Shortly after the end of World War II in Europe, which began when Germany attacked Poland and Britain honored its commitment to Poland, Henry “Chips” Channon, a Conservative member of Parliament, attended a high-society event in London with Lady Cunard. Gazing upon the lavish gathering of the upper crust, and marveling at how quickly normality had been restored for those whose normality was especially enviable, Channon said contentedly, “This is what we have been fighting for.” Lady Cunard replied dryly, “Why, are they all Poles?”
Wars, including the one that began 10 months ago, cause events to take unanticipated caroms that, cumulatively, eclipse the wars’ origins. The world at the end of 2022 was remarkably changed from when the year dawned. On Feb. 24, Vladimir Putin could not have imagined that Sweden’s and Finland’s swift decisions to join NATO would extend the alliance’s border with Russia many more miles than his faltering army has advanced into Ukraine.
Three of the most spectacular geostrategic blunders of the past 250 years have involved Russia: Napoleon’s invasion 210 years ago, Hitler’s invasion 129 years later and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine 81 years after that. Putin aimed to show that Russia is a formidable nation - and that Ukraine is not a nation. He insisted that “Ukraine” is merely a geographical, not a political, designation. Instead, he demonstrated that Russia, with an economy significantly smaller than Italy’s - and smaller than the gross domestic product of Texas - is even less impressive politically than it is materially because its authoritarian culture breeds stagnation, corruption and toadyism.
And, as Henry Kissinger recently wrote in Britain’s Spectator, “Ukraine has become a major state in Central Europe for the first time in modern history.” This has “mooted the original issues regarding Ukraine’s membership in NATO. Ukraine has acquired one of the largest and most effective land armies in Europe, equipped by America and its allies. A peace process should link Ukraine to NATO, however expressed. The alternative of neutrality is no longer meaningful, especially after Finland and Sweden joined NATO.”
These two Scandinavian countries were among a handful of European nations that strengthened their militaries in response to Putin’s 2014 seizure of Crimea from Ukraine. In 2022, two weeks after they submitted applications to join NATO, a third Scandinavian nation, Denmark, voted overwhelmingly (67%) “yes” in a referendum that had been rejected twice, ending Denmark’s opt-out from some European Union defense discussions and missions.
In two other caroms from Putin’s aggression, the two nations that by their aggressions initiated World War II have been propelled into more active commitment to preventing aggression. Putin’s war began on a Thursday; the following Sunday, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz announced a “Zeitenwende” or turning point: an increase in defense spending unthinkable four days earlier.
This month, Japan, whose southwesternmost island is closer to Taiwan than Taiwan is to mainland China, says in its new National Security Strategy report: “In no way can we be optimistic about what the future of the international community will bring.” So, Japan, in another incremental step away from its formal (meaning constitutional) pacifism, is ramping up military spending beyond weapons classified, with varying degrees of plausibility, as merely defensive. New “counterstrike” weapons will include hundreds of U.S. Tomahawk cruise missiles that can reach targets more than 1,000 miles away in China. If Japan meets (as most NATO nations have usually not done) the NATO standard of spending 2% of GDP on its military, it will have the world’s third-largest defense budget. So, China is more vulnerable - and, presumably, deterrable - because the international order has been shaken by events in Central Europe.
Russia is less a potentially hair-trigger threat than on March 30, 1981, when President Ronald Reagan was shot. William Inboden, in “The Peacemaker: Ronald Reagan, the Cold War, and the World on the Brink,” reports that the two Soviet ballistic missile submarines usually lurking off the U.S. coast had that day moved closer than normal to the coast - and could strike Washington in 10 minutes and 47 seconds. Senior U.S. officials, worried that the attempted assassination of Reagan might have been a prelude to an attack, readied the U.S. B-52 bomber fleet for retaliatory strikes.
Forty-one years later, the world remains a dangerous place. But in 2022, what the Soviets used to call “the correlation of world forces” shifted substantially against the Russian rump of the Soviet empire, and against China, which 10 eventful months ago said there are “no limits” to its cooperation with the rump.
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