For the third time in just over a century, America may emerge as the biggest winner of a war in Europe.
The years preceding February 2022 were fraught with uncertainty over the future of American power. Once-stalwart European allies were sliding into apathetic neutrality even as Putin consolidated his power in Russia. America’s “pivot to Asia” was proceeding at an uneven pace, and China loomed ever larger.
This uneasy peace was fraught with uncertainty and anxiety. Was Russia still a military superpower? Would Europe be able to resist Russian aggression without direct American intervention? How well would China’s GDP and industrial capacity translate into hard power in the event of, say, conflict over Taiwan? Plenty of analyses were written on these topics, but settled answers were hard to find.
War, “the last argument of kings,” tends to dispel illusions. What the world has witnessed over the past month suggests that Putin’s lashing out at NATO will strengthen the free world and America in particular.
First, let’s look at a couple of military illusions. Much ink has been spilled in recent years over the advent of cyberwarfare. A popular refrain is that if World War III were to happen tomorrow, it would be fought in cyberspace between savants in hoodies.
The paucity of any real cyberwar damage so far puts a dent in this theory. The United States and Russia likely possess the most developed cyberwarfare capabilities of any state in the world. The fact that the biggest war-related hacks to date have been some quotidian data breaches suggests that the Hollywood vision of cyberwar — jets falling out of the sky and power grids spontaneously imploding — is still years away if it ever occurs.
What the world has witnessed over the past month suggests that Putin’s lashing out at NATO will strengthen the free world and America in particular.
Instead, the war has affirmed the primacy of a different kind of information warfare. For all the liberal hysteria about Russian bots since 2015, Ukraine’s victory in the optics war has been total and virtually undisputed. Behind its every success has been America’s soft power empire: its news media outlets, its social media platforms, and even the ubiquity of the English language.
Hard power is what wars are fought with, but soft power can nourish or undermine hard power. Companies have pulled out of Russia en masse, and volunteers have flooded in. American aid to Ukraine in the media war deserves much of the credit.
Then there are the illusions surrounding wokeness in the military. Conservatives have, with good reason, decried the embrace of gender, race, and LGBT theory by top brass in the United States. Similar clownish behavior is pervasive among the leadership of many European militaries.
A viral video from last year, contrasting the muscular military recruitment ads of Russia and China with their Pixar movie–like counterparts from the United States, was seen by many as proof that radical ideology had made American leaders unfit to handle a rising threat from Eurasia.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine has not fully put this idea to the test, given that neither the United States nor Western Europe is taking part directly. But there are still lessons to be learned. Ukraine’s military in 2014, much like Afghanistan’s in 2021, mostly existed on paper. Eight years later, Kyiv fields one of Europe’s strongest armed forces.
There are many reasons for this improvement. For one, the almost decade-long low-intensity war against Russian separatists in the Donbas region has created a large pool of veterans to draw upon. But perhaps most important of all has been the near-quadrupling of Ukraine’s military budget since 2014. Combined with billions in military aid from the United States and its allies, the Ukrainian armed forces are now furnished with state-of-the-art American and European materiel.
These investments have paid huge dividends. Despite its vast numerical advantage in the air, Russia has failed to achieve decisive air superiority after a month of bombing and attrition. In fact, the U.S. Department of Defense has assessed that Ukraine has been increasing “the pace of [their] sorties.” Russian planes are “not venturing very far or for very long into Ukrainian airspace.”
This timidity is in large part thanks to the vast numbers of portable surface-to-air weapons, such as MPADS, that the Ukrainian military has acquired both before and during the invasion. Without dominance in the air, Russia’s other advantages in materiel, artillery and armor in particular, are operating at greatly reduced efficiency. According to open-source intelligence, the Russians may have lost as many armored vehicles in a month of fighting as the entire British army (no pushover in its own right) possesses in total.
Another decisive advantage that the Ukrainians possess over the Russians is access to NATO’s real-time intelligence gathering apparatus — the best in the world. While the final outcome of the war still hangs in the balance, all this Western aid has helped to devolve Russia’s invasion from a blitzkrieg to a slow grind.
It seems likely that wokeness is only a marginal impediment to American and European military power. Human factors such as morale, while still a critical determinant of success in certain combat situations (such as urban combat, as the Russians are discovering), have increasingly taken a back seat to technology, technical expertise, quality intelligence, and wealth.
The American and European militaries have the technicians and the money. Their advantage in these areas will probably take decades more to substantially erode against China; against the Russians, it may as well be permanent. Most likely, NATO is capable of being both very woke and very powerful for the foreseeable future. This is good news for Americans in general, even though social conservatives may rightly chafe at the Pentagon’s occasional displays of unseriousness.
Although confirmation of continued military superiority over Russia is reassuring, America stands to gain far more than mere prestige from Putin’s floundering attack on Ukraine. Many of the largest blanks in America’s vision for Europe and the European Union’s vision for itself have been conveniently filled in by Putin.
When President Trump landed in Brussels in 2017, he threatened to unravel NATO by withdrawing the United States. His grievances included both brand-new complaints and sore spots dating back to the Obama administration. The most prominent among these included the perennially low military budgets of nominal military allies and Germany’s gradual cozying up to Russia with projects such as the Nord Stream 2 oil pipeline.
Trump had a point: Europe was reneging on its obligations and freeloading off America’s expensive military. All the while, it had raised tariffs on American imports and was building ties with America’s rivals.
Despite his assertiveness, Trump left his meetings with European leaders empty-handed, just as Obama had before him and Biden has after him.
Now, it appears Putin has accomplished what three American presidents could not. Germany has pledged to sharply increase its military spending after years of lounging below its 2-percent-of-GDP obligations. Polls suggest that more than three quarters of Germans back the move. To the northeast, Finns now overwhelmingly support their country’s accession to NATO membership, reversing decades of preference for official neutrality.
The Nord Stream 2 project, which President Trump was unable to sink, is now an $11 billion “piece of steel at the bottom of the ocean,” to quote the U.S. State Department.
In the short term, Europe is unlikely to cut itself off from Russian energy altogether. Germany, Italy, and Poland get about 50 percent of their gas imports from Russia; for a handful of unfortunate European countries, including Finland and Latvia, that number is closer to 100 percent. But in the long run, the trend among Europeans will be to seek energy independence from Russia. Putin’s economic leverage over the continent can only decline from here.
At the highest level, America’s recent goals in Europe look more attainable than ever. Europe is united, at least for the time being, and may soon be militarily self-sufficient. Europeans are cutting out Russian imports and will inevitably turn elsewhere, including to America, for substitutes. And Russia, already in decline, has proven to the world that it is barely able to present a conventional strategic threat to its immediate neighbors, let alone the European Union or the United States.
Putin’s invasion has dispelled a lot of uncertainties about Europe’s future, and in doing so it may finally free up the U.S. to complete its pivot to Asia.
There is no doubt that top Communist Party officials are taking notes on the international reaction to Ukraine.
Many have suggested that the Russian invasion will be a boon for China. It is certainly true that the sanctioned Russian economy will become more dependent on China for trade, investment, and financial services such as an alternative to the SWIFT system. The idea goes that this economic integration will eventually lead to political integration and the formation of a new Eurasian bloc with China at its head.
This theory is sound, but it misses a crucial point: the Russia–China integration was already underway. Long before Putin had moved his army into position around Ukraine, Russia’s bankers were preparing their economy for a siege, as evidenced by their rapid dumping of Russia’s Dollar and Euro currency reserves in favor of gold and the Chinese Yuan.
Russia’s newfound isolation means that China will become its primary patron a few years sooner than would have otherwise been the case. But this is far from a straightforward win for Beijing. Rather than gradually integrating with a Russia that possesses a stable (if not particularly healthy) economy and is a diplomatic heavyweight, China now finds itself making excuses for a pariah state that is rapidly losing its wealth and alienating its allies.
Ukraine also looms large over the Taiwan issue, even if neither Beijing nor Taipei would admit it. China’s strategy for Taiwan has been to diplomatically isolate it, using its economic clout to convince other countries to agree that Taiwan is not a legitimate state.
This approach has worked so far, but money can only buy so much loyalty. There is no doubt that top Communist Party officials are taking notes on the international reaction to Ukraine, in particular the sudden show of resolve from European leaders, and realizing that attempting to subjugate Taiwan could be its own public relations catastrophe. (READ MORE: What’s Really Happening in Ukraine?)
The international diplomatic environment is now more favorable to American interests than during any other time in recent memory. Washington must use this opportunity well, not only for its own sake but also to prevent further crises induced by revisionist authoritarian states.
In the Pacific, this means deepening ties with the Quad countries to counterbalance China and to make Beijing realize that it cannot upend the world order by making friends with a pariah state.
At home, the U.S. must use its oil resources — among the richest in the world — to a far greater extent than it is currently doing. Consumers, and European allies, are counting on it. At things stand, an expensive and convoluted permit process can leave oil companies waiting for up to a decade to begin new operations and adds overhead that makes American suppliers less competitive internationally.
There are promising signs that reality has at least temporarily overcome ideology for the White House, with experts noting that the Biden administration “is suddenly interested in more drilling, not less.” The danger now is that the green energy lobby will reassert itself just as European countries begin to waver on their commitment to hold Russia at arm’s length. The United States has been handed an opportunity to once again become indispensable to its allies around the world. It remains to be seen whether America’s leadership will take it.