By Ivan Krastev
Journalists writing on international affairs in the 1920s and 1930s referred to the era as postwar. They saw events through the prism of the Great War that devastated Europe just a few years earlier. Historians writing today refer to the same years as the interwar period, for the simple reason that they analyze what happened during those years as part of the lead-up to the even more destructive World War II. If only those journalists writing in 1930s Europe had the clarity of hindsight.
We should all have that clarity today. Russia’s military aggression in Ukraine is one of those moments that impels us to reinterpret our own era. What we called the 30-year peace that followed the Cold War (tending to forget, consciously or unconsciously, the wars in the former Yugoslavia) has now ended. Future historians will look at these last decades, by and large, much as they look at the interwar period: as an opportunity squandered.
The sooner we all admit it, the better we can prepare for what comes next. Unfortunately, a kind of self-serving denialism pervades Western capitals and prevents us from seeing the obvious. Passionate pleas to defend the post-Cold War European order have no meaning because this era is over.
In the wake of Russia’s occupation of Crimea in 2014, Angela Merkel, then the chancellor of Germany, talked to President Vladimir Putin of Russia and reported to President Barack Obama that, in her view, Mr. Putin had lost touch with reality. He was, she said, living in “another world.” Today we are all living in it. In this world, to quote Thucydides, “the strong do what they can, and the weak suffer what they must.”
How did we get here? First, we must understand that this is not Russia’s war. It is Mr. Putin’s. He comes from a particular generation of Russian security officials who never managed to reconcile themselves with Moscow’s Cold War defeat.
In front of their eyes, the Soviet Union vanished from the map without military loss or foreign invasion. For them, the current assault on Ukraine is a logical and necessary inflection point. The imperial table can once again be reset. These people are not interested in writing the future; they want to rewrite the past.
While watching Russian missiles attacking Kyiv, in a mood of powerless outrage, I suddenly realized that many Russians must have felt the same way when NATO was bombing Belgrade two decades ago. Mr. Putin’s invasion may be more about revenge than grand strategy.
There’s a distinction between revisionism and revanchism. Revisionists wish to build an international order of their liking. Revanchists are driven by the idea of payback. They dream not of changing the world but of changing places with the victors of the last war.
If Mr. Putin is succeeding today, the West can blame only itself. While Western public opinion was hypnotizing itself with the idea that Russia is in steep decline — a gas station with nukes, some liked to call it — the Russian president began to realize his strategy.
For years, Mr. Putin has been consolidating his sphere of influence over the former Soviet Union, starting with his war on Georgia in 2008 and through his annexation of Crimea in 2014. More recently, he has tightened his grip on Belarus and Central Asia. Now he has undertaken the next, dramatic step.