How Russia’s invasion of Ukraine will reshape the world

It was a chilling declaration. The noise of Russia’s assault on Ukraine “is the sound of a new iron curtain which has come down,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said on Feb. 24 as Russian forces besieged his country.

The brutal Russian invasion and the tough economic and political steps the United States and its allies have taken in response have defined a new conflict that seems all too reminiscent of the worst periods of the Cold War struggle of which Winston Churchill warned when he coined the phrase “Iron Curtain” 76 years ago.

Why We Wrote This

While a new Iron Curtain may not go up, the Ukraine attack will draw a line across Europe, with a revanchist Moscow on one side and a reinvigorated Atlantic alliance on the other.

“There’s no question that we will see a remilitarized and divided Europe,” says Charles Kupchan, a Georgetown professor and Obama-era National Security Council official. Still that “iron” part of the curtain is probably not coming back. The world is unlikely to divide again into fragmented, independent geographical blocs. “There is a kind of irreversible element to globalization that will make a new Cold War feel and taste differently from Cold War 1.0,” Professor Kupchan adds.

In the end, the phrase “Iron Curtain” is an image meant to help illuminate the implications of an act of brutal Russian aggression that many Westerners find inexplicable. The events that have cast a shadow across Europe in early 2022 are very different than those that drove Western geopolitics in the Cold War era. But in a short period of time they have profoundly changed the way the United States and its allies think about Europe.

Washington

Winston Churchill was out of power in March 1946. He’d lost a general election seven months earlier. But he was eager for a forum to expound his views on the developing post-World War II world, so he accepted an invitation to speak at tiny, out-of-the-way Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri.

A note scribbled at the bottom of the invitation sold the famous former British prime minister on the unlikely venue. “This is a wonderful school in my home state. If you come, I will introduce you,” wrote US President Harry Truman.

With Truman in attendance Churchill delivered one of his most famous speeches, warning that in Eastern Europe, the Soviet Union was shaping many governments in its image and drawing them under its influence. The nations of the West, though tired of war, might have a new conflict on their hands.

Why We Wrote This

While a new Iron Curtain may not go up, the Ukraine attack will draw a line across Europe, with a revanchist Moscow on one side and a reinvigorated Atlantic alliance on the other.

“From Stettin in the Baltic, to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the continent,” Churchill said.

Last week, 76 years after the famous former British prime minister defined the geography of the Cold War with that iconic phrase, another Western leader invoked it to describe what was happening to his country.

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