Western strategists should not be complacent, let alone triumphant about Kyiv’s military successes. Russia is down but not out. The Russo-Ukrainian war is an important test of the durability and flexibility of the European security order.
The Russo-Ukrainian war has seen the return of large-scale and intense violence to Europe. It could be yet worse: significant and uncontrolled escalation remains a risk. The risk calculation is complicated by the global implications of the ongoing war. For instance, Russia’s lack of progress in Ukraine may lead China to consider more carefully the pitfalls of any attempt to seize Taiwan.
At the same time, a combination of Ukrainian overperformance and Russian underperformance in comparison to prewar assumptions allows for some optimism, with the sort of Russian fait accompli on allied territory that so concerned allied planners through 2021 seeming far less likely now as Russian forces struggle to remain combat effective in Ukraine.
Ukraine’s performance in the conflict has been nothing less than heroic, but assistance from its friends to the West – and NATO allies in particular – is clearly critical to its ability to defend its territory and to mount counteroffensives to liberate Russian-occupied areas.
Several strategic observations are possible here.
First, Ukraine must gain and maintain enough momentum to attain its strategic aims while its Western backers can provide meaningful support.
Second, Russia, it seems, hopes to maintain strategic coherence and “stay in the fight” long enough to fracture that same community of Western backers.
And finally, the community of Western backers (essentially NATO allies and partners) must defeat those Russian efforts that are aimed at breaking Western unity. Those Western backers must be firm enough, and flexible enough, to maintain unity long enough for Ukraine to restore its own territorial integrity.
Of course, Ukraine’s performance in the conflict to this point may have already been decisive in terms of long-term outcomes. However, Western strategists should not be complacent, let alone triumphant. Russia is down but not out: it can adapt and still inflict significant harm on Ukraine.
Given these strategic considerations, it is worthwhile to identify the parameters driving Western cohesion and support for Ukraine. Understanding these parameters sheds light on long-term implications of the Russo-Ukrainian war for transatlantic and global security, while at the same time pointing to key policy choices, opportunities, and constraints.
The first is that NATO allies’ prior investment in operational readiness and infrastructure predicted military aid to Ukraine.
This finding is as unsurprising as it is noteworthy – given the ongoing debates over the extent to which defense investment translates into strategic action. But allies’ efforts to coax one another into spending more are subject to an entire catechism of criticisms, amounting mostly to claims that defense spending is an artificial metric that does not correspond with the development of capabilities.
Our second – and more surprising – finding is that, through November of 2022 at least, dependency on Russian fossil fuel did not predict NATO allies’ military aid to Ukraine.
These findings are provisional—for example, the economic costs of Russia’s fossil fuel blackmail on European economies may yet to be fully felt—but they have clear geostrategic implications that should inform policy.
First among these is how critical prior investment and planning are to successfully navigating emerging and enduring challenges.
Consider NATO Secretary General Stoltenberg’s “3C’s” of defense investment: cash invested today acquires capabilities tomorrow that can then be employed to make contributions to collective defense the day after tomorrow. As the legendary John Collins’s “SOF Truths” warn: “Competent SOF cannot be created after emergencies occur.”
Such is the case with most capabilities. You go to war with the forces that you have, so it is wise to have capable forces ready for such a moment. Those countries (like Poland, the US and the UK) that have had such operationally ready capabilities have thus far contributed more to the fight.
The second policy implication relates to the extent to which the West can decouple support for Ukraine from fossil fuel dependency vis-à-vis Russia. This factor may be the single most critical long-term strategic parameter that affects the outcome of the Russo-Ukrainian war and its broader strategic implications.
If Russia can “crack” Western unity and resolve by weaponizing fossil-fuel interdependence, it may hope to outlast and eventually grind down Ukrainian defenses. The longer Ukraine maintains the initiative on the ground while the West continues to flexibly support Kyiv within the constraints that each country faces, the less likely this Russian gambit is to succeed. Indeed, the Europeans, especially Germany, are speeding up the diversification of energy imports, building liquefied Natural Gas terminals and speeding up the renewable energy sector. Russia’s war in Ukraine may well accelerate the breaking of Western economies’ insidious dependence on its fossil fuels.
In short, the Russo-Ukrainian war is an important test of the durability and flexibility of the European security order.
The order is passing this test for now – by maintaining unity and acknowledging and addressing its economic and military vulnerabilities.
Continued success depends on its members’ willingness and ability to underwrite success materially – with investment in defense capabilities and readiness on one hand, and in societal, energy, and economic resiliency on the other.
Jordan Becker is an active-duty officer in the US Army. This text reflects the authors’ views only, and does not reflect any official US government position.
Photo Credit: The attached photo belongs to NATO and is used under NATO’s newsroom content policy.