As Russia’s war against Ukraine drags into a third week, hard realities are setting in. They will be hard for the West to overcome.
Russia’s way of war is now on open display. While some aspects are risible, others are causes for concern. The Russian way remains heavily linked to the Soviet experience and even earlier paradigms of warfighting in Russian history.
We see Russia’s enduring (and almost comical) lack of regard for its own forces. Half-trained conscripts are now poured forward with little training, poor equipment, and a lack of supply. Russian armored columns have run out of fuel. Casualties have been heavy, with more Russian soldiers losing their lives in two weeks of war than America did during more than a decade in Iraq.
But these shortcomings do not necessarily mean that Russia is teetering on the brink of defeat or about to reign in its military operations. The historical ability of the Russian army to stay in the fight, come what may, remains a formidable obstacle. At the same time, Russia wages war with little or no regard for enemy civilians. The examples furnished by operations in Chechnya during the 1990s, Afghanistan during the 1980s, and Eastern Europe in the 1940s, are a chilling reminder of what war can look like when it is fed by a criminal ideology convinced of its rectitude, animated by expediency, and devoid of respect for decency and human life.
This lack of respect is prominently on display in Russia’s recent targeting of Ukrainian civilians. Such acts are neither carelessness nor wanton cruelty, but a policy designed to remove Ukrainians from various territories to make it easier for Russia to control them. The sad reality is that the more Ukrainians who flee in the sensible act of trying to save their lives (now 2.5m out of a population of 44m), the easier it becomes for Russia to lay claim to more Ukrainian territory when the war finally ends.
Second, we see that in spite of Western conversations about an “information war,” and the courageous anti-war protests within Russia, Russian public opinion still counts for very little. In many ways, this is Vladimir Putin’s war; but this is also Vladimir Putin’s Russia. The belief that setbacks or delays of Russian operations in Ukraine can somehow bring down Putin’s regime are optimistic to say the least. Putin has systematically gutted the political opposition since coming to power more than two decades ago. His political opponents have been murdered, imprisoned, or exiled. There is no credible, organized, and resourced opposition. Putin’s hold on Russian media and information is stronger than it has ever been. Part of this devolution is the result of another hard truth confronting the West.
War is transforming Russia into a more comprehensive police state. Totalitarian regimes have a history of waging war ruthlessly. We can debate whether this is because of their ideational link to toughness (Himmler and Hitler fetishized the language of harshness, hardness, and brutality; Stalin literally took “steel” as his name), or a functional output of authoritarian systems, but war tends to make oppressive regimes even more oppressive. This escalation applies not only to their foreign enemies, but to their domestic opponents. Russia’s war is rolling back the very limited progress made since the fall of the Soviet Union in terms of economic and political liberalization, as well as press freedom. This trend is likely to continue until Russia more thoroughly resembles China, or even the old Soviet Union. Internet traffic is thoroughly restricted. Independent media has been blocked. Lack of adherence to the official government narrative has been criminalized. Nearly 13,000 Russians have been arrested for opposition to the war. Putin’s Gulags will probably have 10 times that number before this is done. But despite these real limitations on Russia, NATO and its partners continue to tread carefully. A Polish offer to send MIG-29 fighters to Ukraine has stalled in the face of German and American caution. Ideas for a no-fly zone cannot get off the ground.
More robust responses are obstructed by a fear of nuclear escalation. Every president in the nuclear age has confronted the reality that escalating hostilities with Russia and its allies, whether in Korea, Cuba, Vietnam, or Afghanistan, comes with the risk of escalation and potential nuclear exchange. That reality has not changed. Staring it in the face, we see the limits of the West’s economic, political, and military power. As we test those limits, Russia is creating facts on the ground that the West will struggle to overturn. With direct military engagement off the table, Western policymakers will struggle to find approaches that will successfully reverse Putin’s gains on the ground.
Economic and political pressure, however, have a limited effectiveness because China and Russia are partners. If indeed we are entering a new cold war, we should remember that the first one was fought between the United States, Western Europe, and their allies on one side, and between Russia and China and their allies on the other. A second iteration of the Cold War will also pit the West against Russia and China, but this time, China will be the senior partner.
Their cooperation is based on a shared revisionism. Both countries have an expressed interest in undermining and overturning the current international order based on American power and preeminence. In that struggle, this war would be just the beginning. While China’s public attitude to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has largely been one of neutrality, it actions speak louder than its words. While Western governments and multinationals have imposed significant economic sanctions on Russia, China has not. China and Russia announced $117.5 billion in oil and gas deals on February 4, less than three weeks before the invasion. Trade with China provides Russia an important economic lifeline that will allow it to blunt the full force of Western sanctions. As companies like Visa and Mastercard have pulled out, Chinese credit card companies are likely to access the Russian market. Chinese media is reinforcing Russia’s narrative about the war, pedaling conspiracies and lies about Ukraine and the United States.
So, while some doubt the importance of Ukraine to the national security of the United States or the West, we should recognize that the war being fought there is not only a war for that country, but also a sign of the shifting times in which we live. Regardless of the result of this conflict, the conflict itself suggests that the future could be dark indeed.
Andrew R. Novo is a Nonresident Senior Fellow with CEPA’s Transatlantic Defense and Security program. He is a Professor of Strategic Studies at the National Defense University, Washington, DC and an adjunct at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service.
March 11, 2022