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Ukraine's Crisis Will Not Stay in Ukraine

Ukraine's Crisis Will Not Stay in Ukraine

Friday, 25 February, 2022 - 05:15
Hal Brands
Hal Brands is the Henry A. Kissinger Distinguished Professor at the Henry A. Kissinger Center for Global Affairs at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies and a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. His latest book is "American Grand Strategy in the Age of Trump."

Don’t make the mistake of thinking that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is a lamentable but localized crisis, whose consequences will be felt only by people far away. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war has created perhaps the gravest security crisis of this century, one that will have profound effects around the globe.

The pain will be borne mostly by Ukraine, of course, a country that gained independence only three decades ago and now faces the possibility of national extinction.

When Putin talks about the “demilitarization” of Ukraine, he presumably means the evisceration of its military. When he talks about “de-Nazification,” he is presumably talking about a purge of Ukrainian elites and the installation of a puppet regime. When he claims that a succession of Russian and Soviet leaders “gifted” Ukraine much of its territory, he may well be previewing an extensive redrawing of the map.

This is an existential crisis for Ukraine, featuring behavior — blatant aggression, the violent seizure of territory — reminiscent of Europe’s dark, not-so-ancient past. But the effects of a military assault on a major country in a critical region won’t be easily contained.

There will be far-reaching economic spillover. The US and other Western countries are preparing financial, technological and commercial sanctions meant not simply to punish Russia but to inflict deep, lasting damage on its economy.

Those sanctions may not change Putin’s calculus: Prosperity is not the measure of national greatness that most inspires him. But these pressures, and any Russian counter-sanctions they provoke, will increase inflation, push up energy costs and otherwise roil a global economy that is still feeling the effects of the pandemic.

There will also be spillover in cyberspace. Putin has long used Ukraine as a proving ground for ambitious cyberattacks, some of which have hopped off the battlefield and onto networks around the world. That could happen again, given that Russia has been battering Ukraine digitally as a prelude to assaulting it militarily. Putin might deliberately take the digital war beyond Ukraine, reaching for cyberweapons to inflict pain on democratic countries that are inflicting pain on him.

The geopolitical fallout could be equally severe. A Russian occupation of large swaths of Ukraine, combined with the permanent stationing of Putin’s legions in Belarus, would give Moscow a more menacing position vis-à-vis North Atlantic Treaty Organization members such as Poland, Romania and Lithuania. This could mean a dramatic deterioration of security in Eastern Europe, with no end in sight.

This particular feature of the current crisis might easily get worse. Putin is unlikely to invade a NATO country: That’s one fight he doesn’t want to pick. But if he can quickly consolidate control of Ukraine, he would be in a position to exert stronger coercive leverage on exposed NATO countries, perhaps (as Robert Kagan has hypothesized) demanding a corridor connecting Russia to its exclave in Kaliningrad, or perhaps seeking restrictions on the military capabilities and geopolitical alignment of the Baltic states.

If that sounds bad, a second scenario — in which Putin fails to consolidate control of Ukraine — could be just as dangerous.

If the Ukrainian military offers sustained resistance, or if a tenacious insurgency emerges, there will be an extremely compelling reason for the West to offer arms, money, intelligence and other forms of support. Bogging Putin down in Ukraine is the best way of preventing him from turning his attention elsewhere.

Yet prolonging a bloody military conflict in Europe will also mean prolonging the instability it creates. This would include a humanitarian crisis and vast refugee flows across an Eastern Europe that hasn’t previously welcomed those displaced by war.

It will also expose the countries involved to Russian anger and, potentially, retaliation — just as Pakistan faced Soviet coercion and cross-border raids when it helped a US-sponsored insurgency bleed the Red Army in Afghanistan in the 1980s.

This would not be a stable situation: Putin and his enemies would find themselves in an ongoing contest in coercion and counter-coercion.

Not least, Putin’s actions are “heightening the contradictions,” by accentuating the ideological and geopolitical divisions at work in the world today. This crisis has already led to a tighter Sino-Russian alignment: The Chinese foreign ministry has blamed the whole affair on America, while Putin and China’s president, Xi Jinping — united in their hostility to American power — have declared that their partnership has “no limits.”

Meanwhile, the confrontation between Russia and the West is merging with the broader struggle between opponents and supporters of the existing order. Worried about the precedent unchecked autocratic aggression might set, non-European democracies such as Japan are joining the sanctions campaign.

Here lies the redeeming potential of the current conflict: Its long-term effects will hinge on the democratic world’s response. If the US and its allies exact a devastating economic toll on Russia, help Ukraine impose high costs on the invaders, strengthen their military capabilities in Eastern Europe and beyond, and improve the overall cohesion of the democratic community, then this crisis — like the Korean War — could actually fortify the existing order by showing that efforts to break it will not pay.

But if the Western democracies fail, then the fallout from Putin’s gambit may be a preview of greater global disruptions to come.


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