The Long Weekend That Changed History

Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine means that the post–Cold War era may have just ended.

Two clock hands rotate, with Earth as the clock face.
Getty; Paul Spella / The Atlantic

Vladimir Putin’s unprovoked invasion has not simply elicited a resistance among Ukrainians that is inspiring the world. It has also triggered a set of geopolitical shifts that are astonishing in their scale and rapidity. The world is not the same today as it was last week, and while the course of Putin’s invasion and Russian policy remain uncertain, there will be no full reversion to the global status quo ante. The post–Cold War era that began in 1991 may have just ended.

Just days ago, Russia was widely seen in Washington, D.C., and major European capitals as a sullen and revisionist power, led by a president discontented with his country’s place in the world, but who generally chose pragmatism and opportunism over blundering savagery. This sentiment has transformed overnight, and Moscow is now viewed by Western leaders as a clear and present danger. Putin’s war of aggression in Ukraine is the obvious, but not the only, evidence. Russia threatened “military and political consequences” against Finland and Sweden should they join NATO, and put nuclear forces on alert. Just days ago, European leaders visited Moscow to discuss the international deal that sought to end his last territorial assault in Ukraine, in 2014. No more—governments now have no trust in or tolerance for the Putin regime.

The world’s economies, save China, have combined to inflict harm on the Russian economy with remarkable speed, fomenting a financial crisis and enacting restrictions on Russian imports that will touch all of its citizens. The sanctions on Russia’s central bank alone may well force the country into a default on its sovereign debt. Previous worries about risks that could hurt countries pulling out of COVID-induced recession have been cast aside. So too have concerns that economic upheaval could provoke unrest inside Russia, with unknown implications.

Germany’s long-underweight military role and low defense budgets are also things of the past. Olaf Scholz, the recently elected chancellor, announced a onetime increase in defense spending of 100 billion euros, and committed to spending 2 percent of German GDP on defense annually. As a result, Putin’s aggression accomplished in days what decades of haranguing by American presidents could not. “We must put a stop to warmongers like Putin,” Scholz said. “That requires strength of our own.” In security terms, this may well mark the birth of a new, post–post–Cold War Germany.

Neutrality is on the wane, too. Finland and Sweden are firmly aligned with the West and against Moscow, and the invasion may tip them into NATO membership. Policy makers in both countries are openly discussing the possibility—hence Moscow’s preemptive threat—and for the first time a majority of Finns favor joining the alliance. Even if Helsinki and Stockholm do not sign up as allies, they have already begun collaborating with NATO more closely than ever before. Both, for example, are sending arms to Ukraine.

Even neutral Switzerland—Switzerland!—will freeze Russian assets as a result of Moscow’s aggression. “Russia’s attack is an attack on freedom, an attack on democracy, an attack on the civil population, and an attack on the institutions of a free country,” the country’s president, Ignazio Cassis, said over the weekend. “This cannot be accepted.” Large-scale protests on the streets of Bern, expressing popular revulsion at the invasion, helped focus minds in a country that has essentially been militarily neutral since 1516.

The sudden shifts extend beyond Europe. The sanctions now imposed on Russia are global, with Japan, South Korea, Australia, Canada, Singapore, and more joining the anti-aggression bloc. Turkey, which previously maintained warm relations with Russia, has denounced Moscow’s “unjust and unlawful war” and will block the passage of Russian warships through to the Black Sea. The UN General Assembly will convene an emergency session, for the first time in 40 years, to discuss the crisis.

Then there is China, the superpower that just three weeks ago declared a “no limits” partnership with Russia. The two governments then issued a revisionist manifesto, pledging to support each other in assuming their rightful places in the international system. With Putin demonstrating the brutal steps he is prepared to undertake in that pursuit, Beijing is now badly exposed. As numerous wealthy, powerful, and unified countries oppose Moscow’s aggression, China has sided with a reckless Russia that will be more and more isolated and impoverished.

The European Union, which for two decades talked about taking on a military role with very little to show for it, has crossed a Rubicon of its own. Over the weekend it announced that it will provide lethal arms, including fighter jets, to Ukraine. “For the first time ever,” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said, “the EU will finance the purchase and delivery of weapons and other equipment to a country that is under attack. This is a watershed moment.”

The global treatment of Russia may well mark the most profound of all of these shifts. It’s the world’s largest country by geography, an oil-and-gas powerhouse with the globe’s largest nuclear arsenal. Nevertheless, a curtain is descending around it, disconnecting Russians from globalization’s benefits, such as trade, travel, finance, and technology. The result will be a poorer, more isolated, and weaker Russia. Governments are no longer trying to alter Russian behavior but are instead trying to diminish its ability to project power.

All of this happened over a long weekend.

We can’t be certain which of these momentous changes will ultimately stick. The war and the reactions to it remain in their early days. No one can say definitively what kind of world will emerge from the ashes in Ukraine.

But some geopolitical outlines have already come into focus, and they are drastically different from the old ones. Lenin reportedly once said, “There are decades where nothing happens, and there are weeks where decades happen.” This is one of those weeks.