(Originally published 2022 | 03.08)
With the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the United States was, for a time, the world’s lone superpower. Its invasion of Iraq 14 years later, in 2003, complicated that standing; the Great Recession of 2008 complicated it further; and over the last decade, the U.S. has been contending more and more actively with the challenges of a rising China. But after Russia invaded Ukraine, Washington and its historically closest allies in Europe found themselves faced once again with an implacable, nuclear-armed enemy in Moscow. The dynamic has seemed in some ways like the Cold War—with Russia the top security threat, Europeans worried about an unpredictable Kremlin, and severed economic ties between the West and Moscow. But in the years since ’89, the global order has been transformed: Communism is dead, Germany is reunified, and the Western and Eastern Blocs have scrambled. What’s the war in Ukraine doing to this order?
is an assistant professor of history at the University of Toronto, the director of the university’s International Relations Program, and the author of Enduring Alliance: A History of NATO and the Postwar Global Order
. In Sayle’s view, the attack on Ukraine has fundamentally altered the relationship between the U.S. and Russia—starting with the West’s fast and thorough economic sanctions, and potentially leading to a new global economic structure. Though the new conflict is in some ways reminiscent of the Cold War, Russia is in a substantially weaker position today than the Soviet Union ever was. Putin’s authoritarian model won’t attract many followers, as communism once did, but his government’s growing cooperation with Beijing is something utterly unlike the Chinese-Soviet tensions of the pre-’89 world—and could complicate Washington’s capacity to deal with threats from China now.
Michael Bluhm: What has the war in Ukraine done to U.S.-Russian relations?
Tim Sayle: The implications have been enormous—even bigger than I expected before the invasion. We’re seeing significant steps by the United States and its allies, not only to voice support for Ukraine but to take costly economic sanctions and actions against Russia.
The relationship between the U.S. and Russia has been dramatically changed—and I wouldn’t have predicted how quickly and substantially that has occurred. We’re seeing major ruptures in the economic relationship. Diplomatic relations were already quite cool, but they’ve significantly changed now. Also, the attitude of both the American government and the American people generally has changed—with many, including news commentators, speaking out against Russian actions. It’s drastic and profound.
Bluhm: Where do you see the most consequential changes?