Opinion What we can expect after Putin’s conquest of Ukraine

(Washington Post illustration; photo by Getty Images)
(Washington Post illustration; photo by Getty Images)
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Let’s assume for a moment that Vladimir Putin succeeds in gaining full control of Ukraine, as he shows every intention of doing. What are the strategic and geopolitical consequences?

The first will be a new front line of conflict in Central Europe. Until now, Russian forces could deploy only as far as Ukraine’s eastern border, several hundred miles from Poland and other NATO countries to Ukraine’s west. When the Russians complete their operation, they will be able to station forces — land, air and missile — in bases in western Ukraine as well as Belarus, which has effectively become a Russian satrapy.

Russian forces will thus be arrayed along Poland’s entire 650-mile eastern border, as well as along the eastern borders of Slovakia and Hungary and the northern border of Romania. (Moldova will likely be brought under Russian control, too, when Russian troops are able to form a land bridge from Crimea to Moldova’s breakaway province of Transnistria.) Russia without Ukraine is, as former secretary of state Dean Acheson once said of the Soviet Union, “Upper Volta with rockets.” Russia with Ukraine is a different strategic animal entirely.

The most immediate threat will be to the Baltic states. Russia already borders Estonia and Latvia directly and touches Lithuania through Belarus and through its outpost in Kaliningrad. Even before the invasion, some questioned whether NATO could actually defend its Baltic members from a Russian attack. Once Russia has completed its conquest of Ukraine, that question will acquire new urgency.

One likely flash point will be Kaliningrad. The headquarters of the Russian Baltic Fleet, this city and its surrounding territory were cut off from the rest of Russia when the Soviet Union broke up. Since then, Russians have been able to access Kaliningrad only through Poland and Lithuania. Expect a Russian demand for a direct corridor that would put strips of the countries under Russian control. But even that would be just one piece of what is sure to be a new Russian strategy to delink the Baltics from NATO by demonstrating that the alliance cannot any longer hope to protect those countries.

Indeed, with Poland, Hungary and five other NATO members sharing a border with a new, expanded Russia, the ability of the United States and NATO to defend the alliance’s eastern flank will be seriously diminished.

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The new situation could force a significant adjustment in the meaning and purpose of the alliance. Putin has been clear about his goals: He wants to reestablish Russia’s traditional sphere of influence in Eastern and Central Europe. Some are willing to concede as much, but it is worth recalling that when the Russian empire was at its height, Poland did not exist as a country; the Baltics were imperial holdings; and southeastern Europe was contested with Austria and Germany. During the Soviet period, the nations of the Warsaw Pact, despite the occasional rebellion, were effectively run from Moscow.

Today, Putin seeks at the very least a two-tier NATO, in which no allied forces are deployed on former Warsaw Pact territory. The inevitable negotiations over this and other elements of a new European security “architecture” would be conducted with Russian forces poised all along NATO’s eastern borders and therefore amid real uncertainty about NATO’s ability to resist Putin’s demands.

This takes place, moreover, as China threatens to upend the strategic balance in East Asia, perhaps with an attack of some kind against Taiwan. From a strategic point of view, Taiwan can either be a major obstacle to Chinese regional hegemony, as it is now; or it can be the first big step toward Chinese military dominance in East Asia and the Western Pacific, as it would be after a takeover, peaceful or otherwise. Were Beijing somehow able to force the Taiwanese to accept Chinese sovereignty, the rest of Asia would panic and look to the United States for help.

These simultaneous strategic challenges in two distant theaters are reminiscent of the 1930s, when Germany and Japan sought to overturn the existing order in their respective regions. They were never true allies, did not trust each other and did not directly coordinate their strategies. Nevertheless, each benefited from the other’s actions. Germany’s advances in Europe emboldened the Japanese to take greater risks in East Asia; Japan’s advances gave Adolf Hitler confidence that a distracted United States would not risk a two-front conflict.

Today, it should be obvious to Xi Jinping that the United States has its hands full in Europe. Whatever his calculus before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, he can conclude only that his chances of successfully pulling something off, either in Taiwan or the South China Sea, have gone up. While some argue that U.S. policies drove Moscow and Beijing together, it is really their shared desire to disrupt the international order that creates a common interest.

Long ago, American defense strategy was premised on the possibility of such a two-front conflict. But since the early 1990s, the United States has gradually dismantled that force. The two-war doctrine was whittled down and then officially abandoned in the 2012 defense policy guidance. Whether that trend will be reversed and defense spending increased now that the United States genuinely faces a two-theater crisis remains to be seen. But it is time to start imagining a world where Russia effectively controls much of Eastern Europe and China controls much of East Asia and the Western Pacific. Americans and their democratic allies in Europe and Asia will have to decide, again, whether that world is tolerable.

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A final word about Ukraine: It will likely cease to exist as an independent entity. Putin and other Russians have long insisted it is not a nation at all; it is part of Russia. Setting history and sentiment aside, it would be bad strategy for Putin to allow Ukraine to continue to exist as a nation after all the trouble and expense of an invasion. That is a recipe for endless conflict. After Russia installs a government, expect Ukraine’s new Moscow-directed rulers to seek the eventual legal incorporation of Ukraine into Russia, a process already underway in Belarus.

Some analysts today imagine a Ukrainian insurgency sprouting up against Russian domination. Perhaps. But the Ukrainian people cannot be expected to fight a full-spectrum war with whatever they have in their homes. To have any hope against Russian occupation forces, an insurgency will need to be supplied and supported from neighboring countries. Will Poland play that role, with Russian forces directly across the border? Will the Baltics? Or Hungary? And if they do, will the Russians not feel justified in attacking the insurgents’ supply routes, even if they happen to lie in the territory of neighboring NATO members? It is wishful thinking to imagine that this conflict stops with Ukraine.

The map of Europe has experienced many changes over the centuries. Its current shape reflects the expansion of U.S. power and the collapse of Russian power from the 1980s until now; the next one will likely reflect the revival of Russian military power and the retraction of U.S. influence. If combined with Chinese gains in East Asia and the Western Pacific, it will herald the end of the present order and the beginning of an era of global disorder and conflict as every region in the world shakily adjusts to a new configuration of power.

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