The war is less than three weeks old and while there may be more good news than expected, thanks to Ukrainian bravery and allied unity, destabilizing chaos could reign at any moment.
I feel like I have consumed virtually every possible position (many informed – many not) on this conflict over the past three weeks. One too common thread that keeps emerging is a lack of appreciation for what we don’t know and what’s ultimately possible. Yes, there is some chatter about nuclear war, but there is also an entire universe of negative outcomes and escalation paths that we might have to walk before we get to that track. This conflict could turn into a long, dangerous, deadly, and expansive slog with one miscalculation or a single errant missile.
Things could change for the better at any moment too, of course, but we’d be wise to acknowledge that chaos has the advantage and work to minimize it. We can do that while still keeping our eye on the long term goal of undermining Putin’s ability to destabilize the world. Appreciating and mitigating the risks involved is not appeasement but balancing enormous risk, the immediate need to reduce suffering in Ukraine, and the need to undermine Putin’s future potential is far more complicated than many want to acknowledge.
Here, in no particular order, are some of the things I’m thinking about as we approach our forth week of conflict.
While Ukraine’s determination and success on the battlefield has been inspiring, Russia (despite blunder after blunder) still has many resources at its disposal. Putin can escalate via a number of conventional, hybrid, or nuclear paths or grind this out over months of 1940’s style warfare if he chooses. He could also, of course, take a relatively easy out and attempt to mitigate at least some of the self-inflicted damage he has caused. Either way, we can be certain that he will not act in the interest of the Ukrainian or even the Russian people. Putin, both in his mind and in a very practical sense, is the state. He will act in his interest alone. Sadly, that still leaves us with very little insight into what he will do next.
Only one thing is certain: He has catastrophically diminished the potential of Russia.
China has mastered the art of leveraging other nation’s wars for their benefit and this will be no exception. Sure, they would have preferred a quick Russian victory and NATO disunity but they’ll take a critically wounded Russia and valuable insight into how the alliance responds to unprovoked aggression too. China can feign borderline neutrality or inaction for a while and get away with it, not because anyone is fooled, but simply because the world can not disengage with it as easily as it has with Russia. But perhaps, with incentives and continued failure on Russia’s part, things could reach a breaking point.
Hu Wei makes a strong case for a Chinese disengagement from Russia, and he is correct that it could serve their long term interests if executed correctly, but I’m not holding my breath. They might, at some point, leave Putin hanging now that he has effectively doomed Russia to Chinese client state status but nothing in China’s trajectory gives me hope that they will cozy up to the West in an attempt to usher in a new era of global peace and posterity. One strong signal to watch in this area will be the number and type of Chinese weapons that show up (or don’t) on the battlefield.
While China can play this game for a while it won’t be able to do so indefinitely and without increasing risk of being increasingly isolated and boxed out of power by a resurgent West. That’s a process that depends on us successfully navigating this conflict and easily a decade of strategic disengagement but it could happen, especially if China suddenly goes all in with its challenge to the world order.
Ukraine is not only in the fight it, quite surprisingly, has more leverage in any negotiations with Russia now than it did before the war started. This could push the parties closer to a negotiated settlement before the conflict spirals out of control. Recent developments give us some (just some) reason for hope in that regard.
However, this relative strength also means that Ukraine is in a better position to deny Putin a face-saving off-ramp, at least for a while, should they choose to do so. They are paying a high price for this leverage and they need your help.
The demands for direct engagement with Russia (no-fly-zones and worse) are mounting but the alliance is, at least in my opinion, expertly pushing up against Russia’s red lines without crossing them. While critics accuse them of inaction, the amount of overt support for Ukraine is aggressive and, by any standards, quite risky.
The alliance has done an excellent job in rationing its levers and bringing predictability and order to the conflict’s escalation. That doesn’t sit well with those who want it to be an unpredictable agent of chaos and violence, but I think we have enough of that already.