During President Joe Biden’s recent State of the Union Address, he predicted: “We are going to be okay. When the history of this era is written, Putin’s war on Ukraine will have left Russia weaker and the rest of the world stronger.” Unfortunately, the rest of the world includes adversaries of the United States; making the rest of the world stronger isn’t necessarily an unmixed blessing.
The crisis in Ukraine provides the latest example of an autocratic regime’s assault on an emerging democracy. This is significant not merely because of the natural resources, industrial sites, and agricultural productivity that could enrich Russia should Ukraine be conquered and because Ukrainian territory abuts on the eastern flank of NATO. There is a deeper and more persistent significance to this geopolitical flashpoint.
The great geopolitical theorist Sir Halford J. Mackinder predicted in 1919, that an autocratic power occupying the vast inland stretches of the Eurasian “heartland”— either alone or in concert with allies — would invariably be tempted to dominate the Baltic and Black Seas. Such a heartland power would be incentivized to turn those seas into domestic lakes by gaining control over their littorals. From the naval bases in Kaliningrad and Sevastopol, the traditional heartland power, Russia, could become amphibious, engaging eventually in a contest for the North Sea and the Mediterranean Sea. When Mackinder wrote, he was concerned that Great Britain remain the dominant maritime power; in our time, Americans should demand that the United States prevent any autocratic-territorial power from threatening the free transit of peaceful shipping on which economic globalization depends.
The confrontation between Russia and the United States with its NATO allies has produced conflicting results. The Russian invasion of Ukraine has achieved some success. Russian troops and local allies have conquered territory north of Crimea and west of the enclaves seized in the Donbas region. An assault on Odessa is now highly likely. Once Putin’s military secures control over the rest of the Ukrainian littoral, Russia will control all the offshore hydrocarbon deposits. A Russian column headed south from Belarus toward Kyiv has not encircled the capitol (most likely due to the combined effects of rasputitsa and the actions of Ukraine’s special forces), a maneuver that would offer the prospect of Russian forces starving the population into submission.
Western economic sanctions, most notably against Russian banks through SWIFT, have had an effect: the Russian stock market has tanked, bonds have lost value, inflation has spiked, interest rates have risen, and the ruble’s value vis-à-vis western currencies has declined precipitously. Western nations and corporations are now distancing themselves from the Russian economy. Economic sanctions have sparked demonstrations against Putin’s policies in major Russian cities. However, the northern European nations, after having grown dependent on Russian natural gas exports, have continued subsidizing the Russian war machine through the purchase of Russian hydrocarbons — as has the United States. The threat of extensive economic sanctions failed utterly as a deterrent. Furthermore, NATO and Western powers bear culpability for this invasion in proportion to the amount of hard currency that they have funneled into Russia to purchase natural gas and other resources.
With the tragedy befalling the Ukrainian people, Western public opinion has swung in favor of Ukraine and its heroic resistance. In a symbolic gesture, Biden urged his audience in Congress to “send an unmistakable signal to Ukraine and to the world. Please rise if you are able and show that, Yes, we the United States of America stand with the Ukrainian people.” One might easily wonder how such a gesture was received by the men and women fighting for their lives and their freedom on the ground in Ukraine. Meanwhile, a modern “Lincoln Brigade” is volunteering to fight in Ukraine. European allies in NATO are finally attempting to send needed ammunition, weapons, and other military equipment.
European elites, at long last, have begun to reconsider their longstanding policies of “free-riding” on America’s military commitments. Perhaps the most notable example is the actions of the new chancellor of Germany, Olaf Scholz, who has decided to invest more of his country’s wealth in the military and national security and has stopped the certification of Nord Stream 2, the undersea natural gas pipeline from Russia to Germany. These actions will rise above mere symbols and could prove to be a significant, instrumental change.
Meanwhile, Biden neglected to mention the most potent geo-economic weapon that should have been deployed against Russia. A surge in American production of oil and natural gas would have contributed to energy independence in the United States, provided NATO allies with an alternative source of power, and deprived Russia of the hard currency required to prosecute a long war of conquest and, potentially, of counterinsurgency. Instead, Biden doubled down in the State of the Union speech on his green energy program by proposing further investments in solar and wind power. While such investments can decrease U.S. dependence on hydrocarbons in the medium- and long-term, the current crisis demands that national security concerns be addressed in the short term. Given Putin’s repeated threats to the Baltic States and other NATO allies, the Biden administration might have acted to increase the domestic production of oil and natural gas in the short-term to compete with Russian exports, harm the Russian economy, and enhance national security.
What are Putin’s goals? Does he merely seek a land bridge from the Donbas to the Crimea? Does he seek control over Odessa and the rest of the northern Black Sea littoral out to Moldova, turning Ukraine into a land-locked state and seizing control over off-shore mineral deposits? Does he seek to install a Quisling in Kyiv who will do his bidding? Does he seek conquest of Ukraine as a step toward the reconstitution of a Russian empire? Should Putin have been taken at his word when he decried Ukraine’s desire to enter NATO as tantamount to a second military threat to Russia, with the first one emanating from the Baltic states? A quick glance at any map of NATO members, Ukraine, and Russia reveals that if Ukraine had joined NATO, Russia’s national defense would have required preparation for a two-front war.
Putin’s achievement will eventually be determined by the constellation of many forces, including: the willingness and ability of the NATO allies to resupply Ukraine; Ukraine military resistance in the short run and resilience over the long haul; the speed with which the Russian military secures its objectives; the degradation of the Russian economy by sanctions; and Biden’s willingness and ability to surge domestic hydrocarbon production.
The Ukraine crisis is a test of Western resolve, but it is simultaneously a distraction for the United States from China, which is the main adversary. China’s economy, for reference, is perhaps 10 times the size of Russia’s. The tragic events in Ukraine are forcing the current administration to focus there while placing the continuing threats to Taiwanese sovereignty on the back-burner. The Japanese, Taiwanese, and other allies who are threatened by China are watching closely. They wonder if the United States will defend its values and advance its interests by supporting Asian democracies as a stalwart, credible ally. Its treatment of Ukraine does not inspire confidence. The United States has twice ignored the territorial and security guarantees, once during President Barack Obama’s administration and now under Biden, that it offered in exchange for Ukraine giving up the world’s third-largest nuclear arsenal under the provisions of the 1994 Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances.
As the Winter Olympics began in Beijing, Putin and President Xi Jinping of China strengthened their entente by entering another major, long-term pipeline and natural gas deal. The United States and its European NATO allies, along with Japan, Taiwan, and the other Pacific islanders, must now face the allied Eurasian heartland powers of Russia and China. These revanchist autocratic states seek, respectively, to incorporate the Baltic states, neutralize the states of the former Warsaw Pact, incorporate Taiwan, and dominate their “near abroad,” whether through military threats or exercising control of critical sea lanes. While the fight continues in Ukraine, the People’s Republic of China remains on the sidelines, bolstering Russia’s economy, evaluating American-Russian strategic interactions, assessing America’s and NATO’s response, and allowing a temporary ally (Russia) and a long-term adversary (the United States and NATO) to weaken one another.
While generalizing from specific instances is challenging, the Ukraine crisis highlights several key geopolitical trends. Perhaps the most significant is that we still live in a world where the “arc of history” is not necessarily bending toward peace, interdependence, and prosperity within a rules-based international order. Autocratic rulers remain capable of using raw military power to achieve their ends and of reaching expedient and durable alliances with one another. If the arc of history is being bent toward peace and prosperity, it is only to the extent that regimes with liberal values and without territorial ambitions are prepared to use the threat of overwhelming force to do the bending.
Such liberal regimes have demonstrated a strong preference for the use of economic sanctions over kinetic force. Sanctions have not been very effective — they have not prevented North Korea from developing nuclear weapons or stopped the Russians from invading Ukraine. In fact, a careful examination of sanctions and their goals over the past three decades might easily suggest that sanctions are almost never effective in achieving their stated goals. Only when sanctions are deployed early, to remove the economic foundations of making war, can they be effective; as a punishment, they are invariably too little and too late.
Militarily weak states on the borders of autocratic nuclear powers face a series of intractable dilemmas. The danger of nuclear escalation means that their powerful neighbors can meddle in their politics, their economies, and take bites out of their territory with little fear of reprisal from the United States or NATO. The perceived danger of nuclear escalation provides an umbrella under which security guarantees from afar are of limited value. Under such a nuclear umbrella, autocrats like Putin have little fear of engaging in the most reprehensible behaviors imaginable, like ethnic cleansing to create a refugee crisis in Ukraine. Sadly, these actions serve Putin’s goals of consolidating power and territory in Ukraine. With millions of Ukrainians fleeing the country, Ukrainian ability to engage in an insurgency will be diminished.
The leaders of states on the borders of autocratic nuclear powers need to consider several options if they don’t want their country to turn into either failed states or clients of their powerful, autocratic neighbors. One option is to demand NATO or U.S. troops on the ground as a deterrent to invasion and a tangible demonstration of Western seriousness. A second is to comprehensively arm and train their population so that in the event of invasion they can engage in an effective and costly Swiss defense. A third is to develop asymmetric grey zone and cyber warfare capabilities that can extract a substantial price for violations of their sovereignty. Lastly, developing their own nuclear deterrent may in fact be their most effective option in many instances. A state cannot be truly sovereign, as Mackinder argued in 1906, if it does not contribute to maintaining a balance of power with its adversaries.
Michael Hochberg is a physicist and former professor who has founded four successful startup companies.
Leonard Hochberg is the Coordinator of the Mackinder Forum-US and a Senior Fellow, Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI).