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Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin shake hands after their meeting in Helsinki, Finland, on July 16, 2018.LEONHARD FOEGER/Reuters

Now the Age of Disruption has extended its reach into global politics.

Its first elements were visible five years ago, when a new American president – impatient with customs and convention, contemptuous of experts and of the bromides of the past, sure of his own vision and disdainful of the homilies of experts – questioned the pinions of domestic and international politics, the very flying buttresses that supported three-quarters of a century of relative peace and unprecedented prosperity.

This week, we are witnessing the denouement of a disquieting second act, when a Russian President – resentful of the institutions that constricted his homeland even as it allowed its Cold War rivals to prosper, affronted by the Western diplomatic practices that had morphed into traditions, impatient with the fealty that world leaders paid to the maestros of the classical symphonies of statecraft – shattered all the rituals of global behaviour, sent troops into the two separatist territories of Donetsk and Luhansk, and defied anyone to stop him, in what Joe Biden described in remarks Tuesday as a “flagrant violation of international law.”

Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin may not have had a real alliance, but the two of them – their actions animated by their grievances, their outlooks underpinned by “truths” unsupported by verifiable facts – are twin forces on the global stage, the natural political progeny of a period of disruption that has altered how business is conducted, how news and information are transmitted, and how entertainment is produced and sold. The dispatch of troops into the oblasts of Ukraine is the not-so-distant cousin of the proliferation of iPhones and the internet.

The principal example of Mr. Putin’s employment Monday evening of what the humorist Mark Twain called a “truth” that a speaker “know[s] for sure that just ain’t so”: “Modern Ukraine was entirely and fully created by Russia, more specifically the Bolshevik, Communist Russia.”

As the world holds its breath over the destiny of Ukraine – whose roots are a millennium old, not established by Vladimir Lenin after the 1917 Russian Revolution – the crisis at the far end of the vast East European plain suddenly has developed several vital, unanswered sub-questions: Is the Russian advance “the beginning of a Russian invasion of Ukraine,” as Mr. Biden put it in his remarks? Why did Mr. Putin turn away from the prospect of a summit that might have granted him the respectability, and the concessions, that he craved? Can the West mount any meaningful response? What does the Russian leader want in the end?

It is significant that both leaders’ impulse for disruption focused on NATO, one of the established post-Second World War institutions – with Mr. Trump questioning its value and Mr. Putin determined to battle its expansion.

Mr. Putin’s actions brought to a crashing close the prospect of a summit – the concept comes from Winston Churchill, who in 1950 said, in words that echo to us today, that it was “not easy to see how matters could be worsened by a parley at the summit” – with Mr. Biden. The swift disappearance of the hopes for a summit, a term with overtones of European romanticism – ”the mountain peak as both perilous and sublime,” in the characterization of such sessions by the Cambridge scholar David Reynolds, author of a 2007 history of the 20th century – itself stands as a marker on the path away from a more idealized world.

And although Western leaders accuse the Russian leader of breaching global conventions by massing military forces at a national border, he did not pull the trigger during the Winter Olympics – an uncharacteristic, but perhaps tactical, bow by a global disrupter to informal international custom.

Yet he did move his forces closer to the starting gate during the 16 days of the Beijing Games. And for days, Mr. Putin practised the signature elements of the biathlon – swift movement interrupted by periodic shooting.

At the heart of Mr. Putin’s grievances is one of the same elements that motivated Mr. Trump: the hurt that comes with lack of respect from entrenched power centres – in the American’s case, the progressive elites of the two coasts; in the Russian’s case, the established practitioners of diplomacy.

“Americans are always referring to Russia as a declining power to distinguish it from the rising power of China,” said Jeremy Kinsman, a former Canadian ambassador to Moscow. “For Putin, that is extremely offensive. He is not comparing Russia to the USSR but to what he inherited at the beginning of the 21st century.”

And yet, he resents his country’s decline from influence from the years of the Soviet Union.

“He wants Russia to be more important than it is. He won’t accept the fact that Russia is a regional power, not a world power,” said Margaret MacMillan, the author of War: How Conflict Shaped Us (2020) and a professor of history at the University of Toronto.

The contemporary crisis has trace elements of the 1956 Soviet invasion of Hungary. In that instance, amid Republican talk of rolling back the Soviet Union and liberating what then were called the “captive nations” of Eastern Europe, GOP president Dwight Eisenhower steadfastly stood back; Hungary was a faraway, landlocked nation surrounded by Communist countries in the newly formed pro-Soviet Warsaw Pact.

“All we could do was operate indirectly,” the University of Pennsylvania’s David Eisenhower, the author of two books about his grandfather, said in an interview. “We thought that the Hungary case was tragic but in character for the Soviets. In that case, as in this one, there is a point at which Western forcible action is a bridge too far.”

Mr. Biden knows that. So does Mr. Putin.

A half-century ago, University of Edinburgh historian Elizabeth Wiskemann wrote a volume covering the period from 1919 to 1945 that was titled The Europe of the Dictators. Scholars producing a contemporary study might contemplate a volume titled The Age of the Disrupters. The first draft of one of its chapters could be written now.

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