The Return of Power Politics

The West is having to reconsider its ambitions of promoting democracy around the world – ambitions that were behind the enlargement of NATO, over Russian objections – and to concentrate more on defending it. A new containment and engagement strategy, based on realpolitik, is needed both for Moscow and for Beijing.

Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine is a sobering sign that militarized great-power competition is back. The transatlantic alliance must revise its grand strategy accordingly and now focus more on defending instead of expanding the democratic community. Throughout the building crisis over Ukraine, the West’s ideological North Star– the promotion of democracy –guided statecraft.

The commitment to keeping NATO’s doors open to Ukraine constituted a laudable and principled stand against the efforts of an autocratic Russian Federation to further violate Ukraine’s sovereignty, scuttle its democratic institutions, and quash its aspirations to join the West. Yet Vladimir Putin would have none of it, launching a savage war of choice  aimed at putting Ukraine back under Moscow’s sway.

Putin owns this war and the death and destruction that it has unleashed. 

The West’s muscular reaction– arming Ukraine, sanctioning Russia, bolstering NATO’s eastern flank –is therefore fully justified. Yet legitimate outrage over Russia’s pummeling of Ukraine should not obscure the need to draw sober lessons from the war.

Perhaps the most important lesson of all is that power politics is back.

Ideological ambition must more regularly yield to strategic realities in order to ensure that the West’s purposes remain in sync with its means. To be sure, by combining its values with its power, the West has succeeded in bending the arc of history away from the rules of realpolitik and toward greater freedom, human dignity, and peace. But the transatlantic community must now temper its idealist ambitions with greater strategic pragmatism, and thus successfully navigate a world that has just taken a step backward toward Hobbesian realism. 

The more dangerous and competitive world that is taking shape today will naturally help engender transatlantic unity – just as the threat posed by the Soviet Union contributed to NATO’s cohesion during the Cold War. Yet the political ills that have been plaguing the West, even if they are out of the headlines, have not gone away. 

Russia’s invasion is certainly a wake-up call for the West, but the prospect of a new Cold War will not by itself cure the United States and Europe of illiberalism and political dysfunction. In fact, the war in Ukraine will likely have economic spillover effects that foster political blowback. Accordingly, America and Europe face a double challenge: they need to continue getting their own houses in order even while they stand together to resist Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine.

From Yalta to NATO Enlargement to Ukraine

The war in Ukraine has brought to the surface underlying tensions between the West’s ideological ambitions and global geopolitical realities. These tensions were for the most part in abeyance amid the bipolarity of the Cold War, when geopolitical expediency guided the strategy of containment. Indeed, the Yalta agreement struck by Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, and GV Joseph Stalin at the end of World War II was the ultimate realist compromise, leaving much of Eastern Europe under Soviet domination.

Roosevelt and Churchill were wisely yielding principle to pragmatism by providing Soviet Russia a buffer zone on its western flank. Such strategic restraint paid off handsomely; it contributed to stability during the long decades of  the Cold War, buying time for a patient policy of containment that ultimately led to the fall of the Berlin Wall and the implosion of the Soviet Union.

NATO’s eastward expansion then began in the 1990s, the heady era of unipolarity when the West was confident that the triumph of its power and purpose would usher in the universalization of democracy, capitalism, and a rules based international order. The Clinton administration embraced a grand strategy of “democratic enlargement,” a key plank of which was opening  NATO’s doors to Europe’s new democracies and formally welcoming the states of the defunct and discredited Warsaw Pact. 

NATO’s eastward enlargement has yielded both moral and strategic gains. The West capitalized on the opportunity to reverse Yalta; NATO members could reassert their moral authority by integrating Europe’s newest democracies. The allure of meeting the political standards for entry into the Western alliance helped guide more than a dozen countries through democratic  transitions. Opening NATO’s doors also yielded geopolitical gains, providing the alliance strategic depth and increasing its aggregate military strength. The defense guarantee that comes with membership serves as a strong deterrent to Russian adventurism – a prized commodity given Moscow’s renewed appetite for invading its neighbors.  

But despite these principled and practical benefits, the enlargement of NATO also came with a significant strategic downside.

It laid the foundations for a post-Cold War security order that excluded Russia while bringing the world’s most formidable military alliance ever closer to the Federation’s borders.

It was precisely for this reason that the Clinton administration initially launched the Partnership for Peace, a security framework that enabled all European states to cooperate with NATO without drawing new dividing lines. But that alternative fell by the wayside early in January of 1994, when President Bill Clinton declared in Prague that “the question is no longer whether NATO will take on new members but when and how.

The stage was set for the first wave of expansion, which brought the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland into NATO in 1999, followed since by four additional bouts of enlargement. So far, NATO has admitted fifteen countries (encompassing some 100 million people) that were formerly in Russia’s sphere of influence.

Moscow’s Disapproval

The Kremlin has objected to NATO enlargement from the outset. As early as 1993, Russian President Boris Yeltsin warned that Russians across the political spectrum “would no doubt perceive this as a sort of neo-isolation of our country in diametric opposition to its natural admission into a Euro-Atlantic space.” In a face-to-face meeting with Clinton in 1995, Yeltsin was more direct: “I see nothing but humiliation for Russia if you proceed […]. Why do you want to do this? We need a new structure for pan-European security, not old ones! […] For me to agree  to the borders of nato expanding towards those of Russia – that would constitute a betrayal on my part of the Russian people.”  

Moscow’s discomfort has only grown since Putin took the helm in 1999 and reversed Yeltsin’s flirtation with a more liberal brand of governance. At the Munich Security Conference in 2007, Putin declared that NATO enlargement “represents a serious provocation.” He went on to ask: “Why is it necessary to put military infrastructure on our borders during this expansion?”

Soon thereafter, Russia began concrete efforts to stop further enlargement, including by intervening in Georgia in 2008. In 2012, Moscow allegedly attempted to organize a coup in Montenegro to block its accession to the alliance, and then worked to prevent North Macedonia’s membership (according to various sources, such as BBC World News and the European  Leadership network). These efforts were to no avail; Montenegro joined the alliance in 2017 and North Macedonia followed suit in 2020.

Now Putin has invaded Ukraine – motivated, at least in part, by his determination to block its pathway to NATO.

To be sure, Moscow’s horror at the prospect of Ukraine’s membership in the alliance arose at least in part from wistful nostalgia for the geopolitical heft of Soviet days, as well as from a degree of paranoia about a “color revolution” coming to Russia and mystical delusions about the unbreakable civilizational links between Russia and Ukraine.

Moreover, Putin sustains his nationalistic political brand through pursuing a blustery, confrontational foreign policy. Amid repression and stagnation at home, he regularly turns to ambition abroad to sustain his popularity and grip on power. Nonetheless, disgruntlement over NATO enlargement clearly contributed to his decision to invade Ukraine. In his February 24 address to the nation justifying the beginning of the “special military operation,” Putin pointed to “the fundamental threats which irresponsible Western politicians had created for Russia.” He went on to clarify: “I am referring to the eastward expansion of nato, which is moving its military infrastructure ever closer to the Russian border.” 

The West’s Mistakes

The West erred in dismissing Russia’s sustained objections to NATO’s eastward enlargement. As a matter of course, major powers feel threatened when other major powers show up in their neighborhoods. The United States spent most of the nineteenth century ushering Britain, France, Russia, and Spain out of the Americas and has considered the Western Hemisphere off limits to outside powers ever since. Nonetheless, the United States and its allies have largely ignored Moscow’s discomfort with NATO’s encroaching borders. 

The West has rather viewed NATO’s eastward expansion primarily through the benign lens of its principled commitment to spreading democracy. Enlarging the alliance has been about spreading republican values and removing geopolitical dividing lines rather than drawing new ones. As he launched NATO’s open door policy, Clinton claimed that doing so would “erase the  artificial line in Europe drawn by Stalin at the end of World War II.

Madeleine Albright, his secretary of state, affirmed that “NATO is a defensive alliance that […] does not regard any state as its adversary.”

The purpose of expanding the alliance, she explained, was to build a Europe “whole and free,” noting that “NATO poses no danger to Russia.

That’s the line that Washington has taken ever since, including when it came to Ukraine’s potential membership. As the crisis over Ukraine mounted, President Biden insisted that “the United States and NATO are not a threat to Russia. Ukraine is not threatening Russia.” Secretary of State Antony Blinken agreed: “NATO itself is a defensive alliance […]. The idea that Ukraine represents a threat to Russia or, for that matter, that nato represents a threat to Russia is profoundly wrong and misguided.” Jens Stoltenberg, NATO’s secretary general, was on the same page: “NATO is not a threat to Russia.

For almost three decades, NATO and Russia have been talking past each other. As Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, quipped amid the flurry of diplomacy that preceded the Russian invasion of Ukraine: “We’re having the conversation of a mute person with a deaf person. It’s as though we are hearing each other, but not listening.”

Why Now? Moscow’s Mistakes

Putin’s invasion of Ukraine makes clear that this disconnect between Russia and the West has exploded into the open. This only happened in the year 2022 for a number of reasons. Moscow took as a strategic setback and political insult the entry into the North Atlantic Treaty Organization of a band of countries stretching from the Baltics to the Balkans. But Ukraine looms much larger in the Russian imagination; in Putin’s own words: “Russians and Ukrainians are one people. Kyiv is the mother of Russian cities. 

The 2019 split of the Ukrainian Orthodox church from its Russian counterpart was an especially bitter pill;  the Ukrainian church had been subordinated to the Moscow patriarch since 1686. Also, Russia today is far more capable of pushing back than it was during the early post-Cold War era, bolstered by its economic and military rebound and its partnership with China. 

To be sure, the Kremlin made several gross miscalculations in proceeding with its invasion of Ukraine. It vastly underestimated the willingness and capability of Ukrainians to fight back, producing significant Russian setbacks on the battlefield. Moscow also saw numerous sources of Western weakness– Brexit, the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan, the pandemic, inflation, ongoing polarization and populism –as proof that the West’s response would lack strength and scope.

In Putin’s mind, a combination of  Russian strength and Western frailty made it an opportune moment to throw  down the gauntlet in Ukraine.

But Putin was wrong; the West has demonstrated remarkable steadiness as it has armed Ukraine and imposed severe  sanctions against Russia.

These miscalculations help shed light on why Putin chose to address his grievances through war rather than diplomacy. Indeed, Putin had the opportunity to settle his objections to Ukraine’s membership in NATO at the negotiating table. In June 2022, Biden admitted that whether Ukraine joins the alliance “remains to be seen”; more recently, President Emmanuel Macron of France floated the idea of “Finlandization” for Ukraine– effective neutrality –and proposals for a formal moratorium on further enlargement circulated. The Kremlin could have picked up these leads, but instead opted for war – and is now responsible for the resulting tragedy.

The Return of Realpolitik

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine could mark the beginning of the end of Putin’s long reign; it is at least conceivable that his errant war could bring him down. But the West can hardly count on Putin’s demise. On the contrary, he has been cracking down on dissent and tightening his grip on Russian society. And even if Putin were to leave the scene, Russia’s foreign policy would presumably remain in the hands of elites who broadly share his outlook.

In all likelihood, Putin will remain at the helm into the next decade and Russia’s relationship with the West will head back toward prolonged militarized rivalry.

In light of the tight strategic partnership that has emerged between Moscow and Beijing and China’s own geopolitical ambitions, the Cold War 2.0 that is taking shape may well pit the West against a Sino-Russian bloc stretching from the Western Pacific to Eastern Europe. 

The West’s ideological ambition must now be more regularly tempered by strategic realities. The return of a two-bloc world that plays by the rules of realpolitik means that democratic allies will need to dial back their efforts  to expand the liberal order, returning instead to a strategy of patient containment aimed at preserving geopolitical stability and avoiding great-power war. The United States and its partners should seek stable balances of power in the European and Asia-Pacific theaters. 

At the same time, taming an interdependent world will require working  across ideological lines. Even as the West seeks to foil and punish Moscow’s aggression and stand up to Beijing, it also needs to be pragmatic in order to navigate a world that, although more unruly, is also irreversibly tethered together. As during the Cold War, democracies will need a hybrid strategy of  containment and engagement.

And now that Russia and China are regularly teaming up, such pragmatism should entail efforts to put distance between Moscow and Beijing – following the lead of Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger who, in the 1970s, weakened the Communist bloc by driving a wedge between China and the Soviet Union.

The Enemy Within

As the Atlantic democracies focus on defending rather than expanding the West, they should remain mindful of the West’s own internal vulnerabilities. Even though Russia’s attack against Ukraine has generated transatlantic unity and resolve, the illiberal populism that has been plaguing the Western democracies is by no means gone for good. It is true that, during the Cold War, the discipline that the Soviet threat imposed on American politics helped mute partisan conflict over foreign policy.

Similarly, the current prospect of a new era of militarized rivalry with Russia and China is reviving bipartisan cooperation on matters of statecraft, to a degree. This return to bipartisanship, however, is already proving to be short-lived.

The bipartisanship of the Cold War era rested not just on the Soviet threat, but also on the ideological centrism sustained by widely shared prosperity within the United States.

Today, however, such centrism is missing. Prolonged economic insecurity and gaping inequality have depopulated the American political center, and ideological moderation has given way to bitter polarization. 

Just before the war in Ukraine captured the country’s attention, public intellectuals in the US were debating the prospects for civil war. According to a  poll conducted in late 2021, 64% of Americans feared that their own country’s democracy was “in crisis and at risk of failing. Americans should not operate under the illusion that a more competitive international environment will of its own accord restore the country’s political health – especially amid high inflation rates. 

In similar fashion, Europe has demonstrated impressive solidarity and resolve during the war in Ukraine, but the Union will undoubtedly face renewed political challenges as it deals with additional economic burdens, including weaning itself off Russian energy. Viktor Orban’s reelection in Hungary and the surging strength of France’s hard right do not augur well for Europe’s hold on the political center.

Both sides of the Atlantic still have hard work to do to get their own houses in order if they are to ensure the political and economic strength of the globe’s leading liberal democracies.

Given the potential for the politics of grievance to make a comeback in the United States, the Biden administration urgently needs to continue advancing its domestic agenda.

Investing in infrastructure, education, technology, healthcare, and other domestic programs offers the best way to alleviate the electorate’s discontent and to revive the country’s ailing political center. Europe’s agenda for renewal should include economic restructuring and investment, reform of immigration policy and border control, as well as more pooling of sovereignty on  foreign and defense policy.

Putin’s brutal attack on Ukraine has helped revive the West. But even as the Atlantic democracies resist Russia’s attempt to subjugate its neighbor and prepare for a more unruly and competitive world, they must continue to pay equal attention to the enemy within. Illiberal populism must be combated at home as well as abroad.



Peter Pomerantsev, “What the West will never understand about Putin’s Ukraine obsession,”  Time, January 22, 2022. 

See Jonathan Weisman, “Ukraine war shifts the agenda in Congress, empowering the center,”  New York Times, March 15, 2022. 

Joel Rose and Liz Baker, “Six in ten Americans say US democracy is in crisis as the ‘Big Lie’  takes root,” npr, January 3, 2022. 

On this subject, see Charles A. Kupchan and Peter L. Trubowitz, “The home front: why an internationalist foreign policy needs a stronger domestic foundation,” Foreign Affairs, May/June  2021. 

This essay draws on “Putin’s war in Ukraine is a watershed,” published in the New York Times on April 11, 2022, and on “Western unity starts at home,” published by Project Syndicate on March 30, 2022.

This article was published by Aspenia in printed issue 97-98, 2022.


Charles A. Kupchan

Charles Kupchan is professor of International Affairs at Georgetown University and senior fellow at  the Council on Foreign Relations. His most recent book is Isolationism: A history of America’s efforts to shield itself from the world.

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