The frozen conflict between Ukraine and Russia has unfrozen due to the increased temperatures fostered by both leaders. Presidents Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin face high risks other than war since Russia has not invaded Ukraine. Like former President Trump’s dynamic with Chinese Premier Xi Jinping, a mixture of domestic and global circumstances poses a Thucydides trap risk to Biden and Putin.
The stakes of any Ukrainian outcome are exceptionally high for President Joe Biden, especially in the wake of the botched Afghanistan withdrawal. Mounting domestic challenges like pandemic-induced supply chain shortages, inflation, and COVID-19 have compounded his Administration’s problems. According to some polls, Biden finds his overall approval rating mired in the ’30s, meaning that he surpasses his predecessor’s unpopularity with the American public. Biden is heading into historically tough midterms in an even weaker position than previous incumbents with poor standing among important Democratic constituencies like African Americans and younger voters. This development is highly concerning for Biden as these two groups provided critical support for his narrow 2020 victory.
Political rhetoric during the Trump era also upped Russo-American relationship stakes. Democratic party-aligned commentators blamed Moscow for former President Trump’s 2016 shock win. Tying the former President’s interests to Vladimir Putin as some scheme even though parts of the Russia gate narrative have gradually fallen apart. Such as the now-debunked “Steele Dossier,” containing disproven controversial allegations against Donald Trump.
Biden’s Russian difficulties come from his rhetoric and previous administrations’ broken assurances to Moscow. Biden faces pressure to sharply shift from referring to Vladimir Putin as a “killer” and promising military support for Kyiv to managing strained relations with a near-peer competitor. The Biden Administration dropped opposition to Germany completing the Nord Stream 2 project, piping Russian fuel into western Europe. At the same time, Biden’s foreign policy team has engaged with the Putin regime despite promising to isolate Russia. Biden’s strategic messaging is full of inconsistencies that communicate indecisiveness to the Kremlin.
Biden’s Administration has reverted to sanctions as a possible punishment for Russian aggression. However, as the past two Administrations have shown, sanctions have become an ineffective prescription for foreign policy problems like Iran, North Korea, and especially Russia. After Moscow’s initial 2014 Ukraine destabilization efforts, sanctions only reinforced Russia’s position. Individually tailored sanctions have also failed since Russia’s oligarchs continue to pursue business transactions abroad. Closer relations with the PRC and long-established relationships with other critical emerging market countries give Russia more influence than other sanctioned states.
Despite Biden’s problems, Putin is more vulnerable than ever in his over twenty years in power. Russia’s population has one of the highest coronavirus tolls, with a minimum of 329,000 dead. Non-government estimates the country’s COVID-19 death toll is much higher than official estimates, with the Russian government downplaying the virus. The Sputnik V vaccine faces skepticism even at home, with low vaccination rates compared to the U.S. and western Europe. COVID is a black swan that has gradually undermined already low trust in Russia’s institutions its already strained health care system. The Russian economy initially faced its most serious contraction since the fall of the Soviet Union due to COVID-19 as the pandemic undermines economic stability-one of Putin’s key power pillars.
The unrest in former Soviet Republics like Belarus and Kazakhstan also pressures Russian calculations. The ongoing protest in Kazakhstan poses a risk to Putin, as a once stable allied regime looks increasingly fragile. A destabilized allied government in Kazakhstan that once held elite support unnerves Putin since his position is dependent on the same factors to retain power. Like modern Russia, the help of the oligarchic fossil fuels and mining sectors was crucial to Kazakhstan’s political economy. Irritating oligarchic support combined with widespread protests shook President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev’s foundation. At the same time, the backlash to the fraudulent re-election of Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko threatens to create a low-level insurgency thwarting Putin’s strategic plan.
Russia’s economy largely failed to diversify despite having a well-educated population and a post-Soviet industrial base. The Russian Federation under Vladimir Putin has only become more dependent on fossil fuels to sustain its power base leaving the country vulnerable to sharp energy market changes. The COVID-induced oil slump in March 2020 especially hit the Russian economy hard. Recent tensions with Ukraine have also meant more energy price uncertainty, creating political problems for Putin.
The uncertain state of the Russian military means a Ukrainian confrontation poses a threat to Putin. Endemic corruption and decades of institutionalism have hobbled changes designed to turn Soviet-style conscript and heavy equipment-dependent army into a professional fighting force. Moscow’s forces have had inconsistent performances during campaigns against Georgia and Ukraine despite an advanced defense base. Moscow failed to achieve its strategic objectives in ether conflict since pro-western governments have survived these two countries.
The ultimate danger for Putin resulting from the Ukrainian war is that it is already an endemic conflict. Unlike the Russian intervention in Syria, where Moscow achieved its aims through a decisive military force, it kept Bashar Al-Assad-a vital middle eastern ally in power. It deterred the United States from removing him. Ukraine poses the same political danger to Putin that the Chechen secession movement posed to Boris Yeltsin. The President becomes bogged down by a conflict in Russia’s sphere of influence, eventually impacting home affairs. Even worse, Ukraine turns out to be a Soviet-era Afghan repeat with outside assistance combined with Kyiv’s increasing military force quality takes a toll on Russian society.
There are signs that a poor outcome as Moscow’s Ukrainian actions come with high financial and human costs lack a precise result. Putin’s overt invasion of Ukraine will likely not only run into initial resistance, but Russia will entangle itself in a potentially bloody occupation within its claimed influence sphere. Costs associated with further Ukrainian involvement are too high for a transactional authoritarian like Vladimir Putin. Putin’s actions over the past week run the highest risk in decades of a direct clash between Russian and NATO forces, losing control of Russia’s foreign policy endangering his hold onto the Kremlin.
Ukraine is becoming an intractable conflict proving a costly distraction for the White House’s Pacific Pivot. Ongoing Middle Eastern stability, two international financial crises, and an ever-widening Ukrainian war meant that Biden’s immediate predecessors have failed to accomplish a complete rebalance to Asia. An Asian focus will be challenging since Russia and China have moved closer due to shared worldviews in the post-Trump era. Biden must ultimately balance tensions with Russia for the long-sought-after pivot to succeed. There is also a cross-partisan view among American non-interventionists that Ukraine is unimportant to foreign policy decisions given its internal challenges.
Putin’s goal is not an occupation of Ukraine but assurances preventing Kyiv’s future membership in NATO or the European Union. Unlike China, Russia is in long-term structural decline, unable to wage a long-term overt war against the U.S. or its allies. The United States and Russia will not come to blows over Ukraine because it suits neither power’s interest as what happened during Cold War episodes such as the Cuban Missile Crisis. Moscow will reach a mutual understanding with Washington and Brussels, where it withdraws from Ukrainian territory but with agreements allowing Putin to claim an imaginary domestic victory. Like the pre-1989 rivalry, expect tensions between the United States and Russia to remain high, especially since Moscow grows relations with Beijing to enhance its relevancy.
Kevin Brown’s work has previously featured in The Diplomat, the American Conservative, and the National Interest. He holds an MSc. in International History from the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE). He will matriculate for global energy at Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. You can follow him on Twitter: @KevinBrown778.