The greatest public-health crisis in a century not only didn’t unify our country; it managed to divide it still further. Yet Russian President Vladimir Putin’s incursion into a country that not long ago most Americans could not find on a map has united us in our outrage, and our desire to help.
As Dan Balz pointed out Sunday in The Washington Post, the conflict has “frozen the political environment at home.” Sadly, any unity Americans feel is likely to be short-lived, as our various factions try to wring out any advantage in the approaching midterms. At the end of the day, Putin’s gambit may not change our tribal politics much. But on a geopolitical scale, it signals a fundamental change in global power politics.
The disintegration of the Soviet Union and its resulting loss of stature as one of two global powers has long weighed heavily on Putin. In his 2005 State of the Nation address, Putin called the collapse of the Soviet Union “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century,” adding that “tens of millions of our fellow citizens and countrymen found themselves beyond the fringes of Russian territory.” The invasion of Ukraine amounted to only the latest of Putin’s attempts to get the band back together and regain his nation’s lost status and influence. But he is also thought to be concerned that growing democratization in countries on Russia’s border can threaten him as well, so he had a real interest in decapitating the Ukrainian government.
It is likely that Putin and his advisers saw the time as opportune, sensing a power vacuum caused by Angela Merkel stepping down as German chancellor, domestic political problems challenging both President Biden and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, and French President Emmanuel Macron preoccupied with his own reelection in April. Worn down by dual quagmires in Iraq and Afghanistan, Americans were in little mood for a fight.
So how will this change the three-way dynamic between the U.S., Russia, and China? Three years ago, the National Security Agency’s Rob Joyce used an apt metaphor, telling reporters, “I kind of look at Russia as the hurricane. It comes in fast and hard,” but on the other hand, China “is climate change: long, slow and pervasive.”
Two months ago, the Post quoted Katie Nickels, director of intelligence for the cybersecurity firm Red Canary, saying, “When dangerous is defined as having the greatest potential to cause damage to people and organizations in the U.S., the answer is Russia. … When dangerous is defined as having the greatest potential to threaten the strategic role of the U.S. as an enduring great power, the answer is China.”
Obviously, Putin and his intelligence and military officials underestimated the tenacity of the Ukrainians and overestimated the capabilities of their own military. Similarly, they were caught flat-footed by the sudden and quite unexpected unity and resolve of NATO and Western countries to confront, sanction, and isolate them.
It is impossible to know how this will end, but the best-case scenario for Putin disappeared weeks ago when advancing Russian troops were greeted with something less than sunflowers (the Ukrainian national flower) from the local populace as they marched across Ukraine.
Unless one subscribes to the possibility, however remote, of regime change in Moscow as a result of this debacle, the worst case for Putin would be the Russian army ultimately slinking back to the Motherland in humiliation.
A more plausible outcome might be something in between and more ambiguous. Russia may gain some territory from Ukraine, but at a terrible cost for Russia on many levels. It would find itself a global-pariah state, a large-scale North Korea. Russia would likely be able to negotiate relief of at least some sanctions in exchange for giving back some territory.
The introduction of nuclear weapons or other forms of mass destruction into the conflict would not likely result in a “win” for Russia, only massive losses on both sides and even greater ostracism by the international community.
It is hard to imagine that things won’t be very different from where they were six months ago—or for the last 60 or more years, for that matter. Yes, there may well be two groupings of nations—the U.S. and its allies on one hand, China and its allies on the other—something less than a Cold War, but certainly not very warm.
But even a partial collapse of Russia may mean that the U.S. cannot afford to be completely estranged from China nor push China and Russia together. As former Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair and former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Joseph Dunford wrote recently in The New York Times, there will necessarily be some interdependency between the U.S. and China—on energy policy, for example, or on the rare-earth minerals that China mines and the West desperately needs.
The reality is that neither the U.S. nor China can afford any real war, be it kinetic or economic. Russia will certainly try to align more with China than before, and it is in the U.S.’s best interest to drive a wedge between the two. Russia may try to convince President Xi that what the U.S. seeks in China is regime change and that the U.S. will come after Xi next.
We may be looking at a world power configuration in which Russia will, for the first time in over 75 years, not be a dominant player. Quite an irony given what Putin had in mind.
The article was originally published for the National Journal on March 21, 2022.
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