The invasion of Ukraine by Russia is a dress rehearsal for more of the same around the world by authoritarian and autocratic regimes seeking to resurrect empires of the past. The invasion, from its preparation to its execution and to its eventual aftermath, will serve as a model for other invasions and effective annexations and re-drawings of borders. There is a need to take all necessary measures and not exclude even military action to confront such aggression, so as to render the invasion of Ukraine a model not to emulate but to avoid. This would help preempt a cascading breakdown of the world order and avert the spread of war. It would also help contain the carnage that is under way in Ukraine.
Of course, the invasion of Ukraine will serve as a model for possible further actions by Russia itself, for example against countries such as Georgia, or even former Warsaw pact members in central and northern Europe that have joined NATO as well as countries such as Finland. However, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is also on its way to serving as a model for example for China eventually moving on democratic Taiwan on the pretext of it being a rebellious province of China that is increasingly subjected to “external intervention”. It will also serve as a model for Turkey sooner or later invading and attempting to annex Greece’s eastern Aegean islands and even Western Thrace on the pretext that Greece stations some troops on its Aegean islands that are close to its highly aggressive neighbor or that Greece allegedly does not respect the rights of its Moslem minority in W. Thrace. By virtue of such invasions, besides human life, peace, liberty and prosperity, also liberal democracy and human rights in general will be on the block in various places around the globe.
The breaking down of restraints in satisfying raw imperial ambition is an enormous challenge for the United States and its allied liberal democracies, in Europe and elsewhere in the world, as sponsors of the system of explicit and implicit rules by which states have conducted themselves in the last 30 years. That system broadly worked, even if it arguably suffered from weaknesses in effectiveness and from various inconsistencies.
US President Biden in his speech on February 24, 2022, noted that “Putin’s actions betray his sinister vision for the future of our world — one where nations take what they want by force.” The President is right. Everyone should realize that this vision has now been put into ‘implementation mode’. And this breaking down of restraint felt by states to take “what they want by force” will put the world on a much worse path. To address this danger, the US and its European and other allies need to confirm their authority, both in terms of power and morality, globally. This requires their focus on principles, consistency, commitment, unity and, also, bold action.
Sanctions are important and they must be imposed on aggressors; yet even the most stringent ones have limitations, especially when imposed on authoritarian and autocratic regimes. The sanctions announced by the US and the EU on Russia since the invasion of Ukraine began are certainly impressive and steps to be applauded. However, the costs of sanctions to authoritarian and autocratic rulers that subject their countries’ populations to significant repression and manipulation should not be overestimated. Actually, the costs of sanctions may pale in comparison to the legacy of ‘restoration of empire’ such rulers may want to leave behind. The sanctions may, perversely, even strengthen their hold on power.
In any event, sanctions are perceived by authoritarian and autocratic rulers as inherently fragmented and self-dissolving over a relatively short period of time. Authoritarian and autocratic rulers instead play for the long term and, given their hold on power, they can more easily than leaders in liberal democracies afford to do that. Moreover, their perceptions tend to be right on account of a mindset of short-term commercial and generally parochial self-interest often displayed by many in the West. And, of course, those making decisions on keeping sanctions going would also be subject to the natural human behavior of the ‘availability heuristic’, whereby one tends to heavily weigh in his/her judgments more recent experiences. Thus, authoritarian and autocratic rulers count on a ‘reset of relations’, for various reasons, sooner or later and a lifting of sanctions.
Thus, if the Western liberal democracies—out of an understandable abundance of prudence—declare a priori that they will not engage in a forceful way with military means in the case of the invasion of Ukraine, then there will not be adequate restraint for most authoritarian and autocratic leaders with ambitions of empire. And that applies to more than Russia’s President Putin. For example, there will not be adequate restraint for Turkey’s President Erdogan to do to Greek and other territories what Russia’s President Putin does today with Ukraine, committed as the former is to resurrecting the Ottoman empire in the Eastern Mediterranean. (NATO membership by both Greece and Turkey will not be a restraint for Turkey in the end and is actually likely to ‘tie the hands’ of other NATO members.) Nor will there be adequate restraint for China’s Communist Party leadership to do the same to Taiwan and other territories in the eastern hemisphere as it strives to render China once more the Middle Kingdom.
Actually, taking off the table the option of appropriate military action, may paradoxically increase the probability of the materialization of the “sinister vision for the future of our world — one where nations take what they want by force.” Even if one agreed to this proposition in general, one might still think that precluding military action opposite nuclear-armed aggressors decreases the chance that the latter will use nuclear weapons. Arguably, however, the opposite may happen as such aggressors may feel emboldened to take increasingly aggressive steps in the future that would make the use of nuclear weapons more likely.
Furthermore, countries around the world are watching that the option of military action is taken off the table and they are bound to determine that nobody will come to their assistance ‘in the field’, where it really matters, if they are subjected to aggression. They will more likely accommodate their potential aggressors in various ways going forward. Finally, taking off the table the option of appropriate and judicious military action also does not help put a stop to the not-theoretical anymore invasion of Ukraine under way and the human suffering that it entails and which will continue to mount.
In conclusion, there are no easy choices here. There are undoubtedly risks in retaining the option of using appropriate and judicious military action to confront aggression “where nations take what they want by force”, but the risks are arguably higher from a cascading breakdown of the world order. There can be costs from courageously thwarting upfront the adverse incentives being created by Russia’s overrunning Ukraine, but there is no ‘free lunch’ in securing a rules-based, peaceful world order on the terms of liberal democracy. The option of military action on the part of Western democracies should stay on the table in the case of the Ukraine invasion.
Andreas V Georgiou, a US and Greek national, is a Visiting Lecturer and Visiting Scholar at Amherst College, USA, where he teaches courses on statistical ethics. From 1989 until 2010 he worked at the International Monetary Fund, holding positions in various departments. In 2010, he returned to Greece to head the newly established Hellenic Statistical Authority (ELSTAT) – the recast National Statistics Office of Greece – and align it fully with European law and international statistical principles. He was President of ELSTAT for five years. He is currently serving as an elected member of the Council of the International Statistical Institute and a member of the European Statistical Governance Advisory Board. He has a BA from Amherst College and a PhD in Economics from the University of Michigan. He lives in the Washington DC area.