The disaggregation of the Warsaw Pact and Soviet Union has, over time, ushered in a new global constellation of major regional Powers that appears to represent an explosive mix of the pre-World War I (1892-1914) and InterWar (1919-1939) and periods.1

The three post-Cold War enlargements to eastern Europe (1999, 2002-04, 2008), coupled with promises of NATO membership (and significant military supports) for Ukraine and Georgia since 2008, along with Russia’s ongoing internal war in Chechnya (seen by Moscow as being backed by U.S. Arab Gulf allies) have all worked to provoke Russia into easily foreseen military interventions, first in Georgia in 2008, and then now in Ukraine since 2014 to 2022.

As I have argued in a previous MEER post, many Russian Democrats, including Boris Yel’tsin, had clearly warned Washington of the dangers of a Russian pan-nationalist backlash—if an expanding NATO remained on “autopilot” and if the U.S. and Europeans did not engage in full-fledged negotiations to implement a new system of European Security.

Moreover, as an integral aspect of the Russian backlash, the Russian Federation and China have forged a close counter-alliance that seeks to draw in Iran, Pakistan, North Korea, among other states, such as Turkey and India, if possible—in order to counter US-led alliances in Europe, the Far East and the wider Middle East—much as Weimar, and then Nazi, Germany had somewhat similarly reached out to Stalin’s Soviet Union.

As was the case before both World Wars I and II, the risk of two alliance systems colliding in an unexpected major power war are real.

A Mix of the Pre-World War I and Pre-World War II Analogies

During the Cold War, the global geo-strategic position of the Soviet Union as a Eurasian Superpower tended to parallel that of Imperial Germany before World War I as a continental European Great Power—while the United States played the role of the globally hegemonic Great Britain. Yet, once the Soviet Union collapsed at the end of the Cold War, much like Imperial Germany had collapsed after World War I, the Russian Federation lost most of the imperial controls that the Soviet Union had acquired over eastern Europe and over much of the world. Moscow now seeks to regain as much of its former global influence as possible.

After Moscow collapsed, Washington expanded its global hegemony by means of backing military interventions and peacekeeping operations in Iraq in 1990 and Kosovo in 1999, and then during the Global War on Terrorism, that followed the September 11, 2001 attacks, in Afghanistan in 2001, Iraq again in 2003, Libya in 2011, among others. In effect, while Great Britain adopted a largely isolationist stance after the collapse of Imperial Germany at the end of World War I, the U.S., by contrast, adopted a globally expansionist stance after the Soviet collapse, more like Great Britain before World War I than Britain before World War II.

In this comparative historical perspective, Soviet disaggregation and Imperial German collapse have resulted in a number of parallels for both the Russian Federation and Weimar/ Nazi Germany. The ongoing NATO-EU-Russian conflict over Ukraine since 2014, plus NATO-EU-Polish-Lithuanian-Russian tensions over a discontiguous Kaliningrad, for example, somewhat parallel British-French-Nazi German-Soviet disputes over Polish territory, plus Nazi German-Polish-Lithuanian disputes over a discontiguous eastern Prussia in geostrategic terms.

In effect, what was then called the “Polish corridor” (or what Warsaw prefers to call Pomerania to indicate that the region was Polish not German) to the free city of Danzig (now Gdansk) between Germany and East Prussia has been replaced in geostrategic terms by the Suwałki corridor that is a 65 km-long strip of land that leads from Russia and Belarus to Russia's Kaliningrad Oblast through NATO-controlled territory. If not soon mediated, expanded restrictions placed by Lithuania, backed by the EU, on Russian trade with Kaliningrad could spark unexpected conflict.

Moreover, the Russian military intervention in Ukraine since 2014 against peaceful NATO and EU efforts to draw all of Ukraine into both military and political-economic alliance, are leading to a new partition of Ukraine—albeit with significant differences from the interwar period and Poland/ Ukraine in terms of geopolitical intent. By the same token, Russian efforts to obtain a closer alliance with Belarus as a former member of the Soviet Union somewhat parallel Weimar, and then Nazi German, efforts to forge a closer union with Austria.

The three uncoordinated NATO-E.U. enlargements of 1999-2008 into the Central and Eastern European “shatterbelt” can furthermore be compared and contrasted with the interwar Polish efforts to forge a European confederation or Intermarium after the break-up of the Tsarist Russian and Austro-Hungarian Empires in 1918-21—before the Soviet Union was able to re-absorb most of Belarus’ and Ukraine.

From Moscow’s perspective, at least since the second NATO Enlargement of 2000-04, that brought in the Baltic States into NATO despite Russian “redlines” and particularly with respect to U.S./NATO promises at the 2008 Bucharest Summit of eventually bringing Georgia and Ukraine into NATO, Washington has appeared to be backing the previous interwar era project of Polish President Józef Pilsudski. That project was to create a potential East European Federation/Intermarium that would include Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Belarus’, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, Ukraine and the ex-Yugoslavia—while also seeking to prompt the break-up of the Soviet Union under the complementary project, “Prometheism.” 2

While Moscow appears to be bringing Belarus’ into its orbit by increasingly drawing the country into Russia’s war with Ukraine since February 2022, it is only Ukraine of these latter states that has not joined NATO as a full Ally, while several states of a disaggregated ex-Yugoslavia have joined the Atlantic Alliance. At the same time, however, NATO has not yet officially excluded the possibility of the future Ukrainian and Georgian full membership—an issue that was resurrected by the Biden administration just before President Putin’s so-called ‘special military operation’ in Ukraine.

Russian military actions appear to be further expanding the Alliance. Finland, as well as Sweden, have now sought full membership in NATO in the aftermath of Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea—coupled with perceived Russian threats in the Baltic and Arctic regions. The combination of Baltic state membership in NATO since 2004, plus the Russian invasion of Crimea in 2014 and of Ukraine in 2022, has augmented military pressure on the Suwalki gap—as Moscow has sought to boost the military capabilities of Kaliningrad (as well as Crimea) and by means of deploying tactical nuclear weapons and S-400 surface to air missiles—leading both Finland and Sweden to move closer to NATO in a self-fulfilled prophecy.

From this viewpoint, as an act of preclusive imperialism, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and invasion of Ukraine in 2022 appear to be more comparable Lenin’s annexation of parts of Belarus’ and Ukraine against French-backed Polish efforts to secure hegemony over that devasted region during Russia’s 1917 Bolshevik Revolution in terms of geo-strategic intent than the abused cliché to Hitler’s 1938 annexation from Czechoslovakia of the majority ethnic German Sudetenland. (Kharkov, for example, was the old seat of Lenin’s Congress of Soviets in Ukraine during the Russian Revolution).

The Sino-Russian alliance

In looking at the countries flanking Russia to the east, the close Sino-Russian relationship can be compared and contrasted with Weimar, and then Nazi, German efforts to forge closer political-economic and secret military ties to Stalin’s Soviet Union, despite their ostensible ideological hostility—first through the 1922 Rapallo Pact and then the 1939 Molotov- von Ribbentrop pact.

The Molotov-von Ribbentrop Pact broke apart after 2-4 years after the war had already begun—but a break-up of a closer Russian-Chinese relationship may not prove to be so simple a case in the contemporary geostrategic constellation of major Power relationships—that is, if both Russia and a militarily rising China continue to see themselves as “encircled” by the NATO-EU enlargements in eastern Europe, plus the U.S. alliance with Australia, South Korea and Taiwan, if not India, in the Far-East, not to overlook a “militarizing” Japan—in which the US-Japanese alliance parallels the 1902 Anglo-Japanese alliance which did not help prevent the 1904-05 Russo-Japanese war.

President Putin’s fears of the further destabilization and disaggregation of the Russian Federation, particularly in Central Asia and the Russian Far East (even before the impact of U.S. and European sanctions after Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea), represent another major rationale why Moscow has begun to tighten its political economic and military ties with China. In effect, Moscow has sought to channel Beijing’s rise as a major power by entering into a close Sino-Russian political-economic relationship through the resolution of territorial disputes, while also more overtly supporting China’s claims to Taiwan.

Closer Sino-Russian ties have increasingly looked like a proto-military alliance from 2005 to 2022—even if it means that Moscow will risk ending up as the junior partner of a rising China with its global Belt and Road Initiative. This Sino-Russian Eurasian re-alignment has been symbolized by joint Russian-Chinese naval maneuvers in the South China Sea, plus Eastern Mediterranean and Baltic regions—unprecedented historical steps for both Russia and China.

While a proto-Sino-Russian military alliance appears somewhat reminiscent of the interwar period, the efforts to establish a Eurasian Union and a new Silk Road through the Chinese Road and Belt Initiative stretching across Eurasia to Egypt and the Suez Canal and beyond best resembles the similar role of the Berlin-Baghdad-Basra railway since 1904 to widen Germany’s Mitteleuropean economic area from the North and Baltic Seas to the Persian Gulf. The Berlin-to-Baghdad railway, which was almost completed before World War I, represented a land bridge that would compete with the British-controlled Suez Canal as sea access to Asia. The Suez Canal had been controlled by the British since 1882 in London’s effort to achieve global overseas hegemony.

In the pre-World War I decades, Great Britain had become over-engaged in Afghanistan and Egypt and elsewhere overseas and largely ignored the growing rivalries among the continental Powers in Europe. In the present period, after having engaged in costly military interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq, the U.S. has been unable to check, at least by diplomatic means, Russia’s military interventions in Georgia and Ukraine, while Moscow has also been concerned with Arab Gulf states supporting Sunni pan-Islamist movements against Russia’s new allies: Syria and Iran, not to overlook its occasional “friend” Turkey, which has increasingly begun to play the interests of Russia and China against those of the US, NATO and E.U.

In essence, Washington did not foresee how Moscow would react to the prospects of an eventual NATO membership for Ukraine, in which Moscow feared, rightly or wrongly, that Kyiv would evict the Russian Black Sea fleet from Crimea and then invite NATO forces to take its place. Nor did Washington or Brussels see how Moscow would react to the 2008-13 E.U. economic trade proposals that did not fully incorporate Russian interests given the close political-economic dependency between Kiev and Moscow.

The danger of seeking to “bleed” Russia

While the geo-historical political constellations are not quite the same as previous games of "encirclement" and "counter-encirclement" in history, Washington has nevertheless begun to form alliances that link the U.S./NATO, the Europeans, Japan, Australia, South Korea, Taiwan and possibly India (given its closer defense ties with the U.S. and Japan under the ruling nationalist Hindu Barata Party, rival of the neutralist Indian National Congress), plus Israel, the UAE and other Arab Gulf states against Russia, the CSTO, Iran, North Korea, and China—which likewise appear to move toward greater allied political economic and defense cooperation.

So far, Putin’s horrific war in Ukraine appears to be strengthening NATO as Finland and Sweden have sought membership, while Japan and Australia also appear to be strengthening ties with the U.S. India, however, has not wanted to fully alienate Russia, in addition to China, by fully siding with Washington after New Delhi’s clash with Beijing in mid-June 2020. For its part, NATO-member Turkey could move closer to Russia and China if disputes with Greece backed by the EU cannot be mediated.

The dilemma is that the strengthening of US-led alliances alone—without concurrently engaging in full-fledged diplomacy that seeks to address “legitimate” Russia and Chinese concerns—will not prevent the real possibility of a major power war. The 1950-53 Korean War did not end until Stalin’s death. While it may be hoped that opposition movements inside Russia will seek to depose Putin, or that Putin is gravely ill, the fact that the U.S. and the UK have increasingly framed their military support for the Ukrainian resistance to regain the Donbass—and as a means to bleed Russia in backing a new “Prometheism”—has permitted Putin to co-opt Russian moderates who oppose U.S. and UK efforts to weaken the already unstable Russian Federation—while severely repressing dissent.

As long as Putin survives, and as long as Moscow can at least partially escape U.S. and European sanctions by “reinventing itself to defeat the West’s hybrid war” by augmenting trade and energy deals with China, India, among other states, for example, the war could not only last longer than the Korean War, but could widen in scope. Here, neither China and India are ready to alienate the Americans entirely, but much depends on what Russia can offer.

The more President Putin and the Russian pan-nationalist elites fear their potential loss of power, if not also the potential collapse of the Russian Federation, the more they will lash out. Moscow could accordingly more strongly support China and North Korea, while seeking to amend China-Indian-Pakistani disputes, if possible, in addition more strongly supporting socio-political movements overseas against U.S. and European strategic and economic interests—particularly if the prices of energy and agricultural prices (among other raw materials) continue to mount, in part, due to the ongoing war in Ukraine.

There is thus a real danger that the war over Ukraine could soon degenerate into wider and an even more devastating conflict, particularly if both sides, Russia and NATO, begin to revamp their relatively limited war fighting capabilities for a longer-term battle. Here, for example, much as Turkey, which has kept open diplomatic ties with Moscow, has supplied Russia’s rival, Ukraine, with drone weaponry, it has been reported that Iran could supply Russia with hundreds of military drones—thus extending the role of external states in the conflict.

Much as Imperial Germany had hoped to pressure Great Britain into alliance by naval threats, it appears that President Putin, who seems to be acting thus far more like a mix of Lenin and Bernard von Bülow than like Stalin or Hitler, has begun to play much the same game—but now coupled by the threat to use tactical, and possibly intercontinental, nuclear and hypersonic weaponry.

The need for fully engaged diplomacy

Ironically, in the interwar period, it was insular Great Britain and the U.S. that took the position of “appeasement” in seeking diplomatic compromise with Weimar and Nazi Germany, while continental France had taken the hardline position urging the containment, if not the break-up, of Germany. By contrast today, it is the U.S. and UK who are for more strongly containing, if not breaking up, the unstable Russian Federation in a new form of “Prometheism” while the continental powers of France and Germany, which are more directly impacted economically and strategically by the war in Ukraine itself than are the UK and U.S., are urging diplomacy.

It is time for the US and the UK to listen to their continental European allies and to work with Ukraine and Russia as soon as possible to wind down this war—by engaging in full-fledged diplomacy that will lead to a new European Security Treaty.


1 See my more detailed comparison and contrast between now and then: IR Theory, Historical Analogy and Major Power War; “From the Origins of World War I to Global Conflict Today: World War I, World War II, World War III???” Florida Political Chronicle, v.25, n.1 (2016-2017): p.12-32; “NATO Enlargement and Geohistory” in NATO for a New Century: Enlargement and Intervention in the Atlantic Alliance editor Carl Hodge (Westport, CN: Praeger, 2002); “NATO, Russia and Eastern European Security: Beyond the Interwar Analogy,” in NATO Looks East, eds. Pietr Dutkiewicz and Robert J. Jackson (Westport, CN: Praeger, 1998).
2 Hall Gardner, Crimea, Global Rivalry and the Vengeance of History (New York: Palgrave/Macmillan, 2015).
3 “The task is not to inflict damage on the enemy anywhere, but to use various irritants to divert the opponent’s attention and resources from the Russian focus, as well as to influence the domestic political situation in the U.S. and EU in a direction favorable to Moscow. The most important objective in this regard is developing a strategy for an emerging confrontation between the United States and China. Dmitry Trenin, “How Russia Must Reinvent Itself to Defeat the West’s ‘Hybrid War’” Russia in Global Affairs (May 24, 2022).