How the US could become ultimate winner of the war in Ukraine
While there can be little doubt that the war in Ukraine has proven disastrous for the two belligerents, it may well be a very good war for the United States — a very good war indeed.
Consider the potential upsides.
First, there can be little doubt that one of the main outcomes of the war will be a greatly diminished – and thus considerably less dangerous – Russia. The Russian military has not only been revealed to be something of a paper tiger, but whatever combat capability it did possess on the eve of the invasion has since been severely degraded. Add to this the economic pain that has been inflicted by Western states and commercial entities since Feb. 24, and it becomes clear that Russia has been weakened by the war to the point where it will likely be at least a generation before it tries anything like this “special military operation” again. And that is a very good outcome for the United States indeed.
A second likely outcome of the war will be greater European strategic autonomy. A renewed sense of shared threat has prompted a revitalization of European NATO and, perhaps even more consequentially, reignited a conversation about the need for Europe to develop its own independent strategic personality. Should this conversation gain traction and begin to produce concrete policy outcomes – and there is every reason to believe it will – then the medium-term future is likely to be one in which the Europeans assume most (perhaps all) of the burden for European defense. It will also be one in which the Europeans play a more independent and consequential role on the global geopolitical stage.
The net effect of these two outcomes will be not only a more stable balance of power in Europe, but a Europe that is able to help maintain stability from the Arctic to the Indo-Pacific. To the extent that such a development would both free up U.S. resources and create a more capable strategic partner, it would enhance Washington’s ability to balance threats beyond Europe — especially in the Western Pacific, where an increasingly assertive China threatens regional stability. And that would be a very good outcome for the United States indeed.
A third likely outcome of the Russian invasion of Ukraine will be that Taiwan will once again take its own security – and the threat to that security posed by its neighbor on the mainland – seriously. If nothing else, images of a regional great power – one with irredentist claims, a delusional sense of history and an exaggerated sense of its own vulnerability – launching a massive invasion of a peaceful neighbor is likely to convince Taiwan’s leaders that they must do everything in their power to avoid a similar fate.
Serious rearmament is already in the cards, to the point where the image of a near-future Taiwan as a military “porcupine,” spikes bristling in defiance of all possible foes (but really, mainland China), is now ubiquitous. Couple this with a renewed sense of danger and seriousness of purpose in Japan and other Indo-Pacific states, and a picture comes into focus of a powerful counter-balancing coalition forming to check China’s regional ambitions. To the extent that this both stabilizes the balance of power in the region and does so without drawing disproportionately on American resources, this would be a very good outcome for the United States indeed.
Fourth, Russia’s failed invasion of Ukraine may well reinforce stability in the Western Pacific as it teaches the hard lesson that defense is dominant on the contemporary battlefield — at least if that defense is conducted by highly motivated and appropriately equipped forces enjoying certain geographic advantages. Just as foreknowledge of the effectiveness and lethality of Ukraine’s form of defensive warfighting would almost certainly have dissuaded Russia from invading it western neighbor, the foreknowledge that Taiwan will soon have similar defensive capabilities (not to mention the geographic advantage of a 100-mile-wide moat) will almost certainly temper China’s revanchist ambitions. Once again, to the extent that this stabilizes a regional balance of power that favors American interests, this would be a very good outcome for the United States indeed.
Things could still go pear-shaped, of course. Kyiv, caught up in the flush of battlefield success and egged on by intemperate European and American politicians, could foolishly pursue the maximalist goal of ejecting Russia from all of Ukraine’s national territory, including Crimea and the breakaway republics of Donetsk and Luhansk, leading inevitably to prolonged conflict and the prospect of escalation.
Similarly, Washington could heed the unsound counsel of maximalist voices in the United States and put U.S. boots on the ground, support the maximalist aim of ejecting Russia from all of Ukraine or insist on imposing overly harsh or punitive terms on a defeated and humiliated Russia. And Russian President Vladimir Putin might decide to roll the dice – say by using a low-yield nuclear weapon – in the hope of salvaging an increasingly dire situation. In any of these ways, and many more, things could yet go disastrously wrong.
But, if Washington plays its cards just right – and if Kyiv is realistic, if Moscow remains rational and if the goddess Fortuna smiles on us – then the war will produce stable balances of power in at least two of regions of crucial importance to Washington.
And that would make it a very good war indeed — at least for the United States.
Andrew Latham is a professor of international relations at Macalester College in Saint Paul, Minn., and a non-resident fellow at Defense Priorities in Washington, D.C. Follow him on Twitter @aalatham.
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