Making predictions just as the Ukraine war delivers a series of huge surprises feels like a fool’s errand. But let’s try to peer a bit through the fog of war.
What got me thinking about this was the memory of a conversation with military historian Tom Ricks in the mountains of central Sicily a few years ago. We were there with Johns Hopkins University graduate students who were studying the 1943 Allied campaign against Germany. The fighting in Sicily had marked the beginning of the push to remove Adolf Hitler’s armies from the Italian peninsula.
Ricks asked me: “Do you think we’ll ever see anything like this again?” — meaning big battles between European countries over large swathes of territory. As I recall, we both guessed no. World War II had been so calamitous and unusual that the West — indeed the entire world — had surely moved past all of that.
This is one of the many reasons Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is so vividly horrific; the imagery seems borrowed from another time. Charred tanks, soldiers freezing while they wait to attack, civilians taking shelter or sifting through rubble, and the long columns of refugees — it all reminds us of that terrible past. It is also so at odds with modern expectations and standards that many are now remarking that the world will not be the same when this war is over.
Will that be the case? And if so, what will that new world look like — from NATO to Russia to China and points beyond — one year from now?
Let’s start with Russia
The most durable changes will involve President Vladimir Putin and Russia itself. A year ago, Russia was the hungry, insecure bully that kept the world on edge with its demands and periodic land grabs. The U.S. and Europe tolerated those aggressions, assuming that even Putin had limits. He had seized Crimea and poisoned opponents, but he wouldn’t launch an all-out invasion of a European country. But Russia has now revealed itself as a terrorist state and Putin as a war criminal. One year from now, these facts will stick, assuming that Putin is still in the Kremlin.
Putin’s underlings seem not to realize, or care, that they will never again be treated as legitimate by the international community. They do not grasp the exceptional nature of what they are doing — or are afraid to challenge the man giving the orders. The reaction of Soviet émigrés in Los Angeles — suddenly ashamed to be called Russian — and the growing exodus of Russians since the war began are harbingers of change that may reach deeply inside the Russian Federation if Putin remains, the war drags on and real information about the war seeps into the country.
Putin has of course done his best to guard against such penetration, tightening the lid on free expression to Cold War levels. But in today’s world, it’s harder to keep the truth completely from a literate population spread across 11 time zones, especially as more and more Russian soldiers are killed or wounded for a cause that has been poorly articulated to the Russian people. Truth will come to the families of those soldiers; later it will come via others fortunate enough to return home and tell their stories.
To be sure, it is impossible to know how the Russian people will absorb the reality. Russians were shocked in the 1950s when Nikita Khrushchev revealed the horrors of Joseph Stalin’s rule, and when Mikhail Gorbachev shed more light in the 1980s, but as late as 2019, surveys showed 51 percent of the public continued to admire Stalin. But that sentiment was based largely on Stalin’s leadership during World War II; Putin’s support has rested heavily on Russian nationalism, law and order, and economic strength. The latter may soon be in tatters.
Putin’s inescapable dilemma is that Russia cannot “win” this war — even if his forces destroy enough of Ukraine and its people to own new chunks of its territory. He will likely face continuing global condemnation, war crimes charges and — absent a peace deal — a ferocious insurgency as well.
As a former CIA officer, I see all the classic ingredients in place for a Ukrainian insurgency: a willing populace, broad public support outside Ukraine, and — with four NATO countries bordering Ukraine — ample safe haven for insurgents, resupply efforts and training. Some of these assets are already being utilized. Meanwhile, Putin’s war has left a continent bristling with fear and anger and ready to facilitate such an effort. In short, even “winning” with the methods he’s using will make Putin a loser.
It is also likely that one year from now, when Ukraine is to be rebuilt, the logical way to finance reconstruction will involve Russian hard currency reserves. These are now out of his reach, for the most part, due to sanctions. There will be no reason for the rest of the world to pay for what Putin has broken when we have effective control of his checkbook.
Having watched Putin closely for 20 years, I can say this is the first time that I doubt his ability to survive politically. None of the available exit ramps look promising; about the only face-saver will be some weak deal that Putin and his propaganda machine can redefine as “mission accomplished.” If he gets bogged down in an insurgency while Russia continues to suffer from unprecedented sanctions and isolation, powerful forces in Russia — the military and the security services — will begin to question the wisdom of continued support for him. Public antipathy will only exacerbate things.
If Putin manages to hang on, the bottom line a year from now is that Russia will carry almost no weight in the world. He will have forfeited much of the considerable influence he built for himself and his country over two decades, all in pursuit of a dream that, even if realized, will bring Putin and his country no effective power.
The U.S. and Europe
The consequences of the war are also potentially game-changing for the U.S. and its allies in Europe. In some ways, the game has already changed.
After years of growing doubt about Washington’s ability to lead internationally, it has in this instance shown it is still capable of mustering a strong and diverse coalition for a common purpose. The Ukraine experience may ease doubts about the competence of U.S. diplomacy and leadership, particularly coming after the painful and disorderly withdrawal from Afghanistan. This augurs well for the future of democracy globally at a time when it faces fresh competition with authoritarianism, and when leadership in that competition demands that others trust the U.S. to deliver on what it promises.
Meanwhile, one year from now, Europe’s twin pillars of alliance — NATO and the European Union — will be institutions altered by Putin’s war. They will have changed in precisely the ways Putin wanted desperately to avoid.
Europe’s renewed understanding of its vulnerability will change profoundly the priority its members give to defense. It is also highly likely that at least Finland and Sweden will favor a more overt relationship with NATO. That alone would represent a sea change; these countries have preferred to coordinate their defense policies with NATO informally, and at a distance.
Putin’s example will also give the EU new pressure points to discipline Poland and Hungary for backsliding on democratic standards that EU membership requires. And thanks to Putin, the EU and U.S. have already embarked on a joint project to decrease European reliance on Russian energy, including a U.S. commitment to increase exports to Europe of liquefied natural gas (LNG).
So a year from now, Putin will end up with the exact opposite of what he sought: not a weaker, more fractured NATO, but an alliance that is better armed, more united and hugging more of Russia’s borders than before his attack on Ukraine.
Rethinking the threats
Putin’s war has given new definition and clarity to the nature of threat in our era — in the way that the 9/11 attacks crystallized the notions of threat 20 years ago. We are all accustomed to the laundry list of dangers that appears every year in the annual public congressional testimony by the director of national intelligence — ranging from Iran and North Korea to cybersecurity and climate change.
Russia is always on that list, but I don’t believe that any of us who have delivered that assessment ever conjured up the reality that Putin has given us over the last five weeks. At some level, we understood that something like this could happen; now we all know it can. Theory has been replaced by reality, and this is certain to affect threat perceptions and sway defense and political priorities toward greater vigilance in the U.S., Europe and Asia.
One year from now, that altered threat perception will give democratic countries yet another basis for cooperation. And it will facilitate U.S. efforts to strengthen its alliances globally — the most important “force multiplier” in the United States’ competition with China.
Putin’s brandishing of his nuclear capability has thrust these weapons back into the public and political consciousness after years of diminished attention to their dangers and their impact on strategic decisions. However the war in Ukraine ends, this much is clear: NATO has been restrained by the fact of Russia’s nuclear arsenal.
Although Putin and President Joe Biden extended the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty by re-signing it in January 2021, this was simply a stopgap to prevent its scheduled expiration as Biden took office. (President Donald Trump had let the issue drift.)
Such arms control measures are badly in need of revision to take into account not just the implications of Putin’s war, but also new technologies such as hypersonic weapons and the growing arsenal in China (which so far shows no interest in negotiating). In the past, it has been through negotiations on nuclear weapons use and the prevention of their spread (via the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, or NPT) that the U.S., the Russians and others came to understandings about how to avoid recklessness with these most dangerous of weapons. These understandings have been frayed, and while it will be hard to do the repair work while Putin is on his rampage, the U.S. and other major nuclear powers will have new incentive to get back to the arms control table.
It is always hard to sustain enthusiasm for this work outside a narrow group of specialists. We can at least hope that a year from now, Putin’s rattling of his warheads will remain a vivid memory — enough so to reanimate international efforts to reduce chances of nuclear disaster. The NPT Review Conference, scheduled for August, will provide an early measure of whether any progress is likely.
Finally, Putin’s recklessness will have lasting effect on how China deals with the world. China spent the early part of the war helping Russia magnify its propaganda and lies. To some extent, it is still doing so. Chinese President Xi Jinping, however, was probably as surprised as Putin by Russia’s inability to score a quick win, its creation of a humanitarian disaster and Ukraine’s effective counterattacks.
This probably explains Beijing’s more recent efforts to find a middle ground — reaching out diplomatically to Europe, promising humanitarian aid to Ukraine and seemingly abiding by sanctions — while avoiding criticism of Russia, abstaining when it comes to U.N. condemnations and placing blame on NATO.
In recent examples of this balancing act, China’s ambassador to the U.S. published a somewhat defensive op-ed asserting that Beijing had no advance knowledge of the invasion, and Beijing’s ambassador to Ukraine assured his hosts that China will “respect your nation.”
But the middle ground for Beijing will narrow as Russia’s dilemma deepens, the world’s condemnation endures and Putin’s lies are further exposed. One must wonder if Xi’s intelligence service warned him of this catastrophe and, if not, what he must make of that failure. The cracks in the Sino-Russian relationship are minimal thus far, but if present trends continue, Xi will have to weigh the pros and cons of embracing a loser in the Kremlin.
A year from now, when it comes to the war’s impact on China, we are likely to see one of two outcomes. On the one hand, Xi may decide to exploit the advantages of still more influence with a weaker Russia, in a relationship that already favored China. But if he is the only global leader left in Putin’s corner, while other countries important to China are shunning the Russian leader, the Chinese president just might cut relations to bare bones.
Allowing for all the uncertainties, it seems fair to say the coming year will be one in which power alignments shift dramatically — tectonically, one might say. Russia will have forfeited its opportunities to integrate productively into the world; the U.S., whatever stresses it experiences, will have gained access to new opportunities to lead and exert influence; NATO will be a revitalized alliance. And for China, it will be a year of decisions — not about the fundamentals of its system — but about how it wants to represent those fundamentals to the world, in its ongoing competition with the United States for global preeminence.
History has taught us that on rare occasions, an individual’s actions can change the course of world events — for better or worse. In Europe alone, in just a little more than a century, Gavrilo Princip’s assassination of an archduke in Sarajevo started one world war; Hitler’s grand ambitions another; and the brave dissent of Andrei Sakharov, Lech Walesa and Václav Havel were sparks that fired the revolutions across Eastern Europe and ultimately brought down the Soviet Union. Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has joined the ranks of events that change the world — and change the ways we think about how nations deal with one another.
Thanks to Lillian Barkley for copy editing this article.