Third of a three parts
The year-old Russian invasion of Ukraine has shaken the foundations of a post-Cold War order that has held sway for three decades, sparking new global unease over the prospect of nuclear war, rocking long-established diplomatic and political norms, and aligning the world’s top autocracies — Iran, North Korea, China and Russia — in unsettling new ways.
With the outcome of the war itself still very much in question, many are already turning to the question of what comes next, on the ground inside Ukraine and on the global geopolitical landscape?
Beyond isolating Russia and backing Kyiv economically and with weapons, the U.S. and its allies are grappling with a world no longer bound by the rules and norms they had become accustomed to for more than a generation following the collapse of the Soviet Union.
“This is a system-changing event. What it is, is a failure of deterrence and it is a failure of all the mechanisms we had to keep the peace after World War II and after the Cold War,” said Fiona Hill, a former National Security Council official and Russia specialist now with the Brookings Institution.
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“So we’re going to have to rethink — Do we need a complete overhaul?” Ms. Hill asked during a recent roundtable hosted by the Washington-based think tank.
Jonathan Masters, deputy managing editor at the Council of Foreign Relations’ CFR.org website, wrote recently that Ukraine “has long played an important, yet sometimes overlooked, role in the global security order.”
“Today,” he added, “the country is on the front lines of a renewed great-power rivalry that many analysts say will dominate international relations in the decades ahead.”
If the past year has been a guide, trying to game out what the coming months will bring may be a fool’s errand.
Beyond the Biden administration’s pre-invasion warnings that Mr. Putin was serious about sending Russian troops over the border into Ukraine, most of the expectations held by the foreign policy establishment on both sides of the Atlantic have been wrong.
Many predicted the Ukrainian army would be routed and that Kyiv would fall within days, but Ukraine is more than holding its own as the one-year anniversary looms Feb. 24.
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Specialists predicted a massive European energy crisis once Russian oil and gas flows were cut off. It hasn’t materialized.
The Kremlin banked on the strains of the war fracturing the U.S.-Europe alliance. Instead, U.S. companies are inking new natural gas contracts across Europe to fill the gap, while NATO is not only united but poised to welcome two new members — Finland and Sweden — which had long been wary of joining the Western military alliance.
Perhaps most importantly, military specialists generally expected Russia’s war machine, rebuilt and modernized under President Vladimir Putin, to live up to its billing as one of the world’s most ferocious. Instead, a series of disastrous early miscalculations and an apparent lack of planning turned a battlefield mismatch into a war of attrition that could drag on for years.
The prospect that the war could escalate in unexpected ways is no less worrisome today as it was during the first weeks of the war, when President Biden sought to draw clear distinctions with respect to American aid — aid that has thus far included tanks, missile systems and other tools, but avoided direct participation by U.S. military personnel, lest a much larger, world-altering conflict between two nuclear-armed camps erupt.
“The idea that we are going to send offensive equipment and have planes and tanks and trains going in with American pilots and American crews — don’t kid yourself no matter what you all say — that’s called World War III,” Mr. Biden told a Democratic Party conference in Philadelphia last March.
On the ground
The most immediate variables on the battlefield in Ukraine are in the eastern Donbas region, now the epicenter of the fighting and a crucial barometer of the strength and morale of each country’s military.
Russian forces made early gains in and around the region, the heart of a pro-Moscow separatist movement that had been battling the government in Kyiv since 2014. But early Russian advances were pushed back last fall by a fierce Ukrainian counteroffensive in the fall that recaptured key cities such as Kherson and Kharkiv.
Ukrainian forces also showed a stunning ability to carry out drone strikes on targets inside Russia, dealing another symbolic blow to Mr. Putin’s army.
Military training and equipment from U.S. and European allies have proven invaluable. Mr. Biden’s decision to provide Abrams tanks, Bradley fighting vehicles, Patriot missile defense batteries, and other vehicles and weapons, dramatically increased the Ukrainian military’s ability to both fend off Russian advances and conduct its own forward operations.
On a surprise visit to Kyiv this week, Mr. Biden promised a fresh $450 million worth of weaponry, including 500 new Javelin anti-armor systems and 2,000 new anti-armor rockets. Taken with similar contributions by other NATO allies, including German-made Leopard tanks, the weapons deliveries suggest Ukrainian forces are poised to go on the offensive in 2023.
But Russia is preparing for its own fresh push on the battlefield.
Despite thousands of troops and civilians already killed, and untold destruction of Ukrainian cities thus far, there’s a belief in foreign policy circles that both sides are capable of much more. For Russia in particular, an unfolding mass mobilization of fresh troops suggests Moscow is following its decades-old military playbook: Send as many bodies into the fight as possible, no matter the human cost.
“The problem is we haven’t seen either side fight in their full glory yet,” said geopolitical analyst Peter Zeihan. “The Ukrainians are the underdog, but they’re in the process of [being] rapidly armed with more and more sophisticated equipment. By the time we get to May, they will have been able to do a lot of deferred maintenance on the equipment they captured from the Russians, which was more equipment than they started the war with, and there will be 60,000 Ukrainian troops that have trained in NATO countries with more advanced equipment back in the field.”
“On the other side, the Russians will finish their second mobilization, and they will have at least another half a million men in the field,” Mr. Zeihan, who authored the 2022 book “The End of the World Is Just Beginning,” recently told “The Joe Rogan Experience” podcast.
“Now, [the new Russian troops] will be badly trained and badly equipped and badly led with low morale, but troops like that have a technical term attached to them: ‘Russian,’” Mr. Zeihan said. “There’s nothing about this war that is unique in Russian history. The first year is always an absolute s—t show. And then the Russians throw bodies at the problem until it goes away.”
Moscow has also demonstrated a cold-blooded willingness to target Ukrainian civilian infrastructure, including energy systems, and there’s no reason to believe such attacks will end this year.
But there is also major uncertainty about the long-term prospects for the Russian war effort. The Pentagon has assessed Russian forces could begin running out of ammunition this spring, and administration officials claim the reason has to do with U.S. and European Union sanctions.
Successive Western sanctions packages “have degraded Russia’s ability to replace more than 9,000 pieces of military equipment lost since the start of the war,” U.S. Treasury Deputy Secretary Wally Adeyemo told the Council on Foreign Relations this week.
“Russia has also lost up to 50% of its tanks,” Mr. Adeyemo said. “While we have far more to do, we are succeeding in reversing the course of Russia’s budget and undercutting its military-industrial complex.”
A new global order
Western sanctions, coupled with spiraling Russian wartime spending, are resulting in major logistical headaches for the Kremlin, while also triggering a dangerous wave of global geopolitical shifts.
Russia has appeared increasingly eager since invading Ukraine to foment a new 21st-century axis of powers openly hostile to the U.S. and its allies.
Iran and North Korea have emerged as key arms suppliers for Moscow. Cheap Iranian drones have undergirded the offensive and defensive capabilities of Russian forces in Ukraine, while Pyongyang reportedly has supplied missiles and rockets to the Wagner Group, the Kremlin’s private mercenary firm.
Specialists say the arrangement benefits the Iranian and North Korean regimes as much as Moscow, as all three regimes have a direct interest in undermining the current, U.S.-backed international order.
“The shuttering of many Western market opportunities to Russian firms could also open new — albeit limited — opportunities for economically isolated and cash-strapped Pyongyang and Tehran,” researchers with the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists wrote in a recent analysis.
“While Russia has long criticized international and unilateral sanctions on North Korea and Iran,” they wrote, “Moscow had not gone so far as to blatantly disregard them altogether. However, that calculus may be changing as reports emerge of new Iran-Russia economic cooperation in the energy, aerospace, and automotive sectors.”
Meanwhile, speculation is rampant that Pyongyang is accepting compensation for weapons sales to Russia in the form of cash transfers and fuel, as well as advanced weapons technologies North Korea has long struggled to procure under international sanctions.
Troubling as the Russia-North Korea-Iran partnership may be, it pales in comparison to potentially much more consequential developments occurring between Russia and America’s leading geopolitical and military challenge, China.
Beijing has tried to strike a delicate balance so far, avoiding being seen as directly backing Russia’s war while offering rhetorical support for Russia’s position and providing limited behind-the-scenes support.
But U.S. officials fear 2023 could see China ramp up direct military aid to Russia. Such a step would carry short- and long-term implications. Most immediately, it could give Russian forces the means they need to push deeper in Ukraine while making Mr. Putin ever more reliant on Beijing as it challenges the U.S. and its allies in Asia.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken raised the issue with leading Chinese diplomat Wang Yi during a discussion at last week’s Munich Security Conference.
Mr. Blinken told CBS News that his team specifically conveyed “concerns that we have that China is considering providing lethal support to Russia in its efforts in Ukraine.”
“I was able to share with him…the serious consequences that would have for our relationship,” the secretary of state said.
Further erosion of the U.S.-China relationship, already deeply strained by the recent discovery and shooting down by U.S. forces of a suspected Chinese spy balloon over the United States, could be one the coming year’s most significant geopolitical developments.
Specialists argue more broadly that the Ukraine war has heightened the stakes of uncertainty around Washington’s ability to lead not only a democratic world order, but to also forge a united front with other key governments in an increasingly turbulent era of great power competition.
While the U.S. and Europe have mostly been in lockstep with respect countering China’s rise and responding collectively to the Russia-Ukraine war, some warn Western messaging is falling flat with many emerging global players.
A host of nations from key corners of the world have, for instance, not adopted the stringent economic sanctions being imposed on Moscow by Washington and the EU, raising questions about the limits of the West’s ability to build multi-regional coalitions in times of war.
“When you don’t have strong support from Israel, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, India and Turkey and Indonesia, you do have to wonder: Is our message resonating?” said Bruce Jones, director of the project on international order and strategy at the Brookings Institution.
“Trying to rally the non-Western world around the rules-based order does not work,” Mr. Jones said at the think tank’s recent roundtable. “Rallying it around this framework of divisions between democracies and autocracies does not work.”
“We have to do a much better job of understanding the interests of these major players from the South who do not see the world the same way we do, who have much deeper interests in China’s economic rise,” he said. “They don’t see that issue the way we do, and we’ve gotten a lot of that stuff wrong.”