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The World-Changing Meaning of Putin

Milestones aren’t always the defining moment of change, but the point at which history tells it can no longer be ignored. February 24th was the day Russia invaded Ukraine. It will also mark the point where the world undeniably splits into blocks. Whatever the outcome of Vladimir Putin’s war, geopolitics is now divided between the West and a Sino-Russian Eurasia. Most others, including India, the world’s largest swing state, fall in between.

In a calmer world, opposing blocs would settle into a Cold War-type coexistence. It may take some time for such stability to materialise. In the short term, it would still be subject to uncertainties. The questions that are now being asked relate to a major change. Are we returning to a nuclear age? Is globalization receding? Is cooperation on climate protection now off the menu? Can democracy defeat autocracy? Until recently, most westerners thought they had the answers.

It is fitting that Putin, whose hatred of the West has become his driving motive, was the one who dropped the curtain. It’s also ironic. Western strategists tend to write off Russia as a power in decline. But Russia’s dwindling status has put it in a greater hurry than China, which until recently was content to bid its time. The most obvious question is which of the two will set the pace.

The answer from now on can be neither. To the surprise of many, Joe Biden has evolved into a Ronald Reagan-style crusader for global freedom in recent weeks. Biden’s Warsaw speech was notorious for his unwritten suggestion that Putin should leave. But his formal remarks were equally significant. We are in a global struggle between autocracy and democracy, Biden said. “We must brace ourselves for a long battle.”

America’s undeclared goal is Russian regime change. Of the world’s three major military powers, China seems to be the most stuck with the status quo. Nothing Xi Jinping has said or done since Moscow’s invasion fits the gauntlet that Biden has thrown down. Putin has downgraded his war goal to control of part of Ukrainian territory and Ukrainian neutrality – both of which appear achievable.

The unexpected joker is therefore Biden’s America. At some point, Ukraine’s leader Volodymyr Zelensky will test the depth of the US President’s rhetoric. Ahead of reports of Russian war crimes in Bucha and elsewhere last week, Zelenskyy said he was open to a deal and wanted to meet Putin face-to-face.

The West insists that only Zelenskyy can decide what is acceptable. That’s half the truth. The other is that the US is unlikely to lift all or even most of its sanctions while Putin is in office. Anything else would be a descent. In Biden’s words, sanctions are “a new breed of economic statecraft with the power to inflict damage that rivals military might.”

The implication is that they will also serve in America’s greater struggle for democracy. Russia, which was the world’s 11th-largest economy before Feb. 24, will soon drop out of even the top 20, Biden warned. “The darkness that fuels autocracy is ultimately no match for the flame of liberty,” he said.

This is the new global bipolarity at its most acute. Putin owns the infamous accolade of being his midwife; Biden played the lead in setting the terms. Three areas are most obvious. The first is economical. Before the invasion of Ukraine, there was speculation as to whether a currency, including China’s renminbi, could replace the dollar.

Most economists believe it is highly unlikely that the dollar will lose its supremacy in the near future. Much depends on what Washington intends to do. America has shown remarkable power to block a major economy and target its global elite. Other national elites, also counting Westernized kleptocrats in their ranks, are now looking to fallback plans.

Emerging market governments will be watching as the West weighs reparations for Ukraine’s war damage. Biden could seize some or all of Russia’s foreign exchange reserves to rebuild the country. He set a precedent earlier this year when the US seized half of Afghanistan’s modest reserves. Russia’s frozen assets total over $300 billion. If the US did the same with Moscow, it could trigger a move away from the dollar.

A second concern is a global arms race. Before Putin’s invasion, China and Russia were already upgrading their nuclear systems, particularly hypersonic missiles. The US will now also increase its military spending. This could eventually grow to as much as 5 percent of gross domestic product — an increase of about a quarter. Most European countries no longer need to be pressured by Washington to meet their 2 percent NATO spending pledges. Other countries will conclude that Ukraine was foolish in giving up its nuclear weapons in 1994. The proliferation is likely to become a recurring migraine for years to come.

A third measure is ideological in nature. The most surprising reaction to Putin’s aggression has been the intensity of the West’s public reaction. Whether this will last is an open question. Far-right Marine Le Pen’s recent surge in polls ahead of France’s presidential election heralds the fragility of democracy. Another is Donald Trump’s planned 2024 rematch with Biden. Trump and Le Pen would present a very different West than Biden and Emmanuel Macron. A new era is undoubtedly upon us. But the West’s resolve is not yet there.

edward.luce@ft.com

https://www.ft.com/content/186659fa-9408-4868-b00c-a7bb5d1704a0 The World-Changing Meaning of Putin

Adam Bradshaw

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