After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the United States was for a time the world’s lone superpower, until the 2003 Iraq invasion undercut America’s standing. The Great Recession of 2008 further diminished U.S. power, and for the last decade or so, Washington has pivoted its focus to Asia to confront the challenges of a rising China. But now Russia has invaded Ukraine, forcing the White House and its historically closest allies in Europe once again to face a nuclear-armed, implacable enemy in Moscow. This new dynamic appears in some ways like the Cold War, with Russia as the top security threat, Europeans worried about an unpredictable Kremlin, and a severing of economic ties between the West and Moscow. But in the decades since ’89, the global order has transformed: Communism is effectively dead, Germany has been reunified, and the Western and Eastern Blocs have scrambled. How is the war reshaping this new order?

Tim Sayle is an assistant professor of history and the director of the International Relations Program at the University of Toronto, and the author of Enduring Alliance: A History of NATO and the Postwar Global Order. To Sayle, the war in Ukraine has fundamentally altered the relationship between the U.S. and Russia, starting with the surprisingly fast and thorough severing of economic ties. The depth of this divide, Sayle says, could create a new worldwide economic structure. Though he sees the conflict as unexpectedly reminiscent of the Cold War in certain aspects, Russia is in a substantially weaker position than the Soviet Union was. Putin’s authoritarian model won’t attract many followers, as communism once did, but his growing cooperation with Beijing represents a major shift from the Chinese-Soviet tensions of the Cold War—and could complicate Washington’s capacity to deal with threats from China.


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?

Sayle: The most profound and significant element has been the economic rupture: sanctions, the rules governing relationships companies can have with Russia, and banking changes. These are far more than I and other analysts expected, and they’ve come into force much more quickly.

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