Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin speak during their meeting February 4 in Beijing.
Photo: Alexei Druzhinin/Associated Press
Historical analogies are often lazy, and I cringe when I hear analysts compare the war in Ukraine and the West’s uncertain response to WWII and Munich. But watching the West’s hesitant military effort — with the US, Britain, Poland and the Baltics leading the way, Germany and France lagging behind, and the rest of Europe somewhere in between — I hear at least a rhyme.
The theme that comes to mind is “disbelief” – a widespread disbelief in the seriousness of the threat we face, leading to uncertain leadership. It is the product of decades of post-Cold War globalist dogma that have weakened the West’s ability to recognize adversity and fight for what it holds dear.
Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping rely on this collective disbelief. Russia, and even China, has nowhere near the West’s resources in terms of gross domestic product compared to all the collective wealth the West has at its disposal. Russia’s economy is only about two-fifths the size of Germany’s. Moscow poses an economic threat to Germany only because of Berlin’s self-inflicted weakness, the result of three decades of misguided policies that have fostered Europe’s dependence on Russian energy. Russia is a problem for Europe in the military sphere – again the result of Western politics. Russia’s nuclear weapons modernization and Putin’s selective investments in modernizing Russia’s military as a whole have been accompanied by Europe’s relentless post-Cold War disarmament. This is the main reason for the West’s military softness.
Europe’s collective disbelief is conveyed through various justifications that the US is somehow responsible for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, on the grounds that, as Russian propaganda claims, America has been plotting all along to bring Ukraine into the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Europe’s disbelief also underlies the quasi-historical explanations of the crisis, since Ukraine has always been part of Russia, or at least within the Russian sphere of influence. Europe’s confusion translates into a thinly veiled contempt for “Eastern Europeans” that can be seen in many Western European newspaper editorials.
This moment of uncertainty says more about the West than the war itself, the nature of the Ukrainian state, the extent to which the Russian nuclear threat is real, and most importantly, our apparent lack of confidence in Ukraine’s ability to defeat Russia. Such collective Western self-doubt was the main reason we failed to realize that Mr Putin’s speech at the 2007 Munich Security Conference was tantamount to a declaration of war on the West. What happened in Georgia in 2008, Ukraine in 2014, Syria in 2015 and Ukraine again in 2022 was a series of kinetic campaigns in that war.
Some pundits have continued to claim that this was at best a hybrid war that could be shielded and contained and that it would not, and should not, interfere with normal business with Russia. Because of our collective refusal to recognize the new reality that Mr. Putin has created in Europe, Western leaders have yet to address the public on the need to convert our economies to war production. Instead, the military aid we are sending to Ukraine largely depletes our existing supplies, while our investment decisions do not include production cuts imperative in a war.
Democracies today are at a disadvantage against the Russo-Chinese totalitarian axis, and it’s not because the West lacks the money or material resources to confront them and prevail. Rather, much like it did in the late 1930s, the West does not believe the threat is real.
Historically, democracies have been unbeatable when united around a common goal.
Until the West’s disbelief is replaced by a determination to resist, the Russian and Chinese dictators will carry on, plotting their grand assaults and dreaming of future victories.
Mr. Michta is Dean of the College of International and Security Studies at the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies in Garmisch, Germany.
Review and Outlook (5/26/22): Strategic ambiguity over Taiwan’s defense has long been US policy, but President Biden has now declared – four times – that he is ready to engage militarily in the country’s defense. Images: AFP/Getty Images/Shutterstock Composite: Mark Kelly
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Appeared in the print edition on August 8, 2022.