Not since an armless, one-legged Black Knight kicked impotently in Graham Chapman’s general direction has anyone blustered from a position of self-evident weakness like Russian President Vladimir Putin.
On Friday, the Kremlin staged a spectacle of national pageantry as it incorporated four Ukrainian oblasts into the Russian Federation. Moscow orchestrated this Anschluss after it cobbled together a hasty, illegal, and unfree series of referenda on the matter, which, while brazen, implicitly acknowledges the lawlessness of it all. But each of the four territories annexed into Russia proper is presently contested by Ukrainian forces, and Kyiv is on the march. Even as Putin signed the order, untold thousands of Russian troops in the Donetsk-based city of Lyman find themselves surrounded by Ukrainian soldiers. Their capitulation is likely imminent.
Ironically, Moscow’s objective is not to project strength but to establish its own weakness. Russia’s initial pretext for its invasion of Ukraine—the heroic liberation of a captive people, who are Russian in all but name anyway—has been replaced with a more historically familiar narrative: The motherland is under attack. With a pen stroke, Putin inverted his own narrative. Thousands of square meters of what is now Russian territory are being occupied by a foreign force armed with NATO weapons platforms. The Kremlin’s play now is to demand that Kyiv and its Western benefactors relent, or they alone will be responsible for what follows.
Obviously, what may follow is and should be a source of profound anxiety. Russia’s borders—legal or otherwise—are no obstacle to Ukrainian forces engaged in counteroffensives against Russian positions and their staging areas inside the Federation. If Russia’s sham referenda and subsequent annexation of Ukrainian territory have any logic, it may be in establishing a pretense to do what the Kremlin has already concluded it must do. The West is understandably consumed with worry about that unthinkable prospect and how it would have to respond.
Even if everyone’s unconventional ordnance remains blessedly inert, however, Putin’s annexation play has already crossed a historic red line. Yoking a neighboring population and subsuming its territory into your own by force reestablishes the legitimacy of conduct that was properly anathematized by the wars of the 20th century. Even if this is the last rung in Putin’s climb up the escalatory ladder, which it surely is not, it cannot stand. If it does, we risk taking the lid off countless territorial conflicts all over the globe.
The first of these that comes to mind is the conflict the Pentagon is increasingly convinced Beijing intends to wage in the effort to reintegrate Taiwan into the People’s Republic of China. Moscow’s lackluster performance on the battlefield has inspired some wishful thinking of late, which maintains that China has been deterred by the prospect of a prolonged war with an outcome that is by no means assured. But as former Army Lt. Gen. Charles Hooper observed, “the [People’s Liberation Army] remains essentially a political entity with a war-fighting mission.” Beijing’s grand strategy is unlikely to have been altered by what the Chinese Communist Party likely regards as Russia’s mishandling of the tactics. If the Pentagon’s belief that China intends to inaugurate hostilities against Taiwan before the end of the decade has been altered by the war in Europe, no one has said as much.
The East China Sea isn’t the only hotspot we have to worry about. The rising tide of Hindu nationalist sentiment in India and its territorial claims are another. In 2019, New Delhi revoked the special autonomous status enjoyed by what it calls Jammu and Kashmir, precipitating a crisis that involved the deployment of Indian troops to the region. Pakistan, which maintains that the Muslim-dominated region is illegitimately occupied, has been developing economic corridors with China that run directly through this disputed territory. The two nations’ nuclear arsenals have helped keep this flashpoint from catching fire, but the preservation of that tenuous status quo is not guaranteed. For good measure, another nuclear nation, China, took it upon itself to establish a military presence inside undisputed Indian territory in 2020, and the two countries have prosecuted a low-level border conflict for the past two years.
If the Western Sahara, which Morocco seized after Spain withdrew from North Africa in 1976, became a hot conflict again, Western European nations with interests in and proximity to that part of the world may be unable to avoid intervening in it. Algeria, which has claims on this part of Africa’s resource-rich Sahel region, took a page from Putin’s playbook last year when it cut off gas supplies that transit through Morocco to reach Spain and Portugal, doubtlessly in the effort to reignite a conflict prosecuted by its regional proxies. A more muscular provocation is not hard to imagine.
From the Senkaku and Kuril Islands in the Pacific to the Horn of Africa, from the Korean Peninsula to the Isthmus of Panama, territorial disputes between sovereign states have simmered for generations. These conflicts have been manageable by dint of the “rules-based international order,” which exists only so long as the West’s primacy remains unchallenged. In fact, there is no “rules-based” order, just as there is really no such thing as international law. The global environment is anarchic. The “rules” are made and enforced by the states capable of projecting power abroad.
Russia found pariah status an endurable consequence of its invasion and annexation of Crimea. The gang in the Kremlin does not define national greatness in material terms, and it is undeterred by material losses. Americans may be surprised to learn how common this romantic, pre-modern view of what constitutes national prestige is across the globe.
But because we do define greatness in such tangible terms, Western strategists are likely to encounter significant resistance to the notion that we have a responsibility to care about any of this. After all, we have our two oceans to protect us. American hegemony, to say nothing of the global marketplace it guarantees, is as much a burdensome obligation as it is a boon. And who is to say that the Western principles that underwrite the global order—inviolable sovereign (e.g., property) rights and liberal pluralism—are worth defending? A uniquely American isolationism that the intercontinental ballistic missile supposedly rendered obsolete is once again on the rise.
Even the most parochial of those predisposed to this point of view will notice, and likely resent, the scarcity of consumer goods when the world is again carved up into spheres of influence and the unmolested navigation of the seas is no longer guaranteed. But that presupposes that the world’s only superpower will not be drawn into conflicts abroad, which a cursory reading of history (to say nothing of the daily headlines) suggests is unlikely.
The global order is decaying before our eyes, and we will miss it when it’s gone. The world is watching to see if Putin is forced back behind the red line he has crossed in Ukraine. If he isn’t, many a land-hungry potentate will follow his lead.