Russia is “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma”, said Winston Churchill in 1939, referring to the West’s muddled understanding of Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union. The words of the Conservative leader, who led Britain during wartime, still ring true as the world, 10 months into Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, tries to understand President Vladimir Putin’s real intentions for going to war. Before the war, Mr. Putin had created an aura of power around himself and Russia. He disrupted Georgia’s ambition to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO); made forays into West Asia neutralising Israel and Turkey, both American allies; took Crimea without a fight; and turned Russia again into an energy superpower. But that aura has slipped as Russia’s superior troops have been struggling to cope with battlefield setbacks in Ukraine.
There is still a lack of clarity and uncertainty on Russia’s objectives in Ukraine and what it will do next to meet them. Despite tactical setbacks, Russia continues to fight with one hand tied behind its back. When Russian troops were retreating, Mr. Putin went ahead with the annexation of four Ukrainian regions, which practically closed off the path towards talks. He then offered talks even as his missiles kept pounding Ukrainian infrastructure. While it would take time to comprehend the different layers of the conflict which is still unfolding before us, the war itself offers some key lessons to understand contemporary geopolitics. It marks, to use Churchill’s phrase, “the end of the beginning” of unilateralism, while also reminding great powers of the pitfalls of long wars.
A new world
After the disintegration of the Soviet Union, the U.S. had established a de facto unilateral hierarchy, which is rare in international relations; global politics has historically been dominated by multiple pillars. But the U.S. was at the pinnacle of its power in the 1990s. In recent years, however, there have been signs of the passing of American unilateralism. America’s wars in the Muslim world did not proceed as Washington had expected. As the U.S. got stuck in Afghanistan and Iraq, Russia became more aggressive, Iran more defiant, and China more powerful. If Russia’s intervention in Georgia and its annexation of Crimea; Iran’s growing militancy in West Asia; and America’s defeat in Afghanistan were some signs of a shift in the global order, the Ukraine war, the largest land war in Europe since the end of World War II, was its sharpest manifestation.
Irrespective of Russia’s performance in the war, Mr. Putin’s decision to send troops to a NATO ally challenging the post-Soviet security architecture of Europe would go down in history as one of the pivotal moments of 21st century geopolitics. After a brief period of unilateral hierarchy, the world is returning to, what Realists call, its essential anarchy in which great powers compete for maximising their powers. But it is not clear what kind of an order, if an order emerges at all, will replace American unilateralism. The U.S. seems to have realised that the world has changed. Its response to Russia’s aggression in Ukraine is a leaf from its Cold War play book. It has taken pains to keep the Western alliance together. It wants a coalition of democracies against dictatorships. It admits that the ‘rules-based order’ (translation: American-centric world) faces systemic challenges from Russia and China. But at the same time, it doesn’t want a direct conflict with Russia. It seeks to bleed Russia out in Ukraine, an approach that U.S. President Ronald Reagan had towards the Soviet Union in Afghanistan.
Limits of power
The Ukraine war also tells us about the limitations of great powers in shaping the outcome of conflicts with smaller ones. The U.S. intervention in Vietnam, its invasion of Afghanistan, and the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan are some of the best examples of great powers getting stuck in smaller theatres. But historical examples do not deter offensive nations. When Mr. Putin ordered his special military operation, it is possible that he expected quick results. But he miscalculated the power of Ukrainian nationalism (which, in his world view, was non-existent) and the resolve of the West, which he thought was weakened by internal divisions and external setbacks such as the humiliating retreat from Afghanistan, in resisting the Russians. What Ukraine had to do was to survive the initial Russian thrust. When that was achieved, it opened avenues for Russia’s rivals in the West to start supplying Ukraine with money, weapons including advanced rocket systems and artillery, intelligence and mercenaries. If the war was left to Russia and Ukraine, the former would have, in theory, secured a victory. Despite initial miscalculations, the Russians made incremental gains in the early months of the war. But what changed the ground reality was Western help to Ukraine.
Once Ukraine established a counteroffensive momentum, the West’s engagement further deepened. It is now ready to send Patriot missile defence systems and armoured vehicles, which will bolster Ukraine’s defences and better prepare it for land battles post-winter. This puts Mr. Putin in a spot. What started off as a minor conflict in eastern Ukraine in 2014 has now snowballed into a de facto war between Russia and the collective West within the borders of Ukraine. His limited war machine is under enormous pressure, but he can’t retreat unless he is ready to accept political and geopolitical costs. This is a dangerous slope.
What does the war hold for China, the dragon in the room? There were enhanced tensions between China and the U.S. over Taiwan last year. U.S. President Joe Biden has repeatedly said that the U.S. would defend Taiwan in the event of an attack from China. This signalled a shift in Washington’s policy of ‘strategic ambiguity’. When former U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan, China responded with live military drills around and across the self-ruled island. One argument in American strategic circles is that defeating Russia in Ukraine would discourage Chinese President Xi Jinping from making any adventurous move towards Taiwan. If Russia gets away with Ukraine, that would embolden Mr. Xi, they argue.
But on the other side, the Ukraine war and the West’s collective pursuit to punish Russia has driven the giant bear deeper into the embrace of the Chinese dragon. If, during the Cold War, the U.S. strove to exploit the divisions between the Soviet Union and China (to prevent the formation of a strong Eurasian alliance), China and Russia, under Mr. Xi and Mr. Putin, respectively, are boasting of their ‘no limits’ relationship today. Also, one of the reasons for the U.S. pivot from West Asia and Afghanistan was to focus its resources on tackling the rise of China, the only revisionist power with the capabilities to challenge the ‘rules-based order’. But the U.S. last year got dragged more and more into Europe in a Cold War-type entanglement and spent enormous resources on Ukraine. China would like to see the U.S. being distracted in Europe while it strengthens its ties with Russia and spreads its influence elsewhere. The question that could come back to bite the U.S. in the near term would be whether the time, resources and energy it is spending on Ukraine (to weaken Russia) is worth it in a changing world where China is its most powerful rival.