All wars eventually end. Even as the war in Ukraine spirals deeper into brutality, a picture of what Europe will look like when this one ends is beginning to emerge. In terms of Europe’s post-war security architecture, three important features stand out.
First and most obviously, Finland’s and Sweden’s relationships with NATO have changed. NATO membership now seems probable, but whether or not they ultimately join the Alliance, what is clear is that we will see substantially closer and more explicit relationship.
Second and equally significant, the German decision to take national security preparations seriously, and to maintain military forces more nearly in proportion to the nation’s capabilities, promises to dramatically shift not only the correlation of forces in Central Europe but also the Alliance’s ability to respond in the North and in the Balkans.
Third and perhaps most unexpectedly, NATO has re-emerged as a vital institution. Whatever final, lingering doubts there might have been about the effect of Russian aggression on alliance solidarity, these were dispelled by the defeat of Marine Le Pen in France’s presidential election.
A continent economically divided
On the economic front as on the security one, the principal impacts of the war are also already clear. The most significant of these, of course, is that regardless of how the war evolves and eventually ends, Western Europe will dramatically reduce its reliance on Russian hydrocarbons. This will be hugely costly, both for Russia and for the West, most particularly Germany. But once this transition away from reliance on Russian hydrocarbons has been completed, the economic artery connecting Russia and the West will be – for better as well as for worse -- decisively severed. For all meaningful purposes, Europe will once again be a continent economically divided.
What remains far less clear, however, is what, in terms of domestic political development, will emerge on either side of the divide. On the Western side, the most immediate uncertainty involves authoritarianism in Central and Eastern Europe. Hungary, of course, is today’s poster-child of European nationalist authoritarianism within the EU economic family and the NATO security family. The socio-political forces which led Hungary down its developmental pathway are not, however, unique to Hungary. To one degree or another, and in one form or another, right-wing nationalist-authoritarian political movements and parties have emerged across Europe.
There is no surprise about this rise of authoritarian nationalism. Indeed, it would have been surprising if it had not arisen. By its very nature, the shift that Europe and America are undergoing, from industrial to post-industrial economies, is socially traumatic. Existing values, relationships, and hierarchies are being challenged or discarded. We see foundational cultural and social verities turn into a target of mockery in the span of a single generation. Reaction against the liberal institutions associated with this creative destruction needs to be understood as normal and unavoidable. What remains to be seen is whether these liberal institutions will be able to accommodate these pressures and address the underlying causes.
The war exacerbates uncertainty about whether this will be possible. On the one hand, the war excites nationalism and makes authoritarian institutions more attractive, and the economic pain associated with the re-division of the continent will increase the appeal of national authoritarianism. On the other hand, the war and what will follow will also underscore the importance of liberal institutions in providing protection and prosperity. Which of these developments will prove more powerful remains to be seen.
Russia will be a mess
The second and more important uncertainty about domestic political evolution after the war, of course, is what will happen on the Eastern side of the divided continent, in Russia. Even in the most optimistic scenarios, Russia will be a mess. About that there is no uncertainty. What is uncertain is how Russian political institutions will evolve in the face of this catastrophe, and how successful they will be. Frankly, it is hard to imagine that any conceivable set of institutions will hold up very well. The burdens that will be placed on them will be enormous. Even before the war, Russia faced huge demographic, economic, and environmental problems for which its institutions had no solutions.
Even if birthrates do not drop further, even if the stagnation and erosion in Russia’s scientific-technology base does not worsen, and even if the collapse of the near-Arctic North’s ecosystem does not accelerate, Russia will face challenges that would appear nearly insurmountable for any government.
But of course the war makes everything worse. The economic shocks of the war will add to the existing disincentives for child-bearing. Political repression and the further curtailment of property rights associated with the war are encouraging increased emigration by those with the knowledge, skills, or entrepreneurial talent to be successful abroad. In the aftermath of the war, badly needed private Western capital will not be available, nor will even more badly needed Western technology. Already dysfunctional allocation of human, physical, and financial capital will be distorted still further by regime needs to deal with domestic unrest and to shore up bases of support.
How long Russia will remain inside the storm?
The most serious structural problem that will be exacerbated by the war is Russia’s excessive economic reliance on hydrocarbon production. Post-Cold War Russian decision-makers chose to turn Russia into a petro-state. However advantageous this decision may have been for the oligarchic elite controlling the state and large extractive corporation, in terms of Russian economic and political development this was disastrous.
At the most basic level, highly capitalized, extractive industries like oil and natural gas permit an elite to syphon off profits, using these to buy the support of potential sources of opposition, such as the military or church, and to put off addressing tough choices. These industries typically employ relatively few workers, and while they do require some highly trained engineers, they do not encourage wider investments in human capital or entrepreneurship. Taken together, the implications of this are clear: if one wishes to develop a stable “middle class” and responsible governance, being a petro-state is a substantial disadvantage. The long-term implications can be seen in states like Venezuela and Nigeria. Worse, there may not even be a long-term for petro-states: in a world which is reducing its reliance on hydrocarbons, an economic plan which does not envision a transition away from hydrocarbon production is not simply a bad plan but one that is also unsustainable.
Put simply, what the war does is to dramatically accelerate Russia’s arrival in the future -- and the future is not a pretty place for Russia. Past Russian political and economic decisions, coupled with changes in the global knowledge and technology base, are coming together in a nearly perfect storm. Whatever opportunity might have remained for Russia to change direction and avoid this storm has been lost.
The questions now are about how long Russia will remain inside the storm, and how much command over the ship its officers will be able to retain. Increased repression can keep domestic pressures in check for a time, but absent solutions to the structural problems and absent the ability to impose truly effective totalitarian controls of the sort China appears to be developing, the political and economic implosion of Russia begins to look nearly unavoidable. Europe and America need to start seriously thinking about what the ripple effects will be.
The ripple effect
Perhaps the most obvious ripple – indeed, one we are already beginning to see – is the tsunami that develops when this ripple hits the shallow waters of the developing world. For the economically developed world, the Russo-Ukrainian War and its sequelae will be painful but – except in Russia – they are unlikely to overwhelm political institutions or push economies into an uncontrolled downward spiral.
This will not be the case, however, in parts of the developing world which seem nearly certain to see grain shortages, fertilizer shortages, and substantially increased energy prices. These are ingredients not only for humanitarian catastrophes but also for political collapse – and the impact of both of these will be global rather than regional.
Europe and America will nearly certainly see a major wave of economic and political refugees. Imagine many, many Syrias happening at once. The West has not found a satisfactory answer in the past. There is no clear plan for how to address this now. Given the likelihood of this development, it behooves Europe and America to start such planning.
New, better realities?
Wars sometimes provide opportunities for new beginnings. Old realities are shattered, and in the rubble the possibility for creating – or at least imagining -- new, better realities emerges. Sadly, it is hard to find that sort of silver lining in the dark cloud that is the Russo-Ukranian War.
Measured in just about every conceivable way, things will be worse when the war ends than they were before it started. The question is how much worse, and what we can do to mitigate the devastation and desperation we will face. Right now, even while the nightmare of destruction in the Donbas is ongoing, Europe and America need to turn to the task of building domestic and international institutions able to protect and preserve the human freedoms that lie at the core of our vision for ourselves and our societies.
Edward Rhodes is a professor of Government and International Affairs at George Mason University. Rhodes is best known for his research into the philosophical and cultural roots of American foreign and national security policy. Rhodes served for six years on the U.S. State Department’s Advisory Committee on Historical Diplomatic Documentation, the Congressionally mandated, nonpartisan body that reviews and certifies the official, published account of American foreign policy for completeness and accuracy.