The Reinvigoration of International Liberalism and Putin’s Critical Miscalculation

With the world watching in horror, Vladimir Putin conducted a blitzkrieg-style invasion of Ukraine, destroying billions of dollars of infrastructure, displacing millions of civilians, and directly challenging the West’s integrity in response to this crisis. However, little has gone as planned for the Russian oligarch. During the past several days we’ve seen inspiring displays of defiance and national pride in the face of overwhelming odds—thousands of Ukrainian civilians lining up to receive weapons to defend their homeland, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy donning tactical gear, refusing offers for evacuation, and a young soldier sacrificing himself to destroy a critical bridge and halt the enemy’s mechanized advance. 

As of this writing, Russia has yet to conquer a single major Ukrainian city—a defensive feat that will undoubtedly be immortalized in the history books, as will their inspiring leader who challenged a rogue superpower. Putin’s expectation of rolling tanks into a sovereign, democratic nation in a desperate attempt to regain influence has been derailed by inspiring resolve and sheer will—this isn’t 1989 anymore. Some have attempted to justify or at least normalize this invasion by comparing it to the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962—Putin simply wants to secure his borders like the United States, right? 

Not exactly. 

There are no nuclear weapons being stationed in Ukraine with the capability to target the entirety of Russia. Those exist all over the world, as do Russian systems with the same capability to attack Western nations. Considering the decreasing importance of weapons proximity in light of the global range of modern nuclear delivery systems, a comparison of the “threats” posed to Russia by Ukraine’s prospective NATO membership and the threat of imminent nuclear annihilation is grossly disproportionate. The only current threat to Russian citizens is the one Putin has just created, both militarily and economically. Ukraine has expressed an independent desire to assimilate with the West, practicing an objectively superior set of governmental structures more facilitative of prosperity and human rights than the historically corrupt oligarchy of modern Russia. Through his barbaric rhetoric about “de-Nazifying” Ukraine and his refusal to take diplomatic off-ramps, Putin has made it evident this invasion was never about border security 

The U.S., U.K., and Russia have all but betrayed their commitments to the Budapest Memorandum of 1994, which recognized Ukrainian sovereignty and promised security assurances in exchange for denuclearization of the post-Soviet state. NATO has been indirectly supporting Ukraine militarily, granting sanctuary to UAF aircraft in Poland and Romania and possibly allowing fighters to refuel from USAF tankers just across the border. American-made Javelin anti-tank missiles have reportedly inflicted heavy losses on Russian armor and surveillance drones operating over the Black Sea have supplied Ukrainian ground forces with vital intelligence. Funds and equipment from almost every NATO country are pouring into Ukraine. However, many Ukrainian citizens and leaders, including President Zelensky, have publicly pressured the United States and NATO to directly intervene, and admittedly, it’s difficult to ignore these requests. Sitting on the sidelines while egregious war crimes are happening is not morally satisfying. 

In the face of prospective intervention, the unfortunate truth is that consistent signaling and accompanying action are becoming decreasingly common among Western nations. When Saddam Hussein’s brutal dictatorship invaded Kuwait in 1991, the U.S. responded instantly to defend its sovereignty. When genocides threatened Bosnia and Kosovo in 1995 and 1999, NATO intervened to restore peace. In 2017 and 2018, the U.S. launched cruise missile strikes on Syrian government installations in retaliation for chemical weapons attacks on innocent civilians. But when facing a more prominent and, obviously, nuclear-capable bully, thought processes shift. Where are these sentiments when exhaustively-documented war crimes are committed by an invading force that has no logical justification for such an incursion? Despite its many missteps and oversights, international liberalism has an important obligation to promote democracy and human rights on the global stage, and it now faces perhaps its greatest challenge since World War II. The common rhetoric surrounding American interventionism, in particular, is that of national interest—if it doesn’t concern us, we should stay out of it. This mindset is cultivated in part by the sour taste lingering from decades of counterterrorism occupation of the Middle East. However, where do we tangibly draw that line? When might we consider that this invasion is a broader assault on liberalism and democracy worldwide, which subsequently carries massive implications for our national interests? Never in our lifetimes has a docile nation’s sovereignty been so blatantly violated. Never before have the forces of misinformation been employed in such an overwhelming capacity in an attempt to dismantle truth. Failure to act on the part of the United States and the West at large represents a submission to Putin’s expansionism. It also suggests the continuation of oppression and intolerance in Eastern Europe that will inevitably persist following the Russian occupation. 

Authoritarian regimes around the world are undoubtedly watching closely to see what action they too could undertake without consequences. Are we going to witness a budding democracy overwhelmed by thuggish oppression and forced into complacency by threats of annihilation? Or will our moral imperative to stand up to bullies overcome? Depending on what Putin’s next moves are, we may be faced with a more imminent form of this decision very soon. However, as already alluded to, the potential consequences of engaging Russia in open warfare are severe. Putin’s volatility is creating much uncertainty over how he may react, and he has ominously hinted at a nuclear response more than once. In this respect, the hesitancy demonstrated by NATO is logical, but should it overcome our moral obligations? Some might say yes, seeing the threat of nuclear annihilation as too high a price. In contrast, others may ask “if not now, when?” This is a one-man war and ultimately one man will be held responsible. Yet, this unwarranted aggression exhibited by Putin may eventually require our harshest response if the conflict overflows into neighboring NATO countries. 

No geopolitical theory or philosophy of foreign engagement is comprehensively predictive and therefore, incredibly complex and multifaceted questions on the scope of our involvement have no trivial, universally appeasing, or wholly unthreatening answers. However, it is important we come to one. In the coming days, the resolve of Ukraine and the West will encounter its greatest trial of the modern era. Thus far, this conflict has only served to reinvigorate the liberal order and reunite the United States with her NATO allies. Even historically neutral nations such as Switzerland and Sweden are taking unprecedented supportive action, the former freezing Russian financial assets and the latter shipping thousands of anti-tank missiles to aid Ukrainian resistance. As stated by Paul Massaro on Twitter: “The democratic world is rapidly evolving into what it needed to be decades ago. And it’s all because of the courage of the Ukrainian people. If democracy prevails in the 21st century, it will be because of Ukraine.” In a nation so viciously divided by partisan politics, watching support legislation pass in Congress with bipartisan backing feels wholly unfamiliar. More importantly, witnessing the full socioeconomic might of the free world rally around democracy on a scale unseen since World War II is incredibly encouraging during this period of cynicism and what some have interpreted as Western decline. 

Putin has made a rare, seemingly uncalculated misstep—even if his philosophy of government is morally flawed, he seldom makes rash decisions concerning the preservation of his regime. His unfounded pretenses of threatening NATO expansionism and unjust invasion have alienated him on the global stage, leaving him with what little support he has through the use of Soviet-style propaganda about alleged Ukrainian aggression. Thousands of Russian protestors have been violently arrested by police simply for demonstrating. Russia is a regime at war with truth. Widely publicized reports and photos show Russian military equipment abandoned, captured soldiers claiming they were forced to fight against their conscience, and many laying down their arms in surrender without resistance. The aggregate of decades of oligarchic delusion, corruption, and deceit are causing Putin’s empire to crumble around him, and he recognizes it. This conjures terrifying visions as to what he may be capable of in desperation, but our resolve and moral compasses must remain astute in order to divert catastrophe. Through it all, one thing remains clear—whether he suffers a humiliating defeat at the hands of a far inferior force or occupies a defiant Ukraine infested with organized insurgency and rebellion, Putin will emerge the distinct loser, and the West will emerge rejuvenated with newfound resolve. 

“Very few wars have been won by mere numbers alone. Quality, willpower, geographical advantages, natural and financial resources, the command of the sea, and above all, a cause which rouses the spontaneous surgings of the human spirit in millions of hearts—these have proved to be the decisive factors in the human story.” – Winston Churchill

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