Preventing This War

Preventing This War

Was there any way to prevent the horrific war in Ukraine? Recent history offers at least a partial answer, and it’s one that is also relevant to the future of global stability.

But let’s start with the past: In the summer of 1990, the autocratic leader of a country with a powerful military decided to take over a weaker neighbor. If the armed conflict had remained between only those two countries, the invaders would have easily won.

Instead, an international military coalition, led by the United States, quickly came together. Its leaders declared that the invasion would not be allowed to stand, because one country could not simply annex another. Within months, the invaders had been defeated.

There are certainly differences between Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in 1990 and Vladimir Putin’s Russia in 2022. Some of those differences make Russia harder to confront, especially its nuclear arsenal. But other differences suggest that Putin’s aggression toward Ukraine should have been more likely than Hussein’s takeover of Kuwait to inspire an international military coalition.

For one thing, the Iraqi invasion was shockingly swift. It began in the middle of the night, and Iraq controlled Kuwait within 48 hours. Putin’s invasion, by contrast, required months of buildup, accurately analyzed by U.S. intelligence agencies, giving the world enough notice at least to try to prevent it. Second, Kuwait is a small authoritarian emirate, representing few grand political ideals, in a war-torn region. Ukraine is a democracy of more than 40 million people, on what was a largely peaceful continent home to major democracies.

These factors make it possible to envision a very different series of events over the past few weeks. Once Putin’s mobilization inside Russia began, a Western coalition could have sent troops to Ukraine. “He who wants peace must prepare for war,” Evelyn Farkas, a Pentagon official in the Obama administration, wrote in January, calling for a 1990-style coalition. “Only a balance of military power — a deterrent force and the political will to match — can keep war at bay.”

“Putin is someone who responds to brute force,” Ian Brzezinski of the Atlantic Council told The Times before the invasion.

Yes, such a showdown would have carried big risks. Confronting a nuclear power is not easy. But there is a long history of successfully doing so, dating to the Cold War. (Otherwise, any country with a nuclear weapon could simply annex any country without one.) And of course the lack of a military response also carried big risks — which have now turned into terrible costs.

Thousands of Ukrainians and Russians have died. More than two million Ukrainians have fled their homes. Cities are being destroyed and nuclear plants attacked.

Given all of this, it’s striking that Western allies gave so little consideration to a bolder attempt to stop Putin. They merely pleaded with him not to invade and threatened relatively modest economic sanctions (which have since become more aggressive). He scoffed at them.

The meekness of the initial Western response stems from two recent realities: the European Union’s wishful pacifism and the U.S.’s failed belligerence. Together, they created a power vacuum that Putin exploited.

If that vacuum remains — if today’s democracies are unable to mount coalitions like the one that defeated Hussein — future wars may become more likely.

The American part of this story will be familiar to many readers. The U.S. has spent much of the past two decades fighting wars it did not need to fight. It continued a war in Afghanistan long after Osama bin Laden was gone and invaded Iraq long after Hussein was contained. Both decisions turned into tragic failures that “undermined the world’s confidence in American intentions and competence,” as my colleague Damien Cave has written.

The two wars also affected U.S. politics. Many Americans grew wary of foreign intervention. Public opinion has become so dovish that not one prominent U.S. politician called for defending Ukraine with troops. It was a rare example of bipartisan consensus in a polarized country.

This new isolationism probably won’t disappear anytime soon. For both better and worse, the U.S. is unlikely to be the world’s police officer in the coming decades.

The obvious candidate to share the burden of democratic leadership is Western Europe. The region is both large enough and rich enough, as Substack’s Matthew Yglesias has noted. Yet it has so far refused to do so. The E.U.’s economic output is similar to that of both the U.S. and China — but China spends 50 percent more on its military than the E.U. does, while the U.S. spends three times more.

Military spending isn’t the only issue. Western Europe still had enough combined military strength to alter the balance of power between Russia and Ukraine. But the E.U. never seemed to consider sending troops to Ukraine as a deterrent. European leaders have spent so long deferring to the U.S., effectively outsourcing protection of their own continent, that they could not fathom the alternative.

Putin, as a result, assumed that Ukraine was his for the taking. It was a modern-day version of appeasement.

Since the invasion, European leaders have shown signs of shifting their approach. They have sent arms to Ukraine, and Germany and Denmark have announced more military spending. All of it was too late to prevent war in Ukraine. But the horrible reality of the war may yet alter global politics in ways that could discourage future aggression.

“So far in the geopolitical landscape, you’ve had one passive actor, which is Europe,” Fareed Zakaria told The Times’s Ezra Klein. “It would be deeply ironic, if the result of what Vladimir Putin has done has been to arouse the sleeping giant of Europe.”

“If we get lucky,” Zakaria said, “what we may see is the emergence of a powerful, strategically minded, national security-minded Europe that is willing to defend the liberal order, which is a huge shift in international politics.”

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