Russian President Vladimir Putin's war with Ukraine is spreading beyond the battlefield. Photo: WikiCommons

And likewise in Moldova, Belarus, Azerbaijan, Georgia and the Baltic states. He thinks he can get what he wants by showing off his muscles because that is how strong men did things in the last century.

He may receive some empathetic nods, but he is really fighting history’s progress.

Fear of democracy

Ukraine is making a concerted effort at establishing a democracy, a kind of society that could shake the very foundation of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s authoritarian regime next door.

People in Belarus voted to oust the authoritarian regime of President Alexander Lukashenko in 2021, but he muscled out the opposition. That was a close call for Putin. But imagine the reaction in the Kremlin when Moldova also elected a pro-European Community majority in its 2021 parliamentary election.

From the Baltic states through Belarus and Ukraine to Georgia and Azerbaijan – including the mini-state of Moldova – voters are increasingly showing their preference for EC-style politics and freedom.

This is a real threat for Putin’s autocracy: a democracy next door. How can he prevent people from seeking democracy?

Sphere of influence

Putin’s solution is to draw a line around these former Soviet lands and demand that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization acknowledge that these lands are under Moscow’s sphere of influence.

He is saying, “Hands off: Only Moscow can intervene here.”

Once that understanding is widely accepted as a “wise” way to live with a powerful neighbor, there should be fewer overt moves from these former Soviet lands to move closer to Europe.

Naturally, in its sphere of influence, Moscow reserves the right to re-enact Hungary 1956, Czechoslovakia 1968 and so on.

Threat is better than invasion

The more Putin threatens militarily, the more people may come to accept this “wise” way. The more Putin keeps feeding the separatist tumor in Donbas, the more Belarusians may accept the Lukashenko regime. Georgians may learn to live with Russian occupation.

An actual shooting war, however, could have the opposite effect, solidifying those he wants to bear-hug.

Putin probably thinks he has already done enough to move people’s way of thinking toward the “wise” way also sometimes called the Putin Doctrine. Thus he will probably not invade Ukraine in 2022.

After all, he’ll need the hardware intact for another moment of muscle display.

Pushing back the clock

What Putin does not recognize is that his solution runs counter to seven decades of the thrust of international politics – which is that each nation should be able to decide its own path, and not some big neighbor.

Putin wants the West to agree that Russia has a veto over Ukraine’s future alliances. He says NATO must promise that it will never accept Ukraine as a member.

The American response, in the words of US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, is that every nation should be able to decide which nations to align with, or not, and that no big neighbor should be able to claim some special oversight.

History, while it has been long and crooked, is against Putin.

Self-determination versus spheres

More than a century ago Woodrow Wilson pushed the concept of self-determination among nations at Versailles, but it rang hollow in the age of segregation, colonies and geopolitical spheres. When Josef Stalin demanded his spheres at Yalta, Winston Churchill eagerly agreed but tried to keep it from Franklin Roosevelt.

Since then more than 140 countries have declared their independence. Each time the world celebrated, mostly anyway, the will of the newly independent people and the concept of national self-determination.

Importantly, each time a nation’s sovereignty was violated, the violator felt the need to plead to the global forum some form of justification – no matter how flimsy, such as “WMD in the wrong hands.”

Proper norms of behavior

Over the past seven decades, the right to self-determination was winning worldwide acceptance – while you had to have some kind of excuse for projecting a preponderance of power.

The steps taken by US president George H W Bush (dad) before his war to liberate Kuwait demonstrate the importance he placed on this developing norm of international behavior.

He was meticulous in establishing – importantly, before the UN General Assembly as well as the Security Council – that Iraq had violated Kuwait’s right to self-determination and that a UN-sanctioned military action was needed to right a wrong.

The steps not taken by president George W Bush (son) before the invasion of Iraq demonstrate his lack of such awareness. He squandered the precedents his father so meticulously followed and furthered. Putin noticed.

There is no space for the US to be sanctimonious.

Weight of 140 nations

The founding of more than 140 nations during the past seven decades has clearly changed the norms of international behavior.

Overseas colonialism has pretty much vanished – although overland colonialism is still practiced: Xinjiang and Tibet come to mind.

Richard Nixon’s trip to Beijing may turn out to have been the last major balance-of-power move in history. One reason is that spheres of influence are disappearing while the world pays homage to national self-determination.

The Monroe Doctrine has disappeared into the pages of history (after Salvador Allende, anyway). Francophone African nations do their own thing. And Southeast Asians are opposing China’s heavy-handed maritime moves.

A 1912 newspaper cartoon highlighting US influence in Latin America following the Monroe Doctrine. Image: Wikipedia

Influencers

That has been the thrust of global relations for the past seven decades. Spheres of influence have faded away.

More than 190 nations now celebrate national self-determination in the halls of the UN. While some are more sovereign than others, trying to re-establish spheres of influence will eventually fail.

In this century, if you want to project influence, you produce K-Pop. Being a bully will only backfire. Putin should watch a K-Pop show.

A retired Tokyo-based analyst for a major US investment bank, Matt Aizawa now crunches numbers and contemplates the world from beside a mountain lake north of the city.