How the Russia-Ukraine War Will Impact Russia, China, the EU, and the US

A Tale of Four Great Powers, Three Civilizations, Two Rivals, and One Hegemon

Tyler Piteo-Tarpy
39 min readDec 2, 2022
“Countries supplying military equipment to Ukraine during the 2022 Russian invasion

(Written 7/14/22)

1. Introduction

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has challenged several modern assumptions about the nature and foundations of the international system. First, that international law can constrain revisionist states. Second, that nuclear war cannot be won. And third, that culture and ideology do not matter as much as economics and security. In this essay, I will analyze how and to what extent the invasion challenges these assumptions and how the answers to those questions will likely impact the interactions of Russia, China, the EU, and the US. Following that, I will also provide policy recommendations for the US to navigate this new landscape and maintain its dominance in it. Ultimately I conclude that free states need to recognize international law’s limitations but also enforce it more aggressively; that nuclear-weapon states need to ensure parity of response capabilities and establish a common policy for responding to first strikes; and that the US and EU must accept their cultural and ideological conflict with Russia and China in order to win it.

2. International Law

2.1. Challenge

Russia has violated not only the UN Charter in its “use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state,”¹ but also its specific commitment in the Budapest Memorandum to “refrain from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of Ukraine.”² The Rada, Ukraine’s legislature, only agreed to return their nuclear weapons to Russia and join the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty in 1994 once they had received this assurance,³ and its violation now challenges the wisdom of that bargain, and the wisdom of future decisions other states might make to trust the security assurances of their threatening neighbors. More threatened states might now consider rejecting the NPT and developing their own nuclear deterrent or at least increasing their focus on defense, which risks security dilemmas.

Furthermore, in addition to the illegality of the invasion on the whole, Russia has been charged with war crimes in violation of the Geneva Conventions and other international laws. Cases are being brought against it in Ukrainian courts as well as the International Criminal Court,⁴ but the assumption that international law can constrain revisionist actors has been shown to be flawed as Russia has refused to be constrained by any of these agreements. Many states have cooperated to impose sanctions on Russia — “the toughest ever imposed on a major economy”⁵ according to President Biden — but clearly, the threat and implementation of them have proven too weak a punishment to deter or halt Russia.

2.2. Impact

While lacking preventative power, these sanctions, the EU and NATO’s policy changes, and international economic and military aid to Ukraine will likely limit Russia’s future strength, making further aggression less feasible. For starters, Russia’s economy is already in a precarious position, poised for decline. Russia’s Crony Capitalism⁶ or “Putin’s petro-kleptocracy,”⁷ as economist Anders Aslund and demographer Nicholas Eberstadt respectively call it, refers to the system of government-controlled energy businesses that are used to enrich Putin and his friends as well as fund more than 40% of Russia’s state budget revenue.⁸ On top of being inefficient and corrupt, this industry, “the backbone of the country’s economy,”⁹ is bound to become less profitable over time. “The wealth of modern nations is overwhelmingly generated by human beings and their capabilities. Natural resources (land, energy and all the rest) have accounted for a shrinking share of global output for the past two centuries, with no end in sight.”¹⁰ But Putin cannot afford to change the system that gives him so much power because investing in human capital and innovation is fundamentally disruptive, perhaps the quality dictators fear most, so he sets up his country for failure. China only manages by being even more sociopolitically restrictive: “As Bobo Lo has put it, “under Putin Russia remains a more democratic, pluralistic and liberal polity than China.””¹¹

The EU’s response to the invasion will expedite this economic failure as “Russia’s gas sales to Europe will shrink dramatically over the next five years. Europe will step up its push towards renewables, now for reasons of security as well as climate change.”¹² Russian oil is already being sanctioned officially as a punishment for the invasion and unofficially by private entities as both political and economic expressions of their reluctance to do business with a revisionist and unreliable partner.¹³ Europe cannot trust that Russia won’t act hostilely towards it, therefore it cannot afford to be reliant on a resource Russia controls. Energy specialist Daniel Yergin writes that “in theory, the oil market will readjust. Russian barrels no longer bound for Europe would go somewhere else, mainly to Asia,”¹⁴ and while this might lessen the blow to Russia — at least in the short term — it still faces systemic economic issues and will face the problem of the polarization of the international ecopolitical system. A global economy works by creating win-win situations where countries can use their factor endowments to gain a comparative advantage in certain industries and then export goods they excel at making or have in abundance in return for goods others excel at making or have in abundance. “In a more Balkanised world in which countries will find it harder to “abstain” from choosing sides as they did in the recent UN vote condemning the invasion,”¹⁵ however, trade becomes less efficient and there are more losers.

For example, “with international oil giants like Shell, BP and Exxon Mobil having announced their intention to leave Russia, the Russian industry will lose access to advanced technologies and capital,”¹⁶ and,

For many Americans, too, Ukraine has been a pre-Taiwan test case: They don’t want to end up relying on Taiwanese components that might suddenly disappear in a puff of smoke [if China invades]… CEOs who used to build empires based on just-in-time production are now looking at just-in-case: adding inefficient production closer to home in case their foreign plants are cut off… monopolies, restrictions and exclusions… the true cost of protectionism… higher prices, worse products and less innovation.¹⁷

This will affect the whole world, but it has the potential to be far worse for “China, Russia and the autocracies” who “amount to barely a third” of the “60% of global gross domestic product” that “the U.S. and its allies account for,”¹⁸ should the US and its allies remain united and committed to free trade amongst themselves.

As another example,

A week ago [from March 23, 2022], the mere rumor that Russia had asked for military assistance — a rumor that Beijing immediately denied — sparked the biggest drop in China’s stock market since 2008… For the “wolf pack” of young Chinese nationalists around Xi, the reaction to Ukraine is another powerful argument for self-sufficiency. China’s vast holdings of dollar assets now look like a liability given America’s willingness to confiscate Russia’s assets, especially if the regime were to think about invading Taiwan (where its claim that the island is culturally and legally part of China is frighteningly like Russia’s claims about the Ukraine).¹⁹

China finds itself in zugzwang — though it might not recognize it — where it can either remain economically integrated with the West and risk facing coercion, or it can decouple and risk slower growth.

NATO will also grow in strength as members and non-members alike recognize the need for it once again, decreasing Russia’s relative strength. Finland and Sweden have now applied to join the alliance,²⁰ Estonia is increasing its defense spending to 2.5% of its GDP,²¹ “the Polish military budget is expected to grow 47% in 2023,” and even Germany is rearming despite its long aversion toward doing so.²² Putin has claimed that the invasion was in response to the threat that the West’s, and particularly NATO’s, influence in Ukraine posed to Russia’s security,²³ and political scientist John Mershimer agrees that “America ignored Moscow’s red line,” pointing out that during Russia’s mobilization on Ukraine’s border, Russia had “demanded a written guarantee that Ukraine would never become a part of NATO and that the alliance remove the military assets it had deployed in eastern Europe since 1997;”²⁴ since the West refused, Russia had no choice but to protect itself by invading, so the theory goes. However, in response to Mershimer, the former US Permanent Representative to NATO, Ivo Daalder, notes that Russia had signed security declarations “enshrining the right of all states to choose their own alliances and security arrangements,” and that after the Cold War Russia established close relations with NATO, with Putin even raising “the possibility of Russia joining NATO” in 2000.²⁵ The main rationale for the invasion, Daalder argues, is not that Ukraine threatens Russia but that Putin believes “Ukraine is not even a country.”²⁶ I will discuss this more in Section 4, but suffice to say here that, regardless of which rationale one accepts, the consequence of Putin’s decision is a stronger and therefore more threatening NATO than before.

Lastly, the international aid to Ukraine²⁷ will further weaken Russia as it will prolong the war and increase the cost of prosecuting it. A Pentagon official estimated that “Russia has lost some twenty-five per cent of its combat power in the last two months [from April 23, 2022],”²⁸ and to succeed at its goal and absorb at least parts of Ukraine into its borders will certainly involve more losses, especially given how costly occupations of hostile territory have proven throughout history; notably, how the Soviet-Afghan War contributed to the collapse of the USSR. On the whole, it seems like Russia’s long-term prospects are of deteriorating power; this is not entirely due to the backlash against violating international law, but it is magnified by it, which has the potential to deter others from acting the same way.

2.3. Recommendations

The US should capitalize on this opportunity to promote the narrative that Russia is weakening due to the enforcement of international law. Russia already blames the West for its problems, so accepting blame in this case will be a sign of strength. This narrative is not incompatible with diplomacy to end the war, as the West could “mercifully” limit the damage done to Russia if it agrees to negotiate with Ukraine. Should Russia lose the war, the victory must be cast as an international one. Should Russia win, then on top of ensuring its victory is as costly as possible, the West will need to reinforce the remaining credibility of international law with stronger and more concrete agreements.

Disruptions to trade have a broad impact, as the US-China trade war demonstrated, so states that oppose Russia’s actions and are willing to accept costs to punish Russia or distance themselves from it need to support each other, unlike the US’ strategy during the trade war.²⁹ The US “should offer Europe a comprehensive free-trade deal to bind the West together; it could be a slightly remolded version of the rejected Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, based on regulatory convergence (under which a product safe to sell in the EU is safe to sell in the U.S., and vice versa). He [Biden] should also join CPTPP,” “a free-trade bloc that the U.S. first invented, then foolishly abandoned” and that China has since applied to join.³⁰ The US cannot lead from the sidelines; it cannot promote a rules-based trade system while allowing China to improve its position because of our protectionism; it cannot ask Europe and the Asian democracies to abandon ties with Russia and China without presenting them with an alternative.

India is an important example to consider as the world’s largest democracy and a nation that chose to abstain from votes condemning Russia in the UN.³¹ India relies heavily on Russia for arms and energy and due to its long conflict with China “the last thing India would want to do at this very moment is to abandon Russia and create even more difficulties for itself by strengthening a Sino-Russian entente.”³² India feels that it needs to balance Russia against the larger threat of China, but, as I will go into in Section 4, ideology matters to Russia, China, and the West, so India will be forced to choose one way or the other eventually. The US needs to make that choice easier.

The US also needs a more meaningful international forum than the UN as despite Russia being suspended from the Human Rights Council,³³ “states that fall dramatically below an objective threshold of respect for human rights… such as Cuba, Venezuela, China… and Egypt” “nonetheless repeatedly get elected to the Council.”³⁴

In July 2020, for example, China rallied 53 countries, including 13 states then sitting on the Council, to defend its harsh interventions in Hong Kong against peaceful protest, while only 27 states signed a statement criticizing Beijing’s actions. In a similar incident in July 2019 regarding competing statements on China’s mass detention policies in Xinjiang, China won over 20 states sitting on the Council at that time or since elected to the body.³⁵

And in June 2022, “nearly 70 countries” signed a joint statement agreeing that “Xinjiang, Hong Kong and Tibet related issues are China’s internal affairs. “We oppose politicization of human rights and double standards, or interference in China’s internal affairs under the pretext of human rights.””³⁶ Furthermore, despite Russia’s violations of the UN Charter, there is no way to remove Russia from the UN because it sits on the Security Council and can veto any motion to recommend such a vote to the General Assembly.³⁷ International law becomes meaningless if its purpose is contradicted by its own rules; human rights will be protected… unless the worst violators don’t want it to be; global security will be defended… but the greatest threats to it will decide how and to what extent.

A 2020 Brookings Institution report by Human Rights Watch’s China Director, Sophie Richardson, recommends that “to protect the U.N. human rights system from Chinese government erosions, rights-respecting governments should urgently form a multi-year coalition not only to ensure that they are tracking these threats, but also to prepare themselves to respond to them at every opportunity to push back.”³⁸ I agree and think that this coalition should work to change the rules of the UN to make states more accountable for their violations of the Charter, but I also believe that the US should go further and try to establish a new international organization that only rights-respecting states can join in the first place. This organization (working title: the Free Nations) would be like a combined EU/NATO agreement — though a watered-down version to accommodate a wider range of countries — with special trade deals, technology sharing, common defense, and coordinated responses to human rights and international law violations. The FN would not replace the UN as dialogue between all states, even ideological enemies, is necessary and does result in some successes; but the FN would serve the purposes of encouraging on-the-fence states such as India to choose our side, increasing all free people’s relative and absolute strength, and resolving contradictions in international law. It might be argued that the purposeful polarization of the world will only reduce adherence to a common international law, but as I will justify in Section 4, I believe the world is already polarized and that the West can either deny that and one day face a rude awakening, or accept it and act accordingly.

3. Nuclear War

3.1. Challenge

Moments before Russian President Vladimir Putin launched his attack on Ukraine, he shot a stern warning to the rest of the world. Any country that interfered, he said, would, quote, “face consequences greater than any you have faced in history.” He also bragged about Russia’s nuclear arsenal and, several days later, put Russia’s deterrent forces, including nuclear weapons, on high alert.³⁹

Thankfully, so far, nothing has come of Putin’s threat, despite much foreign interference in the war. However, the threat alone challenges a core tenet of nuclear arms control, that “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.”⁴⁰ It cannot be won because nuclear war risks the total destruction of the states in conflict, an outcome that no political objective can justify, thus nuclear war must never be fought. This mantra leaves defensive balancing as the only function of nuclear weapons; states keep them to prevent other states from gaining the advantage of being able to destroy their adversaries without reprisal.

The US has been worried for a while that Russia has adopted an “escalate to de-escalate”⁴¹ doctrine that undermines this tenet. In its 2018 Nuclear Posture Review, the Department of Defense wrote that “Moscow threatens and exercises limited nuclear first use, suggesting a mistaken expectation that coercive nuclear threats or limited first use could paralyze the United States and NATO and thereby end a conflict on terms favorable to Russia.”⁴² Limited first use refers to “low-yield”⁴³ or tactical weapons that would be devastating against conventional forces or specific infrastructure but that are too small to pose an existential threat to states on their own and therefore don’t warrant a retaliatory strategic strike. If states cannot respond proportionally then they are essentially “paralyzed,” thus de-escalating the conflict in the aggressor’s favor. Russia currently has 2000 tactical nuclear weapons compared to the US’ 200 (100 of which are deployed in Europe),⁴⁴ and their delivery systems include ground-launched cruise missiles that violate the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, whereas the US only maintains gravity bombs.⁴⁵ If Russia faces an unacceptable defeat in Ukraine, and Putin believes using a small nuclear weapon to change that won’t be met by retaliation, then the whole point of arms control balancing would be invalidated because his calculations would be the same if the US and NATO had no nuclear weapons at all.

3.2. Impact

Unlike the invasion itself, nuclear use remains only a threat, and for that reason — along with limited knowledge about Putin and his staff’s loss tolerance, risk acceptance, military doctrine, and sanity, as well as their beliefs about the US and NATO’s positions — I am not confident enough to speculate about what might happen and what the responses to what might happen will be. If Putin’s threats turn out to be the extent of his resolve, then no response beyond condemnation is needed, and his challenge to the arms control system will have little impact. If Putin does use a nuclear weapon, then everyone will have a great many thoughts about what should have been done to prevent it. I have some now, which I will discuss in the following section.

3.3. Recommendations

Currently, the only remaining bilateral arms control agreement is the New START Treaty that expires in 2026, and “in the history of nuclear weapons, there has never been a treaty — bilateral or international — that limits developing or deploying tactical nukes anywhere.”⁴⁶ The US needs to both negotiate a new agreement and close this gap in the arms control system, goals that will be difficult to achieve because of current hostilities and because Russia possesses an advantage in tactical nuclear weaponry that it will certainly be reluctant to give up. The US should thus expand its tactical nuclear capabilities and encourage the other nuclear NATO countries, France and the UK, to do the same, initially to more closely match Russia and prevent Putin from thinking that he could paralyze us with a first strike, but also to have leverage when eventually negotiating a new treaty.

At the strategic level, arms control isn’t good because it lowers the number of weapons available for use — just a few could do enough damage to invalidate all political objectives of a conflict — it is good because it gets states that are necessarily threatened by each other to cooperate. Political scientist Robert Jervis writes that “the main purpose of arms control in the nuclear era is to control our expectations and beliefs, not our arms” because “there is no objective answer to the question of which nuclear postures and doctrines are destabilizing apart from the highly subjective beliefs that decision makers hold about this question.”⁴⁷ If decision-makers believe that they can work together to solve each other’s security concerns (“ensuring that all sides have confidence in their own ability to launch an effective retaliatory nuclear strike”⁴⁸) then the threat of war is lessened. But if Putin expects and believes that his tactical weapons give him an advantage that the US can’t respond to, and we can’t cooperate on addressing that concern because of the war, then we need to convince him otherwise through our arms.

The Pentagon’s 2018 Nuclear Posture Review recognized this gap. It committed to modernizing its air-delivered tactical bombs and developing low-yield nuclear warheads for submarine-launched ballistic missiles. But the United States should go further and specifically develop or adapt a modest number of nuclear weapons and delivery systems that could damage key Russian or Chinese conventional targets, especially those needed for an invasion of the Baltics or Taiwan: entrenched ground forces, maneuver troops, naval flotillas, and invasion fleets. The new weapons would need lower yields than most of those in the current arsenal, which have been optimized to destroy hardened silos sheltering enemy missiles, not to stop conventional forces.⁴⁹

Of course, the US must first offer Russia a new arms control treaty that would limit the amount and type of tactical nuclear weapons allowed. Any number under 2000 would benefit the US as if Russia accepted the US could still increase its own arsenal — though restraint would be warranted as a show of appreciation for Russia’s acceptance — and if Russia doesn’t accept then the US would have justification for the increase. As a show of good faith, the US could preemptively decrease its strategic arsenal, even beyond the amounts offered in the proposed treaty. Perhaps other concessions will also be necessary, but getting the decision makers of the two most powerful nuclear states to agree on the balance of power is vital for global security.

Additionally, as another belief-shaping move, the US should add to the mantra that “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought” the statement: “and no first strike against another state will go unpunished.” The US should try to get the other nuclear-weapon states to sign another joint statement with this intent, and ideally, some specific punishments would be agreed to while also maintaining the unstated threat of retaliatory strikes by specifying that the punishments are: “including but not limited to…”

4. Culture and Ideology

4.1. Challenge

Russia’s actions are not fully understood through realism. Realism claims that states’ actions are determined by their position in the international system; primarily, realists look to how secure states feel to predict if they will be satisfied with the status quo or be revisionist. Under this theory, the invasion is “a clever gambit in the face of Western weakness (or else as the least bad option in the face of Western provocation).”⁵⁰ As described in Section 2.2, Mershimer believes this theory, but I am not wholly convinced for several reasons. First, as explained, the consequence of Russian aggression is a stronger NATO and a weaker Russia. Second, unlike with NATO, Russia has achieved a peaceful relationship with China despite the realist prediction that as a rising power and former enemy China would threaten Russia.⁵¹ And third, Russia’s choice of which former Soviet republics “will not be allowed into the Western orbit and those that Russia will grudgingly part with… appears to have bypassed the Baltic states, which are immensely strategic… Yet the Baltic states were let into NATO in 2004.”⁵²

One explanation for these anomalies is Eurasianism, “the idea that Russia is not a nation but a civilization.”⁵³ Whereas a nation is a group of people defined by their culture, a state is an organization of people defined by its borders and political system, and a nation-state is a state built out of a nation, a civilization represents “the highest cultural grouping of people and the broadest level of cultural identity people have short of that which distinguishes humans from other species. It is defined both by common objective elements, such as language, history, religion, customs, institutions, and by the subjective self-identification of people.”⁵⁴ Ideology is also an important, though interconnected, element as it is what civilizations consciously and subconsciously promote beyond their culture, which can complement or compromise their other goal of cultural preservation.

Putin signaled his adoption of Eurasianism when he used the term ““Novorossiya,” or New Russia, an arc stretching along the entire coast and eastern side of Ukraine” after he annexed Crimea in 2014.⁵⁵ “Novorossiya” matches political scientist Samuel Huntington’s observation that

The most significant dividing line in Europe, as William Wallace has suggested, may well be the eastern boundary of Western Christianity in the year 1500. This line runs along what are now the boundaries between Finland and Russia and between the Baltic states and Russia, cuts through Belarus and Ukraine separating the more Catholic western Ukraine from Orthodox eastern Ukraine.⁵⁶

In a 2021 article, Putin also stated that

Modern Ukraine is entirely the product of the Soviet era. We know and remember well that it was shaped — for a significant part — on the lands of historical Russia… The republics that were founders of the Union, having denounced the 1922 Union Treaty, must return to the boundaries they had had before joining the Soviet Union… It would not be an exaggeration to say that the path of forced assimilation, the formation of an ethnically pure Ukrainian state, aggressive towards Russia, is comparable in its consequences to the use of weapons of mass destruction against us. As a result of such a harsh and artificial division of Russians and Ukrainians, the Russian people in all may decrease by hundreds of thousands or even millions… I am confident that true sovereignty of Ukraine is possible only in partnership with Russia. Our spiritual, human and civilizational ties formed for centuries and have their origins in the same sources… For we are one people.⁵⁷

And just days before the invasion in 2022, Putin again claimed that “Ukraine is not just a neighboring country for us. It is an inalienable part of our own history, culture and spiritual space.”⁵⁸

To Mershimer’s credit, Putin does spend much of this most recent speech blaming NATO for expanding East as well as supplying and exercising with the Ukrainian military. He even addresses Daalder’s critique that Russia had signed security declarations expressing how “each country is entitled to pick its own security system and enter into military alliances” by responding that “international documents expressly stipulate the principle of equal and indivisible security, which includes obligations not to strengthen one’s own security at the expense of the security of other states,”⁵⁹ alluding to realism’s law of security dilemmas. But these two explanations of the invasion (realist security concerns and a Eurasian civilizational vision) are not mutually exclusive and it could be that both are necessary to complete the picture, though I will focus on defending the latter.

Charles Clover, China correspondent and previous Moscow bureau chief for the Financial Times, writes that the realist approach does not tackle “what Putin is hoping to achieve or credits the Kremlin with a strategy,” and it also fails “to explain the sea-change that has occurred in Russian politics — formerly, the Kremlin trod lightly in the so-called ‘near abroad,’ for fear of the economic consequences.”⁶⁰ However, Putin’s statements do contain a grand strategy that explains Russia’s increasingly aggressive demeanor despite the consequences: “The Great Russian mission is to unite, bind civilization… the principle of recognition of ‘friend or foe’ is defined as a common culture and shared values,” and “the twenty-first century promises to be the century of great change, the era of the formation of major continents of geopolitical, financial, economic, cultural, civilizational, political and military power. And because of this, our absolute priority is the tight integration with our neighbors.”⁶¹ This again matches Huntington’s recognition that

The clash of civilizations thus occurs at two levels. At the microlevel, adjacent groups along the fault lines between civilizations struggle, often violently, over the control of territory and each other. At the macro-level, states from different civilizations compete for relative military and economic power, struggle over the control of international institutions and third parties, and competitively promote their particular political and religious values.⁶²

Mearsheimer may be right that NATO provoked Russia, but it seems likely that that was less because of the security threat we pose to the Russian state, and more because of the cultural, ideological, and thus civilizational threat we pose to Russia’s vision of Eurasia. Invading Ukraine has made the Russian state less secure, but if victorious, it could strengthen Russia’s civilizational identity, or at least Putin’s conception of it.

4.2. Impact

What Russia is trying to achieve is a “civilisational state”⁶³ where its civilization is managed by a single government, in contrast to the West’s value of self-determination. China too is pursuing this vision;

Martin Jacques, author of When China Rules the World (2009), argues that, “The most fundamental defining features of China today, and which give the Chinese their sense of identity, emanate not from the last century when China has called itself a nation state but from the previous two millennia when it can be best described as a civilisation state.” Xi Jinping has repeatedly called on the country’s elites “to inject new vitality into the Chinese civilisation by energising all cultural elements that transcend time, space and national borders and that possess both perpetual appeal and current value.” By this he means the timeless appeal of Confucian harmony that is promoted by the Communist state at home and abroad. A vision of a civilisational sphere of influence underpins Beijing’s efforts to bring Taiwan and the South China Sea under Chinese control.⁶⁴

I bring up China throughout this essay because, despite the current focus on Russia, China is the larger threat; the West’s great rival of the twenty-first century. China is materially stronger than Russia, a more popular country to partner with, it’s acting smarter than Russia geopolitically, and has far more potential for growth. And, as an autocracy, the representative of its civilization, and a partner of Russia in resisting American hegemony, the calculus applied to Russia applies to China as well. The consequences of

The resurgence of great power rivalry, especially with the rise of Russia and China, is weakening Western attempts to impose a unified set of standards and rules in international relations… Geopolitics is no longer simply about the economy or security — Christopher Coker describes it in The Rise of the Civilizational State (2019) as largely sociocultural and civilisational. The non-Western world, led by Beijing and Moscow, is pushing back against the Western claim to embody universal values… States based on civilisational identities are bound to collide with the institutions of the liberal world order, and so it is happening.⁶⁵

Bringing this essay full-circle, what a civilizational worldview predicts is the decline of international law as it intrudes on the values of civilizations, even if its sticks and carrots would otherwise be capable of motivating states to abide by it. While an idealized international system based on states would be a collection of many equal entities agreeing to the framework they will interact in, with outliers kept in line by the majority, an international system based on civilizations is one where there are often multiple states constituting webs of civilizational interconnection that are trying to expand and promote and hold and homogenize their cultures and ideals. Common rules based on the premises of the first worldview are difficult to maintain in the face of the second worldview, as evidenced by Russia and China’s calls for the

“Democratization of international relations.” According to this rationale, US-dominated international relations are undemocratic and should be democratized by the inclusion of Russia and China (as well as other great powers) into collective decision-making on global matters. Further “democratization of international relations” (inclusion of more countries, particularly smaller, into decision making), is however neither needed nor wanted.⁶⁶

Smaller countries are parts of civilizations and thus, according to Russia and China, do not warrant negotiating with about their rights. They believe how civilizations interact with each other can be negotiated, but, as revealed in Section 2.3, they also believe how civilizations treat the states in their spheres of influence are purely their own concern.

This is what makes Russia and China our enemies and drives conflict between us: the fact that Western civilization is different from other civilizations. We are unique in that we have come to be defined by the evolution of the idea that all people, regardless of culture, are equal and free. Thus, we seek to promote that ideology through democratic forms of government and international law protecting human rights. This universality downplays the role of civilizational interconnection in our political organization — though the EU is perhaps closest to a civilization state — but it does lend itself to civilizational expansion, even though that is not often how the West thinks of it, while China’s and Russia’s civilizations are more static in that they tend not to claim their values as universal. In his book, Russia and China: A Political Marriage of Convenience — Stable and Successful, professor Michal Lubina writes that “for Russia, the most important cultural (civilizational) aspect is the conviction about its own exceptionalism and uniqueness”⁶⁷ and “in China, the most important cultural factor is Sinocentricism: the claim that China is central to other countries… “China’s historic conceit centers on its superiority as a civilized state.””⁶⁸ The West may sometimes use the same language to describe itself, but, in contrast to Russia, it is a unique form of civilization — an open one — not merely a unique civilization as all by definition are; and in contrast to China, its ideas are what makes it superior to others, not merely its exclusive heritage.

China and Russia are successful partners because they don’t challenge each other’s legitimacy the way the West does. Because they don’t recognize each other as part of their own civilizational sphere of influence, they have no need to compete for a single vision. “Dmitri Trenin writes that Russia and China accepted the formula “never being against each other, but not necessarily always with each other”; which allows them to “put a premium on a solid partnership where their interests meet, eschew conflicts where they don’t, and allow a lot of flexibility where interests overlap only partially.””⁶⁹ The West, on the other hand, sees all people as part of its ideological sphere of influence, and so threatens civilizations and nation states that reject its values. Thus, “the paramount axis of world politics will be the relations between “the West and the Rest.””⁷⁰

Many American politicians would understandably prefer to focus on the long-term competition with China. But as long as Russia is ruled by Putin, then Russia is at war with us too. So are Belarus, North Korea, Venezuela, Iran, Nicaragua, Hungary, and potentially many others. We might not want to compete with them, or even care very much about them. But they care about us. They understand that the language of democracy, anti-corruption, and justice is dangerous to their form of autocratic power — and they know that that language originates in the democratic world, our world.⁷¹

I disagree with professor Adrian Pabst that “geopolitics is no longer simply about the economy or security;” I believe geopolitics was always “sociocultural and civilisational” for the West, we just exported our civilizational values through economics and security, in part because of “Modernization Theory. The idea was that as nations developed, they would become more like us in the West — the ones who had already modernized.”⁷² It only seems like there has been a transition now because, as Pabst implies, Beijing and Moscow are becoming strong and bold enough to challenge our values, so we again recognize that they need to be defended. In 1993, Huntington also made the case that “the fault lines between civilizations are replacing the political and ideological boundaries of the Cold War as the flash points for crisis and bloodshed.” But while Communism, as an anti-historical and anti-cultural movement, is purely ideological, the West’s ideology is a part of its history, culture, and civilization. “It is a legacy that rests on a common cultural heritage of Greco-Roman philosophy and law, as well as Judeo-Christian religion and ethics. Each, in different ways, stress the unique value of the person and free human association independent of the state.”⁷³ For this reason, the West has fault lines with all other civilizations and a large potential for conflict.

In his paper, Huntington made a prediction about Ukraine’s future that has not aged well, but that demonstrates the importance of ideology.

In 1991 and 1992 many people were alarmed by the possibility of violent conflict between Russia and Ukraine over territory, particularly Crimea, the Black Sea fleet, nuclear weapons and economic issues. If civilization is what counts, however, the likelihood of violence between Ukrainians and Russians should be low. They are two Slavic, primarily Orthodox peoples who have had close relationships with each other for centuries. As of early 1993, despite all the reasons for conflict, the leaders of the two countries were effectively negotiating and defusing the issues between the two countries. While there has been serious fighting between Muslims and Christians elsewhere in the former Soviet Union and much tension and some fighting between Western and Orthodox Christians in the Baltic states, there has been virtually no violence between Russians and Ukrainians.⁷⁴

Some might argue that this mistake invalidates Huntington’s thesis and that realism must be returned to, but, as previously argued, inter-civilization differences are likely what overcame Russia and Ukraine’s intra-civilization commonalities. New York Times columnist David Brooks writes that “what we call “the West” is not an ethnic designation or an elitist country club. The heroes of Ukraine are showing that at its best, it is a moral accomplishment, and unlike its rivals, it aspires to extend dignity, human rights and self-determination to all. That’s worth reforming and working on and defending and sharing in the decades ahead.”⁷⁵

4.3. Recommendations

In order to defend the moral accomplishment of the West against the autocratic civilization states we threaten, we need first to reinforce it from within against some recent trends. Brooks believes

Huntington was right that ideas, psychology and values drive history as much as material interests. But these divides don’t break down on the neat civilizational lines that Huntington described. In fact, what haunts me most is that this rejection of Western liberalism, individualism, pluralism, gender equality and all the rest is not only happening between nations but also within nations.⁷⁶

Some ideas, like Communism, eat civilizations from the inside out; and at least within the US, I see a frightening lack of rationality and civility that, fueled by the dishonest metanarratives of nationalism and disunionism, threatens to break apart the country and the principles it is built on.⁷⁷ On one hand, issues such as job loss to trade with China, the wokeifying of political and cultural institutions, refugee and immigration crises, the global Coronavirus response, etc. “have all eroded public confidence in the liberal establishment and the institutions it controls. Brexit, Donald Trump and the populist insurgency sweeping continental Europe mark a revolt against the economic and social liberalism that has dominated domestic politics and neoliberal globalisation.”⁷⁸ And on the other hand,

Too many liberals in politics, the media and the academy are characterised by a “closing of the mind” that ignores the intellectual, literary and artistic achievements that make the West a recognisable civilisation. Some cosmopolitan liberals even repudiate the very existence of the West as a civilisation. In one of his BBC Reith Lectures in 2016… academic Kwame Anthony Appiah… maintained that we should give up on the idea of Western civilisation. “I believe,” Appiah said, “that Western civilisation is not at all a good idea, and Western culture is no improvement.”⁷⁹

To be sure, both movements can claim some truth in their critiques of the world — the former more than the latter, I believe. Globalization challenges state sovereignty and a state government’s duty to put their citizens first, political and cultural institutions are going woke and abusing their power, and the West broadly and the US specifically have certainly made mistakes in the past, and will continue to do so in the future, and should not be immune from criticism or responsibility. However, the solution to these critiques is not isolationism, unilateralism, protectionism, populism, and hypernationalism; nor is it a rejection of our history, culture, civilization, and principles in the name of some postmodern utopia. We need to balance our interests as states with our interests as a civilization, and to do that first requires admitting that we are both and that our ideals are good, and it then requires admitting that global threats need to be addressed together.

Editor-in-chief John Micklethwait and columnist Adrian Wooldridge of Bloomberg News, staff writer at The Atlantic Anne Applebaum, Huntington, and Brooks, have all come to the same conclusion about what strategy we should adopt: “The United States won the last Cold War peacefully because it united the free world behind it. This is the way to win the next one peacefully as well.”⁸⁰

There is no natural liberal world order, and there are no rules without someone to enforce them. Unless democracies defend themselves together, the forces of autocracy will destroy them… This fight is not theoretical. It requires armies, strategies, weapons, and long-term plans. It requires much closer allied cooperation, not only in Europe but in the Pacific, Africa, and Latin America.⁸¹

In the short term it is clearly in the interest of the West to promote greater cooperation and unity within its own civilization, particularly between its European and North American components; to incorporate into the West societies in Eastern Europe and Latin America whose cultures are close to those of the West; to promote and maintain cooperative relations with Russia [perhaps only possible once Putin is dead or without power] and Japan; to prevent escalation of local inter-civilization conflicts into major inter-civilization wars; to limit the expansion of the military strength of Confucian and Islamic states; to moderate the reduction of Western military capabilities and maintain military superiority in East and Southwest Asia; to exploit differences and conflicts among Confucian and Islamic states; to support in other civilizations groups sympathetic to Western values and interests; to strengthen international institutions that reflect and legitimate Western interests and values and to promote the involvement of non-Western states in those institutions.⁸²


We have a lot of work to do if we are going to be socially strong enough to stand up to the challenges that are coming over the next several years, if we are going to persuade people in all those swing countries across Africa, Latin America and the rest of the world that they should throw their lot in with the democracies and not with the authoritarians — that our way of life is the better way of life.⁸³

The free nations need to stand together because we can’t be divided amongst ourselves against an enemy that is threatened by us all. China and Russia recognize that being a civilization is a strength as it unites otherwise separate groups of people or states. Unfortunately for them, their civilizations have become defined by authoritarianism, which their neighbors don’t want to unite around. The West has an advantage in that what defines our civilization is good and leads to prosperity. However, we’ve been rejecting our advantage by weakening our civilizational ties or rejecting them outright. If liberalism, the ideas of equality and freedom, is not recognized as coming from the West’s common heritage and we see it merely as something that is true in the abstract, then we have little uniting force. Western nations will share their value of liberalism for a time, but they won’t share liberalism’s history, so they won’t respect each other’s contributions to its formulation, or understand its whole development, which will lead to the fracturing and collapse of the idea. More succinctly, liberalism only has a concrete foundation on which to endure and be built upon if we recognize that concrete foundation and build upon it; think of it in the abstract and it will likely float away, or morph into something corrupted. The West is a civilization in conflict with the Chinese and Russian civilizations, among others. If we fail to admit this to ourselves, we’ll be forced to recognize it by them, but only when it’s too late to save what’s most valuable. Accordingly, I recommend the West get itself in order so that we can act in the world without hypocrisy, division, and weakness.

5. Conclusion:

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has shown that the beliefs that international law can constrain revisionist states, that nuclear war cannot be won, and that culture and ideology do not matter as much as economics and security require updating. The consequences of the war also require the West, led by the US, to take new steps to maintain its civilization and global dominance. Specifically, I recommend the US form closer and stronger ties with other free countries through a new international organization, the Free Nations, as well as work to reform the UN to hold violators of international law more accountable. I also recommend the US and its nuclear allies increase our tactical nuclear weapon arsenals while trying to secure a new arms control treaty with Russia. And, finally, I recommend that the West’s first priority must be increasing the cohesion, stability, and vitality of its civilization, for it cannot engage in the conflict of civilizations the world is headed towards in its current divisive state. At the beginning of the Cold War in 1947, diplomat George Kennen wrote in his article “Sources of Soviet Conduct,”

It is… a question of the degree to which the United States can create among the peoples of the world generally the impression of a country which knows what it wants, which is coping successfully with the problems of its internal life and with the responsibilities of a world power, and which has a spiritual vitality capable of holding its own among the major ideological currents of the time.⁸⁴

This question remains relevant today — perhaps it always will — and I hope this essay serves as part of the answer to it.


  1. “United Nations Charter (Full Text),” United Nations (United Nations, June 26, 1945),, Article 2(4).
  2. “Memorandum on Security Assurances in Connection with Ukraine’s Accession to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons,” United Nations (United Nations, December 5, 1994),, 169.
  3. Mitchell Reiss, Bridled Ambition: Why Countries Constrain Their Nuclear Capabilities (Washington: Woodrow Wilson Center Press, 1995), 120.
  4. Isaac Chotiner, “Can Accountability for Russian War Crimes Exist without American Support?,” The New Yorker (The New Yorker, April 7, 2022),
  5. Joseph R. Biden, “President Biden: What America Will and Will Not Do in Ukraine,” The New York Times (The New York Times, May 31, 2022),
  6. Anders Aslund, Russia’s Crony Capitalism: The Path from Market Economy to Kleptocracy (Yale University Press, 2019).
  7. Nicholas Eberstadt, “Opinion | How Russia’s Grim Demographics Could Thwart Putin’s Global Ambitions,” The Washington Post (WP Company, May 1, 2022),
  8. Kaja Kallas, “Kaja Kallas on the Atrocities in Ukraine,” The Economist (The Economist Newspaper, April 9, 2022),
  9. Stanley Reed, “Omens of Decline for Russia’s Once World-Leading Energy Industry,” The New York Times (The New York Times, May 18, 2022),
  10. Eberstadt, “How Russia’s Grim Demographics Could Thwart Putin’s Global Ambitions.”
  11. Michal Lubina, Russia and China a Political Marriage of Convenience — Stable and Successful (Leverkusen: Verlag Barbara Budrich, 2017), 49.
  12. Daniel Yergin, “Daniel Yergin on Russia Losing Its Status as an ‘Energy Superpower,’” The Economist (The Economist Newspaper, March 19, 2022),
  13. Ibid.
  14. Ibid.
  15. Ibid.
  16. Reed, “Omens of Decline for Russia’s Once World-Leading Energy Industry.”
  17. John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge, “Putin and Xi Exposed the Great Illusion of Capitalism,” (Bloomberg, March 23, 2022),
  18. Ibid.
  19. Ibid.
  20. Nato, “Finland and Sweden Submit Applications to Join NATO,” NATO (NATO, May 18, 2022),
  21. Kallas, “Kaja Kallas on the Atrocities in Ukraine.”
  22. Loren Thompson, “Putin’s Biggest Ukraine Blunder: Energizing German Rearmament,” Forbes (Forbes Magazine, March 10, 2022),
  23. Vladimir Putin, “NATO, Nazis and the Motherland: Putin’s Full Victory Day Speech,” (Haaretz, May 9, 2022),
  24. John Mearsheimer, “John Mearsheimer on Why the West Is Principally Responsible for the Ukrainian Crisis,” The Economist (The Economist Newspaper, March 19, 2022),
  25. Daalder, Ivo. “Ivo Daalder Says NATO Enlargement Didn’t Go Far Enough.” The Economist. The Economist Newspaper, April 9, 2022.
  26. Ibid.
  27. Karoun Demirjian, “International Military Aid for Ukraine Accelerates, Pentagon Says,” The Washington Post (WP Company, May 24, 2022),
  28. Robin Wright, “The New Nuclear Reality,” The New Yorker (The New Yorker, April 23, 2022),
  29. Bob Davis and Lingling Wei, Superpower Showdown: How the Battle between Trump and Xi Threatens a New Cold War (New York: Harper Business, 2020).
  30. Micklethwait and Wooldridge, “Putin and Xi Exposed the Great Illusion of Capitalism.”
  31. Debasish Roy Chowdhury, “Here’s Why the U.S. Doesn’t Mind India’s Silence on Ukraine,” Time (Time, March 7, 2022),
  32. Ibid.
  33. “UN General Assembly Votes to Suspend Russia from the Human Rights Council | | UN News,” United Nations (United Nations, April 7, 2022),
  34. Ted Piccone, “UN Human Rights Council: As the US Returns, It Will Have to Deal with China and Its Friends,” Brookings (Brookings, March 9, 2022),
  35. Ibid.
  36. “Large Group within UN Call for Respect toward Any Country’s Internal Affairs,”, June 13, 2022,
  37. “United Nations Charter, Article 6.
  38. Sophie Richardson, “China’s Influence on the Global Human Rights System,” Brookings (Brookings, September 2020),, 8.
  39. Sarah McCammon, Lauren Hodges, and Christopher Intagliata, “Putin Has Threatened Nuclear Action. Here’s What Russia Is Actually Capable Of,” NPR (NPR, March 8, 2022),
  40. “Joint Statement of the Leaders of the Five Nuclear-Weapon States on Preventing Nuclear War and Avoiding Arms Races,” The White House (The United States Government, January 3, 2022),,deter%20aggression%2C%20and%20prevent%20war.
  41. “Special Report: Nuclear Posture Review — 2018,” U.S. Department of Defense (U.S. Department of Defense, February 2018),, 30.
  42. Ibid.
  43. Ibid, XI.
  44. Wright, “The New Nuclear Reality.”
  45. “Special Report: Nuclear Posture Review — 2018,” 9, 53.
  46. Wright, “The New Nuclear Reality.”
  47. Robert Jervis. “The Nuclear Revolution and the Common Defense.” JSTOR (Political Science Quarterly 101, no. 5, 1986) 702, 699.
  48. Elbridge Colby, “If You Want Peace, Prepare for Nuclear War,” Foreign Affairs (Foreign Affairs, January 28, 2019),
  49. Ibid.
  50. Charles Clover, Black Wind, White Snow: The Rise of Russia’s New Nationalism (S.l.: Yale University Press, 2017), 17.
  51. Lubina, Russia and China: A Political Marriage of Convenience — Stable and Successful, 18–19.
  52. Clover, Black Wind, White Snow: The Rise of Russia’s New Nationalism, 16.
  53. Ibid, 11.
  54. Samuel P. Huntington, “The Clash of Civilizations?,” Foreign Affairs (Foreign Affairs, May 27, 2022),
  55. Neil Macfarquhar, “For Putin, Invasion Is the Latest in a Long String of Failures in Ukraine,” The New York Times (The New York Times, April 2, 2022),
  56. Huntington, “The Clash of Civilizations?.”
  57. Vladimir Putin, “Article by Vladimir Putin ‘on the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians,’” President of Russia, July 12, 2021,
  58. Vladimir Putin, “Address by the President of the Russian Federation,” President of Russia, February 21, 2022,
  59. Ibid.
  60. Clover, Black Wind, White Snow: The Rise of Russia’s New Nationalism, 17.
  61. Ibid, 15.
  62. Huntington, “The Clash of Civilizations?.”
  63. Adrian Pabst, “China, Russia and the Return of the Civilisational State,” New Statesman, May 8, 2019,
  64. Ibid.
  65. Ibid.
  66. Lubina, Russia and China: A Political Marriage of Convenience — Stable and Successful, 70.
  67. Ibid, 29.
  68. Ibid, 42.
  69. Ibid, 18.
  70. Huntington, “The Clash of Civilizations?.”
  71. Anne Applebaum, “There Is No Liberal World Order,” The Atlantic (Atlantic Media Company, March 31, 2022),
  72. David Brooks, “Globalization Is over. the Global Culture Wars Have Begun.,” The New York Times (The New York Times, April 8, 2022),
  73. Pabst, “China, Russia and the Return of the Civilisational State.”
  74. Huntington, “The Clash of Civilizations?.”
  75. Brooks, “Globalization Is over. the Global Culture Wars Have Begun.”
  76. Ibid.
  77. Benjamin Joseph Morawek et al., “Renewing Our Commitment to the American Social Contract,” Medium (ILLUMINATION, March 2, 2021),
  78. Pabst, “China, Russia and the Return of the Civilisational State.”
  79. Ibid.
  80. Micklethwait and Wooldridge, “Putin and Xi Exposed the Great Illusion of Capitalism.”
  81. Applebaum, “There Is No Liberal World Order.”
  82. Huntington, “The Clash of Civilizations?.”
  83. Brooks, “Globalization Is over. the Global Culture Wars Have Begun.”
  84. George Kennan, “The Sources of Soviet Conduct,” Digital history (Foreign Affairs, July 1947),

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Tyler Piteo-Tarpy

Essayist, poet, screenwriter, and comer upper of weird ideas. My main focus will be on politics and philosophy but when I get bored, I’ll write something else.