Image credit: Justin Yau / Sipa USA
February 24, 2022
CNAS Responds: Assessing the wide-reaching impacts of the Russian invasion of Ukraine
Despite a strong rebuke from the United States, NATO, and much of the international community, Russia has launched an invasion of Ukraine, sending troops across the border and rocket attacks into several cities across Ukraine. As the conflict intensifies and the world stands watching, we asked our Center for a New American Security experts to assess the wide-reaching geopolitical, technological, and economic implications of the current conflict.
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- Richard Fontaine Chief Executive Officer: Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine will produce many casualties. Among them may be Washington’s foremost foreign policy plans. The Biden administration, with general bipartisan support, has sought to focus on China as its foremost long-term challenge and Asia as its priority theater. By ending Middle East wars, stabilizing relations with Russia, and strengthening alliances, Washington would free itself to compete with Beijing in earnest.
A violent, aggressive Russia, active in a Europe unable to respond absent decisive American leadership, puts serious stress on the administration’s approach. Indeed, some of the very responses to Russian aggression will have costs elsewhere. Reinforcing NATO’s east will draw to Europe military resources not available for the Indo-Pacific. Sanctions on Russia will render Moscow more dependent on China. Diplomacy directed at organizing a counter-China coalition will be focused also on a Russia response. These are necessary steps in the face of Russian brutality, but they will have effects elsewhere.
Washington may stop pivoting—to Asia before, now to Europe, possibly then back to Asia—and instead start global balancing. In their recent revisionist manifesto, Beijing and Moscow evince a common desire to assume newly ascendant places in an American-dominated international order. Preserving that order will require dealing with both countries simultaneously.
That’s impossible alone, and already flickers of global balancing are evident. Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and Singapore are sanctioning Russia, and key European countries have grown active in the Indo-Pacific. Responding to Russia will require more than European action alone, and dealing with China will take more than Asian participation.
Predictions of the postwar order’s demise are exceedingly premature. Out of this tragedy may rise NATO more unified and better resourced, the U.S. more implanted in Europe, Russia facing high and indefinite costs, and a lesson to would-be aggressors. But it will require a growing array of countries, across regions, to work in common on both Russia and China. And it shows, once again, that tragic events can spoil even the best laid plans.
- Andrea Kendall-Taylor, Senior Fellow and Director, Transatlantic Security Program: The Putin regime’s escalating aggression against Ukraine is clarifying. There can no longer be any questions about the nature of Putin and his regime. Historically, U.S.-Russia relations have combined elements of confrontation and cooperation. Putin has long been given the benefit of the doubt, including because Russian support was useful for advancing U.S. interests on issues like Afghanistan and the Iran nuclear deal, for example. But it is clear that for now we cannot have a constructive relationship with Putin and his regime. After Putin’s speech, it is clear that Putin is a revisionist leader embarking on a war of choice against a country he says has no right to exist. Putin’s highly staged meeting of his security council showed that there is no one in his inner circle that will provide a check on him or introduce ideas at odds with his views. This is dangerous. Putin’s speech indicates that his aggression is not likely to stop with the Donbas, and really, there are no guarantees that the instability he provokes will end in Ukraine.
With the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the region is headed into a period of intense and prolonged confrontation. Some have called it a new Cold War—but things are more complex now, not least because Washington views China as the more consequential long-term challenge. Nonetheless, dealing with Russia will require long-term, persistent pressure. It may require the United States and its European allies to relearn some of the lessons from the Cold War, and update and apply those lessons to the modern era. In this confrontation, the U.S. has the upper hand—Washington and its allies just now need to shift into a more proactive posture in which they work to apply sustained pressure to constrict and constrain the Putin regime’s capacity to destabilize.
- Lisa Curtis, Senior Fellow and Director, Indo-Pacific Security Program: The world must respond to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine with crushing sanctions against Russia and unmitigated support for Ukraine, if it wants to avoid facing similar acts of territorial aggression against sovereign nations in other parts of the world, namely the Indo-Pacific. Some have expressed concern that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine will serve as a distraction from the United States’ ability to make good on pledges made in the recently released Indo-Pacific Strategy. The real concern is what lesson China will learn from Russia’s blatant irredentism and disregard for another country’s territorial integrity. Beijing may view Russia’s bold adventure in Ukraine as a test run for how the international community would react to a similar move by Beijing against Taiwan. The U.S. commentators praising Putin are dead wrong and woefully naïve about the implications of the invasion of Ukraine for the future of the global order.
While U.S. outreach to Indo-Pacific allies like Japan and Australia is paying off in the form of their support for sanctioning Russia, there is a growing perception that fourth Quad member, India, is being too reticent about Moscow’s aggression. The Indo-Pacific strategy was clear about the value the U.S. places on its strategic partnership with India but continued soft-pedalling by India on Russian aggression in Eastern Europe will raise questions about India’s reliability in upholding the rules-based order elsewhere.
The United States is looking to India to increase its engagement in the Indo-Pacific and to help off-set growing Chinese influence and power in the region. However, unless India revises its position on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, it could suffer consequences not only regarding its ties to the United States and Europe but to its own Indo-Pacific goals. Russia under western sanctions will be increasingly dependent on China, which will allow Beijing to better influence Russian behavior toward India. If India believes support for a Russian invasion of Ukraine will guarantee Moscow’s support against Chinese aggression on its own borders, it may be mistaken.
- Paul Scharre, Vice President and Director of Studies: Russia’s invasion of Ukraine represents a major escalation in Putin’s efforts to alter European borders by force. It is also the latest development in Washington’s continued inability to deter Russian aggression. For over twenty years Washington has repeatedly sought to improve its relationship with Moscow, while Putin wants to revive the glory of the Soviet empire. When faced with Russian military incursions in Georgia, Crimea, Donbas, and Ukraine today, the United States has repeatedly failed to demonstrate sufficient costs to deter further Russian aggression. Putin’s actions threaten the foundation of European security. It remains to be seen whether the United States and European allies will mount an adequate response to dissuade Putin from future military action.
America’s failure to deter continued Russian aggression is the latest in a series of major, bipartisan foreign policy failures across a range of issues, including “engagement” with China and nation-building in Iraq and Afghanistan. The lessons of these failures, which span multiple presidential administrations, go beyond simple calculations of American engagement or withdrawal. A common thread running through these failures has been the tendency of American policymakers to assume that other actors—Putin, the Chinese Communist Party, the Taliban, and others—will act against their core interests in ways that the United States prefers. These hopes have proven unfounded time and again. The world needs America now more than ever. But to engage in the world effectively, American policymakers need to see the world as it is, not as they wish it to be.
- Edward Fishman, Adjunct Fellow, Energy, Economics, and Security Program: The worst-case scenario has materialized: Russia is launching a full-scale military invasion of Ukraine. It is now incumbent upon President Biden to follow through on his threat of "swift and severe consequences" in the form of substantial economic sanctions. These sanctions must not only be costly; they must be seen to be costly. If Biden unveils new sanctions and they do little to move markets or Russian economic conditions, his threat will ring hollow, and Putin and other would-be aggressors will be emboldened. That means the Biden administration must not hold back. Because the United States is reluctant to target Russia's oil sector—the elephant in the room of Russia's economy at nearly 50% of export revenues—it must deal a hammer blow to Russia's financial sector. That means full-blocking sanctions against all of the major state-owned Russian banks. The Biden administration should also roll out the controls on critical technology exports that it has previewed in recent weeks, and it should impose debt restrictions on all major state-owned Russian enterprises. Russian oligarchs must also feel the costs of Putin's imperial delusions in the form of personal sanctions. The end result of sanctions should be a full cutoff of the Russian economy from Western financing and investment. For too long, Putin has been able to enjoy the benefits of integration into the global economy while actively seeking to topple the international order. For too long, Putin has been able to have his cake and eat it too. That must end today. Even if sanctions cannot and will not change Kremlin calculus, there is good reason to use sanctions to degrade Russia's capacity to do harm in the future.
- Emily Kilcrease, Senior Fellow and Director, Energy, Economics, and Security Program: With the invasion of Ukraine, the United States and allies must act swiftly to impose harsh and far-reaching sanctions utilizing the full scope of options that have been under consideration. These sanctions will have significant impacts on the structure of the global economy. In the near-term, as major Russian financial institutions are cut off from the plumbing of the international financial system, it will be extremely difficult for foreign entities to engage in ordinary commercial transactions with Russian firms. Energy prices are likely to rise globally, particularly if the United States and allies impose sanctions beyond those already announced related to Nord Stream2. Inflation may become a concern.
Over the long-term, a heavy sanctions regime imposed on Russia, a major economy, may have more far-reaching implications. It will accelerate the desire for Russia and other non-Western countries to have alternatives to U.S.-dominated financial infrastructure. Both Russia and China are actively developing digital currencies, though these efforts are still in their early stages and will not provide an immediate alternative to the U.S.-led international financial system. Imposition of novel technology controls aimed at choking off the flow of semiconductors to Russia would similarly hasten the efforts of strategic competitors to develop their own chip technology and supply chains. As the sanctions force Russia to delink major portions of its economy from U.S. and European sources, we may see further movement towards economic partnership with China. All of these trends are already in motion, but the imposition of the full range of sanctions increase the urgency for Russia.
- Samuel Bendett, Adjunct Senior Fellow, Technology and National Security Program: Russian President Vladimir Putin earlier pledged that his country's foreign policy was not aimed at reviving the Soviet Union, while at the same time lamenting that the demise of the USSR was a human catastrophe that left many ethnic Russians outside of the post-1992 Russian Federation state borders. In presenting today's Ukraine as a Soviet-created state in order to justify the recognition of DNR and LNR republics, he also sets a precedent for other former Soviet states whose borders were likewise drawn by the newly-formed Communist government in Soviet Russia in the early 1920s, especially in the Caucasus and Central Asian regions. This has potential consequences for the trajectory of Russian foreign policy in the former Soviet space, and for the relationship of these nations with Moscow in the coming decades. As the world watches the Russian military fight its way into Ukraine, many former Soviet nations are no doubt very concerned with the force used again to rewrite history so close to their own borders.
- Ryan Fedasiuk, Adjunct Fellow, Technology and National Security Program: The enduring impact of this invasion will be humanitarian, as refugees continue to flee Ukraine and local authorities are already reporting hundreds of casualties. But more broadly, this war will indelibly alter the European security environment. It will strengthen NATO—Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland have already called for urgent Article 4 talks. It will alienate Russia and Belarus—the Biden administration and its allies have promised a swift and severe economic response. But most of all, the Russian war with Ukraine will force a generation of U.S. and European security practitioners to re-learn the lessons buried at Normandy: that states wishing to preserve democratic values must be willing to wield economic, military, and technological power in their defense.