A world in disorder reaches a critical inflection point

Associated Press/Rodrigo Abd
Ukrainian army soldiers take part in a military sweep to search for possible remnants of Russian troops after their withdrawal from villages in the outskirts of Kyiv, Ukraine on April 1, 2022.

Reflecting on the continuing tragedy of Russia’s ruthless invasion of Ukraine, a former U.S. ambassador and career diplomat remarked, “I have this overwhelming sense of guilt that, somehow, our generation, with our great hope for creating a better world, failed.” Those of us who have spent lengthy careers in the service of America’s national security feel much the same.

We veterans of the Cold War, a war that occasionally turned “hot” with outbreaks of conventional warfare, took some solace in knowing that mutual assured destruction (MAD) provided a sort of barrier from the onset of World War III. But that was another age, another world.

In June 1991, as a former nuclear attack submarine skipper serving a career-broadening assignment at a Washington think tank, I accompanied a delegation of American national security leaders to Moscow to meet with counterparts to collaborate on recommendations for transitioning from a confrontational age to one of peace and cooperation. This was the Gorbachev era of perestroika and glasnost — two months before the coup that brought Boris Yeltsin to power, formally ended the Soviet Union, and established the Russian Federation. Our discussions with Soviet scholars, diplomats and other officials were characterized by hope, often bordering on euphoria, for the dawn of peace and unprecedented prosperity.  

Remarkably, there was wistful talk of Russia eventually joining NATO. The Russians looked forward to the advantages of a free-market economy, and the Americans envisioned a “peace dividend,” including further progressive, mutual reductions in nuclear warheads. This was heady stuff indeed for someone like me whose focus for 20 years had been to deter and, if necessary, defeat the Soviets. (Admittedly, I did cringe when an American Russia scholar said to me, “So, what will you guys do now that you’re out of a job?”). While I, too, was hopeful that a better world was now at hand, I was concerned that the legacy of the Soviet Union and the Russian Empire before it, with hundreds of years of serfdom and totalitarian repression, could reemerge.

This meeting in Moscow occurred a few months after President George H.W. Bush, referring to our first Gulf War victory and a recent meeting with Mikhail Gorbachev, declared a “new world order.” There was a basis for belief that the likelihood of great power confrontations that could lead to war was markedly reduced. The seeming Pax Americana quickly morphed, with the dissolution of the Soviet Union, into the self-proclamation of America as the lone superpower. Such declarations, however, are bound to become a challenge for those who aspire to regain and/or achieve a similar status. And so it was, and is.

We eagerly brought Russia into the world economic system and NATO developed multiple relationships with Russia. America’s principal national security focus became the growing threat of transnational terrorism, as manifested in the 9/11 attacks, which resulted in the first activation of the NATO Charter’s Article V — “an attack on one is an attack on all” — and the initiation of the Global War on Terror, including the lengthy and costly American-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. A consequence of this brand of threat, this type of adversary, was a reevaluation of U.S. force structure. While American and Russian strategic nuclear capabilities would continue to deter another world war, U.S. resources were shifted from high-end platforms designed for the great power conflict to those more suited to fighting a lower-end enemy — so the argument went. Yet to higher-end potential adversaries, the “lone superpower’s” status was quickly fading. 

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Vladimir Putin’s election in 2000 as Russia’s president brought about his manipulation of the Russian government, consolidation of power, and prioritization of the development of powerful weapons to achieve superiority over those of the United States. These were a warning, noted but not fully heeded by the U.S. and its allies. As the U.S. vacillated on the level of commitment in Iraq and Afghanistan, though, Putin’s intentions for revitalizing the Russian empire were not a secret. Putin’s 2014-15 land grab in Crimea and the Donbas region resulted in few adverse consequences for Russia.  

In the American foreign policy dialogue, then and now, China became the threat of significance and our principal focus, meriting a “pivot to Asia.” The run-up to the 2016 presidential election, with emerging political extremes, fragmentation of traditional discourse, and an atavistic call for an “America first” policy, continued to diminish the notion of American leadership and values in executing international responsibilities. The Trump administration further weakened the perception of America’s role in the world, domestically and internationally, especially in Europe, questioning the continued commitment to NATO.

While President Biden’s election brought an intended reset to the U.S. leadership role, the die had been cast and Putin prepared to execute his plan to restore the Russian empire. But what Putin did not consider was a renaissance of NATO in such a short period. Even more remarkable has been the extraordinary leadership of Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, and the inspiring heroism of the Ukrainian people.

During his recent visit to Poland, Biden’s blunt honesty came to the fore when he extemporaneously declared that a return to peace and reasonable stability — not only in Ukraine and eastern Europe, but worldwide — cannot occur while Putin commands powerful forces of death and destruction. 

In calculating our responses, the reality that the aggressor views employment of its nuclear, chemical and biological weapons differently than do we must weigh heavily. In its 2014 military doctrine, Russia would “escalate to de-escalate” to ensure the enemy’s defeat. Hence, should Russia fail to achieve its objectives — whether the goal remains to terminate Ukraine as an independent, democratic state or to accept something less, such as a carve-out of a Russian-controlled portion — the employment of weapons of mass destruction remains a possibility, and tragically, an expectation.  

If that happens, our world truly will have reached an inflection point that we so desperately have sought to avoid since the end of World War II. As we work to deter Russia from further aggression and provide appropriate assistance to Ukraine, the U.S. and its allies must be unflinching in ensuring that Russia understands that utilizing such weapons — in Ukraine or elsewhere — will initiate an era that they will regret.

Russia’s brazen, unprovoked assault on a sovereign nation seems unthinkable by so-called civilized nations. The United States has not engaged in wars of conquest in the modern era, making such thinking unfathomable. The “better world” we had hoped to create remains a lofty goal, a distant vision. There are no simple answers or guaranteed solutions. Our allies and our adversaries are watching as we adjust course for the crisis of today, and what may come tomorrow.

Bruce S. Lemkin is a former deputy under secretary of the Air Force for international affairs. A retired U.S. Navy captain and former international negotiator, he is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and a fellow of the American College of National Security Leaders. The views expressed in this commentary are his alone.

Tags China Joe Biden Mutual assured destruction NATO Russia Russian invasion of Ukraine Vladimir Putin Volodymyr Zelensky

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