In its attempt to swallow Ukraine whole, Russia has so far managed to bite off only the eastern Donbas region and a portion of its southern coast. The rest of the country remains independent, with its capital Kyiv intact.
No one knows how this meal will end. Ukraine is eager to force Russia to disgorge what it’s already devoured, while the still-peckish invader clearly has no interest in leaving the table.
This might seem like an ordinary territorial dispute between predator and prey. Ukraine’s central location between east and west, however, turns it into a potentially world-historical conflict like the Battle of Tours when the Christian Franks turned back the surging Ummayad army of Muslims in 732 AD or the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Vietnam in 1975.
The pivotal nature of the current war seems obvious. Ukraine has for some time wanted to join western institutions like the European Union. Russia prefers to absorb Ukraine into its russkiy mir (Russian world). However, this tug of war over the dividing line between East and West isn’t a simple recapitulation of the Cold War. Russian President Vladimir Putin clearly has no interest in reconstituting the Soviet Union, much less in sending his troops westward into Poland or Germany, while the United States isn’t wielding Ukraine as a proxy to fight the Kremlin. Both superpowers have far more circumscribed aims.
Nonetheless, the war has oversized implications. What at first glance seems like a spatial conflict is also a temporal one. Ukraine has the great misfortune to straddle the fault line between a twentieth century of failed industrial strategies and a possible twenty-first century reorganization of society along clean-energy lines.
In the worst-case scenario, Ukraine could simply be absorbed into the world’s largest petro-state. Or the two sides could find themselves in a punishing stalemate that cuts off the world’s hungriest from vast stores of grain and continues to distract the international community from pushing forward with an urgently needed reduction of carbon emissions. Only a decisive defeat of Putinism — with its toxic mix of despotism, corruption, right-wing nationalism, and devil-may-care extractivism — would offer the world some sliver of hope when it comes to restoring some measure of planetary balance.
Ukraine is fighting for its territory and, ultimately, its survival. The West has come to its aid in defense of international law. But the stakes in this conflict are far more consequential than that.
What Putin Wants
Once upon a time, Vladimir Putin was a conventional Russian politician. Like many of his predecessors, he enjoyed a complicated ménage à trois with democracy (the boring spouse) and despotism (his true love). He toggled between confrontation and cooperation with the West. Not a nationalist, he presided over a multiethnic federation; not a populist, he didn’t care much about playing to the masses; not an imperialist, he deployed brutal but limited force to keep Russia from spinning apart.
He also understood the limits of Russian power. In the 1990s, his country had suffered a precipitous decline in its economic fortune, so he worked hard to rebuild state power on what lay beneath his feet. Russia, after all, is the world’s largest exporter of natural gas, its second-largest oil producer, and its third-largest coal exporter. Even his efforts to prevent regions from slipping away from the Russian sphere of influence were initially constrained. In 2008, for instance, he didn’t try to take over neighboring Georgia, just force a stalemate that brought two breakaway regions into the Russian sphere of influence.
Meanwhile, Putin pursued strategies aimed at weakening his perceived adversaries. He ratcheted up cyberattacks in the Baltics, expanded maritime provocations in the Black Sea, advanced aggressive territorial claims in the Arctic, and supported right-wing nationalists like France’s Marine Le Pen and Italy’s Matteo Salvini to undermine the unity of the European Union. In 2016, he even attempted to further polarize American politics via dirty tricks in support of Donald Trump.
Always sensitive to challenges to his own power, Putin watched with increasing concern as “color revolutions” spread through parts of the former Soviet Union — from Georgia (2003) and Ukraine (2005) to Belarus (2006) and Moldova (2009). Around the time of the 2013-2014 Euromaidan protests in Ukraine, he began shifting domestically to a nationalism that prioritized the interests of ethnic Russians, while cracking down ferociously on dissent and ramping up attacks on critics abroad. An intensifying sense of paranoia led him to rely on an ever-smaller circle of advisors, ever less likely to contradict him or offer him bad news.
In the early 2020s, facing disappointment abroad, Putin effectively gave up on preserving even a semblance of good relations with the United States or the European Union. Except for Viktor Orbán in Hungary, the European far right had proven a complete disappointment, while his fair-weather friend Donald Trump had lost the 2020 presidential election. Worse yet, European countries seemed determined to meet their Paris climate accord commitments, which sooner or later would mean radically reducing their dependence on Russian fossil fuels.
In contrast to China’s eagerness to stay on good terms with the United States and Europe, Putin’s Russia began turning its back on centuries of “westernizing” impulses to embrace its Slavic history and traditions. Like North Korea’s Kim Jong-un and India’s Narendra Modi, Putin decided that the only ideology that ultimately mattered was nationalism, in his case a particularly virulent, anti-liberal form of it.
All of this means that Putin will pursue his aims in Ukraine regardless of the long-term impact on relations with the West. He’s clearly convinced that political polarization, economic sclerosis, and a wavering security commitment to that embattled country will eventually force Western powers to accommodate a more assertive Russia.
He might not be wrong.
Whither the West?
Since the invasion of Ukraine, the West has never seemed more unified. Even previously neutral Finland and Sweden have lined up to join NATO, while the United States and much of Europe have largely agreed when it comes to sanctions against Russia.
Still, all is not well in the West. In the United States, where Trumpism continues to metastasize within the Republican Party, 64% of Americans are convinced that democracy is “in crisis and at risk of failing,” according to a January NPR/Ipsos poll. Meanwhile, in a surprising Alliance of Democracies Foundation poll last year, 44% of respondents in 53 countries rated the United States, a self-proclaimed beacon of liberty, as a greater threat to democracy than either China (38%) or Russia (28%).
In Europe, the far right continues to challenge the democratic foundations of the continent. Uber-Christian Viktor Orbán recently won his fourth term as Hungary’s prime minister; the super-conservative Law and Justice Party is firmly at the helm in Poland; the anti-immigrant, Euroskeptical Swiss People’s Party remains the most significant force in that country’s parliament; and the top three far-right political parties in Italy together attract nearly 50% in public opinion polls.
Meanwhile, the global economy, still on neo-liberal autopilot, has jumped out of the pandemic frying pan into the fires of stagflation. With stock markets heading into bear territory and a global recession looming, the World Bank recently cut its 4.1% growth forecast for 2022 to 2.9%. The Biden administration’s perceived failure to address inflation may deliver Congress to Republican extremists this November and social democratic leaders throughout Europe may pay a similar political price for record-high Eurozone inflation.
Admittedly, the continued military dominance of the United States and its NATO allies would seem to refute all rumors of the decline of the West. In reality, though, the West’s military record hasn’t been much better than Russia’s performance in Ukraine. In August 2021, the United States ignominiously withdrew its forces from its 20-year war in Afghanistan as the Taliban surged back to power. This year, France pulled its troops from Mali after a decade-long failure to defeat al-Qaeda and Islamic State militants. Western-backed forces failed to dislodge Bashar al-Assad in Syria or prevent a horrific civil war from enveloping Libya. All the trillions of dollars devoted to achieving “full-spectrum dominance” couldn’t produce enduring success in Iraq or Somalia, wipe out terrorist factions throughout Africa, or effect regime change in North Korea or Cuba.
Despite its overwhelming military and economic power, the West no longer seems to be on the same upward trajectory as after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Back in the 1990s, Eastern Europe and even parts of the former Soviet Union signed up to join NATO and the European Union. Russia under Boris Yeltsin inked a partnership agreement with NATO, while both Japan and South Korea were interested in pursuing a proposed global version of that security alliance.
Today, however, the West seems increasingly irrelevant outside its own borders. China, love it or hate it, has rebuilt its Sinocentric sphere in Asia, while becoming the most important economic player in the Global South. It’s even established alternative global financial institutions that, one day, might replace the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank. Turkey has turned its back on the European Union (and vice versa) and Latin America is heading in a more independent direction. Consider it a sign of the times that, when the call went out to sanction Russia, most of the non-Western world ignored it.
The foundations of the West are indeed increasingly unstable. Democracy is no longer, as scholar Francis Fukuyama imagined it in the late 1980s, the inevitable trajectory of world history. The global economy, while spawning inexcusable inequality and being upended by the recent pandemic, is exhausting the resource base of the planet. Both right-wing extremism and garden-variety nationalism are eroding the freedoms that safeguard liberal society. It’s no surprise, then, that Putin believes a divided West will ultimately accede to his aggression.
The Ukraine Pivot
There’s never a good time for war.
But hostilities have flared in Ukraine just as the world was supposed to be accelerating its transition to a clean-energy future. In another three years, carbon emissions must hit their peak and, in the next eight years, countries must cut their carbon emissions by half if there’s any hope of meeting the goals of the Paris climate accord by 2050. Even before the current war, the most comprehensive estimate put the rise in global temperature at a potentially disastrous 2.7 degrees Celsius by the end of the century (nearly twice the 1.5 degree goal of that agreement).
The war in Ukraine is propelling the world full tilt in the opposite direction. China and India are, in fact, increasing their use of coal, the worst possible fossil fuel in terms of carbon emissions. Europe is desperate to replace Russian oil and natural gas and countries like Greece are now considering increasing their own production of dirty energy. In a similar fashion, the United States is once again boosting oil and gas production, releasing supplies from its Strategic Petroleum Reserve, and hoping to persuade oil-producing nations to pump yet more of their product into global markets.
With its invasion, in other words, Russia has helped to derail the world’s already faltering effort at decarbonization. Although last fall Putin committed his country to a net-zero carbon policy by 2060, phasing out fossil fuels now would be economic suicide given that he’s done so little to diversify the economy. And despite international sanctions, Russia has been making a killing with fossil-fuel sales, raking in a record $97 billion in the first 100 days of battle.
All of this could suggest, of course, that Vladimir Putin represents the last gasp of the failed petropolitics of the twentieth century. But don’t count him out yet. He might also be the harbinger of a future in which technologically sophisticated politicians continue to pursue their narrow political and regional aims, making it ever less possible for the world to survive climate change.
Ukraine is where Putin is making his stand. As for Putinism itself — how long it lasts, how persuasive it proves to be for other countries — much depends on China.
After Putin’s invasion, Beijing could have given full-throated support to its ally, promised to buy all the fossil fuels Western sanctions left stranded, provided military equipment to buoy the faltering Russian offensive, and severed its own ties with Europe and the United States. Beijing could have broken with international financial institutions like the World Bank and the IMF in favor of the New Development Bank and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, its own multinational organizations. In this way, Ukraine could have turned into a genuine proxy war between East and West.
Instead, China has been playing both sides. Unhappy with Putin’s unpredictable moves, including the invasion, which have disrupted China’s economic expansion, it’s also been disturbed by the sanctions against Russia that similarly cramp its style. Beijing isn’t yet strong enough to challenge the hegemony of the dollar and it also remains dependent on Russian fossil fuels. Now the planet’s greatest emitter of greenhouse gases, China has been building a tremendous amount of renewable energy infrastructure. Its wind sector generated nearly 30% more power in 2021 than the year before and its solar sector increased by nearly 15%. Still, because of a growing appetite for energy, its overall dependence on coal and natural gas has hardly been reduced.
Reliant as it is on Russian energy imports, China won’t yet pull the plug on Putinism, but Washington could help push Beijing in that direction. It was once a dream of the Obama administration to partner with the world’s second-largest economy on clean energy projects. Instead of focusing as it has on myriad ways to contain China, the Biden administration could offer it a green version of an older proposal to create a Sino-American economic duopoly, this time focused on making the global economy sustainable in the process. The two countries could join Europe in advancing a Global Green Deal.
In recent months, President Biden has been willing to entertain the previously unthinkable by mending fences with Venezuela and Saudi Arabia in order to flood global markets with yet more oil and so reduce soaring prices at the pump. Talk about twentieth-century mindsets. Instead, it’s time for Washington to consider an eco-détente with Beijing that would, among other things, drive a stake through the heart of Putinism, safeguard Ukraine’s sovereignty, and stop the planet from burning to a crisp.
Otherwise, we know how this unhappy meal will end — as a Last Supper for humanity.