Autocrats abroad appear to be following the Russian leader's lead
While it is a tiresome tic of liberal analysts to compare every world event to the dark 1930s, it must be said that in one respect the events planned for today genuinely threaten to return our continent to the worst days before the great global cataclysm. This afternoon, the Russian Duma is set to recognise the annexation of Ukraine’s partly-conquered provinces of Luhansk, Donetsk, Kherson and Zaporizhia. This is no no doubt a means to ward off any further Ukrainian counter-offensives — already threatening Russia’s meagre gains in this war — by making them at a stroke of a pen an assault against Russia itself.
By declaring these Ukrainian territories an inalienable part of Russia, Putin grants himself the right to respond with devastating force against any further Ukrainian gains. His acolytes have not been wary of threatening nuclear war, and the prospect of his using at least a tactical nuclear weapon on our home continent is now, unfortunately, not something we can easily dismiss. There is a clear path towards further, once unthinkable, escalation and no visible route towards de-escalation. The immediate prospects are extremely bad indeed.
But more generally, the breaking of the longstanding international taboo against the annexation of another country’s territory, foreshadowed by the 2014 annexation of Crimea, is not limited to Ukraine. Putin’s erratic frenemy, Turkey’s President Erdogan, has been emboldened by his quasi-annexation of much of northern Syria to now threaten an invasion of Greece’s Aegean islands, warning Greece that “support from America and Europe will not save you.” Such an assault would instigate a bloody war between two of NATO’s largest and best-equipped armed forces, drag in France (which is pledged to defend Greece) and sink the Atlantic alliance.
To Europe’s east, Azerbaijan’s aggressive dictator and Erdogan ally, Ilham Aliyev, has escalated from his successful war against the disputed Armenian-held territory of Karabakh to attempt an invasion of Armenia proper. It is a sad irony for Armenia that her only hope of fending off Azerbaijan’s aggression depended on Russia: distracted by his flagging war in Ukraine, and with a personal antipathy to Armenia’s weak and West-leaning leader Nikol Pashinyan, Putin is unlikely to come to the embattled nation’s rescue.
Across Europe’s eastern fringes then, from the Baltic to the Aegean and the Caucasus, Eurasian autocrats have been emboldened by the prospect of America’s seeming decline to redraw our continent’s map as they see fit, irrespective of the wishes of the peoples who live in the territories they now claim. Correctly, Macron made the inviolability of national borders, rather than vague appeals to liberalism or democracy, the focus of his recent UN speech, warning of a “new imperialism” that is setting the stage “for other wars of annexation in Europe, today and perhaps tomorrow in Asia, or Africa or Latin America.” And it is reassuring to see that the Biden administration, along with its support for Ukraine’s war for national self-determination, has come out, at least rhetorically, in strong and rare support for both Greece and Armenia’s right to the very same.
But fine words may soon need to be matched by strong action if these dark trends continue. Before America is soon distracted by another great crisis in the Pacific, and by its own internal woes, us Europeans must learn to defend ourselves from our eastern rivals. A dark winter is drawing in, and the wolves are already howling at our door.