When an army dispatched by Vladimir Putin marched into Ukraine on February 24, 2022, next to no one expected the citizens of that country to put up a fight, cause the invasion to stall, and retake much of the territory lost—and virtually everyone supposed that the United States and its allies in Europe would acquiesce in Russia’s conquest of its neighbor. With regard to this dispute, appeasement had for some time been their preferred policy; and, after having witnessed America’s botched withdrawal from Afghanistan six months before, Putin could not imagine a dramatic shift in policy on the part of Joseph Biden. The man was a weakling. Of that, he was sure.

It was only when, two days after the invasion, Volodymyr Zelensky refused the American president’s offer of escape, saying, “I need ammunition, not a ride.” And when, six weeks thereafter, Ukrainian soldiers, armed with Javelin missiles, forced the withdrawal of the Russian tanks sent to capture Kiev that attitudes began to change. The Ukrainian president had made Biden a request that, with the midterms looming, the American president could not refuse. Dithering was not an option. The mess in Afghanistan had been a blot on his escutcheon. Politically, Biden could not afford a second foreign-policy debacle—especially one in which the United States stood idly by while in Europe, of all places, an imperialist dictatorship slaughtered determined freedom-fighters, captured their intrepid leader, and executed the man.

The effect on public opinion of what Zelensky said and of what his soldiers did on this occasion was electric, and its impact in Europe was no less profound than in the United States. Prior to that spring, to say that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization was in disarray would have been an understatement. Apart from the countries that shared a border with Russia, none of its members were spending on defense anything remotely like what they had pledged, and the United States was looked upon with a disapproval bordering on contempt in Germany and, to a lesser extent, elsewhere. The Germans and the citizens in some of their neighboring countries supposed that all disputes could be resolved by negotiation. They had all but renounced even threatening a resort to force—and they prided themselves on what they took to be their moral superiority to their less civilized, nominal allies on the other side of the Atlantic. Although repeatedly warned by the Americans, they could not imagine that their becoming dependent on the Russian dictatorship for energy posed any danger to anyone.

Between them, Putin and his minions and Zelensky and his shattered the illusion that history had come to an end and that there would be no more wars of any consequence in Europe. In the process, they breathed new life into an old, nearly moribund alliance thought to have outlived its usefulness. Between them, moreover, they persuaded the Swedes and the Finns, hitherto neutral, to vote to join NATO—which, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Turkey notwithstanding, they will surely achieve. In practice, this means that the Baltic Sea has become NATO’s lake. If in the coming months, the Ukrainians drive the Russians from the Crimea, the same will be true for the Black Sea. Even if the Russians win or there is a ceasefire and a truce, the war with Ukraine will be remembered as a catastrophe, no less by those in Russia who harbor atavistic, imperial ambitions with regard to Europe than by those who had hoped that Russia would become a normal European power.

There is in this a measure of irony. Post-Cold War Europe was no threat to Russia. There is not a country on that continent that harbors a claim on Russian territory. In Asia, however, there is one such country, and it is publicly dedicated to overturning what it calls the “unequal” treaties it negotiated with other powers in the past—among them the 19th-century agreement that awarded Siberia to Russia. The other legacy of Vladimir Putin’s obsession with re-establishing the Russian empire in Europe may well be his nation’s loss of that territory. He has, in effect, made Russia a satellite of the one country with claims on its territory.

Whether the debacle in Ukraine will catapult another leader to the helm in Russia, attuned to the real threat posed to Russia by China, remains to be seen. It may be too late to do anything about Russia’s dependence on its only declared enemy. In the late 1960s, Charles de Gaulle predicted that, by the end of the 20th century, Russia’s border in the east would end at the Urals. It is tolerably likely that he erred only in underestimating the time it would require for this to take place.

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