The Russian invasion of Ukraine is still in its early stages as Russian President Putin escalates the violence and expands his territorial control. While the Ukrainian military has put up unexpected levels of resistance, the medium and long term outcomes in the face of superior Russian numbers and equipment realistically predict a Russian military victory but a prolonged insurgency. But the story of the war doesn’t end there. Once organized military resistance is subdued, Putin, unless he has limited objectives, will be faced with the problem of occupying and controlling the nation. Ukraine is larger in size than both France and Germany. It’s population of approximately 42 million people has shown a defiance that will likely remain. Putin’s invasion force of 150,000-165,000 is not nearly large enough to carry out the requirements for widespread occupation and control. Even if he decides on a strategy of occupying just the larger population centers he would need a much larger force. This would be a long term commitment with enormous economic and political costs that he may not have fully contemplated. It may even be beyond his economic reach, especially if the current program of economic sanctions and isolation are continued after the armed conflict subsides.
However, Putin’s war on Ukraine will have lasting impacts on the post WWII and post Cold War European security order neither of which properly addressed the possibility of an attack on the liberal democratic system that seemed to have permanently replaced the centuries old European conflicts between or involving, nationalist authoritarian regimes. The trends toward international cooperation, diminution of military readiness, and economic and political integration now must be rethought to include the reality of renewed resistance to these models.
On a more specific level the political/military process which led to the Ukraine invasion should have set off early alarms in 2014 when Putin invaded and occupied the Crimea which was part of Ukraine This act of aggression was a specific violation of the 1994 Budapest Agreement signed by Russia, Great Britain and the United States which was in response to the 1991 dissolution of the former U.S.S.R. which transformed Ukraine and other former Soviet republics into independent, sovereign states. The Budapest Memorandum committed the parties “to “respect independence and sovereignty and the existing borders of Ukraine” and “to refrain from the threat or use of force” against the country. In return the Ukrainian government in Kyiv agreed too give up its large inventory of nuclear weapons which were part of the former Soviet Union’s arsenal.
While the international response to Russia’s invasion of the Crimea included significant economic sanctions which remain in place today as part of the new sanctions policies in response to the February, 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine proper, it had no effect on the Russian occupation which in effect annexed the Crimea into Russia.
But the implications for the future of a new international security order stimulated by Russia go beyond Europe. The world has few “super powers” but many authoritarian regimes who routinely reject international laws and norms. Putin has now elevated the issue of the use of nuclear weapons from the unthinkable to the conceivable; from deterrence to tactical, with the implied acceptance of associated risks of escalation and their strategic use.
To be sure, his statements had the ring of bluster to deter any possibility of NATO intervention in the conflict. But his language regarding the possibility of a NATO imposed “no fly zone” over Ukraine, which would put Ukrainian pilots flying NATO aircraft in direct combat with Russian aircraft. Putin warned of “colossal and catastrophic consequences not only for Europe but also the whole world.” Along with his increased readiness status of his nuclear forces, his words were an unambiguous nuclear threat which he correctly assumed to be an effective end of discussion of even indirect NATO involvement.
One could easily argue, as Biden and Secretary General of NATO, Jens Staltenberg have, that the risk of “escalation” is too great for direct or indirect military action against Russian troops, a position given even more substance in light of Putin’s nuclear remarks. But it raises an important question about NATO’s credibility. What would Biden’s and Staltenberg’s position be if a similar situation arose in which Putin threatened the territory of a NATO member?
Biden has stated that “Every square inch of a NATO member’s territory would be defended.” Certainly major European states such as Germany or France would be, but Putin’s goals seem to be to rebuild the former U.S.S.R, not by formal absorption of the now independent republics but by creating demilitarized client states on Russia’s borders by force. Three such states are Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia. These are tiny nations and they are also NATO members. Would an invasion of any one or all of them plus an implied threat of a nuclear response if NATO sent troops or aircraft to defend them, make such a response impossible? Citizens of NATO countries would ask; “Do we want to start a global nuclear war over these “insignificant and unimportant countries”? It would be taking a risk on principle vs. national interests; a gamble that Putin was bluffing and would also not take the risk of destroying his own country in a nuclear conflict. But it would be a risk nonetheless if Putin believed that the U.S. led NATO would back down but they didn’t.
Now the possibility of other nuclear armed, authoritarian governments, wishing to carry out aggressive acts with conventional weapons and then use a similar threat, specific or implied, to deter outside intervention, could be the “new normal”.
China of course comes to mind first, given its huge military, greatly enhanced development of high tech modern weapons systems like aircraft carriers, hypersonic missiles and digital warfare capabilities. China is of course a nuclear weapons state and has a long term geographical claim to the island nation of Taiwan, lying just 100 miles off its southern coast. China as well is engaged in a process of claiming, and building, islands in the South China sea in violation of international law and the territorial claims of other Asian states.
Recent penetrations of Taiwan’s airspace by Chinese military aircraft are a intimidation strategy and warning sign to convey the message that Taiwan’s drift towards independent status or close political/economic or defense integration with other nation’s will bring a serious Chinese response. Speculation is that China will indeed at some point in time initiate an actual take over of the island. Taiwan has no formal defense commitments from other nations but President Biden has expressed a commitment to “assist” in its defense if threatened. This would seem to invite a Putin like response from Chinese leadership.
But nuclear weapons provide non-super powers with the similar leverage that Putin used in his territorial aggression. North Korea has a large military and has developed a small nuclear capability. It seems unlikely that its dictator Kim Jong-un has genuine interests in invading the Republic of South Korea but he uses the threats implied by multiple tests of ballistic missiles and specific threats of nuclear attacks on U.S. territory to intimidate and make demands of his neighbor on the peninsula and its security partner the U.S. Regional aggression with conventional forces by Kim or a successor is not entirely out of the question. What would be the response if such an event were to occur and Kim renewed his nuclear threats to the U.S.? South Korean officials must be asking themselves that question. U.S., South Korean and Japanese efforts to negotiate a nuclear free Korean peninsula with North Korea have failed for decades.
Thus the issue of nuclear proliferation also comes in to play in the context of a different level than the possibility of terrorist acquisition. The Biden administration is now “close” to reestablishing the Iran nuclear agreement known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) first signed in 2015 by Barack Obama and France, the United Kingdom, Russia, Germany and the EU and Iran. The intent was to stop Iran’s nuclear weapons development program. Such an effort and the ensuing Agreement would not have been necessary if Iran was not actually on a path to acquire nuclear weapons which it claimed but which Israeli intelligence has produced abundant evidence in support of.
Parties outside the Obama administration found the Agreement, which did not have the status of a treaty which would have required approval of a non-existent 2/3 majority in the U.S. Senate for ratification, to be fundamentally flawed and the Iranians untrustworthy. President Trump withdrew from the Agreement and imposed punishing economic sanctions on Iran to persuade them to renegotiate a stronger agreement. The Iranian government under the autocratic rule of the Grand Ayatollah reacted by increasing the enrichment of uranium toward weapons grade levels.
If Iran achieves nuclear weapons status in spite of the proposed restrictions in the revised agreement, the already politically unstable and conflict ridden Middle East becomes several orders of magnitude more dangerous. Iran has pursued regional dominance for several decades by supporting terrorism and intervention in conflicts across a swath of the Middle East, especially using its Shia Muslim identity as leverage to influence other nations with similar religious affiliations. This is true in Iraq where it supports that nation’s Shi’ite majority population and government. Iran has also engaged in military intervention in the civil war in Syria in support of the Alawite (an off shoot of Shi’ism) minority government of Bashar al-Assad. It has done this with its insertion of its client Hezbollah, a Shi-ite militia based in Lebanon.
Iran also supports and supplies weapons to the Shi’ite Houthi insurgency in Yemen which has launched drone and rocket attacks on Saudi oil facilities and airports. Saudi Arabia and a coalition of Gulf States supports the government of Yemen.
But the focus of Iran’s hostilities has been directed at the state of Israel since Iran’s Islamic revolution of 1979 and the accession to leadership of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Since then Iran’s political and theocratic leadership has seen Israel as an anti-Muslim, westernized client state of the U.S. which should be “wiped from the map”. Israel is a nuclear weapons state engaged in a decades long conflict with the PLO and Hamas in the West Bank and Gaza of the Palestinian territories. Iran supports both of these Palestinian groups. Israel has had political support and military aid from U.S. presidents and Congress since becoming an independent state in 1948 but no specific mutual defense arrangement.
Iran’s proxy aggression in the region could become first party military aggression over time and if backed up by possession of nuclear weapons and delivery systems a fraught game of a nuclear threats similar to Russia’s in it’s current invasion of Ukraine could become a reality. What this creates is a high level of uncertainty in the willingness of the U.S. and its collective security partners to actually live up to their stated commitments. A new era of political instability and violence could be the result. Iran must not be allowed to acquire nuclear weapons and the U.S. and its Western security partners must reaffirm their commitments against aggression of all sorts.