The Specter of the 20th Century

Just a few days ago we thought — and we had every reason to think — that the war in Ukraine would be over soon and that Ukraine’s fate would be a distant reflection of Budapest in 1956 and Prague in 1968. We thought there was no hope against the superiority of the Russian military, and everything would turn out the way Vladimir Putin hoped. We thought that Europe would have to drink another dose of 20th century poison, and the West would not support Ukraine because it can’t be any other way in the specter of nuclear war; the West is powerless in a local conflict. It is incapacitated by the 20th century military doctrine of mutually assured destruction. Add a few Molotov cocktails, burned-out Russian tanks and the Russian imperialist recipe from the 20th century: a puppet government. Which, of course, is familiar on the “other side” of the Atlantic as well: America replaced Chilean President Salvador Allende with its puppet president, Augosto Pinochet, and Pinochet’s miracle economy.

Analysts will later write their “no one cares” reports about how liberal democracy lost another battle, this time in Ukraine. They will write about why liberal democracy was unable to hold the wolves back in NATO’s eastward push, and won’t appreciate the overshadowed Russian security interests, which swiftly wiped away Ukraine’s sovereignty and autonomy to decide freely where they want to belong on the geopolitical map while Russia threatened to do the same to the Swedes and Finns.

We could not have been more wrong. The Ukrainians resisted, the Russian military achieved little before the sun set on the first day. In the meantime, half the world showed its disapproval. Sanctions, usually ineffective, had great results this time. The already weak Russian economy crumbled, and under the spell of nuclear weapons, Putin forgot about the promise he made a decade and a half ago to modernize the economy. Now he has to face being wiped from the entire global system — from financial markets to sports events to airlines to the closure of the Bosphorus strait by Turkey (a member of NATO!) — as he approaches economic collapse in the wake of a prolonged and escalating war. Putin faces having to confront his own bureaucracy and his own people. In a matter of days, Putin has achieved hermetic isolation by a West thought to be “dying.” As an added bonus, the American oil industry will now inherit the European market.

The West — although at the cost of great bloodshed — seems to be coming out on top. However, it will be an uncertain and fleeting victory, if like Putin, mired in imperialistic glory, the West also gets stuck in the 20th century. If the West does not realize — or remains unable to act on the realization — that Europe and the world need a new, multilateral, collective system of security, national sovereignty will lose its meaning, if it is not already lost. China deserves special attention, as it might have the grandest perspective when it comes to realizing and validating long-term interests, and which is now, with telling silence — watching what happens to Ukraine, a place where the 21st century world is reconfiguring itself without moving on from the 20th century and its final argument: nuclear bombs.

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