US has bolstered its position in the world
As the Ukraine war enters its second year, US efforts mark a good return on investment from the point of view of national security. But over the next year, further risks abound
The war in Ukraine may have officially begun in February 2022, but its antecedents were laid the preceding year. In March and April 2021, Russia embarked upon a major military build-up east of Ukraine and in Crimea. This triggered a meeting between Russian President Vladimir Putin and United States (US) President Joe Biden in Geneva, ahead of which Biden waived sanctions on the Nord Stream 2 pipeline. Later that year, rising oil prices bolstered Russian reserves and legislative elections in September 2021 favoured Putin. Meanwhile, relations between Moscow and Beijing strengthened, the US was seen as hopelessly divided, and Europe gave signals of continuing economic and energy engagement with Moscow.
These circumstances persuaded Putin to order an even larger Russian military build-up on Ukraine’s borders and in Belarus in late 2021 and early 2022. The US intelligence community informed American leaders, those of other countries, and the media, of imminent Russian war plans. Various third parties, led by France, engaged in frantic last minute diplomacy to avert conflict. After a publicly televised national security meeting, Putin announced a special military operation — a massive, multi-pronged military intervention intended to seize Kyiv, topple Volodymyr Zelensky, and incorporate Ukraine squarely within Russia’s realm of influence.
For Putin and Russia, subsequent developments did not go according to plan. The assault on Hostomel airport was repulsed and the Russian column to Kyiv got bogged down. Russia was more successful in the south, and later in the east in Luhansk. Ukrainian counters around Kherson and Kharkiv regained ground in late 2022 before Putin announced the annexation of four administrative districts in southeastern Ukraine. Throughout, the US led its North Atlantic Treaty Organization (Nato) allies in providing Ukraine with detailed intelligence, considerable military equipment, and financial and technical assistance, while levying large-scale sanctions against Russia.
From the point of view of US national security planners, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has been an opportunity, although one fraught with considerable risk. Whatever the outcome, Russia will have expended considerable material, human and diplomatic resources in a costly and inefficient manner. The US might be providing Ukraine with significant military and financial aid, but feels it can permanently degrade Russian capabilities with no loss to American lives, and military outlays approximating 5-6% of the defence budget. Meanwhile, the US intelligence community, which has struggled for resources and expertise after the Cold War, appears to have somewhat burnished its reputation.
There is no question that the US is now indispensable to Europe’s security. Finland’s Prime Minister Sanna Marin said so explicitly, “Europe isn’t strong enough right now. We would be in trouble without the United States.” It is no coincidence that Zelensky’s first visit abroad since the outbreak of war was to Washington, and not Berlin, Paris, or Brussels. US military influence, which had earlier been confined to the borders of Nato members, has now effectively extended to Ukraine’s frontlines with Russia.
But US involvement has created other headaches for Washington. Although American public opinion is still largely in support of aid and military support for Ukraine, there are early signs of conflict fatigue. Anti-war sentiments animate the Left wing of the Democratic Party, while some on the political Right are adamantly opposed to open-ended US military commitments. The country’s ability to influence global opinion has also proved limited. Outside committed allies, few countries – especially in the Global South – have wholeheartedly supported the US-led sanctions.
A further challenge for Washington involves the allocation of scarce military resources. It is true that the Ukraine War has depleted stocks that might be used in other contingencies, notably those involving China. But apart from fungible budgetary resources, the military requirements needed in Europe and the Indo-Pacific are different. US leaders and strategic documents have repeatedly stressed that the Indo-Pacific represents the primary strategic priority. Despite a near-term focus on Ukraine, the US strategic shift to compete with China is well underway.
Finally, like in any conflict, especially with a military potent power such as Russia, there are fears of escalation and accidents. Late last year, US leaders became fearful of the imminent use of nuclear weapons by Russia. This resulted in frantic diplomacy before the situation was defused. As Russia readies for further campaigns this year, and Ukraine prepares to counter, the prospect of dangerous military escalation that might potentially involve the US and Nato directly cannot be ruled out.
Some observers, including a section in India, believe that the US policy in Ukraine has boomeranged, contributing to energy shortages, inflation, and diversification away from the dollar. Some consequences were indeed initially severe, but higher US energy output and a relatively mild winter in Europe have mitigated some of the worst effects. Inflationary pressures eased with higher interest rates and the removal of some supply chain bottlenecks. A better than expected showing for the Democrats in November’s midterm elections has further strengthened Biden’s hand. As underlined by his surprise visit to Kyiv this week, American efforts in Ukraine represent a good return on investment from the point of view of US national security planners. Nevertheless, over the next year, risks abound.
Dhruva Jaishankar is executive director, ORF America
The views expressed are personal