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How the war in Ukraine could change history

A political scientist on why the fate of the global political order hangs in the balance.

A man sits outside his destroyed building after bombings on the eastern Ukraine town of Chuguiv on February 24, 2022.
AFP via Getty Images

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is a world-historical event and the effects of it will likely ripple out for years to come.

Since 1945, the world has done a remarkably good job of preventing wars between great powers and making the costs of unprovoked aggression extremely high. In a matter of days, Russia has upended this system. A major war, if not probable, is at least plausible — and that’s a significant shift.

Countries across the globe — especially in Europe — are already rethinking their entire foreign policy, and that’s just the beginning. Every government will be watching closely to see what unfolds in Ukraine and whether the global response to Russia is able to deter even greater escalation.

It’s worth remembering that we’re only a week into this war and things are changing by the day. And that is perhaps the scariest thing about this conflict: No one really knows how it will play out.

Is this the end of the global order? Are we entering a new era of great power conflict? Are we already looking at World War III?

To get some answers, I reached out to William Wohlforth, a professor of international politics at Dartmouth. Wohlforth studies the post-Cold War world and he’s a close observer of Russian foreign policy. I wanted to know what he thinks is truly at stake in this conflict, and if one of humanity’s greatest achievements — a rules-based system that nearly abolished the idea that nations can use brute force to take whatever they want — has come to an end.

A lightly edited transcript of our conversation follows.

Sean Illing

When people say that Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is the end of the global order, what does that mean?

William Wohlforth

When the Soviet Union fell, we saw a revived and expanded order based on pretty liberal principles in most respects. And that was grounded on America’s unprecedented position of power in the international system. Vladimir Putin has never liked this order and the best way of interpreting what’s happening in Ukraine and Europe today is a struggle over that order.

I hate to say it, but the fate of the global order hangs in the balance. That is what is being contested in Ukraine, because the post-Cold War order has been built on an architecture of security in Europe, based on NATO. And it was grounded on the principle that any state neighboring NATO could join it, except Russia.

Russia never liked this, and it especially didn’t like the idea of extending this order to Ukraine. To be clear, I’m not justifying Russia’s behavior, I’m just explaining it. If they can succeed in at least forcing this order to stop, that will be, to some degree, a change from what existed after the end of the Cold War.

Sean Illing

Can they succeed?

William Wohlforth

It’s not clear. We’re seeing a fateful confrontation of different kinds of power with different actors, all concentrated on this struggle. There’s obviously the Ukrainians fighting way better than we thought, and the Russians are fighting worse than we thought. But there’s also this gigantic clash of economic statecraft happening between the United States and a huge array of allies.

How that all pans out is still up in the air. What the terms of the settlement of this war will ultimately be are still up in the air. But underlying all of this is this question of whether Russia has the power to end the European order that it has faced essentially since 1991.

Sean Illing

Does Russia have that kind of power?

William Wohlforth

I don’t think they do. I don’t think they can achieve the grandiose aims they’ve laid out prior to this invasion. Their maximal aims are not just “No Ukraine in NATO,” but “No NATO in Ukraine,” meaning no military cooperation with Ukraine. And that NATO would essentially withdraw its military position back to what existed in 1997 before the first round of its session.

Essentially, what they were asking for is a completely revised European security order. They’re not going to get that. Did they ever think they were going to get that? I doubt it, but I think this has always been about more than Ukraine.

Sean Illing

What would you say is truly at stake in this conflict? I’m asking for the average person watching it from a distance who doesn’t think much about the “global order,” who’s probably horrified by what they’re seeing, but just not sure how significant it is or why it matters beyond Ukraine.

William Wohlforth

Obviously the fate of Ukraine is at stake. The right of the Ukrainian people to determine their own cultural and geopolitical orientation is at stake — that’s the fundamental thing that’s being fought over in the streets and in the skies of Ukraine.

But for the rest of the world, what’s at stake is a confrontation between two countries, the US and Russia, which together possess 90 percent of the world’s nuclear weapons. Even though Russia seems insignificant economically, a festering contest between these two countries that continues to intensify would create the risk of serious escalation and that would be a threat to people everywhere.

This is a very different kind of conflict than we’re used to. There will be major economic consequences, like inflation and rising energy prices and that sort of thing. But there is also potential insecurity if this develops into major cyber competition between the two sides. The freedom to travel, the sense of openness in the world, our sense of our collective economic prospects — that would all change.

The world has lived for 30 years in a historically peaceful period and that’s absolutely at stake here. We’ve had devastating wars. We had them in the Global South. We had them even in the Balkans in the early 1990s. But we have not had a serious conflict between superpowers with vast arsenals of nuclear weapons looming in the background. Not even Al-Qaeda’s horrific attacks in the United States could produce the level of existential crisis we’re talking about here.

We’re talking about the shadow of an extremely dangerous and unpredictable great power war hovering over the world, unless this thing finds some settlement that doesn’t leave the two sides completely and totally alienated and holding swords over each other’s heads.

Sean Illing

One of the great achievements of the modern age — maybe the greatest — is an international order that nearly abolished the idea that “might makes right,” that a strong country can take whatever it wants from a weaker country just because it has the power to do so. Is that over now?

William Wohlforth

Again, I hate to answer this way, but the best I can say is that it hangs in the balance. If Russia succeeds in Ukraine, if they accomplish their maximal objectives, then that’s a major dent in that order.

For a long time, if a state was going to do something like this to a country, it had to come up with reasons that resonate with the rest of international society. There’s really good research on this by political scientists and historians showing how, even in the previous political age, most countries, when they went to war, they tried to find a reason that would somehow legitimate it in the eyes of other interlocutors. Sometimes they even put off military operations and waited for a time when it would look like they were really defending themselves.

Russia has just blown this away completely. They’re trying to get the world to believe that Ukraine, having sat there for eight years, witnessing these breakaway republics, suddenly chose to invade them and commit genocide against ethnic Russians, and that they waited to do this until there were 170,000 Russian troops around their country. You have to be a complete idiot to believe that.

So if they succeed here, if this use of force without any justification is allowed to stand, then yes, the global order we’ve lived under for 30 years will have taken a massive hit.

Sean Illing

Are you surprised by the unanimity of the response from the rest of the world?

William Wohlforth

I am not surprised given the failure of Russia’s original vision of the operation. If the operation had gone the way they thought, if Ukraine fell quickly, you would have seen a different reality. People would have said, “Well, what are we going to do? We still have to deal with Russia, it’s very important.” But the Ukrainians, to their everlasting historical credit, ruined that Russian plan, and the result is you’ve seen this huge coalition develop.

I’ll add that several countries are still hedging their bets big time, and they include major players like China and India. They’re still trying to preserve their relationships with Russia and somehow trying to thread the needle between their valid commitment to the principle of sovereignty on the one hand, and their strategic relationship with Russia on the other.

Sean Illing

What do you make of Germany’s decision to bolster its military spending in response to Russia?

William Wohlforth

It’s a historic increase. There was always a debate, in Germany and elsewhere, over just how antagonistic Russia’s preferences really were, over how deep its resentment against the European order really was, over how willing it was to take major risks. Well, those questions have been answered. So Germany is making this great turnaround because they just learned a lot about Russia and they’re updating their foreign policy and their whole approach to defense and security.

Before the war, Germany and France were discounting the American intelligence saying that this invasion was imminent. And I think it was a widely held belief in German circles that Russia could be managed. The war in Ukraine has upended that argument.

Sean Illing

And now countries like Finland and Sweden are talking openly about joining NATO, and Sweden is even sending military aid to Ukraine — that seems like a big deal.

William Wohlforth

It’s a big deal. This debate has been going on in Sweden and Finland forever, but it really picked up back in 2014. The authorities in those countries always thought this was a card they could play if they had to. The question was always, why deploy it? And the thinking was, “Let’s wait until things are serious.” Now things are serious.

So yeah, these are very significant events. Sweden is shipping military hardware and this is a country that maintained a neutral stand all throughout the Cold War, although they were always pretty pro-America. Despite that affiliation with the West, they always stayed away from things like this.

And then there’s Switzerland’s decision to freeze Russian assets. This really is unprecedented, and it surprised the heck out of people who closely follow financial matters. It shatters the image of Switzerland as the ultimate neutral actor. So this is all a huge deal and speaks to what a bad strategic move this was by Putin.

Sean Illing

How worried are you about what international relations scholars often call a “security dilemma,” where you have these European powers increasing their defensive capabilities in order to protect themselves, but instead of making everyone safer, it produces a chain of reactions that ultimately makes conflict more likely?

William Wohlforth

I’m very worried about a spiral. Again, every statement I make, in the back of my mind, I’m seeing these images from Ukraine and I’m remembering that this is what’s happening on the ground and anyone who doesn’t feel for what that country’s going through has got no heart. But I’m also remembering that we have to continually think about how to avoid a dramatic intensification of the Russia-West spiral.

We have a tremendous national interest in trying to keep this thing from spiraling out of control. We need to have enough of a relationship with Russia that we can begin to establish red lines and guardrails to this competition, to mirror some of those that developed during the course of the Cold War. A lot of those don’t exist and they’re hard to create because there’s a new strategic reality created by such things as cyber [warfare].

If we don’t maintain some kind of relationship with Russia, we can’t keep the rivalry within bounds that don’t escalate. I think this is within our capacity, but passions and emotions are hard to control. All of these things conspire against our effort to impose firewalls.

Sean Illing

If the international community continues to hold the line and punish Russia, is it possible that this war might actually affirm the rules-based system and in that sense strengthen it?

William Wohlforth

Some analysts are arguing that if the outcome is like what you described, an unambiguous reaffirmation of how bad it was to do this, then that might be the case. But if Russia emerges a winner — actually, I don’t even want to go down that route because it’s a disaster.

To stay with your question, if all that happens as a result of this strong unanimity, it could result in the strengthening of the very order Russia is challenging. The problem with that is the timing. There have never been sanctions like this against a country as important to the global economy as Russia, which means we have no idea what’s going to happen. But most experts will tell you that it’s going to take a while for the sanctions to really take effect.

The military side of this is moving at a different speed than the economic statecraft. Russia is hoping to get some kind of resolution on the ground in Ukraine before these sanctions have a chance to completely crater the Russian economy if that is indeed what these sanctions are capable of doing. So we really don’t know the outcome of this thing yet.

Sean Illing

Are we closer to World War III than we’ve been in 80 years?

William Wohlforth

I don’t think so, but that’s such a hard thing to measure. I think we were very close during the Cold War. I still think nuclear escalation in this particular crisis is unlikely, despite Putin’s decision to raise the alert level of his nuclear forces. We’re still parsing exactly what’s happening operationally on the ground. I think he just wants to remind people that his country’s a nuclear power, and for all practical purposes, basically equal to the US in terms of the number of weapons. But we should be very careful when it comes to crossing certain red lines.

Sean Illing

What are the red lines?

William Wohlforth

That’s the crucial question. I still think they’re mainly about direct use of force in the Ukrainian theater against Russia. I don’t regard a nuclear threat in response to economic sanctions as a credible one, even if those sanctions hit pretty deep. So, right now, I don’t think that threat of the World War III is as high as it was back in the Cold War at crucial junctions like the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Sean Illing

One of my biggest worries is the lack of off-ramps for Putin. He can’t be seen as outright losing this war and he has the capacity to burn everything down if he wants to, so where does that leave us?

William Wohlforth

I’m extremely worried. There’s a debate among Russia watchers over whether this is the same Putin we’ve been dealing with all these years or whether the isolation or something else has changed him. Does he really think he personifies and exemplifies the Russian state to such a degree that he’s willing to destroy Ukraine rather than allow it to fold into the West? Or will he realize that maybe plan A didn’t work and then fall back to plan B and accept more modest concessions?

Frankly, I think the neutrality pledge is probably the easiest concession of the ones that Russia’s currently demanding. They’re going to want autonomy for these republics. Of all the demands put forward by Russia, this may be the easier for the Ukrainians to swallow. But if Putin isn’t updating his expectations about what he’s going to get out of this crisis, then we’re potentially facing a really awful situation.

Sean Illing

I can’t help but think of that Sun Tzu line about “building your opponent a golden bridge to retreat across” and given the stakes and the asymmetries here, that seems like an important piece of wisdom.

William Wohlforth

Yeah, and nobody’s seeing that bridge right now, partly because we’re all reacting in real time. Sanctions have been put on without any statement about what would it take to end them. Personally, if I were running a foreign policy, I would be very clear about the conditions. I’d signal to Putin, “If you withdraw your forces in Ukraine, all of this comes to an end immediately.” I’ve not heard that statement yet.

People are right to worry about backing Russia too much into a corner. That’s why this diplomacy has to combine pain with potential reward if they take an offer. There has to be some kind of inducement to entering into negotiations. That’s the only way forward. We have to put things on the table in order to avoid a truly hopeless situation.