Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has created tremendous uncertainty for tens of millions of people, but there is one thing we can be sure of: Russia and the West are now at war.
US and European officials will continue to say they want to avoid a direct military conflict between NATO and Russian fighters, but historically severe economic sanctions imposed on Russia, the Western supply of sophisticated and deadly weapons to Ukrainian fighters, and the US-European effort to isolate President Vladimir Putin’s regime over the longer term amount to a declaration of war.
This is a turning-point moment for the world. Assuming NATO and the Russians are able to avoid direct military confrontation, and barring an increasingly difficult to imagine climbdown by Putin, Russia and the West face a new Cold War. In many ways, this confrontation will be less dangerous that the 21st century version, but in other ways, there is much greater risk for all these countries and the entire global economy.
A new Russia vs the West confrontation will be less dangerous mainly because Russia is not the Soviet Union. Russia’s gross domestic product is smaller than that of the American state of New York and the sanctions will likely shrink its already stagnant economy by 10% or more over the coming year. The country’s banking system faces risk of collapse. In a globalized world, that’s important. The Soviet Union and its eastern European satellites were mainly insulated from western economic pressure by the disconnect between their economic systems. Today, Europe stands united and firmly (if not always completely) aligned with the United States, while former Soviet republics struggle in various ways to resist Putin’s pull.
In addition, the Soviet Union had genuine ideological appeal for people and politicians in every region of the world. Today’s Russia, which has no particular ideology, has no allies with whom it shares political values. It has client states and dependents. When the UN General Assembly voted on March 2 on whether to condemn its invasion of Ukraine, only Belarus, North Korea, Syria and Eritrea voted with Russia (Venezuela was in UN arrears and couldn’t vote). Even Cuba abstained rather than back Putin’s show of force.
But what about China? Western leaders and media have fretted over the strengthening of ties between Russia and the emerging giant. Even here, Russia’s options are less than ideal. The two countries share a common desire to limit US international influence and the risk of a more confrontational approach to both countries from Europe. But Russia is very much the junior partner in this partnership of convenience. China’s economy is 10 times larger than Russia’s, and while China would be happy to help sustain Russia by buying the oil, gas, metals and minerals it can no longer sell the West, Beijing knows it will be Moscow’s only important friend and will want discounted prices on all these commodities.
More importantly, China’s future lies in its growing economic strength, which will depend on continuing pragmatic ties with the US and EU to protect its long-term commercial interests. Beijing won’t condemn Russia’s invasion, but it is likely to comply with at least some of the western sanctions on its economy in the name of supporting Ukraine’s sovereignty and its own bottom line.
Yet, in the 1970s and 1980s, US, European and Soviet leaders were able to build guardrails that prevented the many wars in Asia, Africa and Latin America from triggering a catastrophic crescendo in Europe. In particular, there was the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces treaty. New diplomatic infrastructure and confidence-building measures between the West and Putin’s Russia will take years to build.
In the meantime, the weapons of Cold War have become more dangerous. It’s impossible to know the true depth and scale of each side’s cyber-capabilities, but we know that both sides have increasingly sophisticated digital weapons they haven’t used, including some that could target financial systems, power grids and other essential infrastructure to devastating effect. Cyber-weapons won’t kill as many people as a nuclear warhead can, but they are far more likely to be used as tools of open warfare. They are less expensive, easier to design, more widely available and easier to hide than the heavy weapons that cast shadows of the second half of the 20th century.
They also allow Russia to practice forms of information warfare that were unavailable to Soviet-era spies. Next month’s French elections will provide an early opportunity to test new strategies. US midterm elections in November – and its 2024 presidential election – will prove critically tempting longer-term targets.
For now, all eyes are on Ukraine. Russian troops and artillery will continue their quest to bring that country under President Putin’s control. He has shown no willingness to back down. But millions of Ukrainians will continue the fight, even if Russian soldiers seize their country’s entire territory, and western leaders will continue to support them. The harshest sanctions in history will remain in place and indeed increase. On the road to a new Cold War, there is now no turning back.
Ian Bremmer is the president of Eurasia Group and GZERO Media and author of “Us vs Them: The Failure of Globalism.”