A Russian defeat could reshape the security landscape to U.S. advantage in Europe and beyond.
Andrew A. Michta
April 20, 2022
On April 8, European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen declared during a visit to Kiev that “Ukraine belongs in the European family,” offering to fast-track Ukraine for EU membership. This dramatic U-turn was comparable in scope with German chancellor Olaf Scholz’s repudiation of the last three decades of Germany’s Russia policy in his February 27 speech to the Bundestag. Meantime, others in Europe, especially Poland, Romania, and the Baltic States, have been relentless in their effort to supply Ukraine with weapons, both from their own stocks and those of other NATO allies. Most importantly, U.S. assistance to Ukraine has been expanding. For the first time in three decades, NATO is speaking with one voice in response to the Russian threat.
This realignment presents a historic opportunity to remake Europe’s security landscape. A defeat of Vladimir Putin’s army at the hands of the Ukrainians would redefine the geopolitics of Eastern Europe, ending the region’s status as a “crush zone” of Great Power imperialism. Historically, this enduring vulnerability has enticed Germany and Russia to compete for domination of this region, helping push the continent into two devastating world wars. If Russia’s neo-imperial drive isn’t checked today, it could eventually expand into a global confrontation. The Sino-Russian alliance already presents the U.S. with a two-frontier crisis in Europe and in the Indo-Pacific, at a time when our armed forces are not set up to fight in two major theaters simultaneously.
The dramatic change in European relations with Ukraine owes everything to that country’s unyielding resistance against Russia and to the decision by the U.S. and allied democracies to support Ukraine with the weapons it needs. Now, as the Russian army regroups for its decisive offensive into Ukraine’s east and south, Putin’s decision to escalate the war—and especially his order to unleash indiscriminate bombing and shelling of Ukrainian cities—has changed the battlefield dynamic. Up to now, the West has supplied Ukraine with weapons necessary to hold out against the Russian assault. But shoulder-fired anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles are not enough to allow the Ukrainian armed forces to launch counteroffensives that can liberate the country’s territory.
However, if fully stocked with long-range artillery, air- and missile-defense systems, and tanks, Ukraine has a fighting chance to turn back the invasion. In this military contest, while population resources favor Russia on paper, Ukrainian troops have proved orders of magnitude more motivated and more effective on the battlefield. Assistance from the United States and its allies has thus far sufficiently offset Ukraine’s economic and equipment deficiencies.
The most important factor, however, has been Putin’s fundamental miscalculation of the relative strength of Russia and Ukraine. Whether because of a massive intelligence failure or his own wishful thinking, Putin misread the political situation in Ukraine. He drastically misjudged both his army’s skillset and his officers’ leadership qualities, and he vastly overestimated the effectiveness of Russian weapons. For Putin, the subpar performance of the Russian military and the losses it has suffered must have been the most humiliating aspect of this war. The vaunted Russian army has been shown to be incapable of effective maneuver; its logistics is in tatters, its fighting spirit is nonexistent, and its officers are unable to inspire and lead. Having committed roughly 80 percent of his ready force, and with roughly a quarter of that number already destroyed, Putin faces an outcome that only a few months ago seemed unimaginable: a defeat of his force at the hands of the Ukrainian military.
If the Ukrainian military—properly equipped with the weapons it needs—defeats the Russian army and liberates its national territory, it will have effectively nullified the Putin–Xi gambit, ending the two-front simultaneous threat to the United States and its allies. Those in Washington who continue to argue that the war in Europe is a distraction from the real “pacing threat” in Asia should understand that the defeat of the Russian army in Ukraine would make
their strategic priority a reality. Russian defeat would free the United States to focus on the Indo-Pacific, in the process solidifying NATO and finally bringing about a genuine rearmament of Europe.
Those who believe that the United States and its allies should ensure only that Ukraine “stays in the fight” should realize that another stalemate similar to what has prevailed in eastern Ukraine since 2014 is unlikely. If Putin succeeds in severing Donbas from Ukraine and establishing a land corridor to Crimea, the Ukrainian rump state will have no industry left to speak of, becoming another Moldova on a larger scale. The Ukrainian leadership understands this. Hence the grand strategic musings about “freezing the conflict” entertained in European capitals and in some quarters in Washington are largely divorced from reality.
Today, the United States and its allies face a choice: go for a stalemate and all but ensure that Putin, once he has reconstituted his forces, will invade yet again (this time with a greater risk of escalation into NATO territory); or supply Ukraine with what it needs today to defeat Putin’s army and, in doing so, transform the regional security equation. Only when Russia has been pushed out of Eastern Europe will the region have a shot at becoming anchored in the West, leaving behind its legacy as Europe’s “crush zone.” Most importantly, at this moment of historical change in global power distribution, Ukraine’s victory over Russia could bring about a lasting peace in Europe and, with it, a fundamental change in the security equation in Asia.
Andrew A. Michta is dean of the College of International and Security Studies at the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies in Garmisch, Germany. He is also a former professor of national security affairs at USNWC and a former senior fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis in Washington, D.C. The opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies, the U.S. Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.
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