What Happens in Ukraine Doesn’t Stay in Ukraine (Part 2)
A close look at the strategic ledger as the war approaches the three-month mark
When Russia invaded Ukraine at the end of February, we outlined ten global issues to monitor as the conflict unfolded. Ukraine’s strong defense of itself and Russia’s poor military performance have been the main headlines in this war so far, but it’s important to examine the broader impact on the world and America’s national security.
Nearly three months have passed since Putin launched his war against Ukraine, and the world now has a much clearer picture of the consequences of the Kremlin’s recklessness. For the United States, the war has had sweeping strategic effects – both positive and negative.
Let’s start with the positive:
1. Reinforced American alliances in Europe and Asia. America’s alliances remained shaky after President Biden’s first year in office. A ham-fisted attempt to bolster American alliances in the Pacific by providing Australia with nuclear-powered submarines created a deep rift with France, which had a substantial contract to build conventional subs for the Australian navy. That diplomatic blunder came right on the heels of the calamitous U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan last August. Moreover, the Biden administration’s Summit for Democracy in December did little to rally Americans to the wider cause of freedom in the world, even if it had the unintended impact of trolling autocrats in China.
The war in Ukraine forced the United States and its European allies to band together and respond to unprovoked aggression on NATO’s doorstep in unison, and the alliance looks set to add a pair of highly capable new member nations in Finland and Sweden as a result of Putin’s fiasco.
Last week’s formal announcement that Finland and Sweden would abandon decades of military non-alignment and seek membership in NATO stands as the latest reminder that what happens in Ukraine doesn’t stay in Ukraine. Finnish and Swedish political leaders both cited Russia’s aggression against Ukraine as the cause of what Sweden’s government called a “fundamentally changed security environment.” Finnish President Sauli Niinistö went further in a phone conversation with Putin, saying that the Kremlin’s prewar bullying factored into Helsinki’s decision to pursue NATO membership.
This renewed trans-Atlantic unity hasn’t resolved all the issues that plagued the alliance in the years before the invasion; indeed, doubts about French and German approaches to Russia remain strong among NATO’s eastern flank nations. These lingering tensions also underscore the critical role the United States plays in holding the alliance together, much in the same way steel bars lend strength to reinforced concrete. Putin’s mild response to this move may be an indication that he understands that he has badly overreached – and it also shows that the fringe voices on the left and right in America who seem all too ready to accept Russia’s victim narrative about NATO expansion are out of touch.
At the same time, America’s allies in the Pacific – Australia, Japan, and South Korea as well as Taiwan – have responded strongly to Russia’s aggression. These countries have all imposed restrictions on trade with Russia, including export controls on the sale of semiconductors – an critical move given the role East Asia nations play in the global manufacture of these electronic components and Russia’s inability to make its own chips. President Biden will travel to South Korea and Japan in the coming week for talks with political leaders in both countries, as well as to attend a ”Quad” summit with Australian, Indian, and Japanese leaders in Tokyo.
In short, the war in Ukraine has allowed the United States to bring its Atlantic and Pacific alliances into greater alignment than ever before.
2. A weakened Russian military. Two-and-a-half months of fighting in Ukraine has left Russia’s military severely depleted and degraded. Britain’s Ministry of Defence recently estimated that Russia has lost a third of the ground forces it committed to the invasion back in February, and online investigators see evidence that some 600 Russian tanks and 984 other armored vehicles have been destroyed or captured over the course of the fighting. Russia’s air force has not acquitted itself well over Ukraine, revealing itself unable to mount an effective air campaign, failing to seize control of the skies over Ukraine, and suffering significant losses of advanced fighters in the process. Making matters worse, Russia’s military will not be able to replace these losses quickly: it has lost more tanks than Russia’s defense industry produces in a year, and the U.S. government reports that Russian arms manufactures are turning to domestic appliances for semiconductors in the wake of sanctions.
Russia’s military has been weakened significantly by continued fighting in Ukraine. It will probably take years for Moscow to build its military back to where it was just three months ago, and continued sanctions on critical parts like semiconductors will only make matters more taxing for Putin’s corrupt oligarchy. The longer Putin keeps fighting, moreover, the more losses the Russian military will take – making the underlying problem of attrition even worse. Meanwhile, the United States and a number of its NATO allies have started to arm Ukraine with modern NATO-standard artillery as well as old Soviet-era tanks and air defense systems.
Thanks in no small part to material support from the United States and its NATO allies, in other words, Ukraine looks more likely to win its war of attrition with Russia and put Moscow’s military out of the aggression business for some time to come.
3. New reasons for cooperation with American allies on technology and trade policies. Amidst the fanfare of the Finnish and Swedish bids for NATO membership, the U.S.-EU Trade and Technology Council held its second meeting in France at the start of the week. Though the proceedings only touched briefly on Ukraine, the war and its wider consequences put the council and its efforts in a new and more urgent light. The war has exposed the dangers of relying on autocratic powers like Russia and China for critical goods and resources like natural gas and rare earth elements. It’s highlighted the pressing need for greater cooperation between America and its allies across the Atlantic on trade and technology policies.
While the council’s recent joint statement recognizes the need for enhanced collaboration with American allies like Australia, Canada, and Japan – especially when it comes to rare earth supply chains, now mainly concentrated in Chinese hands – by and large its focus remains confined to its own geographic context. But it does speak of the need for joint action to ensure that forced labor does not go into renewable energy products like solar panels, and includes an explicit reference to the recently-passed American legal prohibitions against the import of any goods coming from Uyghur-majority Xinjiang province.
Looking ahead, it’ll be vital to make sure the council continues its work and expand its cooperation include other democratic allies like Australia, Japan, and Canada. The challenges it recognizes and has begun to address aren’t confined to the trans-Atlantic zone, and America’s allies in the Pacific play an important role in all the council’s areas of interest. Still, it’s important to recognize that Beijing hasn’t benefitted strategically from Russia’s war against Ukraine – and may well yet rue its tacit support for Putin’s military adventurism.
Along with these strategic positives for the United States come some severe negatives, including:
1. Skyrocketing global food prices. Before Russia’s invasion, Ukraine served as one of the world’s main breadbaskets. The war has disrupted Ukrainian agriculture, with farmers planting less than a third of their normal wheat crops amidst ongoing conflict. The Russian military has also blockaded Ukraine’s ports and prevented nearly 28 million tons of grain from leaving the country, and Russian troops have reportedly seized Ukrainian grain and farming equipment as a matter of policy. Wheat prices rose from $7.58 per bushel at the start of the year to $12.46 per bush on May 16, while corn prices jumped from $5.89 per bushel in January to $8.08 per bushel.
Making matters worse, the world looks set to see a weak wheat harvest this year. The U.S. Department of Agriculture projects that American farmers will harvest eight percent less winter wheat this than in 2021, while India has banned wheat exports amidst two months of extreme heat. With dry and hot conditions pervasive in Europe, Canada, China, and South America, it appears that wheat harvests will fall short around the world this year. For their part, American farmers must cope with wet and cool conditions that have delayed the planting of summer crops like corn, spring wheat, and soybeans.
That’s bad news for many countries around the world dependent on agricultural imports for basic subsistence – especially those in already unstable neighborhoods like the Middle East.
2. Surging global energy prices. Any attempt to isolate Russia from the world economy would deliver a shock to global energy supplies, and that’s what’s happened since the start of the war in Ukraine. Oil prices, for instance, have risen from $78.98 per barrel at the start of the year to $114.03 at the end of trading on May 16. Likewise, natural gas prices have shot up from $3.67 per million British thermal units to $8.12 MMBtu. In global energy markets, tight supply matters even when a country like the United States doesn’t import much oil or gas from an energy exporting country like Russia. The World Bank estimates that energy prices will rise by 50 percent this year before leveling off over the next two years.
That’s part of the reason why the Biden administration has tried to cajole Saudi Arabia – one of the few oil producers with spare capacity on hand – and other Gulf energy exports to increase their oil output . Global energy markets can’t explain all of the price increases ordinary Americans see at the gas pump – there are too many other ways that gas prices can go up, as those of us on the East Coast discovered when ransomware hackers shut down the Colonial Pipeline a year ago – but they’re certainly part of the equation.
While rising global energy prices hurt the United States and its allies in Europe and Asia, moreover, they fill Putin’s coffers. In the absence of an EU-wide ban on Russian natural gas imports, European nations continue to buy Russian gas and put money directly in the Kremlin’s bank account.
3. Nuclear threats. Putin and his cronies have repeatedly raised the specter of nuclear war as way to induce American and NATO self-deterrence on Ukraine. However, these heavily veiled threats aren’t specific enough to be credible, especially given Moscow’s historical track record of saying nuclear war might somehow break out if it doesn’t get its way on some foreign policy issue. Still, it’s obviously not good that the Kremlin repeatedly brandishes nuclear weapons in a not-so-subtle attempt to intimidate its geopolitical rivals. Ultimately, though, Putin seems unlikely to escalate the conflict in any respect in the absence of direct American and NATO military intervention against Russia in the conflict.
For all the handwringing about how more assertive U.S. and NATO support to Ukraine might lead to escalation, the steady ratcheting up of American and European material support for Ukraine’s military has not been met with escalation by Moscow. The Putin regime and its diplomats have complained loudly about these moves, but they have taken no action to stop or disrupt them. That’s likely due, at least in part, to the fact that the Russian military lacks the ability to stanch the flow of outside military assistance to Ukraine.
Time is not on Putin’s side; Russia’s military cannot hold out against highly-motivated and well-equipped Ukrainian troops that have access to a steady flow of arms and ammunition from the United States and other NATO member states. It will take years for the Russian military to recover from this debacle, leaving Putin unable to attack his neighbors for some time to come. The Kremlin will also face a reinvigorated and larger NATO that’s better latched up with other democracies in the Pacific.
More broadly, the nuclear threats that Putin and his cronies have brandished at certain moments during the Ukraine war are a sign of desperation on their part. But they could serve to incentivize other countries like Iran to double down on nuclear programs, particularly if the United States and Europe seem cowed by those threats. But for the time being, the United States and its European partners have remained solid in their efforts to support Ukrainians defending themselves.
The longer Putin’s war in Ukraine drags on, the more damage it will do to the rest of the world. Food and energy prices soared in the wake of the initial invasion, and despite some fluctuations they have remained significantly higher than they were at the beginning of the year. Combined with poor harvests virtually everywhere else around the world, it will become even more difficult for many around the world to meet their basic needs.
The United States and its allies need to remain steadfast in their support of Ukraine while at the same time addressing the daunting human security challenges created or compounded by Russian aggression.