As we reach a month of the Ukrainian war amid talks of possible peace, a strategic appraisal is in order. It appears the Russians thought the war would be easy and fast, the Ukrainians would simply roll over and surrender, and the common people would rise up to greet Russians as liberators. Russian strategic decision-making, worsened by ideological bubbles, turned out to be as haunting as British and American misadventures in Iraq and Libya.
The Russian officer attrition in this war is on a level rarely observed in any recent conflict, partially because this level of high-intensity, state versus state, multi-domain total war hasn’t occurred in the last few decades. Russia did not foresee that its old-fashioned special operations tactics are obsolete satellites and drones track their movements.
The fact that Moscow did not calculate this in their battle plans is a sign of decline, a far cry from its prestigious officer corps training during the Soviet era. The bulk of the Russian navy and air force are still bafflingly underused and functionally unavailable given the intensity of the conflict, giving rise to the suspicion that the Russians are preserving their top-tier weaponry and platforms in case the war spirals to a continental conflict.
But, somehow, they are still grinding on. If their objective was to stop Ukraine, Georgia, and Belarus from joining the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), they have achieved it already. They have also managed to cut off the entire east and south of Ukraine. Russia might still win the war and achieve Ukrainian zonal neutrality, given Russia’s sheer weight.
The Russian rhetorical “denazification” was also recently dropped quietly from the rhetoric. But the demand for Ukrainian neutrality remains and will remain. It was the single major Russian demand. All the other demands were maximalist and malleable, aimed towards negotiation.
Ukraine should have taken the opportunity to do a Cold War-era, Austrian-style “neutralitätserklärung,” which would have resulted in the country constitutionally turning neutral, in order to get funding from the European Union and NATO and flourish. Ukrainians have also swallowed their non-achievable EU and NATO membership dream and are currently just as ideologically inflexible and rigid about compromise as Russia.
Unfortunately, the long-term ramifications of this war, for the west, are also bleak. Every single conservative restraint and realist gain from the last few years risks being reversed if realists continue to play defense on the rhetorical field of “values” instead of focusing on a narrow, populist interest.
The absolutely mindless idea of a no-fly zone in an active warzone with a nuclear great power was narrowly avoided by 78 experts writing an open letter against it. Incidentally, support for a no-fly zone declines among Americans the moment it is explained.
But the war hysteria in the first few weeks of the campaign, aided by the usual suspects, demonstrated just how close to power and catastrophe these ideologues were. When a former deputy assistant secretary of defense and a former supreme allied commander of NATO argue for a no-fly zone, one needs to remember they are one step away from real advisory power and might be so again in the future.
A conservative realist grand strategy that focuses on America’s southern borders and argues for Europeans to pay for European defense first needs a realist rhetoric and public relations strategy. It must discuss the public interest, in a language common people will understand and appreciate.
Pursuing such a strategy would require a total clean-up of the administrative state and Obama-era holdovers next time Republicans are in power. The hold-outs of liberal internationalism are deeply embedded within the ever-expansive national security bureaucracy.
War Is Burying Liberal Internationalism
Rampant war hysteria has resulted in limited diplomatic maneuverability, a realization that is slowly emerging. As the Financial Times noted, “since Feb 24, the west has been galvanised into more unity than it has shown in years. Yet most of the world is on the side lines waiting to see which way it goes. Not for the first time, the west risks mistaking itself for global consensus.”
No matter how many times fanatical liberal internationalists cry about this war suddenly rejuvenating liberalism, the reality cannot be further from truth. The war proves great powers can deter other great powers and are the only actors that matter, that nationalism is the strongest social force, that interests trump values, norms, and laws. Thus, the war is quite clearly not saving “liberal internationalism” but burying it.
Two of the largest non-western powers are either neutral or tacitly supporting Russia, simply because of the idea that great powers should have their own spheres of influence. The balancing powers in Europe also argued against NATO being a co-belligerent.
Realism Isn’t Isolationism At All
Anglo-American foreign policy realists are not pacifists or isolationists. They simply prioritize a greater strategic threat in China. Wars have their own momentum. The chance of a great power being dragged into war due to foolish or overzealous mistakes of smaller peripheral allies is a far bigger threat, as the current world is functionally similar to a multipolar system prior to the First World War than a relatively binary and Manichean conflict of the Second.
Russia, bogged down in Ukraine already, is not a hegemonic threat comparable to Nazi Germany. The EU’s total population is around 450 million, more than the United States (339 million) and much more than Russia (144 million). The EU’s gross domestic product also dwarfs Russia’s, and just the top four European defense budgets combined are larger than Russia’s. Yet, instead of an actual material pivot to Asia, the United States currently has more than 100,000 troops deployed in Europe.
Globally, the biggest future rival is China. China is almost incomparable in size and power next to previous rivals such as Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan, and even the USSR. There is nothing they would prefer more than the United States being dragged back to Europe.
Ultimately, the U.S. objective should be not to prolong the war, but to focus on China as a rising threat. Ukrainian neutrality would have sorted the issue for good. But Russia has already been pushed into the arms of the Chinese due to the war.
By not allowing an amoral balance of power, wherein we let Russia have a small sphere of influence as a grand bargain instead of being over-committed to Europe, Washington risks undercutting its long-term strategic interests by unknowingly accelerating China’s. In a twist of fate, President Joe Biden is now mirroring former President Donald Trump.
Biden’s old Cold War equilibrium instinct is under siege by his own activist administration, determined to defeat Russian “reactionary imperial patriarchy” and defend foreign borders, statues, and churches — instincts they would never allow at home. The almost theological focus on being a part of a conflict in the far corners of Eastern Europe to ensure the continuation of a liberal democratic revolution is fundamentally undercutting American grand strategy, which historically tried to split Russia and China.
Ultimately, pushing Russia to be a Chinese satellite might turn out to be our greatest historic blunder.