The Russia-Ukraine war threatens to expand into a much wider conflict in much the same way as the dynamics of global rivalries led to both World War I and World War II—if not previous global wars in history.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg has himself stated, “If things go wrong, they can go horribly wrong… It is a terrible war in Ukraine. It is also a war that can become a full-fledged war that spreads into a major war between NATO and Russia… We are working on that every day to avoid that.”
The question remains: How will Moscow respond to the fact that the US and NATO are increasingly backing Kyiv with significant weapons capabilities that include tanks, armored vehicles, long range rocket and missile systems, land mines, personnel carriers, plus at least one Patriot anti-missile battery, etc.
This increased military assistance raises the question: How will Russia react if Kyiv can eventually retake Kherson (along with the North Crimea Canal that supplies water to Crimea), plus other areas near the eastern Donbass region and Sea of Azov, thus isolating Crimea? And what if Kyiv can eventually take Crimea itself?
How will President Putin and Russian elites react to the possible loss of Russian control of its newly won gains in eastern Ukraine that it had obtained at considerable expense and loss of life from the Russian perspective? Will Moscow seek peace? Or fight back with even greater force?
Is Moscow preparing a major offensive?
The meeting of Ukrainian President Zelensky with President Biden and the US Congress in Washington, plus American and European promises of greater military assistance, has appeared to lead Putin to further boost Russian military capabilities. Rather than seeking peace, Moscow appears to be preparing for some form of major military intervention, perhaps involving Belarus, around late January or in February. This could take place before Ukraine is strongly supplied and before at least one symbolic Patriot anti-missile battery is fully deployed.
Putin has accordingly hoped to mobilize a greater number of forces (possibly as many as 300,000 to 500,000 troops who will dubiously obtain sufficient training) as cannon fodder in what is evidently no longer a “special military operation.”
This troop buildup appears aimed at defending Russian gains and sustaining its land bridge from Kherson to Crimea, maintaining the North Crimea Canal, where seeking to expand control where possible. To engage in a major offensive, and to offset the real possibility that significant domestic Russian opposition to his military intervention in Ukraine will undermine his rule, much as was the case for domestic opposition to the Soviet war in Afghanistan, Putin has been attempting to boost domestic support for the war effort by appealing to Russian Orthodoxy and nationalism. He has called for a great patriotic struggle, like that of Stalin’s struggle against Nazi Germany in World War II—but this time aimed against so-called Ukrainian “heretics,” the US and NATO.
Pressuring CSTO allies
In addition to boosting Russian manpower, Putin has also hoped to augment his efforts to obtain military support from Russian allies in the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). The latter have ostensibly promised to discuss military matters with the Chinese-led Shanghai Cooperation Organization, plus Russian armament producers.
Although there does not appear to be strong support among CIS, SCO and Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) members for Russian military actions in Ukraine, the question nevertheless remains as to whether Russia will eventually be able to drag state armies other than Chechen and Belarus volunteers, plus the “private” Wagner militia, into the Ukraine conflict.
Despite the historical and personal rivalry between Putin and Belarus president, Lukashenko, Putin appears to be pressuring a reluctant Belarus (that is dependent on Russian gas and trade) into supporting Russia’s offensive. On the one hand, Lukashenko fears that domestic opposition from both domestic civil society and military factions could attempt to overthrow his rule if he opts to intervene militarily in Ukraine—particularly as his forces appear to be more apt for domestic repression than for offensive action.
On the other, Lukashenko could also fear that Putin, or Russian hardliners, could attempt to overthrow him if he does not more strongly support the Russian war effort. Lukashenko could also fear that the defeat of Russia in eastern Ukraine could not only lead to Putin’s demise, but also to the eventual collapse of the CSTO and CIS—if not to the not-to-be excluded disaggregation of the Russian Federation itself. In many ways, Putin’s demise or Russian state collapse could in turn lead to Lukashenko’s demise—if not to civil war throughout the former Soviet empire.
These negative scenarios, based on the history of the 1917 Russian revolution and the “secret” US, British and French military intervention that followed, cannot be totally excluded. In any case, even if Belarus refuses to enter the combat in Ukraine, a tighter Russian-Belarusian defense relationship, even if it may actually weaken Belarus military capabilities, still forces Kiev to protect its northern flank—as its forces attempt to press into eastern Ukraine, if not into Crimea.
The role of China
The general US narrative is that Beijing does not fully support Putin’s war given fears that the US and EU would put even greater sanctions and military pressures on the country if China provided significant arms to Moscow, particularly as the overall annual trade of China with US and EU is roughly $1.2 trillion and much greater than that with Russia. It is also argued that Beijing could not support the Russian invasion in Ukraine because the precedent of violating the territorial integrity of one sovereign state will ostensibly work to undermine Beijing’s “one China policy” for Taiwan. It is thereby hoped that Beijing could try to use its burgeoning influence to bring sense into Putin’s head and put an end to the war.
Yet this hopeful argument ignores the obvious issue that Beijing seeks Russian energy at bargain basement prices, and that Beijing believes the US and Europe also need to sustain trade and investment with China given the extent of their economic interdependence. The argument also overlooks the reality that China’s main goal remains its unification with Taiwan, regardless of what Russia is doing in Ukraine and that China does not want to alienate Russia, but buy it off.
The major strategic concern for Beijing is that the US is the primary country that is seeking to check Beijing’s goals with respect to Taiwan and that Beijing needs at least tacit, if not more overt, diplomatic, if not defense, supports from Russia in order to press for unification as a means to upgrade its military. As Beijing seeks to rebuild itself and reopen its economy after the Covid crackdown, it could eventually take the strategic gamble that the US could soon move into greater relative isolation, by reducing its military expenditure as now demanded by Republicans in Congress, and that the US will not be willing to risk a confrontation over Taiwan.
Given US efforts to build up Taiwan’s military capabilities, Beijing’s strategy appears to be that of squeezing the country step-by-step through a military build-up and by threatening a blockade. And while Beijing and Moscow have not yet forged an alliance, their partnership could become a full-fledged alliance if the global alliance system continues to polarize following the formation of the AUKUS pact between the US, UK and Australia, that is tacitly linked to Japan, NATO, if not eventually India, who are all augmenting their defense capabilities.
In this regard, so as to press China into greater support, Putin appears to be playing a new strategic game with North Korea. On the one hand, the White House has accused Pyongyang of covertly supplying Russia with a “significant” number of artillery shells; on the other hand, both Russia and China appear to be re-supplying North Korea.
Putin’s vows to more strongly support North Korea, coupled with North Korean testing of advanced missile capabilities, appear to be having the effect of forcing Japan to significantly augment its defense spending. Against Russian, Chinese and North Korean threats, Japan plans to acquire new long-range missile systems while developing a new fighter jet with Italy and the UK. Japan also seeks to strengthen the capabilities of its Self-Defense Forces to defend its island chains against a feared Chinese attack.
The increase in Japan’s defense spending over 2% of GDP by 2027 not only presses China to augment its own defense spending, but could force Beijing to increasingly look back to its only potential major ally for support--- Moscow. Much like Stalin’s support for North Korea, Putin’s strategy appears that of opening a new front in the Far East. If so, Putin’s strategic gambit would seek to divert US attention away from Ukraine and try to force a trade-off: Moscow would only reduce its support for North Korea if the U.S. reduces its support for Ukraine.
A very dangerous game indeed. It also represents a reminder that the Korean War did not end until Stalin died. Will Putin’s war in Ukraine, and the tacit threat to support a war in the Far East, end only if Putin dies or is forced to step down? If Putin is forced out for whatever reason, will the new leadership take a softer line, as the Soviets did after the Korean war? Or will Russian patriotic hardliners pick up the flame?
Toward a wider war?
There is a real danger that any unforeseen incident could prompt China, Russia, Iran, North Korea and the U.S. into direct confrontation as Russia prosecutes its war in Ukraine. The war could soon metamorphose into an even wider conflict beyond Ukraine as more and more states assert their revisionist and irredentist claims that have opened up in aftermath of Soviet collapse. Potential conflicts include Greece vs Turkey and Armenia vs Azerbaijan, among many others.
The risk is that any major incident could draw regional and major powers into direct conflict, as was the case in November 2022 when a missile flying from Ukrainian airspace inadvertently struck Polish territory and was immediately denounced as a direct Russian attack on a NATO member by Kyiv, before the incident was played down. Another incident that threatened war was when a Ukrainian S-300 anti-missile struck Belarus territory.
Putin has periodically threatened to use nuclear weapons. That horrific option could become more likely if only because Putin will lose total credibility among Russian pan-nationalists if Russian forces suffer significant losses on the muddy Ukrainian battleground. Russian nuclear strategy argues that tactical nuclear weapons could be used to stop a conventional war; such weaponry could also be used in case of an “existential threat.” Such an “existential threat” could not merely represent a direct attack on Russian-claimed territory, as in the Donbass or Crimea, but could really mean Putin’s fear of losing power altogether. The question is where is Putin’s “red line”?
Yet tactical nuclear weapons are not Putin’s only option, Putin could deploy the thermobaric “father of all bombs” (FOAB) as he allegedly did in Chechnya and Syria, while also rationalizing the use of the FOAB by the fact that Trump had used a similar weapon, the “mother of all bombs” (MOAB) in Afghanistan.
Toward engaged diplomacy
There is a real danger that if Washington, by strongly backing the Ukrainians, and Moscow continue on the path of power-based bargaining or “brinkmanship”—then any unforeseen incident could draw Russia and the US and NATO into a more direct confrontation. This is particularly true given the fact that the new techniques of “hybrid warfare” have largely undermined Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD)—assuming it really ever existed even during the Cold War, given incidents during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis and 1983 Able Archer NATO exercises that came close to sparking a nuclear conflict, among others.
Given the real threat of a wider, if not nuclear, war, it is time to reassess American, NATO and Ukrainian strategy and to start reaching out for a general settlement with Moscow. Evidently, neither side appears ready for diplomacy at the moment. Nevertheless, the more it becomes evident that neither Russia nor Ukraine will be able to achieve their maximum goals, the greater the chance for a political settlement. And even if such a settlement will not be considered fully “just” by either side, an “unjust” peace should be preferred to a more intense and wider war. Only a mix of engaged bilateral and multilateral diplomacy can eventually put an end to this conflict—much like that which prevented the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis from becoming a nuclear war through mutual compromises and concessions.
Yet such a peace option can come about only when the U.S., Ukraine and Russia jointly realize that they have hit a “mutually hurting stalemate” so that all sides see that a continuation of the conflict will not bring “victory” but an even greater disaster. The dilemma, however, is that the “hurt” that could lead to such a “stalemate” is asymmetrical, and not necessarily felt in equal or “mutual” terms—as both sides suffer differently and not necessarily to the same degree.
If, however, Kiev’s present military offensive makes Moscow realize that Ukraine will be able to sustain its resistance to Russian efforts to occupy Ukrainian territory beyond certain areas taken by Russia in the Donbass and Crimea—then Moscow could eventually engage in negotiations to determine which side controls which territories, assuming Putin does not opt to pursue a more massive offensive aimed at taking Odessa or attempting to seize the capital, Kyiv, once again.
While Kyiv presently appears adamant on pushing Moscow into retreat, at least in some regions, the concern raised here is that retaking supposedly “pro-Russian” areas in Donbass, if not Crimea itself, should raise major questions as to real impact of Ukraine’s strategic goals—even if Kyiv can claim an international legal right to regain control of these areas.
The problem is that, at least before the 2022 war, the majority of the local population appeared to support the Russian annexation of Crimea, despite the opposition of Ukrainian and Tatar ethnic minorities. In addition, much of the population in Donbass has also appeared to be opposed to Ukrainian control, even if not all Russophones really want to be subject to Putin’s rule either.
Would the Donbass and Crimean populations peacefully accept renewed Ukrainian rule? Would territorial exchanges or population resettlement need to take place? Or could the “autonomy” or “independence” of these regions represent diplomatic options? Is joint Russian-Ukrainian sovereignty, or perhaps a UN mandate, for specific areas possible? Would it prove necessary for international peacekeepers to be deployed as a “buffer” between Ukrainian and Russian forces?
Assuming Ukraine can press its present advantage, and that is not stopped by Moscow, my point is that Kyiv needs to rethink its goals of “total victory.” If a diplomatic settlement is to be achieved, both sides must be able to claim at least a partial “victory,” even if neither is completely satisfied. Such a situation could either represent 1) an uneasy “partition” of territory in which both sides build up forces as in Korea and Germany as during the Cold War for fear of a future conflict or 2) more positively, the start of a renewed US, EU and Ukrainian diplomatic engagement with Moscow that seeks to ameliorate regional and global tensions by seeking to implement a new European and global security order.
The danger is that if the US, as the main backer of Ukraine, does not soon initiate a major diplomatic initiative toward Russia, as well as toward its other rivals, including China, Iran, and North Korea, then it is highly likely that global system will polarize into rival alliances as a consequence of the insecurity-security dialectic, and that the ongoing war in Ukraine will intensify, resulting in more and more unnecessary death and destruction, and then both indirectly and directly widen into conflicts in other regions.