The current situation in Ukraine has the potential to unleash the horror of a high-intensity war on Europe. For Ukraine, it is potentially an existential crisis. For Russia, it could cause catastrophic losses at worst and a severe loss of face and deterioration in security at best. For Europe, it will cause more tension and exacerbate tensions between not just Europe and Russia but various members of the European Union and NATO who have different levels of exposure to Russia.
However, one power will benefit from any developments in Ukraine be it full-scale war, a Russian step down, or anything in between. That is the United States of America.
It has been evident since the mid-1990s that America and Russia would always maintain a somewhat hostile relationship. The Cold War may have been over by 1991, but the significant difference in world views between Russia and America meant that rivalry and conflict were inevitable. And indeed, the US and Russia have engaged in classic great power rivalry be it over NATO expansion, missile shields, weapons treaties as well as in places such as Syria, Georgia, and Ukraine.
With the perception of a resurgent Russia in Syria, Georgia, and in spheres such as cyberwarfare and Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, and with the US perceived as faltering America needs some wins and to put the Russians on the backfoot.
Ukraine presents Washington with a massive opportunity to regain the strategic initiative and more importantly destroy Russian momentum.
What if Russia Invades?
Regardless of the military situation, a Russian invasion of Ukraine would be diplomatically disastrous for Russia. It would probably have dire economic impacts on Russia not just from sanctions but longer-term from Europe turning away from Russian gas and other investments. A Russian invasion or incursion results in a more impoverished, isolated Kremlin which suits the Americans fine.
In any military incursion, the Russians are likely to suffer casualties. The Russian military is large, but it does not have the same capabilities the America or its main allies do in terms of precision targeting, ISTAR, tactical communications and control, or suppression of enemy air defense. This is still a force based on essentially a World War 2 model of heavy armor and artillery.
Furthermore, Russia’s air force lacks the suppression of enemy air defense capabilities the US has such as the dedicated EA-18G and F-16 Wild Weasel squadrons operated by the US Navy and USAF respectively. Syria revealed the Russian air force to be still reliant on dumb bombing, instead of guided stand-off weapons. And despite its age, the Ukrainian air defense system is on paper still quite capable. Indeed, even America has never faced an opponent with such a large number of S-300 and Buk systems, even if they are older versions (Iraq’s AD system in 1991 was already largely obsolete with ancient systems such as S75, S125 and 2K12 Kub and its French-designed KARI management system compromised).
Thus any military incursion will cost the Russians dearly as they lack the capability to initiate a knockout strike and their tactics and equipment are essentially dated. Russian losses would result in a decline in Russian military capabilities which have been built up slowly over 20 years. This puts America as well as NATO in a better position without having to invest in additional combat capabilities.
This leads to the next area that Russians lose out and America wins – any military losses could be a disaster for Putin and increase instability and potentially result in his downfall. Putin will have to refocus on maintaining the domestic situation whilst fighting a brutal war against dug-in Ukrainians.
What if Russia Backs Down?
America also wins if Russia backs down. The first prize is Russia and Putin are humiliated as they are shown to be unable to manage what they have openly stated is a core security/defense issue vital to the future of the Russian state. This also gives the US additional global esteem after the disastrous Afghan withdrawal and shows allies that the US is willing to support them against hostile powers.
The long-term prize is that Ukraine has fallen out of Russia’s orbit and can head towards NATO membership. Ukraine offers America and NATO some very plump opportunities. First, its airbases are very close to key Russian areas which means American F-35A tactical stealth fighters can strike Moscow. These jets are not currently nuclear-capable but will be in the future. Ukraine could host American nuclear weapons in a similar arrangement to what Turkey, Belgium, Germany, and other NATO states already do. As such Ukraine gives America a very potent first-strike capability, even if it relies on manned aircraft and not intermediate-range missiles.
The other opportunity is the Black Sea especially if Russia returns to Crimea. If Ukraine and Georgia both join NATO, the Russian Black Sea fleet is hemmed in on three sides. If Crimea is returned to a NATO-allied Ukraine, then the Black Sea Fleet is basically worthless as it can easily be blockaded in its port at Novorossiysk. Russian trade in the Black Sea is then contingent on NATO/American goodwill.
Even if the Russians stay in Crimea, their hold on it is difficult. Already the Ukrainians are denying Crimea access to water. In any NATO-Russian War, the Crimean naval base would pose the Russians with more of a liability than an asset as it has no strategic depth and only has a single bridge linking it to the Russian mainland.
It is evident that Ukraine and Georgia becoming NATO states puts the Russians on the backfoot as it effectively contributes to surrounding Russia. And surrounding Russia by removing its pseudo-satellites also weakens the Moscow government.
Any decrease in Russian power, especially if done cheaply by expanding NATO, empowers the US which can then reallocate resources to a more critical Asian region where the US has been unable to create an effective counter-China strategy. However, if Russia goes to war in Ukraine, America still wins due to adverse economic, diplomatic, and military ramifications on Russia.
Denis Kosta studied political science and international business at the University of Tasmania, Australia. He works in health business management but maintains a very strong interest in military and international affairs.