There is little doubt that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s miscalculations have birthed a new world order. At the strategic level, the Russian President is guilty of three fatal strategic errors.
First, his battle plan for invading Ukraine was far too byzantine, a fussy three-pronged assault that quickly bogged down partly as a result of this complexity.
Second, Putin didn’t believe that Ukraine was truly a nation, that the country (particularly its Russian-speaking eastern portion) would rally around its beleaguered government in Kiev, let alone fight heroically for it. In line with this, the Russian President had no idea that Ukrainian President Voldomyr Zelensky, frankly a bit of a failure in dealing with Ukraine’s daunting domestic problems, would prove to be a war leader of Churchillian caliber.
Third, the Kremlin did not count on quick and decisive Western support for Ukraine, embodied in the crippling sanctions imposed on a furious Russia, as the EU and Germany awoke from a generation’s strategic nap, rediscovering the seminal point that history has not yet come to an end, and that military might remains (and always will) a major tool of international relations, whether one likes it or not. These three dramatic miscalculations led to the failure of Russia’s blitzkrieg.
The arch-realist Otto von Bismarck, as ever, put it perfectly, “When you draw the sword you roll the dice,” meaning that all sorts of unforeseen strategic consequences result when war is declared. War is the ultimate geopolitical crisis; they both change history and (even more importantly) illuminate history. War is the flash of lightning that suddenly makes the terrain clear to even the dimmest of analysts, such as those Europeans who have mocked a generation’s worth of pleas that they get serious about both military spending and having a sane energy policy.
For at the higher global geopolitical level, Putin’s failed gamble is also of the utmost importance, as it clarifies the great power division of the new era that we live in. On its own, the war in Ukraine has moved two of the great powers – the EU/Germany and Russia – from a neutralist position, and into (respectively) the US and Chinese superpower camps. Gone were the days of Brussels and Beijing strategically hedging as to their overall strategic orientation. The war reminded Europeans that freedom is not free; that it requires an autonomous military and energy policy, rather than merely free-riding (while often lazily criticizing) off the Americans.
But the war has also chastened the wounded Russian bear into being forced to wholly throw in its lot with China, as it has no other geostrategic options. Amongst great powers, there is now a clear alliance of revisionist autocracies (China and Russia) confronting a compact of status quo democracies (the US, EU, Japan, and the Anglosphere countries). While Washington is far from out of the woods, such a constellation of forces favors the West remaining the dominant political alliance of the new era. Ukraine has revealed all this, much as we have been saying for several years, in the past momentous time where (to paraphrase Lenin) the weeks have been where decades happen.
The West is newly united; the world is not
So far, so analytically good. But there is more ambiguous, even ominous news beneath this geopolitical headline. At the next layer down from the great powers, looking at regional power configurations across the globe, the West’s dominance is not the real story. Beguiling India, here, is the canary in the coal mine, illustrating that all is not well for the West.
Since the end of the Cold War, and with the subsequent rise of China, New Delhi has steadily drifted towards the American orbit. Shared fears of Chinese adventurism, exacerbated after Xi Jinping came to power in March 2013, have knitted the anti-Chinese Quadrilateral Initiative together, composed of superpower America, and great powers India, Japan, and the Anglosphere (Australia). New Delhi’s strategic fears were decisively confirmed when Beijing attacked India along their de facto border in the Himalayas in May 2020, a clear act of Chinese aggression. Before Ukraine, India has been increasingly confidently seen as fitting snugly in the US-dominated democratic great power camp.
But the subcontinent has a way of upending facile Western characterizations. Over the Ukraine War, New Delhi – despite a lot of American and European diplomatic pressure – has steadfastly clung to a policy of neutrality, refusing to castigate Russia for its obvious aggression. Strikingly, India (unlike Japan, the EU, and the Anglosphere countries) has not quickly and reflexively jumped on Washington’s pro-Ukrainian bandwagon.
There are numerous interest-based reasons for this strategic divergence. First, historically, India long sided with the USSR during the Cold War; support for Russia even after 1991 is a long-ingrained habit. Second, Russia remains New Delhi’s largest source of weapons imports, even as the US, Israel and France have gained market share. Third, an oil-hungry and energy-poor India has spotted the chance to obtain Russian oil and natural gas at bargain basement prices, as the US and UK energy blockade of Moscow comes into effect, and the Kremlin looks to divert its overall energy supply from a suddenly hostile West.
These basic points of national interest were all present before the Russian invasion, but it took the crucible of war for the world to see that maybe India was not yet prepared to march in lock-step with the American-dominated world, after all.
A complicated, multipolar menage awaits the West
Worse, from a Western perspective, India is not alone in disdaining the American lead. Significant regional powers in the Middle East (including traditional US allies Saudi Arabia, and the UAE, as well as usual suspect Iran), and outliers North Korea, Venezuela, Cuba and much of Africa, have studiously clung to a path of neutrality regarding the conflict. In fact, over Ukraine, it would be far more accurate to say that – while at the great power level the West is presently dominant and that it is united around a pro-Ukrainian policy over the war –the rest of the developing world, epitomized by emerging great power India, are far from being in the Western camp.
The good news for the West then, is that it is surprisingly united as the new era dawns. The bad news is that the rest of the world has yet to follow its lead. Worse still, the developing world’s two great power champions, China and India, while increasingly hostile to one another, share an antipathy for merely going along with the West in our new era. It will take realism, and a Bismarck, for the West to maintain its dominance in our new era. But it can and must be done.