As the Russian invasion of Ukraine enters its second month, much is still in flux and our information is far from perfect, but three things stand out.
First, Vladimir Putin appears close to securing many of the objectives he laid out before invading Ukraine. Second, this invasion has been a massive mistake. Third, while Joe Biden has found a way to place himself at the head of a coalition of the willing, he risks mucking up the advantage he has gained at the price of war in Ukraine by alienating allies and would-be neutrals alike.
Why Putin Invaded Ukraine
That Putin initially hoped to topple the Kyiv government seems clear enough from the initial thrust of the attack coming from Belarus. At the time of this writing, Russian forces continue to shell the major cities of Kyiv, Mariupol, and Mykolaiv, while other units are in the process of redeploying to concentrate on securing the Donbas region.
Of course, it is in the Donbas that fighting between forces loyal to the Kyiv government and pro-Russian separatists have killed an estimated fourteen thousand, since the first phase of the present conflict began in 2014. The majority in the area being ethnic Russians, Putin has for years complained that he considers this something close to genocide, and when he announced the “special military operation,” this was one of the central goals outlined.
Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine began, another of Putin’s stated goals, the “denazification” of Ukraine’s armed forces, is also likely already largely accomplished—this according to analyst Ian Bremmer, who on Twitter noted the devastation of Mariupol and the concentration of Azov battalion fighters in that region.
Though the conflict is ongoing, and negotiations continue back and forth, Putin’s basic demands still center around recognition of certain Russian-occupied Ukrainian territory and official recognition of Ukraine’s permanent neutral status with regard to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), with no foreign troops or bases to be stationed there.
This would basically amount to a recognition of facts on the ground and the realities of NATO alliance membership.
Why Invading Ukraine Was a Mistake
To start off, as the Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov acknowledged last week, the unity, resolve, and decisiveness of NATO and the EU was unexpected. Heavy arms and equipment from previously unthinkable countries like Germany came pouring into Ukraine through Poland, billions of euros were raised overnight, countries like Hungary and Italy went along with a severe set of sanctions, and NATO intelligence sharing helped the Kyiv government survive an initial assault by an enemy vastly better equipped and numerically superior.
Apart from the losses of men and material Russia has suffered in the five weeks of fighting, with even low estimates of Russian casualties already in the thousands, its armed forces have also lost some of their prestige—after all, a modicum of help from the largest, most powerful military alliance in history has made Ukraine indigestible. Meanwhile, domestic protests against the war itself were quickly combined with skyrocketing prices as the ruble dropped precipitously.
In short, as fighting and negotiations continue, Putin finds himself in a tight spot. It’s a survivable one, whatever Biden or anyone else might like, but Russia will already be a lot poorer and a lot more isolated going forward. As a consequence, Putin has made himself more vulnerable at home while at the same time losing any strategic flexibility he might have enjoyed in his new partnership with Xi Jinping’s China. Now, Russia has nowhere but Beijing to turn.
Frankly, it was a trap, and Putin finally fell in.
After years of Kyiv purposely doing nothing to move toward Minsk II implementation, after years of provocative joint military exercises with NATO forces on Ukrainian soil, after years of heavy arms shipments to a government in Kyiv that Putin already considered illegitimate and massacring Russians, Putin finally insisted on Ukraine’s neutrality on paper. And even though the Biden administration publicly admitted Ukraine wasn’t close to joining NATO, might never join NATO, they chose to say no to Putin, publicly daring him to follow through on what they knew were his plans to invade and destroy Ukraine.
Second, when he did, the maximum obtainable economic measures were almost immediately enacted: Nord Stream 2 was killed, Russia was booted from SWIFT, it was locked out of its own reserves, vital trade and technology transfers stopped; and Russian assets across the world became subject to seizure. Along with a host of other sanctions, secondary enforcement mechanisms were put in place to ensure global compliance. Whether or not they were ever meant to deter, now that they are in place, the sanctions serve to make an example, as Biden’s national security advisor, Jake Sullivan, was kind enough to state plainly for us this past week: “At the end of the day, the Russian people are going to ask the more fundamental question of why this happened.” He concluded, “We believe that, at the end of the day, they will be able to connect the dots.”
The implications were obvious, and the Biden administration made sure Beijing didn’t miss them. Because while Russia is still a powerful country in its own right, China is clearly the ascendent power that has been for over a decade preoccupying US security planners.
Russia is frankly being made an example of. China, whose domestic economy is far more tied into world trade, has just seen what a coordinated response from the richer Western nations can do.
In the long run, Russia will be able to outlast US sanctions by shifting commodity exports to a willing developing world. Were a similar situation to occur over Taiwan in the next decade, China would not have any such outlet for its abundance of manufactured goods, and its internal market, while growing, is still too underdeveloped to absorb the surpluses.
The US and China’s economic interdependence was part of the Clintonite strategy of integrating China into the world economy. As the relationship deepened, both sides came to recognize that they were now locked into a situation of mutually assured economic destruction—as evidenced by Beijing’s unwillingness to pounce on the United States during its prolonged economic crisis a decade ago. However, there exists a key asymmetry within the relationship, and every US security strategist knows it: in the event of a massive economic crash, in a democracy there’s a new election, while in an authoritarian state there’s a revolution.
Why Biden Risks Fumbling It All Away
Having gotten the confrontation he wanted, pitting “global democracy” against “authoritarianism,” Biden risks losing the advantage by trying to force the rest of the world to pick a side. Because it isn’t just China that doesn’t want to get on board. As measured by population, half the world is represented by a state that didn’t vote to condemn Putin’s invasion. Even among those that did, many weren’t keen to do so and aren’t eager for what comes next.
While major regional players like India and Brazil capture the headlines, this reticence is present across the developing world. As reported by The Economist this past week, many developing nations don’t want to have to choose between having relations with the West and with Russia, a critical supplier of cheap natural resources. Already they complain of disproportionately bearing the brunt of the externalities competing superpowers have imposed on the world over Ukraine—a vital food supplier to the developing world.
The incredible lengths to which the West’s sanctions regime has gone, particularly its targeting of Russia’s foreign reserves, is also prompting reconsideration by other nondemocratic regimes who hold large quantities of US dollars—including nominal nondemocratic allies such as Saudi Arabia, which this past week teased with the idea of selling oil in yuan.
Whatever the potential benefits of turning this conflict into a Rand-study Afghanistan 2.0, it is also true that the longer the war goes on, the greater the chance of an escalation or widening of the war—inadvertent or otherwise.
Apart from resistance to existing sanctions, attempts at further sanctions risk cracking open an already strained allied bloc.
Putin has been weakened, Russia diminished, and Beijing sent a message.