this conflict is just further proof that Putin’s Russia is now a rogue power

Given where most of the fighting and deaths take place, it’s easy to think that the current European security crisis is primarily about Ukraine. This tendency is reinforced by the fact that Russia and the West like to keep the war confined to Ukrainian territory.

Vladimir Putin’s entire calculation is based on two assumptions from the start. First, that Russia’s possession of nuclear weapons would deter Western military intervention for fear of wider escalation. The second was that Europe’s reliance on Moscow’s gas supply would cushion any sanctions from the west and in the long run these factors would be used to force Kiev to somehow give in to Putin’s demands.

For their part, the US and its allies have also been happy to limit the conflict, recognizing that while Kiev fights for its survival as an independent sovereign state, the first policy priority for the west is to prevent an all-out war in Europe. Putin’s frequent and lurid chatter with nuclear sabers is also intended to remind the West that his meddling – even his continued military support of Kiev – risks just that result.

This framing of the war also explains the ongoing call for a negotiated solution to the conflict. Many efforts to end the war, from French President Emmanuel Macron to business magnate Elon Musk, focus on the need for negotiations. By this they mean a compromise by Ukraine over parts of its territory, such as Crimea, or its security status regarding NATO membership and affiliation with the west rather than Russia. Even US President Joe Biden’s statement that Putin should be offered an “off-ramp” is an acknowledgment of the desire to resolve the Ukraine crisis on these terms.

Read more: ​Ukraine war: How the Biden administration is responding to Putin’s threats to go nuclear

Yet this approach to resolving the war is flawed in two important ways. First, it ignores the clear evidence that neither side is interested in a negotiated solution, as both Russia and Ukraine believe they have more to gain from fighting. In fact, both sides seem confident they can win.

For Ukraine, its military successes and territorial progress show that the tide of the war has turned on the ground thanks to its improved training, logistics, intelligence, equipment and morale. For Russia, winter’s arming, attacks on Ukraine’s electricity infrastructure, the massive mobilization of reserve troops and the regular threat of further escalation have convinced Moscow that it can break the will of Ukraine or its Western backers in the long run.

Europe’s fragile security order

But perhaps more importantly, to phrase the war in these terms misses the broader challenge Putin’s invasion of Ukraine poses to both the future of the European security order – and the rules of the international system as a whole. In short, the problem is not limited to the war in Ukraine.

Map with all countries where Russian is the official language.
Where Russian is the official language.
Felipe Menegaz, Peter FitzgeraldCC BY-NC-SA

The problem is that a major world power has gone rogue and abandoned the basic principles of non-intervention. Principles that form the core of the international system of states. It has done this by using the threat of nuclear war as a central element of its approach.

Furthermore, Putin has indicated that his imperialist goals are not limited to the areas it has recently declared Russian territory. Russia’s imperial goals extend to all of Ukraine and to all Russian-speaking enclaves in Europe, including the Baltic States and Moldova.

Russia has also supported the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad since 2015, allowing it to use poison gas against its own people. Russian soldiers have also been active in Africa, through the Wagner Group, where their efforts are promoting Moscow’s political influence and commercial interests in more than a dozen countries.

Read more: Burkina Faso coup raises questions over growing Russian involvement in West Africa

In both the Middle East and Africa, Russia is exploiting what it sees as the strategic vacuum created by the US’s hesitation and withdrawal. By explicitly calling for the end of the US-led international order, it is acting on an alternative vision for the international system where Russia’s selfish imperial influence is on the rise.

Granting concessions to Russia at the expense of Ukraine would do little to pacify Russia’s grandiose power ambitions — on the contrary, it would only feed the beast. Europe’s borders, and more generally international borders, would forever be open to challenges in a world with such a state as a great power.

Future Lessons

How this war ends is hugely important beyond the borders of Ukraine’s internationally recognized borders. Russia’s claim that wherever Russian is spoken must be part of the Russian state has obvious parallels to Taiwan’s and China’s claim to its sovereignty.

Russian police march in front of a Russian strategic nuclear missile RS-24 Yars moving through a street ahead of a night rehearsal of the Victory military parade on Red Square, in Moscow, June 2020.
Nuclear fear: Vladimir Putin has repeatedly hinted that he could use Russia’s nuclear arsenal in Ukraine.
EPA-EFE/Sergei Ilnitsky

More importantly, Putin’s attempts at nuclear coercion pose a fundamental challenge to the role of nuclear weapons in the international system. The lesson that many observers in Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and beyond are now drawing is that possession of nuclear weapons is the only guarantee of a safe defense. And if the nuclear threat allows a weak military to gain ground through an illegal invasion of a neighboring country, then the precedent for the offensive use of nuclear weapons in this way would be truly alarming.

If, on the other hand, Putin’s threat, or even the limited use of nuclear weapons, leads to Russia’s defeat in this aggressive war, then the signal sent to the international community is one that the status of nuclear weapons would diminish. In any case, this is worth supporting Ukraine’s struggle.

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