Strategic Insight 003/2022
Dr. Timothy D. Hoyt
28 October 2022
The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views or policy of the U.S. Naval War College, the U.S. Navy, or any other U.S. government organisation.
Russia’s decision to invade Ukraine in February 2022 stunned the international community, and dramatically altered Europe’s security environment. The collective response to the war, including condemnation of Russia’s invasion by 140 members of the United Nations General Assembly, demonstrates both continuity and change in an evolving international system. Many Western analysts suspected the system was shifting towards an era of great power competition but it is evolving much more rapidly under the impact of great power war. This Azure Forum Strategic Insight will briefly assess evolving trends in three areas of particular interest to security analysts and scholars – the emergence of a more multi-polar international system; changes in coalitions and alliance structures; and military trends. Unfortunately, the war also suggests significant intelligence failures, unsuccessful efforts at deterrence, and the erosion of international norms for the protection of non-combatants, all suggesting that the restoration of peace and security requires serious attention.
What some referred to as “the U.S. unipolar moment” has been receding since 2010 with the rise of China as an economic and geopolitical power, accentuated by America’s involvement in a long, global “war on terror”. American analysts tend to put special emphasis on military power, and viewed an emerging system marked by great power competition, particularly with China – a so-called “near peer competitor”– and Russia. The Biden administration’s new National Security Strategy of October 2022 is premised on great power competition and the premise of a growing struggle between democratic and authoritarian political systems.
Other analysts in Europe and the developing world viewed the emerging order differently, focusing on economic influence, development aid, and soft power as key factors in a more cooperative international system. Japan and Germany, while self-constrained militarily, exercised significant influence regionally and in multinational fora. India’s dramatic economic growth in the early 21st Century distinguished it from other developing states. Over time, some analysts suggested this might lead to an international order with five or six poles of power – the U.S., China, Russia, Germany/the EU, Japan, and India.
A third perspective, most recently articulated in February 2022 by the leaders of Russia and China, opposed the current international order and its relative disposition of power and influence. This vision rested on economic and ideological rejection of the democratic forms of governance most common in the current leading states in the international system and might in theory lead to a “West against the rest” reshuffling of global power.
The results of the war in Ukraine, for the moment, appear to indicate that U.S. dominance of the international system is gradually eroding, and that a multipolar system may emerge more rapidly than expected. A self-proclaimed great power, Russia, launched a major invasion in Europe, surprising analysts and forcing states throughout the international system to pay high economic costs and make difficult political choices. While Western leadership has created a coalition of support for Ukraine, individual states exercise more interest-based economic and political autonomy, which suggests a move away from both unipolarity and a bloc-based international structure.
In late October 2021, U.S. intelligence concluded that Russia was likely to invade Ukraine. Over a period of weeks, U.S. and European leaders cooperatively constructed a series of escalating economic sanctions to deter or punish Russia, developed common policies coordinating EU, NATO, and other states in the event of a crisis, and declassified selected intelligence findings in an attempt to deter Russia and gain international support.
In past administrations, the U.S. has led coalitions in a variety of ways: through the UN Security Council in the 1950 – 1953 Korean War during the Truman administration; Operation Desert Storm in 1991 during the George H. W. Bush administration; the U.S.-led Multinational Force known as a coalition of the willing in the 2003 invasion of Iraq during the George W. Bush administration; a “you are with us or against us” approach closely linked with the Secretary of State John Foster Dulles during the Eisenhower administration and re-emerged in the George W. Bush administration after the attacks of 9/11 (the “war on terror”); “leading from behind” during the Obama administration; or through formal alliance structures like NATO. The current coalition to support Ukraine during the Russian invasion of Ukraine emerged very differently, in part because of the need to keep Europe in agreement when some states are particularly reliant on Russian energy.
Russia’s veto precluded a UN Security Council resolution, but the UN General Assembly provided an opportunity for states to condemn Russian aggression. Russia’s dreams of an anti-democratic alliance collapsed – only five states supported the invasion. However, key states chose to abstain, including China, India, Iran, Pakistan, and Vietnam.
The coalition that emerged is broad, multinational, and inclusive. It appears consultative, and members are not punished or excluded when they express differences or must manage unfortunate reliance on Russian energy supplies. Members appear willing to accept short-term costs to both oppose aggression and to reduce or eliminate Russia’s “energy coercion”. These costs may impact elections as voters suffer a cold winter and inflation, and leaders may be punished for reckless choices as seen in recent events in the U.K. European partners are revisiting assumptions about the utility of military force, and Germany’s Social Democratic Party pledged a major boost in defence spending, reversing years of policy. While many states choose not to participate in economic sanctions, the recent Shanghai Cooperation Organisation summit in Asia demonstrated declining Russian influence and opposition to the ongoing war.
Russia’s lack of military success in Ukraine is striking, and there are many possible explanations: insufficient training, constricting doctrine, flawed logistic preparations, inadequate numbers, and unrealistic objectives all contributed to the initial failure – and stunned many military analysts. In addition, Ukraine has fought creatively and very successfully – something many Western analysts failed to anticipate.
As the conflict progresses, however, we can identify several critical elements that highlight the character of this war and, potentially, future wars between great and middle powers. The first, already demonstrated in other more irregular conflicts, is the importance of will. Peoples that are determined to resist can counter military, technological, and financial advantages, although admittedly at high cost. This makes successful conquest and occupation extremely difficult by raising the costs for any potential attacker through protraction of the conflict and continuing conventional and/or irregular resistance.
A second emerging factor is the criticality of intelligence and secure battlefield communications. Combined with increasingly accurate and mobile artillery and effective command and control, Ukraine is demonstrating the lethal reality of the Soviet General Staff’s late Cold War vision of “reconnaissance-strike complexes” – a fusion of effective sensors, rapid communication, tactical mobility, and long-range precision strike. The Russian “inventors” of the concept have not been as successful in adapting, in part because their military organizations are too tightly centralized to make rapid decisions.
A third factor is the high attrition of costly machinery and weapons, on land, sea and air. The lethality and constraining impact of layered air defences should be a particular concern for the Western powers, who have operated in highly permissive air environments since the end of the Cold War. Ukraine is quite different, and much more deadly.
All these factors, and others, reinforce a longer-term trend already evident in the twenty—first century. Determined states can resist both conventional invasion and occupation, especially if they can find some foreign support. The international system may be becoming more defence-dominant, so long as states oppose aggression and support existing international norms and the rule of law. As Ukraine also demonstrates, unfortunately, international laws and norms are not an adequate barrier to invasion or war crimes, and Russia’s outrageous behaviour is certain to complicate efforts to bring an end to the conflict.
Dr. Timothy D. Hoyt is Professor of Strategy and Policy, the John Nicholas Brown Chair of Counterterrorism Studies, and the Academic Director and Senior Mentor of the Advanced Strategy Program at the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island. Dr. Hoyt earned his undergraduate degrees from Swarthmore College and his Ph.D. in International Relations and Strategic Studies from The Johns Hopkins University’s Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies in 1997. Before joining the Naval War College, he taught at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service. Dr. Hoyt is the author of Military Industries and Regional Defense Policy: India, Iraq and Israel, and over 50 articles and chapters on international security and military affairs, with a focus on the Middle East and the Indo-Pacific. He is currently working on a multi-volume study of the strategy of the Irish Republican Army from 1909-2019, as well as projects on the Indo-Pacific region and trends in international terrorism. On Wednesday 28 September 2022, Dr. Hoyt was a speaker at the Azure Forum’s informal fireside briefing and discussion on: ‘The Second Ukraine War: Learning Lessons from an Ongoing Conflict’.
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