February 28, 2022
IntelBrief: Great Power Dynamics of the Russian Invasion of Ukraine
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and a return to conventional warfare in Europe is further proof that great power politics is here to stay. This was reflected in the UN Security Council session held on Friday, where Russia vetoed the resolution proposed by Albania and the U.S., with 11 in favor and 3 abstentions (China, India, and the United Arab Emirates). Notwithstanding the diplomatic efforts, the war in Ukraine has also exposed the United States as lacking a grand strategy, an indictment across various administrations in the post-Cold War era. For two decades, U.S. strategy has been rudderless, mostly reactionary, and focused on counterterrorism and counterinsurgency, with little if any long-term investment in diplomatic and strategic capacities on many levels. But Russian aggression, punctuated by more nuclear threats from the Kremlin, has also energized U.S. allies like Germany and Japan to reconsider their respective foreign and security policies. As the Security Council debate and international discussions on sanctions have demonstrated, the war in Ukraine highlights the chasm between states taking a strong stance against Russia, those supporting President Putin, and those sitting on the fence, which ultimately supports Russia’s actions. Despite building up international norms against such unprovoked aggression and, in many cases, vocally challenging the wars of the early 2000s, several states have demonstrated unwillingness to proactively support Ukraine against unprovoked Russian aggression.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has proven to be the revanchist that many have believed him to be since he rose to power in the late 1990s. His angry tirade denying Ukrainian history and statehood, delivered on Russian state television, repeated many of his longstanding grievances about NATO expansion and Russia’s security concerns being ignored by the West. Clearly, Ukraine’s role in the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 and its pro-European trajectory are a driving force of his aggression, given the length of time devoted to it in his address. Yet in 2022, unlike in 1999, Putin can rely on other autocrats for support. While China may not be particularly sanguine with Russia’s decision to invade Ukraine, Beijing is unwilling to speak out and oppose Russia publicly, though the Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson declared on Thursday that “China did not wish to see what happened in Ukraine today.” The Biden administration’s efforts to enlist Chinese support in forestalling a Russian invasion fell on deaf ears, and reporting by the New York Times indicates that Beijing even shared this information with Moscow, reassuring the Kremlin that China would not stand in the way of its plans. However, China’s abstention in the Council on Friday helped diplomatically isolate Russia and deny it a vetoing partner; however this reflects the careful line Beijing will need to tow in order defend its often-touted support for the “purposes and principles” of the United Nations Charter. Some elected Council members like Kenya, Ireland, and Albania have been vocal in calling out Russia’s aggression; nonetheless, others like India, a strong democratic country, and the UAE, a strong U.S. ally, abstained. On Wednesday, UAE's Foreign Minister stressed the “strength” of ties to Russia in a phone call with his Russian counterpart, the Emirati foreign ministry reported.
Moscow sees controlling Ukraine as inextricably linked to its perceived identity as a great power. Putin is gambling that the West is not willing to allocate the resources that would be necessary to support Ukraine in pushing back Russian aggression over the long haul. The West’s limited response to the conflict in Syria—until the advent of terrorist groups like ISIS threatened international security—also likely emboldened Putin and gave him the space to test Russian weapons, tactics, and strategy. Putin is also betting that he will be able to continue to exploit seams and divisions in the NATO alliance, as he has done adroitly and with alacrity in the past, either through design or by taking advantage of opportunities as international actors are distracted by political, financial, and public health crises. Given the challenges for Western countries in agreeing to sanctions against Russia, Putin may prove to be right in this regard. In the event even stronger sanctions prove effective in the long run, they will not have been a deterrent in any way preventing the attack on Ukraine. Vladimir Putin sees Russia as a great power successor to the Soviet Union that was unjustly treated in the immediate aftermath of the Cold War, exploited by the West when Russian power was at a nadir. He is now attempting to use military force to reestablish Russia as a regional hegemon. It is not hyperbole to suggest that if Russia prevails militarily in Ukraine and is able to install a puppet government subservient to Moscow, it will undoubtedly embolden countries like China and Iran to increase their own quest for influence in Asia and the Middle East, respectively. In turn, alliances will be challenged, and arms buildups will accelerate, destabilizing already volatile parts of the globe.
Putin’s bellicosity may have temporarily united NATO countries, but it remains unclear exactly how long this esprit de corps can be sustained. Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine likely prompted urgent discussions in Helsinki and Stockholm about the benefits of NATO membership. Germany’s decision to suspend the certification of Nord Stream 2 and broadly enact sanctions were an important step, but they should be considered a prelude, not a culmination, of increasingly targeted actions that raise the cost of Russia’s militarism. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz announced, in a historic move, that Berlin would spend 100 billion Euros on the German Army in 2022 alone, ushering in a new era of defense spending and security cooperation in Europe. If the conflict continues to drag on and morphs into a prolonged insurgency, Western countries will need to make decisions far more important than whether to ban Russia from SWIFT transactions in the international financial system. On the contrary, as the death toll tragically rises in Ukraine, the decisions for external stakeholders will be increasingly about life and death, including about supporting a Ukrainian resistance with weapons and logistical support to defend themselves and beat back a Russian occupation. This calculation would necessarily consider the scale of sustained support required in the face of what will likely be a long, violent, and costly insurgency. The West needs to render Putin’s adventurism a failure and send a signal to Moscow that there will be blowback, both within Ukraine, but perhaps also throughout Russia, as brave Russian citizens vocalize opposition to the misguided strategies of a deranged and narcissistic leader.