How did we get here?

Image: Elyeser Szturm


Resisting its decline, from the chaotic exit from Afghanistan to the mediocre performance in the pandemic, the US insists on fleeing forward.

Ukraine's sovereignty cannot be called into question. Invasion of Ukraine is illegal and must be condemned. The mobilization of civilians decreed by the President of Ukraine can be considered a desperate act, but it predicts a future guerrilla war. Putin should bear in mind the US experience in Vietnam: an invader's regular army, however powerful, will eventually be defeated if the people in arms mobilize against it. All of this predicts incalculable losses of innocent human lives. Still barely recovered from the pandemic, Europe is preparing for a new challenge of unknown proportions. The perplexity before all this could not be greater.

The question is this: how and why did we get here? Thirty years ago, Russia (then the Soviet Union) emerged defeated from the Cold War, dismembered itself, opened its doors to Western investment, dismantled the Warsaw Pact, NATO's Soviet counterpart, the countries of Eastern Europe emerged from Soviet subordination and promised liberal democracies over a wide area of ​​Europe. What has happened since then for the West to be facing Russia again today? Given the difference in power between Russia and the Western powers in 1990, the most immediate answer will be that this is due to the utter ineptitude of Western leaders to capitalize on the dividends of the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Undoubtedly, ineptitude is evident and characterizes the behavior of the European Union over these years. It was incapable of building a solid foundation for European security that would obviously have to be built with Russia, not against Russia, if only to honor the memory of some twenty-four million deaths, the price that Russia paid to free himself and liberate Europe from the Nazi yoke.

But this answer falls short if we bear in mind US foreign policy over the last thirty years. With the end of the Cold War, the US felt that it owned the world, a “finally unipolar world”. The nuclear powers that could threaten them were either neutralized or friendly. The ideas of correlation of forces and balance of powers disappeared from their vocabulary. This calm even predicted the end of NATO for lack of purpose.

But there was Yugoslavia, the country that, after the end of the Nazi occupation in 1945, General Tito had transformed into a federation of regions (Croatia, Slovenia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Montenegro, Serbia Kosovo, Macedonia), a regime that intended to be independent from both the Soviet Union and the West. The US, with Germany's enthusiastic support, felt it was time for Yugoslavia to collapse. The severe internal conflicts and financial crises of the 1980s were used to foment division and hatred. A region where inter-ethnic and inter-religious coexistence had flourished before became a field of hatred.

The new Balkan war, at the beginning of the 1990s, thus became the first war on European soil after 1945. Unheard of violence was committed by all contenders, but for the West, the villains were only the Serbs, all the other peoples were heroic nationalists. Western countries (mainly Germany) were quick to recognize the independence of the new republics in the name of human rights and the protection of minorities. In 1991, Kosovo demanded its independence from Serbia in a referendum and eight years later NATO bombed Belgrade to enforce the will of the Kosovars.

What is the difference between Kosovo and Donbass, where ethnically Russian republics held referendums in which they demonstrated in favor of independence? None, except that Kosovo was supported by NATO and the Donbass republics are supported by Russia. The Minsk agreements of 2014 and 2015 provided for the great autonomy of these regions. Ukraine has refused to comply with them. They were therefore torn apart long before Putin did the same. What is the difference between the threat to its security felt by Russia in the face of the advance of NATO and the “missile crisis” of 1962, when the Soviets tried to install missiles in Cuba and the USA, threatened in its security, promised to defend itself with all the means, including nuclear war?

The answer to the question of how and why we got here fundamentally lies in a strategic error by the US and NATO, that of not having seen that they were never in a unipolar world dominated by them. At the end of the first cold war, China was growing, with the enthusiastic support of American companies in search of low wages. Thus germinated the new rival of the USA, and with it the new Cold War we are entering, in fact potentially more serious than the previous one. Betting on not recognizing its decline, from the chaotic exit from Afghanistan to the mediocre performance in the pandemic, the US insists on fleeing forward, and in this strategy it intends to drag Europe along.

This will pay a high bill for what is happening. The highest of all will fall on Germany, the engine of the European economy and the US's only true competitor. It's easy to conclude who will benefit from the coming crisis, and I don't just mean who will supply oil and gas.

In turn, the attempt to isolate Russia, especially after 2014, is aimed above all at China. It will be another strategic mistake to think that this weakens China. China has just declared that there is no possible comparison between Ukraine and Taiwan because, for them, Taiwan is Chinese territory. The implication is clear: for China, Ukraine is not Russian territory. But then to think that a division is being created between China and Russia would be sheer self-delusion.

I have no doubt that for Europe a multipolar world governed by rules of peaceful coexistence between the great powers is better than a world exclusively dominated by a single country, because, if that ever happens, it will be at the cost of a lot of suffering human. The invasion of Ukraine is unacceptable. What can't be said is that it wasn't provoked. Russia, as a great power that it is, should not allow itself to be provoked. Is the invasion of Ukraine more a show of weakness than strength? The times ahead will tell.

*Boaventura de Sousa Santos is full professor at the Faculty of Economics at the University of Coimbra. Author, among other books, of The end of the cognitive empire (Authentic).

Originally published in the newspaper Public [].

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