The 1980s are calling
Liberal complacency has left us unprepared to face the crisis in Ukraine
Vladimir Putin’s renewed invasion of Ukraine has not only defied international law, but also defied many of the academics and pundits who insisted that it wouldn’t happen. Among the reasons why they believed this include the idea that escalation would be against Putin’s interests, the costs would be too high, and that he doesn’t need a new invasion to achieve his objectives. Mobilising a substantial force on the border would have been enough to make his point. Yet Russia launched a major invasion on 24 February.
It’s worth saying that none of us analysts are perfect. We aren’t meant to be clairvoyants. It would be quite remarkable if academics and commentators went through their careers without getting something wrong. What’s concerning is that this is the latest in a pattern of flawed explanations and predictions on Russia and international security by Western commentators, leaving us unprepared to deal with the current crisis.
Western elites believed in the perpetual triumph of liberalism, the end of conventional warfare
Over the past two decades, there have been various prevailing claims in the academic, political and media worlds. These include that the nature of conflict has changed, the West’s main threat will be terrorism for the foreseeable future, and that great power rivalries and conventional wars are phenomena of the past. Analysing any potential military threat from Russia or China was considered a distraction from dealing with insurgencies, and it was thought that it wouldn’t be in both countries’ interests to be too disruptive. Among the more radical suggestions during this period included completely re-configuring armed forces to focus on counterinsurgency campaigns, and one commentator back in 2010 even advocated slashing the armed forces, dismissing the idea that a major threat could re-emerge as “implausible”. Even after Russia’s initial invasion of Ukraine in 2014, analysts tended to neglect the sieges and conventional operations in the Donbas, and instead emphasised the Russian use of subversion, deception and “little green men”, claiming that Russia was pioneering and focusing its efforts on a new form of “hybrid” war.
Such flawed thinking made it difficult for the intelligentsia to accurately anticipate and explain the resurgence of Russia, state-based competition and conventional warfare. It also led to unsound policy. During a US Presidential debate in 2012 in response to a Mitt Romney statement that Russia was the country’s greatest geopolitical threat, Barack Obama remarked: “the 1980s are now calling to ask for their foreign policy back because, you know, the Cold War’s been over for 20 years”. In the UK, defence policy as a percentage of GDP hovered around 2 per cent since the 1990s. For context, towards the end of the Cold War it was just under 4 per cent. Not even the 2014 invasion, or our defeat in Afghanistan last year, forced a serious reappraisal of priorities.
These attitudes and policies reflect a general liberal optimism and hubris in academia, the media and politics. Western elites mistakenly believed in the perpetual triumph of liberalism, the end of major conventional warfare and an endless peace dividend. There has also been a reluctance to confront the reality, even after the Russian invasions of Georgia and Ukraine, that the peace dividend is over and conventional military power poses a threat to the West again.
Russia’s new invasion of Ukraine must be a wake-up call
The commentariat viewed the intentions of Russia and China through optimistic lenses, assuming that they saw the world the same way Western leaders do. Some commentators were even eager to see the Russian announcement on 15 February that some units were returning to their bases as a sign of de-escalation. Putin was planning the opposite. These analysts have struggled to understand that Putin might not be motivated by liberal cost-benefit calculations, and is more interested in military prestige and a desire to recreate old Russian empires instead. In his address on 21 February, Putin couldn’t have made clearer the value he places on Ukraine. He sees it as an “inalienable part of [Russia’s]…spiritual space”.
The liberal culture of complacency has been facilitated by a lack of diversity of thought in elite institutions. A Legatum Institute survey of universities across Australia, Canada, the UK and the US found that just 11 per cent identified as right wing. Of course, where one sits on this issue doesn’t necessarily translate according to political affiliations. The lack of right wing thinkers in our institutions does have two implications, however. Firstly, I suspect that having fewer conservative academics at the very least reduced the scope for more pessimistic analyses and challenges to liberal groupthink. Secondly, as I mentioned in my recent Telegraph article, the growing influence of the critical theory left and its supplanting of traditional subjects with an obsession with race, gender and Western imperialism presents fewer opportunities to challenge both liberal and radical leftist assumptions about contemporary war and diplomacy.
Russia’s new invasion of Ukraine must be a wake-up call. Part of this awakening should be the realisation that the greatest check against cultural complacency is having diversity of thought in our universities, media organisations and in government. As Western elites failed to listen to those of us who were sounding the alarm about a new Cold War, the 1980s are now calling us with a vengeance.
Dr Chris Newton is a military historian and a former defence policy adviser to the Conservative Party.
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