While the West dithers, the future of the world is being decided in Ukraine

During the initial stages of Russia’s Ukraine invasion, there was something approaching an international consensus that Vladimir Putin had made a colossal blunder. Far from reversing the verdict of the Cold War, the Kremlin dictator appeared to have isolated his country and inadvertently unified the entire Western world against him.

As Russia’s invasion approaches the two-year mark, the picture is now far more complex and significantly darker. Western unity is increasingly in question, with US support for Ukraine becoming hostage to political infighting and pro-Kremlin forces winning national elections in the EU. Meanwhile, pledges of new aid from Ukraine’s partners have fallen to their lowest level since the start of the war. This is fueling a growing sense of jubilation in Moscow, where many believe recent developments vindicate earlier Russian predictions that any Western resolve to oppose the Kremlin would prove short-lived.

Unsurprisingly, Putin is now more confident than ever that he can outlast the West in Ukraine. Despite suffering catastrophic battlefield losses, he remains determined to press ahead with the invasion, and is actively preparing Russia for the rigors of a long war. Russia’s goal remains the “denazification” of Ukraine, meaning the eradication of Ukrainian national identity and the return of the country to Kremlin control, either via direct annexation or through the installation of a puppet regime in Kyiv.

While the Ukrainian people are Russia’s immediate target, it would be a grave mistake to assume Putin’s revisionist ambitions are limited to the reconquest of Ukraine alone. On the contrary, if he succeeds in subjugating Ukraine, it is clear from Putin’s own words and actions that he will go further.

On the domestic front, Putin has succeeded in transforming Russia into a highly militarized dictatorship, while preaching an ideological crusade against the Western world that can only be sustained through perpetual conflict. On the international stage, he has burned his bridges with the West, reoriented the Russian economy away from Europe, and is busy building an international axis of anti-Western authoritarians together with China, Iran, and North Korea. To paraphrase Margaret Thatcher’s famous assessment of Mikhail Gorbachev, Vladimir Putin is most definitely not a man the West can do business with.

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For Putin, the invasion of Ukraine has always been part of a far broader historic mission to end the era of Western dominance. This was already apparent in the very first days of the war, when the Russian state media prematurely published then quickly retracted a triumphant editorial proclaiming victory in Ukraine and declaring: “Western global domination can be considered completely and finally over.” These sweeping claims tally closely with Putin’s own frequent public statements. Since the start of the invasion, he has repeatedly trumpeted the dawning of a new “multipolar world order,” and has sought to position Russia as the leader of a global “anti-colonial movement.”

It is tempting to scoff at the absurdity of Putin’s efforts to portray himself as an enemy of imperialism while waging one of the most openly imperialistic wars in modern history. Nevertheless, there is no denying that his anti-Western messaging resonates with many throughout the Global South. While China has been reluctant to defend the invasion of Ukraine, Beijing has enthusiastically echoed Putin’s calls for a fundamental reset in international relations. Other rising nations such as India, Brazil, and the Gulf states have expressed similar sentiments while refusing to condemn the Kremlin or join Western sanctions.

Anyone expecting Russia to establish a more equitable international environment is likely to be disappointed. Indeed, it does not take much imagination to envisage the kind of world Putin hopes to create. It is a world divided into spheres of influence where might is right and a handful of major powers are able to impose their will on weaker neighbors; it a world where today’s imperfect rules-based order is replaced by mounting insecurity.

If Putin is permitted to realize his dream of a turbulent new world order, the Russian invasion of Ukraine will provide inspiration for authoritarians around the globe and serve as a template for acts of aggression on every continent. This unraveling of the existing order is already evident everywhere from the Caucasus to South America. In recent months, it could be witnessed in Azerbaijan’s lightning seizure of Nagorno-Karabakh, the unprecedented Hamas attack on Israel, and Venezuela’s saber-rattling against neighboring Guyana.

If the current geopolitical trajectory continues, it is only a matter of time before today’s escalating instability penetrates the borders of the European Union and the NATO Alliance. With Western leaders demoralized and discredited by the fall of Ukraine, it is far from certain that either institution would still have the requisite strength to survive.

Even if a major war between great powers could be avoided, Western governments would find themselves obliged to prioritize military spending and dramatically increase defense budgets. The days of squabbling over a few billion dollars to arm Ukraine would soon seem quaint in comparison. International trade would also suffer as the global peace dividend of the past three decades evaporated in a climate of mounting distrust and hybrid hostilities. It is entirely possible that the years from 1991 to 2024 will soon be viewed as a lost golden age of comparative tranquility.

None of this is inevitable. While the world is clearly changing with new centers of power emerging, the collective West still has more than enough economic, military, and diplomatic weight to shape the future for decades to come. The real question is whether the leaders of the democratic world are prepared to match the soft power they have long taken for granted with the kind of hard power necessary to thwart Russia’s destructive agenda.

For now, too many people in the West seem far more afraid of defeating Putin than of actually stopping him. They remain in denial over the scale of the civilizational challenge posed by Russia, and continue to labor under the comforting delusion that some kind of compromise can return the world to the prewar status quo. In reality, a confrontation with Putin’s Russia can no longer be avoided; it can only be won or lost. The Ukrainians are more than capable of delivering this victory, but they require the tools to do so. If Western leaders choose not to adequately arm Ukraine, future generations will view their decision as one of the great geopolitical turning points of the twenty-first century.

Peter Dickinson is editor of the Atlantic Council’s UkraineAlert service.

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The views expressed in UkraineAlert are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Atlantic Council, its staff, or its supporters.

The Eurasia Center’s mission is to enhance transatlantic cooperation in promoting stability, democratic values and prosperity in Eurasia, from Eastern Europe and Turkey in the West to the Caucasus, Russia and Central Asia in the East.

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Image: Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is briefed on the situation along the Kupyansk Lyman defensive line during a visit to a frontline command post in the Kharkiv region, November 30, 2023 in Kupyansk, Kharkiv region, Ukraine. (Photo by Ukrainian Presidency via ABACAPRESS.COM)