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Shutting Down Putin's War is Essential for Global Security in 2023
The longer Putin's genocidal war continues, the more other autocrats will ramp up their own imperialism
Authoritarianism is about having the power to get away with crime, and waging a genocidal war against another country without other countries intervening in ways that force a cessation of conflict counts as a big win in the autocrat world. In fact, from the minute they receive intelligence about a planned invasion, autocrats watch carefully to see what happens to transgressors of the international order--and adjust their own plans for aggression accordingly.
Allowing Russian President Vladimir Putin's war of annihilation against Ukraine to continue by not giving Ukraine the arms it needs to definitively repel the Russian invaders increases the risk that other autocrats will ramp up their own imperialist aspirations. Autocrats interpret any ambivalence about shutting down their peers' territorial expansions as license to proceed with similar aggressive acts.
History is clear about what happens in such cases. Most people are familiar with the folly of the September 1938 British and French-brokered Munich agreement, which allowed the Third Reich to annex the Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia six months after it annexed Austria.
Far fewer know about the earlier appeasement that set the stage for Hitler's actions: Benito Mussolini's war on League of Nations member Ethiopia, which started in October 1935. This was the biggest military operation since World War I, with Italy's formidable air force dropping hundreds of tons of illegal chemical weapons on Ethiopians.
The weak sanctions levied on Italy by the League of Nations did not deter Il Duce from continuing to commit war crimes. He declared victory in May 1936, and occupied Ethiopia until the Allies drove the Italians out in 1941. "Was it ever likely to be effective?" Winston Churchill wrote critically of the sanctions in June. "Was it real or sham?" That same month, exiled Emperor Haile Selassie I denounced the war crimes to the League of Nations, but no action was taken against the Fascists.
By then, Mussolini’s admirer Hitler had all the information he needed about the consequences a despot might face for military aggression. In March 1936, while Mussolini's war entered its sixth month, the Führer remilitarized the Rhineland, in violation of the Treaty of Versailles.
Twenty-first century autocrats watch their kindred spirits' fates with equal interest. Since the start of Putin's war on democratic Ukraine, the world has become far less safe. A few weeks before the Russians invaded, Putin and Chinese head of state Xi Jinping issued a joint statement about the new “multipolar” era of international relations. The premise of this new era --unrestrained imperialism for Russia and China-- has become all too clear.
Xi Jinping has since become far more aggressive towards the West. His government has increased its rhetoric about its imperialistic claims on Taiwan. He has consolidated his personal power with a third term, while further puffing up his personality cult in ways not seen among Chinese premiers since Mao Zedong.
Turkey has also ramped up its bellicose and expansionist rhetoric regarding Syria and Greece. It has also persecuted Armenians, through its ally Azerbaijan, in the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh.
Autocrats are transactional beings. You have a deal with an autocrat until you don't, meaning no one should think that Putin will negotiate with or about Ukraine in good faith. That also holds for their relationships with each other (as Joseph Stalin discovered when Hitler invaded Russia despite signing the Molotov-Ribbentrop non-aggression pact).
Even as dictators cheer on lawlessness that goes unpunished by the democratic order, they also circle each other like vultures, looking for signs of weakness that they can exploit. And everyone knows that Putin is more vulnerable as a player in the sphere of influence game with his resources and attention focused on Ukraine. Turkey, along with China, will seek to fill any power vacuum Putin's weakness opens up in Eurasia and beyond.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's relationship with Putin has always been volatile. In the course of a few months in 2016 they went from almost going to war to being "best friends," dining on plates that immortalized their friendship. I was skeptical of Erdogan's early claims that he would be a "peacemaker" and mediator between Russia and Ukraine. Turkey intends to exploit this international crisis to increase its own power and prestige.
Now Serbian President Aleksandr Vucic has become the latest authoritarian to be galvanized by the possibilities created by the prolongation of Putin's war. He has put his military on high alert, citing rising tensions with the Republic of Kosovo. Serbia does not recognize the sovereignty of Kosovo, which declared independence from Serbia in 2008.
All of these conflicts have long histories that are independent of the new climate created by Putin's invasion of Ukraine. Yet democratic powers’ acceptance of a continuance of Putin’s war will only further destabilize the international order. It also increases the chances that democratic strongholds such as Taiwan will be targeted for "reunification" --the word of choice for autocrats since the days of Hitler to market their imperialism to their peoples and the world.
That's why Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky was right to state in his speech to U.S. Congress that supporting Ukraine is an investment in global security. He knows that when an autocrat gets away with an imperialist and genocidal war it only increases his megalomania and hubris, making it far more difficult to rein him in later on. It also increases the likelihood that other autocrats will commit their own aggressions toward targeted territories.
And it's why the warning that economist Anders Aslund issued to his fellow Europeans should be heeded, not least because it builds on historical precedent. As an expert on Putin's kleptocracy, Aslund knows the value and prestige impunity has among autocrats. “If you don't deliver enough of arms & funds to Ukraine now,” he tweeted, "you might have to face Russian troops yourselves later on."
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