The Geopolitics of the War in Ukraine

The last few years mark the third inflection point in global politics in the last half century, one tragically punctuated by the war in Ukraine.

By Gregory F. Treverton

NOTE: The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of SMA, Inc.

The previous two were the end of the Soviet Union and 9/11. Both of those seemed to come with a user’s guide, which wasn’t entirely right but wasn’t entirely wrong either. For the end of communism, it was “take a vacation, America, you’ve earned it fighting the Cold War;” for 9/11 it was “get ’em there before they come here.” For this one, though, there is no guide, and applying labels like “new Cold War” is unhelpful in thinking about relations either with China or Russia.

The roots of the Ukraine war are a tangle including some “might have beens”—none of which, however, remotely justify Russia’s all-out, unprovoked attack. So far, the hallmarks of the war have been Putin’s brutal miscalculation and the unity of what we used to call the “West.” That Europe and America joined quickly in responding firmly—with Germany moving further in two weeks than in previous decades—suggests new possibilities for a coalition of democracies. That the war was both bloody and illegitimate has forced fence-sitters to choose sides. Perhaps even China will come to realize that siding with Putin is to lose with a loser.

Be Careful What You Call It

My time as Chair of the National Intelligence Council drove home to me, yet again, the importance of care about language. We need it but it also entraps us: there was, for instance, no alternative to speaking of the “Afghan government,” but that language connoted something that did not really exist; that “Afghan government” was not a government in any sense we would recognize. Now, it’s all too easy to resort to familiar usages like “new Cold War;” analogies that carry misleading connotations.

To be sure, the Sino-American competition has intensified but still is not usefully described as a “Cold War” for two critical reasons. However Xi Jinping works with his new best friend, Vladimir Putin, and whatever the call to re-source supply chains out of what China produces, the economic engagement of the two dwarfs that of the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War. By one measure, China is now the world’s biggest economy. By contrast, the Soviet Union was never more than half the size of the U.S. economy then (and that figure may be questionable). Russia now is only a little more than half the size of California’s economy and less than two percent of the global economy.

More important, if humanity is to survive, the United States and China must cooperate on climate and pandemics. Whatever else happens between the two, that cooperation is not a choice; it is an imperative. The great challenge of our era was well put by Henry Kissinger: Relations between the United States and China are “the key problem of our time. Each of us is strong enough to create situations around the world in which it can impose its preferences, but the importance of the relationship will be whether each side can believe that they have achieved enough to be compatible with their convictions and with their histories. That is a huge task. It’s never been attempted systematically by any two nations in the world.”

Nor is “new Cold War” a useful description even with respect to Russia. Russia remains a failing petro-state. Putin, in power for more than two decades, could have used that time to modernize Russia’s economy, weaning it from dependence on hydrocarbons; Russia registers in the global economy only in oil and grain. He didn’t. Instead, he enriched, then used, the oligarchs in ways that are now becoming clearer as countries—especially Britain, “Moscow west”—impose sanctions and crack down on the trail of oligarch wealth.

How Did We Get Here?

The clearest foreshadowing of Putin’s intentions is the article published by the Kremlin on 21 July 2021, and ostensibly written by him. That lays out the view that Ukraine really doesn’t exist, and that Russians and Ukrainians are one people. I sometimes quip that if the Biden team sometimes sounds as though they think it is still 1992, when the United States was at the height of its “unipolar” power, Putin sounds as though he thinks it’s still 900, when Kievan Rus was the birthplace of modern Russia. Surely it came as a surprise to Ukrainians to find they weren’t a country!

Putin’s fixation with Ukraine is clear. Why the fixation is less clear. It may be that he truly believes that Ukrainians are only Russians in mufti. Or by occupying Ukraine, he may think he can accomplish strategic ju-jitsu: If NATO expansion has pushed NATO to Russia’s borders, this Russian expansion would push Russia to NATO’s borders. Yet there also seems more than a tinge of fear in Putin’s approach to Ukraine: If the country was tolerably democratic, visibly Western and tolerably successful, that might risk a contagion in Russia itself, another “color revolution” of the sort that is Putin’s greatest fear.

One part of Putin’s grievance has been clear for at least a decade and a half since his speech to the Munich Security Conference in 2007. For him, the collapse of Soviet Union is “greatest geopolitical catastrophe of twentieth century,” and NATO only compounded the problem by expanding to Russia’s borders. The West has encircled—and belittled—great Russia, and Putin’s vision is more czarist than communist, a restoration of empire. Moreover, he seeks not just to rebuild an empire but also an alternative to the decadent West. On that score, Sergei Uvarov, minister of public education for Czar Nicholas I, was apt. The founding concept of the Russian Empire was the opposite of France’s “liberté, fraternité, equalité.” Rather, it was “orthodoxy, autocracy, nationality.”

What American leaders promised at the end of the Soviet Union, and what their Russian counterparts heard is a tangled, somewhat murky story, complicated by the fact that critical Americans, George H.W. Bush and James Baker, are no longer with us to clarify their memoirs. There surely was no formal promise about the limits of NATO expansion, though there was discussion of a federation of former Soviet republics around Russia. In the end, the only formal security guarantees were those in the 1994 Budapest declarations in which three nuclear powers, Russia, the United States and Britain, gave security assurances to the three republics giving up their nuclear weapons—Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan.[1]

Still, the United States and NATO probably would play the hand differently if they had it to do over. It wouldn’t have been easy, for the eastern European states weren’t interested in some Russia-centered federation, they wanted to be in NATO. Indeed, many of them that joined NATO’s Partnership for Peace Program, launched in 1994, later became full NATO members. In retrospect, what was needed was something that would signify that Russia was a full member of the European security system, not just a weekday member or holder of summer privileges. Providing that while not giving Russia a veto over NATO-led coalitions of the willing, in Bosnia or Kosovo for instance, would have been a nifty trick but surely one not beyond imagining.

What I Got Wrong and U.S. Intelligence Got Right

What I got wrong was a mistake of mirror-imaging. When the Russian military build-up around Ukraine began, I asked myself the question: Why on earth would Putin invade Ukraine? I could think of none, even before we saw how brave and effective the Ukrainian resistance would be, and so concluded that the build-up must be a bargaining chip for negotiations with the United States and NATO over security arrangements in Europe. But “none” was my perspective, not Putin’s. My former colleagues looked at the numbers and concluded, rightly, that he didn’t need 190,000 soldiers, including units pulled from the Russian Far East, so he must be planning a full-scale invasion. Sadly, they were right.

What all of us, no doubt including Russian commanders, got wrong was how badly the Russian military would perform. There, the easy answer is probably right but not fully satisfying. That easy answer is that what intelligence can see are the relative tangibles—armament, exercises, and perhaps training. Yet it is the intangibles—How willing are they to fight? How good are they as fighters?—that determine fate on the battlefield. Having seen an apparently powerful Iraqi army melt away in 2014, we should not have been surprised when the same thing happened in Afghanistan last year. Extending that possibility to the great Red Army, though, would have been a harder sell.

Yet the easy answer hints at flaws in the way we do military analysis. When the Russians successfully test a new hypersonic weapon, that is a worrying success. When it blows up, that’s an accident. When it is deferred for lack of funds and replaced by a legacy system, that is less noticed. In one sense, this is simply worst-case analysis, what we pay intelligence to do. But the focus on armaments over intangibles also reflects the competition for money for new systems on our side.

Where Do We Go from Here?

To say we have entered a very dangerous period is to say the obvious. By this point, the only “victory” for Putin would be a small one: Ukraine would commit to remain neutral, Putin would declare victory and withdraw most of his troops, perhaps leaving Russia in effective control of more of the east. The rub is that it is far from clear that Putin is interested in a small victory after all the troops he has committed.

The most likely future is a quagmire of sorts, with intermittent localized fighting, an expansion of what has been going on in eastern Ukraine since 2014, and Ukraine remaining a basket case, though one mounting periodic insurgency. That future would raise question about opposition in Russia. Thus far, the United States and NATO have masterfully controlled the external narrative. Indeed, the Biden administration has broken new ground in using bits of declassified intelligence to tell the world what Putin is going to do, thus keeping him off balance. That has been facilitated because so much of the basic intelligence, on Russia troop movements for instance, comes from imagery that is now not classified but instead available commercially.

Putin, though, has continued to control the narrative at home. A few brave Russians, like the woman at the TV station, have learned the truth and spoken it, and time will tell whether bit by bit the truth seeps through. As it did in Afghanistan, Russia will no doubt hide the bodies of its dead soldiers. Perhaps because I lived through the end of the Soviet Union, I’m skeptical that street protest will threaten Putin’s position. Rather, I’d put my money on the military, which must hate this war, one that is burning up lives and equipment that can’t easily be replaced for a cause that baffles most conscripts. The analogy is crude, but it is a little like the United States attacking Canada (which, admittedly, we’ve done but not recently).

Putin not only bet Russia by invading Ukraine, he also created a contest between democracy and autocracy, one which the democracies so far have won dramatically—hardly what Putin expected. And with each passing day of Russian bestiality in Ukraine, countries sitting on the fence find their position more and more uncomfortable. Some have continued the straddle, like India and Israel, but 141 countries voted for the UN resolution call on Russia to unconditionally withdraw from Ukraine, with only five countries voting against.

China’s position must be more and more uncomfortable. Its best friend, Russia, has—visibly and brutally—violated principles of sovereignty and non-intervention that have been sacred to the Communist Party since the beginning. President Xi Jinping does not seem flexible enough to switch sides to the democrats, but he might use his relationship to Putin to try to mediate an end to the conflict. I wouldn’t bet on it, however.

That leads to the horrible, apocalyptic possibility. Reports that Putin is dying of cancer have multiplied but without serious validation, a reminder that the plural of rumor is not intelligence. He certainly does look puffy and unwell. If he thinks he is going down, either politically or personally, he might be tempted to try to take the world with him. He already has brandished nuclear weapons in a conflict where they make no sense. Let us hope that he has enough sense left to realize that.

[1] In fact, talking of “their” nuclear weapons is probably an exaggeration since while the weapons were located on their territory, command and control surely remained in Moscow.

Published on April 11, 2022 by

Dick Eassom, CF APMP Fellow