Implications of the Ukraine War
According to the Russian version of its invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, the war is a violent but necessary shove in the direction of a new order resembling Bipolarity 2.0. Russia sees itself at the vanguard of restoring balance to an international system thrown off-kilter by the historical aberration of American hegemony. Russian military actions were supposed to seal off Eurasia from the West and allow Russia to play the leading political, military, economic, and cultural role in its region with the support (or tacit acceptance) of China, India, and other countries. Then, over the next two decades, the international clout of these countries would facilitate the rise of a less homogenous international system and reduce American dominance.
But is the Ukraine war an effective means to achieve those ends? First, it is not clear that Russia can win without significant mobilization, which the Kremlin appears to want to avoid for now. Second, Russian losses in personnel and material over the first four months of the war have apparently been significant. Its conventional long-range missile supply—the key pillar of its strategic nonnuclear deterrent (see Figure 1)—has diminished. Although it’s unknown exactly how many of its most modern missiles Russia has expended, it will reportedly take years to replace these losses. The United States, moreover, remains a leading actor in responding to the invasion. The U.S.-led alliance that Russian forecasters view as so detrimental has, in fact, become more cohesive and powerful, with the presumed addition of Finland and Sweden to NATO.
Sanctions have been put in place against Russia, although the extent of their impact remains one of ongoing study. One of the key areas to watch will be the impact of announced technology export controls. Access to technology was a critical factor raised by Russian forecasters. Their explanation for the decline in 2040 military potential under the intense globalization scenario was that the United States would convince key countries to deny Russia access to the technology it sought. Indeed, initial analyses of lost Russian equipment in Ukraine have revealed how reliant it is on Western components.
China and India, to be sure, have not abandoned Russia. India’s choice of abstention in resolutions condemning the Russian attack is not necessarily surprising given the two countries’ history. China’s strategic partnership with Russia likewise would not allow for a break in relations even if China sees Russia’s actions in Ukraine as destabilizing and problematic in a number of ways. In this regard, some semblance of the Russian vision of a non-Western bloc of countries resistant to U.S. domination exists, but the Ukraine war is not yet producing obvious signs of a favorable shift toward a global realignment to Russia’s benefit.
Closing Forecast: A Long-Term Battle of Wills
Continued U.S. dominance of the international system is likely to produce negative economic and military outcomes for Russia over the next two decades. Direct use of military force against the United States or NATO cannot be ruled out, but Russian analyses—and statements by Putin himself—are rather clear-eyed about the large power disparity between the two sides and the lose-lose consequences of nuclear war. What Russia seeks, then, is new political leadership across the Western world that does not support a status quo that can isolate Russia from the capital and technology it needs to generate security and prosperity over the long term.
But does Russia have the means to realize that vision? The overall power disparity between NATO and Russia is enormous, and the United States at present has a robust system of alliances and partnerships in both Europe and Asia. Russia in the near term cannot match America’s “network power.” Thus, Russian success will in part depend on whether the United States and its allies make costly domestic and foreign policy mistakes that damage their own standing. Success could also depend on the continued stability of China and India and their willingness over time to challenge U.S. positions in global affairs.
Because the competition is likely to revolve as much around socio-cultural as military issues, Russian challengers will seek to capitalize on grievances of groups who may be sympathetic to ideas such as authoritarianism, spheres of influence, and “traditional” values, or who at least are agnostic on such debates. The United States and its allies should expect intensifying political, economic, and information confrontation without agreed-upon rules. Using measures below the threshold of war, Russia is likely to undermine the credibility of governments that resist the “natural transition” toward a more complacent system that ignores the erosion of democratic norms. The stakes are clear. Over time, any shift toward Bipolarity 2.0 could have a number of implications for U.S. and allied defenders, the most consequential of which would be the formation of a bloc influential enough to feed the growth of a world with less political freedom and economic prosperity than exists today.
Clint Reach is a Policy Analyst at the RAND Corporation.