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Opinion The new balance of power: U.S. and allies up, Russia down

Destroyed Russian tanks and military vehicles are seen dumped in Bucha outside Kyiv, Ukraine, on May 16. (Jorge Silva/Reuters)
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Take a look at what Russians like to call the “correlation of forces” and you can see that there has been a significant change in the global balance of power: Simply put, the United States and its European allies are up, and Russia is down.

The evidence is as close as the morning headlines. Russia is failing in its reckless invasion of Ukraine. No matter how the war ends, the fact is that Russia appears unable to defeat a relatively small neighboring nation. Meanwhile, America and its allies are more united than they have been in years. And the NATO alliance is about to become significantly more powerful with the additions of Finland and Sweden.

“We are now living in a totally new era,” Henry Kissinger, the master of grand strategy, said at a Financial Times forum this month. The former U.S. secretary of state said that Russian President Vladimir Putin “obviously miscalculated Russia’s capabilities to sustain a major enterprise — and when the time comes for settlement … we are not going back to the previous relationship but to a position for Russia that will be different because of this — and not because we demanded it but because they produced it.”

When an army stumbles in battle, as Russia’s has, what should its adversaries do? The cruel logic of war argues that advancing forces should move rapidly to consolidate their gains — and take maximum advantage of the new strategic position.

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Military historian Rick Atkinson shared a catalogue of failures to exploit advantage: “Union Gen. George Meade’s failed to pursue the Confederates after a clear win at Gettysburg. The Anglo-American landings at Anzio in January 1944 outflanked a surprised enemy but couldn’t exploit that breakthrough. Despite overwhelming success in the Persian Gulf War in 1991, the allies left Saddam Hussein still capable of terrorizing his own people. British Gen. William Howe repeatedly missed opportunities to destroy Washington’s Continental Army.”

Atkinson sums up the new order of battle in Europe this way: “In less than three months, the strategic landscape has changed profoundly — invigorating a NATO military alliance that had seemed nearly moribund, undermining if not neutering Russian imperial ambitions, and reasserting American leadership in a robust coalition of like-minded liberal democracies.”

History teaches the importance of seizing the moment. But Kissinger, the consummate realist, would likely caution that the Biden administration shouldn’t overplay its hand in the glow of Ukraine success. Putin’s defeat could become a very messy affair, through a desperate Russian attempt to use nuclear weapons, or simply through the spread of chaos and fragmentation across Eurasia as Russian power dissolves.

In a rebalancing world, the United States can advance its interests in every direction. Let’s start with Europe: NATO’s center of gravity will shift eastward, as European nations such as Germany add military muscle and become more independent of Russian energy. NATO’s leverage will also extend north, to the new strategic prize of the Arctic, as Sweden and Finland join the alliance. A more European Ukraine may pull Russia and its remaining satellites toward the West, too. The right first step is a rapid move to draw Ukraine — as much as remains unoccupied by Russian forces — into the European Union.

“Putin has destroyed Russia’s reputation as a reliable supplier of energy,” says former national security adviser Tom Donilon. “Over time, it will mean a rewiring of the energy ecosystem.”

Putin’s mistakes may be costly, too, for China, Russia’s main ally. President Xi Jinping and Putin pledged “no limits” to their friendship in a joint statement at the Beijing Olympics in early February, but Xi probably didn’t anticipate the folly of Putin’s invasion, and China has maintained only tepid support in the months since.

Kissinger famously split the Russians and Chinese. Martin Indyk, author of the Kissinger biography “Master of the Game,” told me that there’s a similar opportunity now.

With Russia and China both on the back foot, the United States is pressing its own strategic partnerships in Asia. President Biden will meet with the other Quad members — India, Japan and Australia — in Japan on May 24. Biden met last week in Washington with leaders from Southeast Asia, including potentially key partners Indonesia and Vietnam. Biden said it was a “new era” for the region, a bit of useful hyperbole.

Donilon speaks of the “crucial middle powers” — such as India, Saudi Arabia and other gulf states, Southeast Asia, and Brazil — as places where “the United States has tremendous opportunities.”

Latin America is another region where the United States can expand its influence on the tide of Ukrainian success. Brazil, the largest economy in the region, is an obvious partner. The administration has even found a way to advance relations with Venezuela, close to a Russia-Cuban surrogate, announcing a breakthrough compromise on oil production on Tuesday.

The Ukraine war has reminded the world of an inescapable fact: America’s military might, intelligence dominance and strategic partnerships are overwhelmingly powerful. The changes in the balance of power are still in process. But the world is different from what it was before Feb. 24, and for now, it’s going America’s way.