Russia’s War of Aggression in Ukraine Presents a Deeper Problem for America: How to Preserve a Favorable Balance of Power? The Russo-Ukrainian war compels analysis of immediate and long-term strategic questions for the United States. This war must be placed in the context of U.S. national security interests, the most important of which is preserving a favorable balance of power—that is, the U.S. and its allies have more power in the present Cold War than its enemy, China.
U.S. power maintains stability in Europe and will safeguard the NATO alliance members from Russian attack. It does the same in the Indo-Pacific. U.S. might is dependent upon an advantageous global balance of power between the U.S. and its peer adversaries—the Soviet Union during the Cold War and China today. As important as the war over Ukraine is, the U.S. should do nothing in response to the present conflict that will jeopardize its position in world politics and the balance of power, which now favors it, but may not always—especially if the U.S. makes a strategic misstep in this war.
In the Russo-Ukrainian war, five security considerations must inform U.S. and NATO’s decision-making.
First, this conflict must not escalate horizontally by drawing NATO members into it. While the world supports an independent Ukraine and conflict is a humanitarian disaster for the Ukrainian people, NATO’s entry into the conflict would introduce unacceptable horizontal and vertical escalation for all NATO members and adversely impact U.S. interests and security.
Second, it is not yet clear what Putin wants—all or part of Ukraine. Given the balance of power between the two states, the conflict will likely end with Russia occupying Ukraine or a major part of it. If Putin has a limited aims strategy, it is to ensure control of Ukraine’s eastern half. Whether he wants the whole loaf or only part of it, he is certain to install a puppet government akin to Alexander Lukashenko’s government in Belarus.
Third, the Ukraine crisis will be solved by the willpower and combat effectiveness of both the Russian and Ukrainian militaries, not by the U.S. or NATO. Thus, the balance of resolve will be as important as the military capabilities of both sides. The balance is obviously high for Ukraine as they are defending their native soil, and less so for Russia which might inform their lackluster military performance. While Russian conventional capabilities are considerable on paper their combat performance has been sclerotic and far from impressive.
The fourth issue is then how long the conflict will last, will it end within weeks or turn into a war of attrition between the two states that lasts many months or even years. For humanitarian reasons alone, a shorter conflict is better, but it will be in the interest of the losing side to sustain the conflict if is able to do so for as long as possible.
Fifth, if Russia is successful in conquering Ukraine in whole or in part, will the conflict devolve into a Ukrainian insurgent movement fighting an attritional war against the Russians and Russian-backed government. At this point, the U.S. must consider what forms of aid it will provide the insurgents and whether this aid will flow from NATO countries or from third-party states like Moldova if, in fact, it is not Putin’s next target.
As significant as these factors are, for the fundamental interests of the U.S., there is only one critical matter arising from this war—how does the Russo-Ukrainian conflict affect the balance of power between China and the U.S. That is, will China be stronger as a result of the war or will the U.S. If the war augments China’s relative power vis-à-vis the U.S., then the war is damaging to the permanent U.S. interest of maintaining a positive balance of power by not strengthening its peer rival. Already in this conflict, China is fortified by its improved economic position, this includes international trade with Russia—most importantly the supply of energy—and by aiding its fledging CIPS (Cross-Border Interbank Payment System) to combat what Beijing terms “dollar hegemony.”
The robust sanctions imposed on Russia by the West ensures that Chinese firms, industries, and products will replace Western ones, for example, UnionPay supplants Visa and Mastercard, and China stands apart as the safe option for Russian trade, investment, energy, and as a haven for the wealth of Russian oligarchs. The war has also provided Beijing with some indications of what it will expect should it invade Taiwan or another of its neighbors. Its lessons are likely to be mistaken and might be particularly damaging if Beijing believes it can aggress against Taiwan without triggering a direct and far more forceful response from the U.S., Japan, and other allies.
Of greatest concern is that China might also benefit strategically if China and Russia improve their relations, perhaps even entering an alliance. China’s rhetoric regarding its “everlasting friendship” with Russia makes clear China wants to take advantage of this war to improve its relations with Moscow. This is the single greatest danger to U.S. interests and its position in the world. There are only four great powers that can influence the relative balance of power between China and the U.S.: the EU (that is, its key decision-making states of France and Germany) Japan, India, and Russia. China’s alliance with any of these hurts U.S. interests. There is little danger now that Japan, India, or the EU will align with China.
Indeed, each is either an ally or has warm relations with Washington, and each perceives China as a threat, albeit in varying degrees with Japan and India identifying the danger far more clearly than the EU. But Russia might. Now that the war has started, there is the possibility Russia moves ever closer to China. While this will not tilt the balance of power irrevocably, it will make it more difficult to defeat China in the current Cold War.
For the U.S., the key concern of the war is whether it will make the U.S. worse off by generating a Sino-Russian entente. A Sino-Russian entente or alliance greatly complicates the ability of the U.S. to balance Chinese power. It places the U.S. in a two-front strategic war against a peer competitor, China, and great power, Russia. The U.S. has not encountered this situation since the Sino-Soviet alliance of the early Cold War. Ironically, then the Soviet Union was the peer rival and China the lesser threat. Sino-Russian cooperation increases the chances of aggression against Taiwan or other states and provides Beijing and Moscow with the incentive to overcome their substantial differences. For the U.S., the two-front war threat greatly complicates strategic nuclear targeting with its present arsenal, the ability of the U.S. to maintain a credible nuclear-extended deterrent that is the foundation of its global alliances, and its ability to project and sustain power.
Accordingly, no matter the outcome of the Russo-Ukrainian war, the greater strategic goal is to keep the global balance of power firmly in favor of the U.S. and against China. This requires keeping Russia from aligning with China. The focus of the national security policy of the U.S. should be directed at keeping Beijing and Moscow apart. Support for Ukraine should be measured and viewed realistically. NATO members should do what is possible to aid Ukraine, particularly its refugees, but nothing that incurs the risk of escalation or inadvertent escalation with Russia. This war will be decided by Russian and Ukrainian willpower and military might. Unfortunately, increased levels of support for Kyiv is a centripetal force that aids a deepening of the Sino-Russian relationship.
A two-front strategic war problem places the U.S. in a far worse situation than when the West has a rapprochement with Russia, when Russia is neutral, or even a limited ally against the China threat. Putin placed himself in a position where his actions are likely to make him dependent on China. He or his successor will rue the day they fell under China’s shadow as the first step to falling under China’s control. As important as the Russo-Ukrainian war is, the greater necessity for the U.S. is to develop a strategy that keeps Russia apart from China so that the global balance of power remains solidly in favor of the U.S. and its allies. That is the best solution to the problem of stability in Europe and in the world.