“We are now living in a totally new era,” said the 99-year-old Henry Kissinger, commenting on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. In an op-ed last week, President Biden vividly outlined the stakes. “If Russia does not pay a heavy price for its actions,” he wrote, “it will send a message to other would-be aggressors that they too can seize territory and subjugate other countries. It will put the survival of other peaceful democracies at risk. And it could mark the end of the rules-based international order and open the door to aggression elsewhere, with catastrophic consequences the world over.”
In times like these, it seemed appropriate that Secretary of State Antony Blinken would deliver a major policy address, which he did late last month. Except that he chose to give the speech … on China. The talk itself contained nothing new; it was slightly more nuanced than the usual chest-thumping that passes for a China strategy these days. The real surprise was that, in the middle of the first major land war in Europe since 1945, with monumental consequences, Blinken chose not to lay out the strategy for victory but instead changed the subject. Washington’s foreign policy establishment is so wrapped up in its pre-crisis thinking that it cannot really digest the fact that the ground has shifted seismically under its feet.
Blinken declared that despite its aggression in Ukraine, Russia does not pose the greatest threat to the rules-based international order, instead giving that place to China. As Zachary Karabell suggests, this requires a willful blindness to decades of Russian aggression. Russia has invaded Georgia and Ukraine and effectively annexed parts of those countries. It brutally unleashed its air power in Syria, killing thousands of civilians. In responding to Chechnya’s desire for independence, it flattened large parts of the Russian republic, including its capital, with total civilians killed in that conflict estimated to be in the tens of thousands. Vladimir Putin has sent assassination squads to Western countries to kill his enemies, has used money and cyberattacks to disrupt Western democracies, and, most recently, has threatened the use of nuclear weapons. Does any other country even come close?
Ironically, one of the people who attended Blinken’s speech was Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), who during his presidential campaign in 2012 warned that Russia posed the single largest threat to the United States. Those, including myself, who dismissed his prognosis were wrong, because we looked only at Russia’s strength, which was not impressive. But Romney clearly understood that power in the international realm is measured by a mixture of capabilities and intentions. And though Russia is not a rising giant, it is determined to challenge and divide America and Europe and tear up the rules-based international system. Putin’s Russia is the world’s great spoiler.
This phenomenon of a declining power becoming the greatest danger to global peace is not unprecedented. In 1914, the country that triggered World War I was Austria-Hungary, an empire in broad decline, and yet one determined to use its military to show the world it still mattered and to teach a harsh lesson to Serbia, which it regarded as a minor, vassal state. Sound familiar?
America’s dominant priority must be to ensure that Russia does not prevail in its aggression against Ukraine. And right now, trends are moving in the wrong direction. Russian forces are consolidating their gains in eastern Ukraine. Sky-high oil prices have ensured that money continues to flow into Putin’s coffers. Europeans are beginning to talk about off-ramps. Moscow is offering developing nations a deal: Get the West to call off sanctions, it tells them, and it will help export all the grain from Ukraine and Russia and avert famine in many parts of the world. Ukraine’s leaders say it still does not have the weapons and training it needs to fight back effectively.
The best China strategy right now is to defeat Russia. Xi Jinping made a risky wager in backing Russia strongly on the eve of the invasion. If Russia comes out of this conflict a weak, marginalized country, that will be a serious blow to Xi, who is personally associated with the alliance with Putin. If, on the other hand, Putin survives and somehow manages to stage a comeback, Xi and China will learn an ominous lesson: that the West cannot uphold its rules-based system against a sustained assault.
Most of the people in top positions in the Biden administration were senior officials in the Obama administration in 2014, when Russia launched its first invasion of Ukraine, annexed Crimea and intervened in eastern Ukraine. They were not able to reverse Moscow’s aggression or even make Putin pay much of a price for it. Perhaps at the time, they saw the greatest threat to global order as the Islamic State, or they were focused on the “pivot” to Asia, or they didn’t prioritize Ukraine enough. Now they have a second chance, but it is likely to be the last.