Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine has upended European security and awakened NATO. In preparing for war, Russia intensified its cooperation with China to fortify its strategic depth, with some seeing an emerging Eurasian power bloc. It now appears that rather than extending Moscow’s strategic influence, the war in Ukraine may prove Vladimir Putin’s Achilles’ heel. Preoccupied as it is with Ukraine, the West must be prepared to strategically moor a diminished, or even post-Putin, Russia.
History offers perspective on the war and the evolving great power relationships. In 1991, as the Soviet Union dissolved, President Boris Yeltsin made territorial claims to eastern Ukraine where much of the former Soviet heavy industry was located, and some 11 million Russians lived. After more than three centuries of integration, it seemed unlikely that Russia would let Ukraine go, but despite many unresolved economic and military disagreements between them, a worn-down Kremlin officially recognized Ukraine’s independence.
The Kremlin now deems Ukraine’s efforts to join the European Union and NATO hostile acts. Explaining Russian sensitivities, Tim Marshall, in his highly acclaimed book “Prisoners of Geography,” writes that Russia’s relatively flat and open border with Europe is difficult to defend, and that Russians appreciate their history, where from Napoleon’s invasion of 1812, the Crimean War of 1853, to World Wars I and II, they were at war on their European border nearly once ever 30 years.
Russia has also long preoccupied Western leaders. Winston Churchill once quipped Russia is “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.” His point being that Russia is “other” than the West. European history and the foundations of Russian culture are, however, far more nuanced. America and Russia, much like Athens and Sparta, represent polar ends of Western civilization.
The West champions a liberal democratic world order in contrast to Russia’s centuries-long autocracy. Yet, the Western historical narrative rooted in a shared Christian heritage, the Renaissance, and Greco-Roman traditions, is related to Russia’s historical narrative through its adoption of Orthodox Christianity. Essentially, the synthesis of Byzantine and Slavic cultures formed the Russian identity.
When the Ottomans conquered Byzantium, the intelligentsia that nurtured Russian culture fled Constantinople for western Europe and catalyzed the Renaissance. And when Christopher Columbus sought a sea route around the Ottoman closure of the Silk Road to Christian traders, he fortuitously discovered America. Thus, Brussels, Moscow, and Washington can all find their way West through Athens and Constantinople.
A reformed Russia could find common ground with the Western family of nations. Until then, the EU, NATO, and their allies will confront Russian authoritarianism in Ukraine and beyond. Russia has no interest in a prosperous and independent Ukraine; it prefers a diminished satellite state. Thus, Kyiv’s westward shift is not attributable to NATO, but a consequence of Moscow’s autocratic failings.
Moscow is learning the hard way that violence in today’s Europe is not a suitable response to freedom. In little more than a month, 10,000 Russian soldiers have died in Ukraine, compared to 15,000 during 10 years of Soviet war in Afghanistan. Unable to quickly take Kyiv, Russia is shifting strategy to consolidate new gains with territory taken in 2014. Short of regime change, the Kremlin is opting to destabilize Ukraine by seizing land in the east and along the Black Sea. This occupation will likely lead to a protracted war that could pit Putin against the moral authority of Russian mothers.
The invasion of Ukraine has exposed the limits of Russia’s power. Though it is the world’s largest country spanning two continents and 11 time zones, Russia’s GDP is smaller than that of the state of Texas. Nearly 80% of Russia’s 140 million inhabitants live in Europe, leaving little population to support its vast, resource-rich, interior. Russia lacks the economic capacity to exert broad regional, let alone global hegemony.
Europe is dependent on Russian energy imports, but Russia is economically dependent on Europe. In 2021, 74% of its gas alone was exported to Europe. Russia’s agreement to sell gas on terms favorable to China does not translate into a strategic partnership, but it is an effort to protect Russia’s flank against a cut-off European market.
Presidents Putin and Xi Jinping may feel sufficiently antagonized by Washington to engage in tactical arrangements, but their respective national interests makes an enduring strategic alliance unlikely. In 1969, at a time when China and the Soviets were presumably united in pursuit of a global communist order, they fought for seven months over a territorial dispute along their shared border. Knowing that its eastern neighbor is a resource-hungry, population-rich, emerging superpower with claims to its territory, Russia has more to fear from China than it does Europe. For China, a Russia that plays the role of spoiler can reinforce its capacity to confront the United States as a peer rival, but it is unlikely to get so close to Putin that it undermines its broader global economic and strategic interests.
After the border clashes, President Richard Nixon went to China and brought Beijing into the balancing coalition arrayed against the Soviet Union. Today, pulling Russia into the Western orbit to contain China has a similar strategic rationale. A Russia governed by Putin aims to rival China and the USA, but if Ukraine becomes a quagmire, and the Russian economy tanks, bells will ring for change in Moscow. No matter how change comes to the Kremlin, Churchill’s observation that one could count on Russia to act in accordance with its perceived national interest remains good advice, and Washington must be ready to encourage Moscow that its interests lie with the West.
Andreas Akaras is a lawyer based in Washington, DC, engaged in business and government affairs. He is an advocate for the humanities and science, serving on Kallion’s board of directors, and is founder of the Saint Andrew’s Freedom Forum.