged in the occupation of Ukraine, a task that is proving more difficult than he expected.
The old-fashioned military campaign and the equally old-fashioned propaganda machine have brought about two outcomes: a closing of ranks among NATO members and strong pressures on the President of the United States to take actions as tough as his customary Cold War talk. Thus far, NATO’s unity and Biden’s tough guy act have consisted mostly of economic warfare that runs the gamut from serious (cutting Russian banks out of the SWIFT system) to meaningless (closing McDonald eateries) and downright farcical (seizing big yachts).
Russia can and will circumvent the serious sanctions, as Iran does by necessity and as Communist China did for decades after the revolution of 1949. And Russia will shrug off all of the other nonsense. But why go to all this trouble, and reinvigorate the critics of “an evil empire,” when other means were available to undermine Pax Americana?
Russia could have leveraged valuable assets against both the European Union and the United States — its oil and gas, its wheat for export, its rare metals. And it might have accepted the role of junior partner in China’s most important long-term strategic goal, the development of an alternative global financial system.
True, the new global financial system is not around the corner. China could wreak havoc in the dollar-based global financial market by dumping U.S. treasury bonds. In the short term it will not do any such thing because its economy is dependent on exports, including the export of critical items like computer chips. In the longer-term, China will figure out how to introduce a new system that might benefit countries in Africa, East Asia and beyond. Russia, with a population base far lower than the United States and the E.U. and with an economy based on a few raw materials, cannot aspire to that leadership role. At best it will be a junior partner to China’s leadership in a new global order.
The military operation in Ukraine, costly in money and the blood of Ukrainian civilians and Russian conscripts, will not get Putin one inch closer to a new global order.