“We won’t see a second Cold War”

Russia’s attack on Ukraine calls the security architecture in Europe into question. In an interview with Globe, ETH Professor Andreas Wenger explains the medium- and long-term consequences for international and Swiss security policy.
Andreas Wenger is Professor of Swiss and International Security Politics and Director of the Center for Security Studies at ETH Zurich. (Photograph: ETH Zurich)

Professor Wenger, does the Russian attack on Ukraine mark the end of an era that began with the collapse of the Soviet Union?

Andreas Wenger: It certainly looks like it. The war in Ukraine is forcing European societies to abandon their vision of a liberal and integrative European security order. And that’s because this vision cannot be squared with Russian thinking and Russian behaviour. War as the continuation of politics by other means has, sadly, not yet been erased from the history books.

Does the war also mark a watershed for Russia?

From the Russian perspective, the post-Cold War era evidently came to an end somewhat earlier. The war in Georgia in 2008 was Putin’s way of showing the world that Russia was not about to tolerate any further expansion of NATO. And his intention behind the annexation of the Crimea in 2014, itself followed by the “covert” intervention in eastern Ukraine, was to stymie Ukraine’s accession to the EU. It’s been obvious for quite some time that Russia and the West have irreconcilable conceptions of political order. The West has neglected to seriously engage with this realignment of the European security order. A vital question here would have been to think about what role Russia and the countries that lie between Russia and NATO might play within this new order.

«It’s been obvious for quite some time that Russia and the West have irreconcilable conceptions of political order. The West has neglected to seriously engage with this realignment of the European security order.»      Andreas Wenger

Many people were taken aback by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Were you surprised?

The escalation of the crisis came as no surprise to me. What was unusual was that President Putin was remarkably open about what he wanted and thereby forced the West into an initial round of crisis diplomacy. Besides, it’s not as if Russia surprised the West with a fait accompli on the military level. Putin amassed a full-scale intervention force over the course of many weeks. In parallel, he tightened his grip on civil society and the Russian press. Obviously, there was no way Ukraine and the West could accept Russia’s maximum demands. But, at the same time, it became increasingly clear that there was a serious probability of military intervention on an unknown scale.

How do you explain the timing of the attack?

For one thing, Putin seems to be under the impression that time is running out for him to cement his political legacy. The way he sees it, Russia’s place is back at the table with the other great powers. And he expects those powers to show respect for Russia’s own ambitions in this sphere. But under President Zelenskiy’s leadership, Ukraine has shifted more and more towards the West. At the same time, the mass demonstrations in Belarus have forced President Lukashenko to close ranks with Putin. In other words, there’s been a lot happening in Putin’s “Russian sphere of influence”. For another thing, Putin likely saw it as a favourable moment on the international level. For example, the US government was still subject to infighting, and in terms of foreign policy, the Biden administration cut a poor figure with its hasty retreat from Afghanistan. Europe, for its part, was absorbed in its own affairs, and with the departure of Angela Merkel, the last link to the old West vanished. Meanwhile, Russia has stepped up its partnership with China.

Could the West have avoided war by taking more decisive action?

That’s the subject of intense debate among experts in the US. President Biden has been criticised for his early announcement that NATO would not be sending troops to Ukraine. The argument is that the massive build-up of Russian troops should have been met much earlier by a countervailing military force. In my view, these charges fall short of the mark. They are too narrowly military in their thinking and overlook the fact that the Europeans would not have fallen into line with such a policy.

Has anything surprised you about the early phase of combat?

Three things surprised me: the hesitancy of the Russian military campaign; the unexpectedly staunch resistance of the Ukrainian armed forces, along with the indomitable spirit shown by the Ukrainian people; and finally, the rapid, coordinated and unexpectedly tough countermeasures adopted by the US and Europe. Everything that has happened so far is the result of these three factors and the interplay between them.

How do you explain that?

The difficulties encountered by the Russian army are down to strategic, operational and tactical shortcomings. By contrast, the Ukrainian leadership has fought a well-planned information war, along with all the drawbacks that entails. By pursuing a skilful strategy of political internationalisation, it has unleashed a broad wave of solidarity. For now, it remains unclear just what role covert military support from the US has played in the battlefield successes to date. Moreover, a key factor in the West’s response is that the US has let Europe take the political lead and instead focused on bolstering NATO’s deterrence and defence capabilities.

Can we already foresee the medium- and long-term consequences of the war for international relations?

A lot depends on how it progresses. As ever, the medium- and long-term consequences will become visible only once the “fog of war” has lifted from the conflict zone and domestic political debates have calmed down somewhat. We’ve still some way to go before that.

Could the war mark the beginning of the end for Putin?

Right now, very different outcomes of the war are possible, each with different consequences for Russia. In the long run, it may indeed turn out that the war heralded the end of Putin’s regime. And then it might well become possible to launch a dialogue on the future of the European security order and a new chapter in Russo-European relations. At present, however, it looks more likely that Putin will hold onto power, with Russia internationally isolated and Ukraine facing years of insurgency. In this scenario, relations between the West and Russia would be governed by the logic of deterrence for the foreseeable future. In turn, Russia would move even further eastwards, and the strategic partnership with China would probably deepen.

«At present, it looks more likely that Putin will hold onto power, with Russia internationally isolated and Ukraine
facing years of insurgency.»     
Andreas Wenger

Will there be a new Cold War?

No, the world will not see another Cold War, like in the 20th century. The international situation has shifted too far for that. Europe is no longer the hinge of a bipolar system. The centre of gravity in world politics has shifted to Asia and the Pacific. Relations between China and the United States form the main axis in a multipolar system of great powers, which Europe and Russia will then group around. Given the complex economic and institutional interdependencies of such a system, states will find themselves always having to cooperate in certain areas in order to be able to compete in others.

How much of a role did the rivalry between the US and China play in the outbreak of war?

Both the outbreak of the war and its cessation can be understood only by factoring in the roles of the US and China. One of the reasons why China intensified its strategic partnership with Russia in the period leading up to the war was to form a counterweight to the defence partnership between the US, the UK, Australia and India. This reinforced Putin’s position. At the same time, the US has relinquished political leadership to Europe in the Ukraine crisis so as to be able to focus more on hotspots in the Pacific. Washington has no desire at all to get drawn into a war on two fronts.

In the past, China has consistently championed the principles of territorial integrity and non-interference. Are we witnessing a shift in Chinese foreign policy?

The longer the war continues and the more intensive it becomes, the more difficult it will be for China to paper over the contradictions in its position: first, the need not to criticise Russia, although the war cannot be in China’s interest; second, to repudiate Western sanctions without becoming a target itself of those sanctions; and third, to fully uphold the principles of unconditional sovereignty and territorial integrity, which must then apply to Ukraine as well. The outcome of the war will also have an impact on the partnership between Russia and China. Should this relationship deepen, Russia is likely to become more and more the junior partner.

Turning to the question of European security, can Russia and Europe find their way back to a stable architecture?

The relationship between Russia and Europe is highly asymmetric: Russia has a strong military, but is not a global player economically; conversely, the EU is strong economically but still depends on the US for military support. In a conflict between the two, military firepower comes up against regulatory commercial power. That said, Russia will have to think carefully in the future about whether to use its military superiority in a similar way against a NATO member, given that the risks of nuclear escalation are high. If, in the long term, Russia and the EU are to rebuild stable relations, they will need to learn how to combine geopolitics with a regulatory, “rule-based” politics.

«If Russia and the EU are to rebuild stable relations, they will need to learn how to combine geopolitics with a regulatory, ‘rule-based’ politics.»      Andreas Wenger

In response to the outbreak of war, the EU has remained remarkably united and has agreed to an unprecedented package of sanctions. Will we now see the EU playing a more dominant role in world politics?

It is crucial that Europe reflect critically on its improvised strategic decisions of recent weeks. Alongside the US, the EU has been able to use its regulatory power as a broad instrument of coercion. In so doing, it has placed Russia under huge economic pressure. At the same time, however, it has become clear that the threat of sanctions has only limited force. If sanctions are applied only in the midst of a crisis, there is a risk they will isolate an entire society and lead to a spiralling politicisation of the economy.

In response to the Russian attack, Germany plans to spend 100 billion euros on its armed forces. Is Europe about to assume greater responsibility for its own defence?

If implemented, Germany’s shift towards higher defence spending opens up interesting long‑term prospects. It could reinforce Europe’s conventional military capabilities and bring about a certain convergence of strategy among EU member states. But for the foreseeable future, Europe remains dependent on the security guarantees provided by the US nuclear deterrent.

What impact has the conflict had on NATO?

Putin has conjured up the very thing he wanted to avoid: NATO’s focus has now shifted back to the principle of collective defence; solidarity among member states is higher than it has been for a long time, at least for now; and military deterrence capabilities in Eastern Europe are stronger than ever before. Coordination with the EU has also improved, as have relations with Finland and Sweden. On the other hand, the political balance between NATO’s political and military functions remains fragile. In a multipolar system, the situation can shift rapidly, with immediate implications for the level of solidarity between member states.

What do you mean by that?

It’s possible, for example, that the war in Ukraine will lead to a direct conflict between Russia and NATO. By the same token, a change of administration in the US or the onset of a military crisis in the Pacific would have implications for the alliance. At the end of the day, we’re still looking at the question of how Europe can shoulder greater responsibility for its own military security.

«For Switzerland, the crucial issue will be how the great powers react to the outcome of the crisis and the future development of the European security order.»      Andreas Wenger

Let’s finish by turning to Switzerland. What are the longer-term consequences for Swiss security and defence policy?

Again, that depends very much on how the war develops. For Switzerland, the crucial issue will be how the great powers react to the outcome of the crisis and the future development of the European security order. For example, the scope for Switzerland to continue its policy of neutrality will also depend on whether the very far-reaching package of sanctions against Russia remains an isolated example or whether the recourse to sanctions as a European instrument of coercion is likely to become the norm. 

More and more people in Switzerland are calling for increased military investment. What do you think about that?

We must avoid making any hasty decisions. We need to take a careful look at the military means that have enabled the Ukrainian forces to stave off, for a surprisingly long time, a mechanised enemy with substantially superior firepower. Switzerland must then draw the appropriate conclusions for its own purposes.