A Vision of Russian Defeat
In successive speeches, President Joe Biden and U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken have hinted at the end of the world order as we know it. That liberal-leaning, rules-based order emerged out of the ruins of World War II and received reaffirmation after the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s. But there were always competing visions, and today it is difficult to predict what the future world order will look like.
There is no doubt, however, that whatever order takes precedence will be critically tied to the outcome of the two wars, in Ukraine and Israel. And while the Israel war is still in its early stages, in the case of Ukraine enough evidence has accumulated to attempt to project some future outcomes, including what the defeat of a Western-aligned Ukraine to a nuclear Russia might portend. At stake is nothing less than securing the fate of the democratic world.
Changes in Western Strategy, and Putin’s Response
During the first six months of the war in Ukraine, the West pursued a strategy designed to force Putin to abandon his goals and retreat. The strategy was based on an expected gradual leveling of the warring parties' forces to show that the Russians could not win. A special role was to be played by sanctions, which would limit Putin's ability to wage war and force him to choose between tanks and tractors.
After a year and a half of bloody war in Ukraine, to which is now added a new Hamas-Israeli war, we have to admit that this approach has failed.
In response to changing Western and Ukrainian tactics, President Putin has also seemingly changed his strategy. He is no longer aiming to occupy Kyiv in two weeks, and in general, he has had difficulty conducting offensive actions. His goal now appears to be to consolidate the gains Russian forces have made and to showcase the failure of the coalition of Western powers and Ukraine to liberate the occupied territories.
Just as in 2014, Putin wants to solidify and make permanent what he has achieved in Crimea and the occupied territories, which he believes sooner or later everyone will have to recognize and so will have to start negotiating with him. He is doing well under sanctions and, despite growing domestic discontent, he is finding resources for social spending to support the population.
The Russians have also improved their military technology procurement chain and now produce or acquire enough equipment and supplies to continue the war for a long time. Russian troops have dug in and mined territory on a vast scale. Putin is showing a willingness to fight the long war, but what is he waiting for? He is waiting for his “partners”—notional allies—to make their move in Ukraine’s theatre of operations. The latest move, perhaps a determinative one, is the Israel-Hamas war.
A New Alignment Takes Shape, with Implications for a New World Order
As different countries take sides in the conflict, the attack on Israel has revealed a new “axis of evil.” Although it is a motley collection of countries with virtually no common values, they are united by a common goal: to defeat the West, in Ukraine and elsewhere. They have begun their struggle for the future world order. And unlike the West, they clearly see what their victory looks like.
A Western defeat in Ukraine or Israel would mean a redefinition of global responsibility and security. The countries now facing off against the West will determine their own roles in the security of their regions and, inspired by the success of Russia and Hamas, will resort to new wars to establish their dominance. The world will burn with a large number of small fires that no coalition will have either the capability or the willingness to extinguish.
Formulating the West’s Vision of the Future World Order
And here we come to the need to formulate a vision of what the defeat of the anti-Western coalition might look like. In the case of Israel, everything is clear. Hamas must be destroyed, and in a way that will prevent a regional war from taking hold. Destroying Hamas will require a balanced approach on the part of Israel and an active policy of containment by the United States. But what does a Russian defeat in Ukraine look like? Our answer is that Russia must be defeated on the battlefield, its army must be defeated on the territory of Ukraine.
This is a completely different strategy from trying to convince Putin to abandon his bellicose intentions. Russia's defeat on the battlefield would spell a defeat for the use of aggressive military tactics to resolve international political conflicts. And this is a necessary achievement that will shape the world order that emerges after the Russian-Ukrainian war ends. The defeat of the Russian army in Ukraine would force the anti-Western coalition to recognize that using force to solve problems has dire consequences for those who resort to it.
Implementing this strategy should not take much time. Providing Ukraine with the necessary weapons in a timely manner and in full is the only thing we need to rely on. There is a lot of criticism of the Ukrainian counteroffensive, but in fact it should be commended, in view of the limited resources and lack of advantage Ukraine had when launching it.
Ukrainian forces have not yet made significant advances in securing territory, but the number of Russian troops lost is in the tens of thousands, along with large losses of equipment and matériel. Had Ukraine been able to launch the counteroffensive with cluster munitions, which were received only in August, and ATACMS, which were received only in October, the picture today would be much different. Russian losses would be much higher, and Putin's faith in the chances of a long war would be much lower.
Russia’s threat to use nuclear weapons should not be taken lightly. But in this war, which has been going on for a year and a half, this seems unlikely for several reasons. First, nothing now threatens the existence of the Russian state and its people, whereas recourse to nuclear weapons would threaten the very existence of Russia. The war is being fought exclusively on the territory of Ukraine, and its army must be defeated there.
Second, the threat to use nuclear weapons is an admission of the weakness of the Russian army, about which Putin has been constructing myths for decades.
Third, it is unlikely that Russia's partners in the anti-Western coalition would support such a move.
I serve in the Armed Forces of Ukraine, and I know we can defeat the Russian army in Ukraine. Ukrainian forces have proved their abilities many times over in the past two years. With the requisite assistance, perhaps the next era will be much more peaceful than today.
The opinions expressed in this article are those solely of the author and do not reflect the views of the Kennan Institute.
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The Kennan Institute is the premier U.S. center for advanced research on Russia and Eurasia and the oldest and largest regional program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The Kennan Institute is committed to improving American understanding of Russia, Ukraine, Central Asia, the Caucasus, and the surrounding region though research and exchange. Read more