What would it take to persuade the European Union to ship weapons into a war zone for the first time in its history? To get Germany to sharply increase its military spending? To inspire famously neutral Switzerland to announce sanctions against the home of some of its biggest banking customers? To push Finland and Sweden to entertain NATO membership? To have Turkey consider blocking ships from passing from the Black Sea into the Mediterranean? To move Europeans to sanction the country that supplies 40 percent of their natural gas? To support severing the access of a military superpower’s largest banks to the global financial system?
What would it take to guarantee that the opening of President Joseph Biden’s State of the Union address to Congress this week would be greeted with strong and sustained applause—from both sides of the aisle?
Before Vladimir Putin ordered a large-scale invasion of Ukraine, none of these developments was plausible. But as Russian soldiers continue their onslaught on Ukraine’s largest cities, all these things have either happened or are under serious consideration. Before this war began, world leaders could still debate whether NATO had a purpose and transatlantic ties had a future. America’s “pivot to Asia”—Washington’s long-promised shift of strategic focus from Europe and the Middle East to opportunities and risks related to China—now falls somewhere between last week’s news and painful punchline. Russia’s president now has the U.S., British French, and German governments marching in lockstep. He has drilled deep into the Earth to uncover one of the very few issues that have Democrats and most Republicans patting each other on the back.
Will this unity last? On this issue, yes. Having pushed this far down the road to Kyiv, Putin can’t back down and lose face. Russia’s government has the weapons and the will needed to intensify a conflict that will kill thousands of Ukrainians and Russians. Before the guns fall silent, millions will be forced from their homes. Putin has demonstrated that the Europe-Russia relationship can never fall back on the cynical pragmatism that has defined for the past two decades so long as he remains in the Kremlin. Ukraine’s government will almost certainly be forced into exile, but Europe and America will actively support resistance, perhaps even an insurgency, against the pro-Russian government that Putin installs in Kyiv.
Read More: Even If Russia Wins, It Won’t Do So Easily
European leaders will probably slow-play Ukraine’s new bid for membership in the E.U., but they will not explicitly refuse it. Russia will keep the pariah status that Putin has brought it. Threats from Moscow to target the Baltic states or stir trouble in the Balkans will further stiffen U.S. and European spines. And if Putin responds to sanctions and other international pressure by lashing out, in cyber-space or with more traditional weapons, by positioning nuclear weapons in Belarus, for example, Western resistance to his rule will only intensify.
The result of all this is a permanent breach between Putin’s Russia and the West, one that cannot be mended. The Russian president’s historic miscalculation and the West’s forceful and well-coordinated response will leave Putin convinced that every new step taken to pressure his soldiers out of Ukraine represents a threat to his political survival. That’s especially true as the value of Russia’s currency plummets and its largest banks teeter.
This is why, though Russia’s move to place its nuclear forces on high alert doesn’t move us to the brink of World War III, nor is it a threat that other governments can afford to ignore. It’s easy to say Putin won’t start a nuclear war with NATO. Just as it was easy two weeks ago to say that Putin isn’t reckless and foolish enough to launch an all-out invasion of Ukraine.
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