Why Ukraine Hurts So Much
The Russian invasion of Ukraine isn’t the only international crisis going on. Indeed, it isn’t even the most significant. But for Americans, it feels qualitatively worse than any other conflict in the past decade. Why is that?
The post-9/11 world has been characterized by forces that largely supersede the nation-state. America has carried the bulk of this weight due to our status as the world’s sole super power. At first we responded to an inhumane attack on our soil, on our civilians. Then, our mandate evolved into regime-toppling and nation-building. Our sense of ownership in international politics is much derided, but it is not without reason. We not only fund and arm international institutions more than any other nation, we also act more than anyone else, both multi- and unilaterally.
And just as our actions resound with much force and ripple-effect, so too is our inaction felt the world over. The common link between American action and inaction in the past decade has been the complexity inherent in the problems: they surpass those at the nation-state level.
The international economic crisis, for example, spread beyond just America and the West. And while some countries managed to grow in spite of it, the dampening effects of the recession and the Euro-crisis were and still are broad. They say misery loves company, and in this way shared suffering makes stagnant markets more psychologically palatable.
Terrorism fueled by religious extremism is another pressing threat to global prosperity that not only extends beyond national boundaries; it also manages to fester within states plagued by weak governance. Car bombs explode daily in Iraq while the Syrian Civil War rages on. But again, the permeability of the struggle provides peace of mind when answers escape us. Ethno-religious conflict has characterized the Middle East and other regions for thousands of years: we couldn’t solve it up to this point so it’s OK that we continue to be stumped. Like a mortal knight facing a dragon, the insurmountability of the problem makes us noble just for trying.
Another defining feature of the war on terror is that it is asymmetrical. Small insurgents use guerrilla tactics and other surreptitious means to combat our sophisticated weaponry and technology. And while the light-weight, quick-moving, and oftentimes faceless character of our adversary in this war prolongs the conflict, the psychological benefit of an asymmetrical fight is that it—at least by definition—makes us the stronger, more civilized combatant.
But Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine breaks the post-9/11 paradigm of supranational challenges. A powerful country invaded another sovereign nation with conventional armed forces. What’s more, the Duma is currently drafting legislation to annex Crimea, citing the linguistic and ethnic ties to the local population and laying foundation for similar acquisitions in the future. This is strictly about the conception of the nation-state. Not since WWII have we seen such unprovoked and explicit bullying. This is also about an East-West divide. Ukraine is geographically and historically caught between these two competing models, and just when it seemed the democracy-seeking people of Kiev were going to succeed, Russia brought the hammer down.
America—in the wake of two prolonged wars in the Middle East, in the middle of sensitive and hard-fought negotiations with Iran, and self-constricted by ferocious partisanship—is at a loss. Unlike our other conflicts of the past decade, this one is much more black and white. It is traditional. Its leader has a public face, there is a national flag, and it is being won with conventional military means. Comparatively speaking, Putin’s aggression is simpler than terrorism, and this is exactly what makes its unstoppability that much more frustrating. The irony of highly complex problems is that when we are unable to fix them, we can comfortably cite the complexity for our failure.
The salt in this wound is that Putin knows it: he made his move on the now-correct wager that America would be unable to stop him. At least when we decided not to strike the Assad regime it was our decision, whereas our inability to confront Putin is entirely out of our control.
We lost this battle.
The Silver Lining
But that does not mean that democracy is losing, or that America is being over-taken by Russia. In fact, there is already good evidence that this tactical win for the Kremlin is quickening their strategic loss at the international level. TIME Magazine recently published an article entitled, 4 Reasons Putin Is Already Losing in Ukraine, a list which includes staggering disapproval among Russians and plummeting stock indexes. A more geostrategic implication of Russia’s invasion has to do with energy politics. Putin’s invasion partly resulted from Ukraine’s dependence on energy imports from Russia. The rest of Europe—which also relies on energy from Moscow—now sees exactly how far Russia is willing to go to preserve its energy interests. This surely prompts energy-importing countries to look for less aggressive alternatives. America’s exponentially growing supplies of natural gas are poised to provide precisely that alternative.
At the bottom of this post is a series of links that discuss the coming shale revolution’s impact on energy markets and geopolitics. But this was all true prior to Putin’s invasion. What matters most now is the context provided by Russia’s aggressive invasion: America is no longer the bad guy.
If there’s any silver lining to the recent invasion of Ukraine it is this: the world now has a choice in global pre-eminence. In the past decade, when America acted internationally, it was easy for other countries to critique because there was no competing model. But now, all can see the rogue policies that emerge when America is unable to lead on the world stage. This is not a defense of American impunity: it is a harsh reality-check of the alternatives. America does not have all the answers, and recent history is surely humbling. This invasion of Ukraine is a difficult pill to swallow, but at least the rest of the world is experiencing it too.
Read more about the natural gas revolution and its implications: