Wider security consequences of explosive Ukraine crisis
Past the brink: from deterrence to punishment. End of diplomacy, for now
Will the world (as we know it) end with a bang or a whimper? Turning T S Eliot’s statement in his famous and oft-quoted poem into a question, the answer, a brutal answer, clear and deeply regrettably proved to be: a bang, a bigger bang that a generation had believed to be conceivable, although persistently predicted for months by US intelligence, generously shared with the world.
The implication of the shocking developments these days is that deterrence has failed – to prevent Vladimir Putin from massively attacking Ukraine, and that diplomacy is at a dead end, after both team Biden and team Blinken decided to cancel planned last-minute talks. The big Western policy issue now, therefore, is a) how to best and most effectively retaliate, i.e. punish the Kremlin for the brutal aggression so far, and b) how to best and most effectively seek to deter Russia from persuing and expanding its aggression, inside and perhaps outside of Ukrainean territory, bearing in mind that Putin’s extraordinary demands for changes to the existing security architecture concerns the whole of Europe, as do the implications of his strangely fiery speeches.
The former, how to retaliate and punish, involves painstaking alliance (and beyond) negotiations on what kind and degree of economic sanctions will hurt the aggressor the most, while representing reasonable burden sharing as between responding allies and partners. For the US under Biden, this includes making every effort to mobilize global support in a campaign to isolate and punish the Russian aggressor, hoping that this will add clot to the mission of deterring further aggression. The latter, deterring further aggression, also involves not just reassuring allies in Eastern Europe but concretely reinforcing their military defense capability to deter aggression militarily. Thus, the US recently decided to no longer hold back some 8500 troops in high alert in the US, as deterrence, but to transport most of them, some 7000, to Europe, as defense reinforcement, bringing the total of reinforcement from the US since the start of the acute crisis to 14000, bringing the totality of US military presence in Europe to some 100 000.
So we see concepts of deterrence and defense (civil and military) and reassurance being operationally blurred in a deeply troubled and troublesome process, with continued uncertainty as regards Putin’s short-term and longer-term objectives. Meanwhile, in this unchecked and diplomatically unguided process of action-reaction, Herr Putin has stated ominously (and incredibly) that any attempt to prevent Russia from reaching its goals will be answered with responses “never seen in history” – a hint with nuclear dimensions. Analysts currently discuss cases of comparison: should we compare with 1945, or 1962, or 1989, or 1997, or what? To what earlier crises should we compare the unfolding crisis of 2022? Now that it has seized to be meaningful to base deterrence deliberations on whether and to what extent the situation in and around Ukraine in fact constitutes an “invasion”, sufficient to trigger the sanctions package long threatened. It is, incredibly enough, a large-scale invasion, of a neighboring. Sovereign state. Full stop. The question, then, is where Putin will stop, and…how to stop him. And how to judge and deal with evolving signs of critical energy and economy implications of the security crisis.
And how to prepare for and deal with the humanitarian aspects of the acute crisis, a potentially enormous challenge European solidarity in the days and weeks or much more ahead, The number of Ukrainean refugees, in UNHCR estimates, could be millions. And to this one must add that with the necessary focus now on the acute Ukraine crisis the cost will be abandonment of necessary focus on all the other refugee-generating crises of the world, the 80 plus million in Africa and Asia.
US, Russia, China
But there is now, also, a need to look at the wider security implications of the enfolding Ukraine crisis.
First and foremost there is the question of China and the impact, short-term and longer-term, of the current climate of hostility between Putin-run Russia and the US-led West on US/West relations with China, e.g. over Taiwan. Here we have, so far, two trends. On the one hand China has reacted to the acute Ukraine crisis with some formal caution, avoiding (e.g. in the UN Security Council) to give the impression of openly supporting Russia’s aggression, on the other hand stating basic agreement with Russia as regards perceptions of NATO enlargement, as in the recent security cooperation agreement in the context of the winter Olympics. Clearly, the US and other western powers see a real risk that reacting too weakly to the Putin challenge would send the wrong signal to Beijing, as an encouragement to enhanced Chinese assertiveness in the far East theatre. After all, before the Ukraine crisis China was supposed, by basic bipartisan agreement, to be the main adversary of the US, compelling a major reorientation in defense planning and doctrines.
A matter of huge importance is now whether and to what extent the currently acute Ukraine crisis will lead to the emergence of one or two cold wars – a term many still hesitate to use: two separate “cold wars” between US/West and Russia and US/West and China, or one overarching cold war between US/West and the combined Russia-China, depending on how current trends to increased cooperation and strategic coordination will evolve as a result of the current crisis and its aftermath and other drivers.
Iran’s nuclear ambitions, JCPOA, non-proliferation
But then there is, inter alia, the Iran issue. Can there now be an agreement on halting or delaying Iran’s nuclear ambition, the 2015 JCPOA deal, the revival or re-confirmation of which has been the topic of hard bargaining ever since Biden started to reverse the tons of negative consequences that followed predecessor Trump’s abandonment of the deal? Can the disparate interests and values of he JCPOA signatory states, including Iran, Russia, China and Iran and others, and then also Israel in a potential spoiler role, conceivably be harmonized in a climate of open hostility between the US and its western JCPOA partners (France, UK, Germany and the EU) and a war-mongering Russia, with growing co-operation between Russia and Iran – and China? Already so far, before the acute Ukraine crisis, the difficulties were staggering, even though the continued Vienna talks seemed to hold out hopes that a joint US-Iranian re-entry to compliance with the JCPOA would indeed be achievable, based on a joint signatories’ interest in non-proliferation. But now, after the clear and present breakdown of West-Russia diplomacy over Ukraine, the worrying question as to whether this joint interest in non-proliferation can withstand the pressure from the Ukraine crisis in combination with a – or the – trend of ganging up between Russia, Iran and China. Like Russia, Iran can now feel emboldened and much less vulnerable to Western economic sanctions if it can lean on supportive Chinese economic and political might, reducing incentives for Iranian concessions and reducing US leverage.
Clearly and worryingly, tons of dire consequences of a multilaterally declared final non-solution to the Iran nuclear issue open up. Peace and (at least) stability in the entire Middle East (and North African) region are on the line.
Quo vadis, Syria? And Libya
And then there is Syria and the question of whether there can conceivably be a lasting solution to the Syrian disaster without some minimum of co-operation/co-ordination between the US and Russia, of course bearing in mind that the Syrian theatre involves several other inter-blocking actors, such as Turkey, Israel and Iran, and non-state actors such as the remnants of ISIS and islamist competitor HTS in Idlib in Syria’s north-West. And bearing in mind, furthermore, that any prospect for peace in Syria also, perhaps largely, depends on the mixed competition/complementarity relationship between NATO-member Turkey and a Russia that that built a permanent military presence in Syria’s north-west (Tartus naval base, Khmeimim air base), in support of the Assad regime in Damascus. What is there to prevent the Ukraine crisis from spilling over into much more tense and complicated field relations between the US and Russia?
There is also – in this selection – the case of Libya, in recent years largely ignored by the Biden administration, true, but still potentially affected by worsening US-Russian relations, complicating prospects for the EU – highly vulnerable to instability in the neighboring Libya – to play an effective and constructive role there. The current utterly fragile status quo, strategically largely based on a mixed partnership/cooperation, Syria-style, relationship between Russia (the Wagner Group) and Turkey, could easily turn into a slippery slope towards renewed armed chaos, one in which a further diminished US engagement and less scope for US-Russia diplomacy would be highly de-stabilizing. The Libya problem, for all the necessary focus on Ukraine, is not going anywhere.
And then there is Afghanistan
Also, let us not forget Afghanistan and the huge left-over problems as a result of 20 years of unsuccessful struggle against Taliban insurgency and a few days of catastrophic cut-and-run and mass (although grossly insufficient) evacuation. One could speculate that for the US now and the Soviet Union then to share experiences of a costly and unsuccessful invasion of Afghanistan, this could be an element of mutual understanding and shared responsibility for the dire consequences for Afghans of the combined attempts at invasion by the two invading great powers. But where things stand now, it is clearly more relevant to point to Afghanistan as a demonstrated show of US weakness in Kremlin eyes, adding motives for Ukraine aggression, rather than the opposite.
Finally, mention should be made also of the Turkey factor (or problem), the Turkish variable. Potential consequences of the Ukraine crisis for the position and interests of Turkey are many and varied. The main problematique here concerns how NATO member and EU candidate country Turkey, Erdogan’s problem loaded regional power with 2000 km Black Sea coast line, is to handle the dilemma of balancing not only its close links to both Russia and Ukraine but also its equally problematic links to both Russia (energy supplies, S 400, tourism, etc) and the West, the US and the EU – in the context of a ominously worsening Ukraine crisis.
This list of examples of likely global security consequences of acute, evolving Russia-West tension, including an unlimited process of action-reaction, obviously is far from exhaustive. Rather a reminder that with the wider processes of globalization and multipolarization any or most conflict areas are inter-linked. With Russia nowadays projecting military power, whether by Wagner Group proxy or by regular forces, and diplomatic clout on all continents, winds of open conflict between the West/US and Russia over Ukraine and over security arrangements in Europe can hardly be expected not to affect security in many other areas. This needs to be realized as we buckle up for the scary developments following Vladimir Putin’s shocking aggressiveness.
The author is ambassador and former state secretary of defense. He holds a Phd in political science and is a fellow of the Royal Swedish Academy of War Sciences.
 Also published for Consilio International.