The political economy roots of war: ten theses on Vladimir Putin’s attack on Ukraine
This blog is an op-ed by one of IIPP’s visiting professors. The views expressed are that of the author only.
Why did Vladimir Putin decide to carry out an unprovoked assault on the Ukraine? What made him think he could get away with it? How did such a man end up in control of one of the world’s great powers in the post-Cold War era?
The answers to these questions are not really a mystery. Many of those answers have their roots in domestic and foreign policy decisions made in the countries that emerged victorious from the Cold War. Here is a brief attempt to summarise how and why we have come to this terrible moment, and in a way why it is so important that Putin is defeated.
This essay is also a brief for the proposition that if we don’t want new Putins to emerge, the wealthy and powerful countries of the developed world must move away from the neoliberal policies that brought us to this crisis.
So, let’s look at ten dynamics of the post 1989 world that got us here, beginning with what happened in the countries of the former Soviet Union in the 1990s.
1) The Western encouragement of the grossly unequal privatisation of the post-Soviet economy set the stage for a resurrection of authoritarianism in Russia, much as the Treaty of Versailles after World War I set the stage for a resurgence of German militarism.
2) The decision to expand NATO while not including Ukraine or Belarus, and while maintaining its character as an anti-Russian alliance, set the stage for a security crisis in east-central Europe, by neither reassuring Russia that it was secure nor deterring Russia from pursuing an imperial concept of security by seeking control over other former Soviet republics by force.
Then let us consider the example the West has set with regards to how to conduct international relations.
3) The U.S. and U.K.’s attack on Iraq in 2003 provided Vladimir Putin with a blueprint for his attack on the Ukraine, both politically and militarily.
Next let’s turn to the self-destructive nature of neoliberal economic policies:
4) Neoliberalism and its attendant financialisation, runaway inequality and erosion of democracy by plutocracy, undermined the political stability and cohesion of the world’s advanced democracies, and opened the door for Russian oligarchs to influence the political economy of the world’s democracies.
And we need to recognise the ironic symbiosis between neoliberalism in the advanced democracies and the rise of authoritarianism, fossil fuel dependence, and economic vulnerability in Russia.
5) Early in Putin’s rule of Russia, Russia turned decisively toward having its economy focused on producing raw materials for the global economy, and in particular producing fossil fuels. This choice was intertwined with the authoritarian drift of Russian society in these years. In the short run this choice produced substantial trade surpluses during the commodities boom of the early 2000’s. In the long run it both made Russia profoundly economically vulnerable, and placed Russia at odds with the overall direction of global society.
Finally, let’s explore all the ways that neoliberal governments in the developed world created the preconditions for Putin’s power to grow, and then let Putin use that power to undermine democracy around the world:
6) Brexit was encouraged by Putin’s government, and was part of a strategy for weakening the EU and NATO. The success of that effort emboldened Putin, led him to conclude that the UK would not seriously oppose him in his ambitions, and led to the relative isolation of the United Kingdom and the weakening of its voice in European affairs.
7) The international community’s tacit acceptance of Putin’s 2014 seizure of Ukrainian territory, earlier Russian military interventions in the Caucasus, and Russia’s role in the Assad regime’s genocide suppression of opposition in Syria — as well as the continued inclusion of Russia in the international community and the international economy, in particular its continued access to the U.K. financial and real estate markets — led Putin to conclude the international community would tolerate further Russian attacks on its neighbours.
8) The election of Donald Trump was substantially a response to the impact of the economics of neoliberalism on the U.S. economy and society, and put the U.S. government in the hands of a man who was and remains under the psychological domination of Vladimir Putin, for reasons that remain unclear. This led Putin to conclude the United States was not going to be an effective obstacle to his expansionist ambitions.
9) A substantial minority of the Republican Party in the United States became substantively sympathetic to Putin’s government because of Putin’s racism and homophobia, his championing of fossil fuels, and his authoritarianism. This part of the Republican Party, led by former President Trump, is now actively supporting Putin’s aggression, even as the majority of the Republican Party seeks more aggressive action against Putin, and has emboldened Putin.
Now where do we stand? As the entirety of Ukrainian society appears to be rising up against Putin’s army, now is the moment to think about how we might shape the peace. It will matter a lot how we treat Russia and Ukraine, and how we organise our own societies in the aftermath of COVID-19 and Putin so that we have more solidarity, and more civic trust, and we are less vulnerable to authoritarians. These are essentially the same questions that were faced by the victorious powers after both world wars, and which were handled completely differently in 1945 than in 1918. But now, in an era of the climate crisis and thermonuclear weapons, the stakes are much higher.
And so we come to the last summary point: what must we learn from this sordid history?
10) Russia’s attack on the Ukraine now makes clear that our failure to remember the lessons of the 20th century — the lessons of Versailles, of the New Deal, of Munich and of Bretton Woods — now threatens us with a repeat of the worst moments of the 20th century in the very places where those worst moments occurred. And it requires that the world’s democracies respond as we ultimately did then — with a unity and intensity our enemies did not think possible.
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