I am a child of the Cold War. Growing up in Sweden, I was acutely aware of the occupation and suffering of the Baltic peoples. I visited Estonia and Latvia for the first time in 1974. In Riga I met a young Latvian who told me instantly: “We live in an occupied country.” My dream was to stand on the Red Square in Moscow and shout: “Down with communism!” In the fall of 1991, my dream came true, when I started working as an economic advisor to the new Russian reform government with my own office just off the Red Square.

The most beautiful time of my life was the second half of 1989, when the communist dictatorships in Eastern Europe collapsed one after the other under democratic pressure from the people, as Timothy Garton Ash captured so elegantly in his book We the People. Ralf Dahrendorf rightly compared these popular risings with the great liberal revolutions of 1848.

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Various forms of folly are proliferating. Much of the Western world has become spoiled and irresponsible.

The marker of the time was Francis Fukuyama’s outstanding essay, “The End of History.” While Fukuyama went too far in his interpretations, his essay remains a monument of the time. Communism was dead as an ideology and replaced by marketization and democracy. Its key passage reads:

“The passing of Marxism-Leninism first from China and then from the Soviet Union will mean its death as a living ideology of world historical significance. For while there may be some isolated true believers left in places like Managua, Pyongyang, or Cambridge, Massachusetts, the fact that there is not a single large state in which it is a going concern undermines completely its pretensions to being in the vanguard of human history. And the death of this ideology means the growing ‘Common Marketization’ of international relations, and the diminution of the likelihood of large-scale conflict between states.”

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Soon afterwards, Samuel Huntington published his book “The Third Wave” on the third wave of democratization that started in 1974 in Portugal and Spain, continued in most of Latin America, Eastern Europe, some countries in Asia, and much of Africa. For 30 years, from 1974 until 2004, ever more countries in the world became democratic according to Freedom House.

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For the world as a whole, this was a time of great economic growth and economic stability, while the collapse of communism was accompanied by great economic suffering. Altogether, the world has recorded 56 hyperinflations, that is, more than 50 percent inflation in the course of one month. Of these 56 hyperinflations, no less than half, 28, occurred in former communist countries in the former Soviet Bloc. Yet, from 2000 all these economic disasters had ended and the world as a whole grew more than ever from 2000 to 2007.

The West’s mistakes

One would hope that this increasing welfare would make people better, more enlightened and wiser, but alas that is rarely the case. Instead, various forms of folly are proliferating. Much of the Western world has become spoiled and irresponsible. According to the authoritative Freedom House, democracy in the world has declined every year since 2005. Meanwhile, the West has gone astray. I would emphasize three serious mistakes.

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First, the global financial crisis of 2008 was a typical example of excessive indebtedness because of gluttony. Since Western public debts are even larger now this can easily be repeated, as interest rates are rising.

Second, Western Europe foolishly believed in Fukuyama’s eternal peace and disarmed almost as badly as they did in the 1920s. Robert Kagan captured the European mind in his book “Of Paradise and Power” with the catchy phrase: “Americans are from Mars; Europeans are from Venus.” While many European states let their defense expenditures fall to as little as 1 percent of GDP, the United States maintained military expenditures of 3.5 percent of GDP and has steadily accounted for nearly 40 percent of global military expenditures.

Third, the West lost strategic focus. The terrorist attacks on New York and Washington on 9/11/2001 made the Western world go crazy, perceiving extreme Muslim fundamentalism as their main enemy. The US decision to go to war in Iraq was a costly mistake. In the meantime, both the United States and Europe ignored Russia’s renewed imperialism, which was evident since Putin’s anti-Western Munich speech in February 2007, and China’s rise.

Russia is the main threat

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The West ended up with a complete military failure. Europe disarmed and its limited military capabilities were misdirected to rather irrelevant theaters in Afghanistan and Iraq. The United States maintained its military force, but it became completely misdirected, losing sight of Russia being the main destabilizing force in the world.

Western security policy in Europe has been nothing but a series of misjudgments and failures since February 2007. At the NATO summit in Bucharest in April 2008, the United States advocated Membership Action Plans for Ukraine and Georgia, but they were vetoed by Germany and France. Ukraine and Georgia were left hanging in a security limbo, promised NATO membership but not offered any road to membership. As if to emphasize that NATO was not serious, Putin was invited and spoke aggressively about Ukraine not being a legitimate nation. As if to add insult to injury, President Bush went to see Putin in Sochi after the summit as if nothing had happened.

Obama’s blindness

Putin assessed the West accurately and attacked Georgia in August 2008, occupying one-fifth of the country. As the temporary chairman of the EU Council, French President Nicholas Sarkozy seized the initiative, condoning the Russian occupation, as beautifully recorded in the Le Monde editor Sylvie Kauffmann’s new book Les Aveuglés (The Blindsided). The West did not even impose any sanctions on Russia. In January 2009, Barack Obama became US president. One of his first initiatives was to launch his “reset” with Russia, effectively accepting Russia’s occupation of Georgian territories.

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Putin noticed that the West did not really mind his aggression, so why not continue? He had made his whole political career on wars – in 1999 against Chechnya, in 2003 against the Russian oligarchs, in 2008 against Georgia. Each war increased his popularity and facilitated his enhanced repression inside Russia, so why not continue?

In February 2014, when the Ukrainian parliament ousted President Viktor Yanukovych with a majority of more than two-thirds, Putin was ready. He utilized Russia’s lease of the Ukrainian port of Sevastopol in Crimea to suddenly occupy the whole peninsula with Russian special forces bereft of insignia. The lame US administration did not even state what was going on. Instead, it told the new provisional Ukrainian government not to pursue armed resistance. On March 18, Russia annexed Crimea.

The West refused to recognize this annexation. Both the United States and the EU imposed sanctions on the culprits, Crimea, and relevant enterprises, but that was it. Putin and his neo-imperialists cheered. On April 17, 2014, Putin made his most aggressive speech ever, calling for half of Ukraine, “New Russia,” to become Russian territory. Yet the new democratic Ukrainian authorities swiftly organized armed resistance to the attempts by Russian special forces to seize these territories. As a result, only half of the two easternmost regions, Donetsk and Luhansk, were seized by the Russian forces.

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Western Europe foolishly believed in Fukuyama’s eternal peace and disarmed almost as badly as they did in the 1920s.

One would have assumed that the United States would engage against this blatant Russian aggression, but President Obama remained laidback, underestimating the Russian threat to global security. In March 2014 he stated: “Russia is a regional power that is threatening some of its immediate neighbors – not out of strength but out of weakness.” He continued: “They don’t pose the number one national security threat to the United States.”

Obama refused to get engaged in Ukraine. He never even visited the country. Instead, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande saw it to be their duty to engage in the Minsk negotiations with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, elected in May 2014, and Putin. Initially, the Minsk process impeded the Russian offensive, but it did not lead to any peace. Instead, it offered Putin a respite to mobilize more forces for a future offensive.

After Russia sent in its special forces into Ukraine in the summer of 2014, first the United States and then the EU adopted far more serious sectoral sanctions on finance, oil technology and military technology in July. They limited Russian access to international finance. At this time, blatant Russian aggression was obvious. The West should have done everything to support Ukraine militarily. Instead, Washington got caught up in a futile internal conflict whether to provide “lethal” arms to Ukraine or not. Unfortunately, Obama won out against Vice President Joe Biden and most of his administration. The first countries to deliver real military support to Ukraine appear to have been the United Kingdom and Canada, while Europe stayed aside.

The erratic President Donald Trump allowed the delivery of Javelin anti-tank weapons, apparently because Obama had blocked it, but then insisted on using it to blackmail the newly elected President Volodymyr Zelensky into announcing an investigation against the Biden family. As his public statements show, Trump favored Putin, while not fully in control of his more pro-Ukrainian administration.

Anders Åslund is an adjunct professor at Georgetown University. His most recent book is Russia’s Crony Capitalism: The Path from Market Economy to Kleptocracy.

This article is reprinted with the author’s permission from The Jerusalem Strategic Tribune.  See the original here.

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