We Need Domestic 5G to Beat China

5G’s Role in State Competition

by Scott Kelly

The adoption of 5G will trigger an evolution in how we share and use information, creating opportunities for innovation and growth that will touch every industry and aspect of our lives. The successful pursuit of these opportunities will be critical to our national security. It will expand the arena of great power competition among states, and directly affect the diplomatic, informational, military, and economic aspects of national power. If we are to beat the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), we need to understand the nature of these changes and pursue policies that will maximize 5Gs benefits for us and our allies, while minimizing the CCP’s ability to pursue growth by stealing our innovations. 

Diplomatic

Trust as Currency 

While security is critical at home, trust is critical abroad and is more valuable than the U.S. dollar as a reserve among nations. The U.S. and China are currently the only countries capable of developing and manufacturing large scale 5G infrastructure. The low monetary cost of Chinese components gives them a nominal advantage as a vendor in many countries. However, due to China’s 2017 national security law, (*1) transmitting any information over equipment provided by Chinese firms is tantamount to handing it directly to the CCP. Providing a domestically produced and owned American 5G network solution will allow countries to access the critical infrastructure needed to participate in the modern global economy while protecting their intellectual property and state secrets from being stolen by the CCP. 

(*1)  On June 27th, 2017 China enacted a new National Intelligence Law, which created an affirmative responsibility for all Chinese citizens and companies to provide access, cooperation and support for Beijing’s intelligence gathering activities. This extends to citizens living, studying, or doing business abroad.

Information 

Knowledge is Power

5G will supercharge connectivity and power massive networks of users, fueling innovation at a previously unseen pace. The power of nations, and their relative position of strength over one another will be determined by how this innovation is fostered and harnessed. Open, democratic societies like America have a key advantage over authoritarian regimes like the CCP in driving these innovations and harnessing their benefits, provided we can secure our infrastructure.

In open, democratic societies access to information and the free communication of ideas among citizens fuels a cycle of creative destruction that leads to innovation and growth. In authoritarian societies, this same process enables collaboration against the current political regime and is a direct threat to those in power. This creates a dilemma where open access to information and collaboration fuels the innovation necessary for growth and state power, but also requires ever increasing state control over how people communicate in their daily lives to prevent domestic opposition to the regime from forming. This stifles the potential for future growth. The move to 5G will further exacerbate this divide between how increased access to information affects open and authoritarian societies.

To prevent domestic opposition from forming, the CCP has employed strict population control measures such as social credit scores, massive online censorship, and genocide against ethnic minorities.(*2) To pursue growth while being unable to allow domestic innovation, they have relied on stealing technologies from more developed nations, achieving growth while avoiding the need to allow their own population to collaborate and innovate. Their 2017 national security law ensures that they can leverage any Chinese citizen or corporation studying or doing business abroad to collaborate in the theft of technologies. Having a domestically owned and produced 5G infrastructure, from hardware to software, can stifle these efforts and help ensure the next generation of American innovation turns into economic and military advantages for America, widening the power gap between us and the CCP.

(*2) In 2014, it was revealed that the CCP had begun perpetrating a genocide against Uygher Muslims who lived in western China which has continued to expand as they seek to destroy Uygher ethnic and religious identity which are viewed as incompatible with the CCPs values and a source of potential domestic political opposition.

Military

There are two people on the battlefield: the quick and the dead. 

5G’s ability to enable secure networks that can support massive amounts of devices in austere locations with minimal infrastructure will drive an evolution in how wars are fought. The type of maneuver warfare that is employed by modern militaries relies on the ability to coordinate long range fires from air, land, and sea forces in close coordination with rapidly moving ground forces(*3) to overwhelm an enemy. This has made tracking where friendly forces are in real time a critical element in modern warfare. It’s not enough to have more combat power than the enemy, you need to be able to quickly mass it at critical points so your military’s strength is greater than the sum of its parts.(*4)

5G networks allow massive amounts of devices to be employed to track everything from vehicles to individual soldiers, enabling unprecedented coordination among maneuver forces. When combined with other advances in long range fires and the ubiquitous use of drones for reconnaissance and attacks, field expedient 5G mesh networks will become a decisive feature on future battlefields, as necessary as the machine gun after WWI and fighter jets after WWII.

 (*3)Think artillery, rockets, cruise missiles, strike fighters, and bombers that need to land on the enemy while avoiding our troops on the ground and each other in the air

 (*4)Ukraine’s recent success in pushing back and wiping out entire Russian army formations during its Kharkiv offensive, enabled by its ability to effectively mass fires to support ground maneuver is a modern example.

Economic

Money Talks

Developing a robust suite of 5G technologies that can be deployed domestically would be a boon to the American economy. Its immediate impact would be an increase in domestic spending on manufacturing and transportation as we develop the infrastructure needed for production and distribution. It would decrease the exposure of U.S. firms to intellectual property theft from China  (which routinely steals 225 to 600 billion dollars of property from U.S. firms annually) by providing a ready source of secure network connectivity absent built in malware and back doors by foreign firms.

It would also provide an exportable solution to allies and partners who wish to benefit from the evolution to 5G without risking exposure to subversion and manipulation by the CCP. This would enable increased export of American products and further boost our domestic economy by creating new markets for our goods and services. American made 5G can become as important to global networks and telecommunications as Boeing is to global aviation. 

Winning in the Information Age

America is well into a new era of great power competition, against a regime that seeks to present totalitarianism as a credible alternative to the western democratic model of statehood and supplant the U.S. as a world leader. After WWII, in the age of nuclear weapons, we relied on containing the Soviet Union through military alliances and economic aid to allies and partners. Beating China in the information age will require a new type of containment, built around secure networks and the opportunity to express ideas free of censorship and bullying. 5G with the windfall of innovation and economic growth it will provide is the next competitive arena we must master. We need 5G here, we need it now, and we need to own it, or we will find ourselves continuing to underwrite the growth of the CCP as they bully their neighbors, commit genocide against their own citizens, and undermine the credibility of the modern world order. 

The High Price of Peace

The role of negotiation in ending the war in Ukraine

As Putin’s invasion of Ukraine continues to sputter and the realization that he can not achieve a quick victory settles in, the hopes that a negotiated settlement might bring an end to the bloodshed increase. Both Putin and President Zelensky have softened their tone and repeatedly sent delegations to engage in peace talks. Ukraine has abandoned any ambition of joining NATO, and Russia has ended its calls for “denazification”, which many viewed as code for replacing the current Ukrainian government with their own puppet regime. Any negotiated settlement would likely require significant concessions from Ukraine to Russia, potentially including recognition of the annexation of Crimea and the independence of the Donbas region in exchange for guarantees that Russia would not invade again and seek more in the future. There is good reason to doubt Putin’s sincerity in any negotiation, and good reason for Ukraine to consider pursuing such a negotiated outcome anyway.

Territorial concessions to Russia would seemingly reward Russia for its aggressive behavior, and comments over the danger of “appeasement” have increasingly surfaced in pundit and polity circles alike. Boris Johnson and other world leaders have pointed to the west’s muted response to the annexation of Crimea in 2014 as a policy failure that left Putin emboldened to pursue further territorial conquest. This has invoked comparisons to the failure to deter Hitler’s attempted conquest of Europe when in 1938 Britain and France signed a soon to be broken peace agreement that acknowledged Germany’s annexation of Austria in exchange for Hitler’s guarantee not to expand further. So how does Putin’s position vis a vis President Zelensky compare to Hitler’s position vis a vis Prime Minister Chamberlain? Should negotiations continue to be pursued, and where is the line between appeasing a war criminal and accepting a new reality to avoid more suffering for one’s people?

Military Power, Not All Dictators Are Created Equal

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has been mired by logistical failures and an inability to coordinate maneuver forces, artillery, and airpower effectively. It has struggled to resupply its forces despite geographic proximity to its own borders and those of its ally, Belarus. Unlike the modernized German Army that Hitler was prepared to use to conquer Europe in 1939 that used a revitalized, robust domestic economy and superior tactics to quickly overwhelm a technologically superior French military in a matter of weeks, Russia has struggled to efficiently subdue cities defended largely by militias and remnants of Ukrainian military units that have been cut off from resupply since the beginning of the conflict.

Its difficult to imagine a situation where after reaching a negotiated settlement, Putin and Russia would then have the capacity to turn elsewhere to fuel Putin’s imperialistic ambitions. Unlike the annexation of Crimea in 2014 and the support given to separatist regions in Donbas over the past 6 years, this invasion has incurred a significant material cost on Russian forces. Estimates of casualties are beginning to top 40,000 and numerous older, cold war relic vehicles have been employed in Ukraine to replace more modern ones that were initially lost. To replace these forces would require a considerable investment, which would have been challenging for Russia before the invasion, but seemingly impossible after given the state of their economy after severe sanctions were imposed. The success of Ukrainian counter attacks to reclaim territory around Kiev and Russia’s apparent withdrawal of forces from its failed campaign to capture the city to focus on efforts in eastern Ukraine is further demonstration that Russia has reached the limits of its ability to project conventional military ground forces. Negotiating an end to the conflict would be less of an opportunity for Putin to expand his imperialist ambitions and more of an opportunity to avoid further embarrassment.

Troubles Abroad? Try Troubles at Home

Putin also lacks the popular political support at home to support large scale military adventurism. Although it is notoriously hard to gauge the political leanings of the Russian people, and Putin has successfully maintained his seat of power for decades, telltale cracks are beginning to appear. He has been purging the upper ranks of his military and intelligence services, while protests continue in the streets. Dissenters have even appeared in state media, while young professionals flee the country in a “brain drain”. The most telling signs come from Putin himself, who has felt compelled to avoid describing the conflict in Ukraine as a war and instead insisted it was a “special military operation” employing only professional forces and mercenaries, whitewashing the majority presence of regular conscripts. This is in stark contrast to the xenophobic nationalism that drove domestic support for Hitler’s conquest of Europe and enabled the Nazi ruler to mobilize the whole German nation to support his ambition.

Although there are reports that Putin’s domestic propaganda efforts have had limited success in galvanizing the population to support his war efforts, these come with reports by western intelligence agencies that his mostly conscript army fighting in Ukraine has begun to refuse orders, sabotage its own equipment, and kill its commanders to avoid fighting. Putin may be able to maintain his grip on power, but there does not appear to be a meaningful way to translate a domestic rally in support in solidarity against western sanctions into the type of support needed to maintain the fighting spirit and esprit de corps needed for Russia’s conscripts to be successful and carry-on Putin’s “special military operation”.

Why Settle Now?

With Ukraine successfully counterattacking in several areas and Russia’s withdrawal from the area around Kiev leading to revelations of mass atrocities and war crimes that have been perpetuated against Ukrainian civilians, it is tempting to push for a full-scale military effort to repulse all Russian forces from Ukraine and retake Crimea and the Donbas region. The more that comes to light about Russian atrocities and massacres, the harder it is to stomach the idea of negotiating with someone like Putin. However, President Zelensky has still said he is willing to negotiate if it will end the war, and he has good reason to try to.

Dnipro, Ukraine Mar 11, 2022

The longer the war drags on, the more death and destruction Ukraine will face. Russia may have failed to take Kiev (for now), but they wiped Mariupol off the map, leaving the collapsed skeletal ruins of what was once a vibrant city in their wake. The brutality is even more shocking when you consider that it was done with conventional weapons, house by house and block by block. The longer the war continues, the more likely Russia is to apply the same treatment to other cities. The risks of Putin pursuing a desperate escalation through the use of chemical or tactical nuclear weapons, especially in a supposed “defense” of the separatist republics in Donbas also increases the longer the war goes on and he views the chances of an acceptable outcome decreasing. Additionally, Ukraine’s success so far has been reliant on a steady flow of support from the West in the form of advanced weapons and sanctions against Russia. The west has been a fickle partner to other nations in the past, and President Zelensky may be wise to pursue a negotiated peace before the west’s support slips away and western media outlets move on to the next hot topic, dampening popular support and reducing the political pressure to continue providing support to Ukraine.

Appeasement vs Acceptance

Power, not ideology, has always been the driving force behind international relations. Russia’s is far less than initially believed, and Ukraine’s is far more, based in no small part on the moral dimensions underpinning why they are fighting. The chance for a negotiated peace that ends the blood shed should not be cast aside lightly if it proves to be possible, or blindly derided as “appeasement” by a western press and political establishment who are happy to see Russia laid low, but do not bear the direct costs of the fighting.  Appeasement is a naïve attempt to placate ambitions of a bully in order to limit costs and avoid tragedy. Negotiation is informed by two sides who know the costs of conflict and know they will have to pay them, one way or another. This is Ukraine’s fight to bear, and the world should support whatever hard choices it eventually decides to make.

Putin’s Folly

How the Invasion of Ukraine Threatens China‘s Rise

Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has caused a permanent shift in the balance of world power, shattering the notion that state sovereignty was sacrosanct among great powers and that military force was no longer a significant factor in European politics. Although much of the world has joined in condemning the invasion and imposing harsh sanctions designed to punish Putin, Russia’s long standing geopolitical ally China has avoided condemning the invasion and has taken limited measures to support the otherwise isolated Russian economy. The failure to deter the invasion of a democratic nation by its powerful authoritarian neighbor has caused policy makers to increasingly fret over another potential invasion target, Taiwan. However, contrary to the talking points of the day, Putin’s invasion appears more likely to strain the Russian-China alliance, putting the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) plan to rise to global prominence in peril.

After All, What Are Friends For?

China has long been a strategic ally of Russia, as both have sought to benefit from participating in global trade while protecting their interests from interference from western outsiders. They have done so through the aggressive assertion of the principle of national sovereignty, decrying any military intervention in the affairs of another state and bristling at diplomatic statements and economic actions, no matter how limited, designed to curtail human rights abuses (the assassination of journalists and dissidents in Russia and the genocide against Uighur Muslims in China for example).

They have sought to increase their influence in global affairs by offering themselves as allies to each other and other authoritarian regimes which are otherwise shunned by the global community, (Russian support of Assad in Syria and China’s long-standing relationship with North Korea are examples), claiming respect for national sovereignty as justification for ignoring human rights abuses. Both nations simultaneously use the United Nations to bolster their legitimacy and protect themselves from broader rebuke, while decrying any attempt to mobilize the global community to intercede in the affairs of other nations lest such mobilization eventually be brought to bear against them (ironic that Putin’s invasion has achieved the very mobilization and unity that he feared in Europe).

Guilt by Association

However, China’s continued support of Russia’s actions are uncertain, as shown in their decision to abstain when the United Nations Security Council voted on mobilizing to stop Russia’s invasion. National sovereignty is a sensitive issue for China, and Russia’s invasion blatantly violated Ukraine’s. To stand by Russia’s actions in the face of global condemnation, while Russia’s invasion becomes steadily more brutal in the face of Ukrainian opposition will likely invite criticism of China. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is incredibly sensitive to international criticism. This was shown in their comments condemning the Biden administration’s and other prominent countries decision to not send diplomatic delegations to the Winter Olympics hosted in Beijing, and their request for Russia to delay invading until after the games were over in order to ensure the international press was focused on an event China viewed as critical to its international image.

Money Talks

As brutal as broad reaching economic sanctions such as being cut off from the SWIFT banking system are on Russia’s economy, they would be even more catastrophic for China’s. Continued economic growth is the bedrock of the CCP’s domestic justification for rule and the use of invasive population control measures. A more assertive west that has already shown a remarkable willingness to accept the costs of imposing severe sanctions on Russia may decide now is the best time to challenge China economically.

 With global supply chains still under strain from the pandemic, and political pressure in countries around the world to invest in making their domestic markets more robust and diversified, policy makers could reasonably believe now is the best time to announce a permanent move away from reliance on China. This would enable them to make future economic cooperation contingent on increased respect for human rights and civil liberties in China.

Also, having Ukraine be a warzone and Russia being sanctioned threatens China’s belt and road initiative, there ambitions plan for expanding their global reach that is key to Chinese President Xi Jinping’s CCP’s plan to continue growing the Chinese economy. This projected growth is the cornerstone of the CCP’s justification for staying in power and ensuring stability at home, as well as its plans to become powerful enough to challenge the United States for dominance in the international system.

Never Tell Me The Odds” General Han Solo

It has become more rational for western policy makers in democratic nations to think they could maintain enough domestic political support to survive the consequences of open economic conflict with China than it ever was for Putin to consider an invasion of Ukraine as a rational policy decision for his country. It impossible to predict how far a resurgent west committed to rearmament, ready to accept economic hardships to an extent unimaginable prior to the war in Ukraine, and driven to protect fellow democracies may go, and that creates untold uncertainty and anxiety among China’s leaders.

This anxiety and doubt has two significant consequences. The first is straining China’s traditional post cold war alliance with Russia, and the second is to mellow plans for any near to mid term attempt at reunification with Taiwan through military force over fear of facing the same sanctions Russia now does. It is too soon to judge how this will shape the shifting geopolitical landscape and the implications it may have for China, Russia, the crisis in Ukraine and the future of Taiwan, though a potentially devastating and destabilizing public break between Putin and Xi Jinping is possible. It is becoming clear however that Putin’s invasion has created new obstacles for China’s growth as a world power and reminded the free world that aggressive economic and military confrontation, though uncomfortable and fraught with risk, is sometimes the best and only path to security and prosperity.

Putin’s Rebellion

Russia has invaded Ukraine, marking the start of the largest conflict on European soil in decades. When Putin invaded Crimea in 2014, commentators spoke with shock and disdain over how he was acting like an 18th century man in the 21st century era of neo-liberal globalization. Putin’s more recent decision to invade all of Ukraine is a stark reminder to policy makers and scholars alike that power is still the driving force behind geopolitics, and the ultimate exercise of power is military force.  As Putin rebels against the arc of history that many believed would “civilize” leaders like him and slowly shape them to the modern era, the world looks on and waits to see if Putin emerges as the bold brilliant leader of a resurgent Russia or as a fool who overplayed a potentially winning hand with needlessly catastrophic consequences for the people of Ukraine. 

For months, media pundits and policy analysts have been warning of this event and debating its significance with bombastic fervor that has clouded attempts at rational dialogue about the situation surrounding Ukraine, Russia and the potential ramifications of invasion. This isn’t surprising, as the Russian invasion of the second largest country in Europe forces people to grapple with a form of geopolitics dominated by balance of power considerations. Instead of friction over concerns of economic parity and human rights, the fault lines here are drawn along lines of ideology and national identity, a stark contrast to the neo-liberal world view that dominates much of western foreign policy. A key part of neo-liberalism is the belief that globalization and economic interdependence would make violence between industrialized nations prohibitively costly and irrational. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union wars between nations have been seen as aberrations to be curtailed through proper policy coordination among responsible nations, rather than a legitimate, if violent, negotiation tactic among states.

If Not NATO, Then What?

In the media the growing tension surrounding Ukraine has been framed as a dispute arising from Ukraine’s potential admission into NATO making Russia nervous about its security. Putin’s recent comments in several speeches make it clear however that this is not that case. Putin has long viewed Russia as a great power that has been wrongly relegated to a second and then third tier status among important nations, due to both a series of unfortunate circumstances throughout the 20th century and the mistakes of his predecessors who too easily gave up territory and standing in the name of “developing” into a modern nation.

His revisionist take on history where he denies Ukraine’s historical separation from Russia due to its long dominance by the Russian empire indicates that he has decided to act not out of a rationally calculated security concern driven by the potential encroachment of NATO, but as a rebellion against the arc of history that the neo-liberal worldview believes makes such moves among the economically interdependent industrialized “modern” world a thing of the past. Evidence of this can be seen in the level of risk Putin has accepted to play his gambit.

It’s hard to overstate how much of a gamble Putin has taken with his invasion. As much as pundits and analysts will seek to debate how America or various European nations could have pursued different policy options to dissuade invasion, it must be acknowledged that Putin was sent a clear series of signals that an invasion of Ukraine would make him and Russia economic and diplomatic pariahs, with potentially crippling consequences for Russia’s already fragile economy. 

Having communicated to his population repeatedly that he was not planning invading, he has had numerous opportunities to claim a series of small, but significant diplomatic victories and not risk a single Russian life or ruble on military adventurism fraught with danger and whose outcome is impossible to predict even in the most lopsided of contests. In any calculation it is hard to see how the seizure of Ukraine’s various natural resources and economic infrastructure will make up for the losses Russia is likely to incur by invading. Focusing on the perceived “errors” of western political leaders of any kind ignores the level of agency Putin and Russia feel entitled to act with within Eastern Europe, or how much agency the Ukrainian nation is willing to exercise in response.

Putin’s Odds of “Success”

Ukraine’s President has pledged an all-out defense against Russian aggression and has a much better trained and equipped military than in 2014 when Russia invaded Crimea and fomented rebellion in Donbas. However, in a straight up fight, Russia clearly has enough military power to defeat the Ukrainian military and occupy most if not all of the country. The questions that need to be asked however are how quickly and at what cost? 

Russia’s mechanized battalions are designed to move quickly and effectively employ artillery and air power to mass combat power where needed to pulverize or bypass hardened defenses. However, they also rely on armored vehicles for firepower and mobility, which are extremely vulnerable to man portable anti-tank missile systems. America has been flooding the Ukrainian military with Javelin missile systems, which were purpose built to destroy Russian tanks and can be employed by small teams of two soldiers. Such teams can impose a heavy cost on advancing Russian armor, even if they are unable to stop a column entirely. 

Then there is the problem of fighting in cities, which can be easy to advance to and challenging to subdue as defenders can employ the full range of techniques available to the urban guerrilla. The will to fight and defend one’s home plays an outsized role in urban combat and holding a city can become more challenging than seizing it. This will to fight was demonstrated by the Ukrainian defenders of Snake Island, who lost their lives after refusing a demand to surrender by a Russian warship at the beginning of the invasion in an event reminiscent of the Alamo. 

Even if it succeeds in conquering Ukraine’s territory Russia faces the risk of fighting a protracted insurgency. One of the things that made the invasion of Crimea and Donbas successful in 2014 were the large ethnic Russian populations in these territories and geographic proximity to Russia ensuring secure lines of communication and resupply. By invading the rest of the country, Russia is giving up these advantages. Although Russia can target Ukraine’s centralized military infrastructure and cripple the country’s ability to launch an effective defense of its borders, it must contend with the semi formal patchwork of territorial units and volunteers which were key to staving off rebel advances in 2014, and that the government has supported and armed. Poland, as a friendly neighbor with a secure border can provide a safe haven for Ukrainian partisans fighting against Russian occupation, while fighters and supplies move back and forth hidden in the cross flow of refugees and aid that are the likely result of fighting in cities across the country. 

Holding It All Together

The costs in time and materiel could show Putin’s bold rebellious gambit to be a colossal blunder. The longer the fighting drags on, the more the people of Russia will question the prudence of the decision to invade after being repeatedly told that there were no plans to do so as Russia had no reason to. As the international community continues to pile sanctions on Russia’s brittle economy, popular support, or apathy, to the invasion will turn to outrage against the regime. Political opposition in Russia has a long record of failing to garner meaningful support or challenging the power of the central regime, but this is due in no small part to Putin’s prudent avoidance of pushing the Russian people too far and avoiding direct accountability for blunders in the domestic press while simultaneously painting attacks in the global media as anti-Russian propaganda that only he is strong enough to stand up to.

Now he’s proven the foreign “propagandists” right while leaving his own domestic state media stuck performing rhetorical backflips to justify his actions to a population whose young men were just sent to fight and die in a war that until recently they were told didn’t need to be fought. It’s too soon to tell what repercussions this may have, but it does mark a fundamental break from the playbook that has kept Putin in power for so long. Even among the most staunch, nationalistic hawks in Russia’s establishment the potential loss of a significant chunk of its most capable military hardware and units could begin to lead to doubts about the wisdom of this campaign and the leader that brought them to it. 

Russia already struggles with maintaining its military while pursuing limited modernization programs, and equipment lost cannot be easily replaced domestically or purchased abroad. As with many authoritarian regimes, the Russian military is as much of an employment program for young men as it is a tool of power, and an outsized portion of what is capable of fighting is now at risk in Ukraine. The economic sanctions will only make this worse. A slow, costly takeover of Ukraine followed by a bloody insurgency could leave Putin facing a restless population and a chorus of insiders indicating it’s time to cut losses with little to show for his efforts. Obviously, Putin believes otherwise, and maybe he and his advisors are justified in a certain amount of confidence given their success in Crimea and Donbas in 2014, in Georgia in 2008, and their recent expeditions to support Assad in Syria. Seizing and subduing all of Ukraine is a fundamentally different problem though, and wars never go as planned. 

Europe’s Awakening

Putin has seemingly decided to risk it all by starting a war in Europe he believes he can contain and control. In one sense he appears to be right, as no nation has rushed to send its own troops to protect Ukraine and powerful nations that could help, such as the United States, have made it clear that they will not put their own soldiers in harm’s way or risk getting into a shooting war with a nuclear power. But the ramifications of engaging in an imperial conquest on the European continent is a break from international norms drastic enough to lead to a restructuring of the security architecture of Europe in a way that permanently blocks any attempt at further Russian expansion while leaving them cut off economically and diplomatically for generations. 

The feverish attempts at shuttle diplomacy undertaken by leaders such as France’s Emmanuel Macron is evidence of a newly felt agency among European leaders following Brexit and the election of Donald Trump and his “America First” policies. 

Russia’s invasion is likely to accelerate the European Union’s desire to create a European military separate from NATO and American sponsorship, while the willingness of German Chancellor Olaf Shultz to halt and potentially permanently scuttle the Nord Stream 2 pipeline indicates a willingness by European leaders to bear the costs of increased domestic energy prices in a world where Russia has become an unreliable, destabilizing actor on the continent. Poland is certain to rush military units to its border with Ukraine for its own security and to deal with an ever-increasing flow of refugees while accelerating projects to move its permanent military bases from its western borders facing Germany, where they were established during the cold war under Russian guidance, to the East to fend off the same Russia. 

Past as Prologue 

If Ukraine is conquered and subdued in a timeframe and at a cost the Russian people can stomach, Putin may still find himself in a worse security position than before. In reaching for empire, he may cripple his country and hollow out the nation he seeks to promote.  In 1979 Soviet troops invaded Afghanistan in an attempt to expand and protect the interests of the Soviet Union and hold back a perceived threat of encroachment by western outsiders, only to retreat in disgrace years later after draining the Soviet Union of military power, economic resources, and political credibility at home and abroad it could ill afford to lose, contributing to its downfall. The march into Ukraine may prove to be a path to a similar fate for Putin’s Russia. 

In success or failure though, Putin’s rebellion against the arc of history which was destined to end in neo-liberal globalization has damaged the credibility of the neo-liberal world view and its utility as a guide to geo-politics, potentially beyond repair. Adherents to the orthodoxy may claim that this is a temporary aberration, overhyped in the news cycle of the day as we observe this temporary, and relatively small wrinkle in the modern flow of international relations. Perhaps they are right, and this is the last gasp of a dying, power driven ideological approach to geo-politics that has stubbornly held on at the periphery long after it was viable. But that gasp will include the cries of the Ukrainian people and the creeks of a brittle world order struggling to stand against collapse. 

It seems more likely that the time after WWII, and the seemingly universal acceptance of western ideas of government and human rights that proliferated after the Cold War will be remembered as a temporary feature of the international system that is moving away from American dominated liberal hegemony and back to balance of power politics. Putin’s rebellion may eventually be contained and put down, but its impact on the world is here to stay. 

Putin’s Gambit

How Ukraine’s Struggle for Sovereignty Exposes Cracks in the Western Dominated World Order

By Brian Taptick

As those living in the Western world sleep peacefully at night, the stability of the post-World War II international system sits in the hands of the Ukrainian soldiers guarding the trenches in the eastern Ukrainian region of the Donbas, who face Russian backed separatists and await a possible Russian invasion. Ukraine, a young democracy that seeks closer ties to the West through potential membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the European Union (EU), is being held hostage as Vladimir Putin attempts to show the world that Russia is the geopolitical power that he dreams it to be. Many in the United States question why the US and its allies should care about the fate of Ukraine, a former Soviet Republic that is far away and has struggled throughout history to maintain its own sovereignty. Today, Ukraine stands as a young democracy of 30 years, that has struggled with corruption within its own government and manipulation from its Russian neighbor but is being threatened with annihilation by the Kremlin for becoming a better nation for its people, and a more involved member of the international community.

Putin’s “Policy”

Throughout his reign at the head of the Russian government, President Putin has attempted to undermine the norms and values of the current world order to advance his own imperialistic ambitions. To avoid provoking a strong reaction from the West, Russia’s aggressiveness towards its neighbors that do not obey the wishes of the Kremlin are carried out with unconventional and subversive measures to undermine the stability of countries on Russia’s periphery. These include cyber-attacks and disinformation campaigns that the world has grown too accustomed to in the news. Sometimes Russia finds a reason to justify the use of military force outside of its borders to achieve its goals.

Similar to China’s “One China” policy, Vladimir Putin has his own policy known as the “Russian World”, which he uses in the name of protecting ethnic Russians wherever they may be. Lucky for Putin, the countries on his borders have sizable groups of Russian minorities, so the Kremlin fabricates abuses against Russians at the hands of foreign governments to justify intervention. The result is the creation of and support for separatist movements that create long-term destabilization. Russia currently supports separatist regions in Transnistria (Moldova), South Ossetia and Abkhazia (Georgia), the Donbas and the illegal annexation of the Crimean Peninsula (Ukraine).

Most relevant in the news today is the continued crisis on the borders of Ukraine, where Russia has amassed nearly 100,000 troops, and reports believe an invasion could happen as early as this month.[1] Winter does not sound like an ideal time to invade, but the frozen ground offers a hard surface for a quick advance across the country, while the soft fertile soil of Ukraine can slow troops movements in warmer weather, and muddy conditions during warmer times can make some areas impassable. The Russian Federation is now moving troops into Belarus for military exercises in February.[2] This places the Russian Armed Forces on the entirety of Ukraine’s northern, eastern and southern territorial boundaries, including inside of Crimea and along the Black Sea, until Ukraine’s border touches Moldovan controlled territory outside of Transnistria.

The Struggles of Trying to be a Good Neighbor

Ukraine, the second largest country in Europe, is one of the major breadbaskets of the world with some of the richest soil on the planet and is strategically situated along the northern coast of the Black Sea. At the time of the collapse of the Soviet Union, Ukraine was the host of a sizable amount of the Soviet nuclear arsenal that would have made them the third largest nuclear power at that time. In exchange for security assurances to guarantee its territorial integrity, which includes the Crimean Peninsula, Ukraine signed the Budapest Memorandum in 1994 and sent its arsenal to Russia. This agreement was supported by the United States as it attempted to mend a relationship with the new Russian Federation, feeling it is better to keep the most powerful weapons in the world with the nation the United States was already accustomed to negotiated with. Without nuclear deterrence, Ukraine could only rely on the Budapest Memorandum and the international system it was now a part of the guarantee its future.

Almost 20 years later, in November of 2013 Ukraine was on the verge of signing a trade agreement with the EU that would have brought closer economic ties and laid the groundwork for potential EU membership. Putin was not going to allow Ukraine to move closer to the West and strong-armed President Viktor Yanukovych to back out of the agreement. The response from the Ukrainian people was resolute. Protests now known as the Euro-Maiden erupted as the people displayed their frustration with government corruption, and what they viewed as a denial of a better future. As the government attempted to violently break up the protests, they were met by a determined and united population that was ready for its government to serve the people. When the masses did not accept a government proposal of new presidential elections in October of 2014, Yanukovych fled to Russia in the middle of the night. Without his puppet at the head of the Ukrainian government, Putin seized on the moment of instability.

The Russian Bear Leaves the Cave

Putin moved his forces quickly and illegally annexed The Crimea, a strategically important peninsula that has long been home to Russia’s Black Sea Fleet at the naval base in Sevastopol. Soldiers in unmarked uniforms, now referred to as “little green men”, began to appear and forcefully took control of military basis, key terrain, and critical infrastructure. These of course turned out to be Russian operatives sent to take control from within, allowing Putin to avoid open invasion. Many Ukrainian soldiers attempted to maintain control of their bases awaiting instructions that would never come, as the government in Kyiv was frozen in the chaos. Soon Russian forces began to flood into Crimea as Putin claimed he was looking to protect the Russian population, and that Russian troops would only stay until order was restored. With the peninsula firmly under the control of Russian forces, a referendum was held to allow the people to vote if they would prefer to succeed from Ukraine to join the Russian Federation. Unsurprisingly, the illegal vote that was entirely controlled by Russia showed that 95% of the people chose to become part of the Russian Federation.[3] The West only stood by and condemned the illegal actions by the Russian Federation.

Additionally, a Russian backed separatist movement sprung up in eastern Ukraine. With an inexperienced military frozen in the confusion, the separatists moved as far west as Kramatorsk and Slovyansk before being pushed back by Ukrainian civilian volunteer forces. Separatists also overran the regional administrative building in Kharkiv, the second largest city in Ukraine, and briefly raised the Russian flag before they were repelled by the Security Service of Ukraine (SSU or SBU). The Ukrainian military and civilian volunteer forces were able to push back the separatist fighters to the current Line of Contact (LOC) established in the two separate Minsk Agreements, stretching from Mariupol on the Sea of Azov, up through Donetsk and then circling back through Luhansk to the Russian border. The people along this line live in a permanent state of purgatory. As people go to work tend to their garden, kids go to school or play outside with their friends, they do so with the fear of protentional small arms or mortar fire nearby. Mines are another significant issue that threaten the course of everyday life, with no hope for a resolution to the conflict. Today, this area in the frozen conflict in eastern Ukraine is where a spark awaits that could ignite the flames of war.

The Friendship of Nations Arch overlooking the Dnieper River. Meant to represent the friendship and brotherhood between the people of Ukraine, Russia and Belarus. Ukrainians have painted a crack into the arch, signifying the break in that trust and relationship. Photo taken by author.

The Western Playbook Hasn’t Worked

As much as Putin is against the current international order that attempts to control his aggressive ambitions, he approaches each scenario in a way that allows him to only draw condemnation from the West, but no true repercussions for his actions. No matter how many sanctions are placed on Russia and Russian officials, they continue the same actions. French President Emmanuel Macron has openly stated that the West must state clear red lines and enforce them.[4] Past failures at enforcing red lines, such as the failure to act on President Obama’s red line in Syria, may have given Putin the confidence he needed to believe he could pull off his land grab of the Crimean Peninsula without much interruption. The US and its European allies are attempting a diplomatic approach to resolve the tensions and prevent a Russian invasion, but the West has not been accepting of Russia’s demands. If Putin is determined to go forward with an invasion of Ukraine, he will most likely fabricate a crisis that justifies Russian intervention, while causes Western powers to hesitate. Unfortunately, that action may already be in motion. Ukraine was hit by a massive cyber-attack on January 14th, and news outlets are reporting that US intelligence is showing Russia is planning a black-flag operation create their own justification for an invasion of Ukraine.[5]

The world stands on edge as the longest period of peace in Europe’s history hangs in the balance. The Ukrainian people want to and deserve to live in peace. It is up to the United States and its allies to ensure that Ukraine is not left alone to fend off its aggressive neighbor, and hold tight the principles of the current world order that have allowed for continuous advances of international cooperation and development, making the world a safer place.

Brian Taptick is a Civil Affairs Captain in the United States Army with a regional focus on European affairs and has served in Ukraine. He graduated from The Citadel in Charleston, SC with a BA in International Politics and Military Affairs and is currently pursuing an MA in International Relations from American University in Washington, DC.


[1] https://www.reuters.com/world/europe/ukraine-says-russia-has-nearly-100000-troops-near-its-border-2021-11-13/

[2] https://www.nbcnews.com/news/world/russia-moves-troops-belarus-joint-drills-ukraine-invasion-fears-rcna12533

[3] https://www.cbsnews.com/news/crimeans-vote-overwhelmingly-to-secede-from-ukraine-join-russia/

[4] https://www.usnews.com/news/world/articles/2021-04-18/frances-macron-says-clear-red-lines-should-be-drawn-with-russia-cbs

[5] https://www.politico.com/news/2022/01/14/us-intel-russia-false-flag-operation-527112

Why America Is Everywhere In The World

American interests are represented everywhere in the world, and the American public doesn’t seem convinced that the cost of this sometimes burdensome luxury is worth the price. After going trillions of dollars into debt and losing thousands of servicemembers to win the war on terror only to find itself abandoning Afghanistan and struggling to fight off a pandemic imported from its largest trading partner, it doesn’t take a lot of imagination to appreciate why former President Trump’s “America First” foreign policy resonated with so much of the American public.

No matter what the global headlines are, we can be sure that the story that follows will discuss how America either caused, or will be impacted by, the subject of the headline. Some of this makes inherent sense, after all we live in a globalized world and America still has the world’s largest economy by a substantial margin. More than that though, America has actively sought to expand its influence and physical presence around the world and voluntarily become the de facto guarantor of much of the security, diplomatic, and financial infrastructure that enables the modern world. The story of how America rose to this position by capitalizing on its economic and military might after WWII and eventually besting the USSR in the cold war is well known.

However, the why behind the decision to accept the risk of becoming involved in an infinite number of distant matters large and small is often glossed over. From the founding of our nation American neutrality and a pervasive avoidance of becoming overly involved in what President Washington referred to as “foreign entanglements” was the widely accepted and unquestioned bedrock of our foreign policy. Now we have become what Secretary of State Albright repeatedly described as the world’s “indispensable nation”, constantly engaged by necessity around the world. So what happened? The turning point came during World War I under the tutelage of President Woodrow Wilson.

From Neutrality to Engagement

Woodrow Wilson’s tenure as president presided over one of the most consequential reformulations of what constituted American national security in U.S. history. The far-reaching nature of the war amongst European powers imposed significant costs on every global power, including the U.S., challenging traditional notions of neutrality in the international system. It also led to a reformulation of the role of the federal government in ensuring national security before, during, and after a conflict and a corresponding expansion of the resources granted by congress to the executive branch to fill those roles. Additionally, it changed perceptions about the effect the domestic politics of foreign nations could have on the international system and America. Although Woodrow Wilson’s ambitious plan to have America join the League of Nations failed, the ideas that led him to advocate for such a move did successfully permeate the national security establishment in the interwar years and cemented the shift from global neutrality to persistent engagement as the new basis for American national security.

More Money, More Problems

Following the rapid expansion of domestic production and international trade during the industrial revolution and gilded age, the war that broke out in Europe in 1914 touched the American homeland in new and unavoidable ways. Traditional foreign policy thinking at this time held that maintaining the status of a neutral power, with well-established rights under international law, allowed the U.S. to honorably avoid getting drawn into armed conflict while benefiting financially from trading with all sides. However, the scale of the war in Europe, relying on the mass mobilization of entire populations and drawing resources from the entirety of the industrial bases of its participants challenged the notion that nations could interact “neutrally” with warring powers.

This caused Germany to consider targeting American merchant ships carrying all manner of goods as legitimate and necessary to the conduct of their war effort. The notion that a polite separation from a nation’s current martial endeavors and its daily commerce could be maintained was shattered. To trade with a warring nation had become the same as siding with it in its conflict with another as a practical matter, despite what diplomatic overtures may accompany such trade. This ensured America would bear significant costs not only in spite of, but because of its declared neutrality. After the war, this led to “the central foreign relations problem that consumed Americans across the political spectrum during the interwar years, namely how the old fail-safe strategy of neutrality should be redefined in an age of total warfare”. [1]

The response to this changing global landscape led to structural changes in the power of the executive branch and shape of the American national security apparatus. This structural change was symptomatic to the broader acceptance that the international system, and the utility of the laws that underpinned it and supported the otherwise questionable utility of pursuing neutrality as an effective strategy, had gone through a fundamental and irreversible change. This shift in post-World War I American policy has often been derided by historians as isolationist, but it is better understood as an attempt to find a way to apply the old principle of neutrality to a changing world.[2]

Woodrow Wilson was able to use the realization of this change and how it would affect national security to argue for the expansion of active navy and reserve army forces to ensure America could protect its interests and have a legitimate voice in global affairs and was able to convince congress to authorize the funds to support both proposals. This authorization was provided by the same congress that later failed to ratify the treaty which would have brought the United States into the League of Nations. This indicates that while America still had deep reservations about becoming overly involved in, or responsible for, the affairs of other nations it recognized that it did need to retool itself and adapt to a changing environment.

So, What’s the New Plan?

The debate surrounding the efficacy of neutrality as a way to protect America’s national security led to a shift in understanding about America’s role in the world. Woodrow Wilson viewed America as the one country that could credibility mediate the conflict and create a “peace without victory”. He viewed this as necessary to prevent the war ending without leaving the victors with a false sense of confidence in their own power and legitimacy which would spur them to new martial endeavors, while also avoiding leaving those who lost with deep seated grievances that would spur them to seek their own revenge. He was concerned with the security dilemma created in an anarchic system where each country had to view each other country as a potential threat to its sovereignty, and as such maximize its domestic preparedness for war as a deterrent against aggression and an assurance of survival, creating two issues which threatened America.[3]

The first was that the persistent need of great powers to create enough military power to ensure security from aggressive neighbors would itself create a reciprocating effect in neighbors. This would increase the likelihood of a war being started, and the nature of the scale of modern warfare given the industrial and population capacity of large states meant it would invariably impose costs on America. Wilson’s conclusion was that some type of global governing body was necessary to manage relationships and deter armed aggression between states. Without it, the nature of great power politics and the wars that resulted would not change and would lead to greater cycles of destruction. This became a key concept behind his argument for the necessity of the League of Nations.[4]

The second was that a rise of militarism inside the United States would destroy America’s national identity by creating a reliance on conformity, subservience to the group and concentrating meaningful power in the hand of military professionals predisposed to use it to justify its necessity. The changing nature of warfare among powers, would make it increasingly difficult and less efficacious for America to avoid involvement and would necessitate such a military to ensure its own survival. However, the very presence of such a large, standing military would threaten the civic norms that underpinned American democracy and potentially lead to its downfall from within.[5] To avoid this the idea developed that America had to be proactive in the world and attempt to shape global politics to reduce the likelihood of great power war.[6]

Time to Call the Boys in For a Sit Down

Wilson saw the League of Nations as the mechanism for America to do this. Although the Senate ultimately failed to ratify joining the league, this should not be seen as a sign that America rejected the idea that the nature of war and geopolitics had fundamentally shifted, and America needed to adjust its national security strategy and international posture in response. Evidence of this can be seen in the anti-bolshevist sentiment that grew after the war and became ensconced in the State Department. After the war it was determined that America needed a professional cadre of diplomats trained in diplomacy and statecraft to man diplomatic missions abroad, leading to a reorganization of the State Department and the creation of a permanent Foreign Service School. This was a result of a campaign by State Department officials, outside academics, and approval of funds for the project by congress, indicating broad acceptance of the notion America needed to be more fully engaged abroad.[7]

One of the key features of this larger, more professional Foreign Service was a strong anti-bolshevic sentiment. There was broad agreement that the rise of Bolshevik communism, especially the international committee dedicated to its expansion following the revolution in Russia was a threat to America at home and to its commerce abroad. There were fears that the spread of bolshevism would cause America to lose access to lucrative trading partners and that it might irreversibly degrade American identity at home, leading to the collapse of our civic institutions. America became concerned with any sign that bolshevism was taking hold in countries going through political turmoil domestically, particularly in Latin and South America.[8] This represented a change from previous approaches to dealing with countries in America’s perceived sphere of influence, where the specific nature of their domestic political system, and not only their ability to productively engage in commerce and resist European control, became key to how America engaged with them.

The Genie is Out of the Bottle

America’s experience in World War I led to a fundamental shift in how it perceived its national security interests and how to pursue them. Woodrow Wilson envisioned America as uniquely situated to guide world affairs among great powers and create the institutional framework needed to attempt and rein in the anarchic nature of the international system. Although America ultimately rejected the full measure of his ambition at the time, it did accept the idea that America had to fully engage in world affairs and had a vested interest in the internal affairs of other countries. The idea of neutrality as the preferred national security doctrine had been thoroughly discounted, and the debate over the structure and substance of America’s newfound approach to engagement began in earnest. America must now revisit this debate as it seeks to chart a course through the 21st century and preserve the national character it finds under threat from abroad and within.


[1] Blower. Brooke L. “From Isolationism to Neutrality: A New Framework for Understanding American Political Culture, 1919-1941.” Diplomatic History 38:2 (April 2014): 345

[2] Blower. Brooke L. “From Isolationism to Neutrality: A New Framework for Understanding American Political Culture, 1919-1941.” Diplomatic History 38:2 (April 2014): 352

[3] Kennedy, Ross. “Woodrow Wilson, World War I, and an American Conception of National Security,” Diplomatic History 25:1 (Winter 2001): 8-9

[4] Kennedy, Ross. “Woodrow Wilson, World War I, and an American Conception of National Security,” Diplomatic History 25:1 (Winter 2001): 30

[5] Kennedy, Ross. “Woodrow Wilson, World War I, and an American Conception of National Security,” Diplomatic History 25:1 (Winter 2001): 3

[6] Kennedy, Ross. “Woodrow Wilson, World War I, and an American Conception of National Security,” Diplomatic History 25:1 (Winter 2001): 31

[7] Little, Douglas. “Antibolshevism and American Foreign Policy, 1919-1939: The Diplomacy of Self-Delusion.” American Quarterly 35:4 (Autumn 1983): 379-80.

[8][8] Little, Douglas. “Antibolshevism and American Foreign Policy, 1919-1939: The Diplomacy of Self-Delusion.” American Quarterly 35:4 (Autumn 1983): 380

The Border Crisis Is Just The Beginning

The weaponization of human tragedy  

Russia is trying to expand its sphere of influence and recreate the geographic buffers it has viewed as critical to its national security since the days of the Tzars. Their efforts can be seen in how Belarus, one of their few remaining vassal states, has gotten creative in how it seeks to influence the actions of its neighbors by precipitating a migrant crisis on its border with Poland. While the impacts of this crisis continue to send shockwaves through eastern and central Europe Russia is simultaneously laying the groundwork for further military intervention in Ukraine. Although Russia’s attempts to re-establish control over the countries that have traditionally fallen under its sphere of influence has been a persistent feature of world affairs since the end of the Soviet Union, an inability to prevent a more aggressive territorial grab would represent a fundamental change in the post WWII world order and threaten the territorial integrity of other vulnerable states. Russia is using its ally Belarus as a tool in its hybrid war with the west, betting on western apathy and preoccupation with domestic matters to create an opportune moment to seize Kiev.

         The Tragedy 

Belarus’s efforts to weaponize the plight of migrants has led to thousands of refugees becoming trapped between the border of Poland and Belarus. Armed Belarus soldiers have been corralling refugees towards the border, firing shots into the air to move them along while security forces in Poland do everything they can to keep the refugees from getting through and claiming asylum in the European Union (EU). The EU has accused Belarus of deliberately orchestrating the crisis as a part of a hybrid war designed to punish the EU for sanctions imposed on Belarus in June in response to the forced landing of a Ryanair flight in Minsky on 23 May 2021, the detention of journalists Raman Pratasevich and Sofia Sapega, and other human rights abuses. Belarus denies the accusations.

The majority of the migrants come from Iraq, Syria, and Yemen, seeking to move overland to Poland after flying to Minsk. Although many are males, they include numerous families and small children that lack food, shelter, basic hygiene supplies and access to medical care. Belarus has recently relaxed its visa protocols to 76 countries allowing easier entry, and its state air carrier Belavia has increased the number of flights to Istanbul, a popular lay point for migrants seeking to get to Europe. Its soldiers have been videotaped leading migrants to the border with Poland to remote points away from main crossings, and the migrants themselves report that Belarus soldiers have cut holes in the border fence to let them into Poland. This type of low intensity, “hybrid” approach to imposing costs on states without crossing the threshold of war as a way to influence behavior is reminiscent of Russia’s recent actions in Ukraine, leading experts to speculate Russia is backing the effort and for world leaders to call on Vladimir Putin to use his influence to restrain Belarus’s President Alexander Lukashenko. However, Putin himself is currently setting the stage to potentially destabilize the region and expand his control.

 The Long Game

Over 100,000 Russian troops have recently massed at the border with Ukraine and in the Russian occupied territories, along with the associated heavy weapons and logistical support necessary to launch an invasion. Both U.S. and Ukrainian intelligence estimates indicate that Russia could be preparing to launch an invasion as soon as January, with Ukraine believing the size of Russia’s force could make them capable of seizing their capital, Kiev. Ukraine is using this to ask for increased military, intelligence, and diplomatic support. Russia massed a similar number of troops at the border for their Zapad 21 military exercise earlier this year, demonstrating they had the logistical support and coordination to undertake such an invasion.

An invasion of Ukraine would likely be a short term domestic political boon for Putin, demonstrating Russian state strength and distracting from economic and covid 19 exacerbated health concerns at home while completing the campaign they launched seven years ago. The pandemic driven political turmoil embroiling several European states may also effectively hinder the EU’s or NATOs ability to credibly respond to an invasion. Additionally, the U.S. appears wary of getting directly involved in a new war after ending its campaign in Afghanistan and has been cautious to avoid getting directly involved in the ongoing conflict with Russian forces in western Ukraine, even as they expanded military aid to the government in Kiev. It’s likely Putin himself hasn’t decided if he will invade or not, and is waiting to gage the western response to his actions and events such as the border crisis before determining if now is the time to attack.

Responding to an invasion would be difficult for the U.S.. Ukraine is not a NATO member, an invasion of which would require a U.S. response in order to maintain the alliance’s credibility. However, a Russian takeover would pose a threat to the territorial integrity and political sovereignty of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia which are NATO members by consolidating Russia’s control in the region. A successful invasion may embolden Russia to engage in hybrid warfare to destabilize the governments of those countries to prompt a pretense of intervention, either directly by Russia or through Belarus as a proxy while handing a disinterested west the political cover needed to claim that article 5 of the NATO charter had not been triggered.

 The Response

To avoid this, every effort should be made to deter an invasion, beginning with further expanding U.S. military aid to Ukraine. Additionally European countries can expand their military presence in Ukraine and conduct joint military exercises to signal their ability and willingness to project power despite current unrest at home. This would be a difficult and potentially costly use of limited resources at a time of economic and political fragility, but the costs of failing at deterrence would be catastrophic for the whole continent. Finally, European countries must continue to diversify their energy infrastructure to reduce their reliance on Russian oil and gas and increase their freedom to confront Russia without fear of the potential repercussions.

The weaponization of the migrant crisis to try and exert influence over a neighboring state is troubling, but not unprecedented in the world of geopolitics. Its use as a potential shaping operation for military action by another state though represents an evolution in the Russian approach to hybrid warfare, a technique that they have already used to great effect and that the west continues to struggle with identifying and responding to. Political instability and crises have always been used as opportunities for expansion by nations seeking to grow their power and prestige, but the consequences of failing to act assertively and early enough will have repercussions far beyond the borders of the territory Russia is eyeing to conquer. 

McMaster Misses the Mark

The problem with conflating citizens and warriors

by Benjamin Lawless

In a recent National Review column, H. R. McMaster laments the decline of the United States (U.S.) Military’s warrior ethos. He uses the U.S. Army’s warrior ethos as an example. Soldiers are mission focused, never accept defeat, never quit, and never leave a fallen comrade. Someone as militarily experienced as McMaster likely knows something about how the U.S. military develops a warrior ethos in its troops, yet he hijacks Veteran’s Day to lay the blame for the ethos’ decline at the feet of the American public and civilian leaders stating the public needs to do its part to restore this ethos. This is where he goes astray. Cultivating a warrior ethos is not the American public’s job. It’s not Congress’ job. It is the military’s job. The whole purpose of the military’s services is to man, train, and equip a warrior force and ideally inculcate it with a warrior ethos. However, McMaster chooses to cross the Rubicon of the Civil-Military divide and instruct the public on how to better serve the military so that the military might strengthen its own ethos.

After raising the alarm, he rambles through several causes of this decline. He states that flawed military strategies and policies sap the individual servicemember’s will to fight. But is that really true? Twenty years of failure and missteps in Afghanistan noted at the tactical, operational, and strategic level were brought to the attention of Congress, the Public, and the Department of Defense and State, yet warriors kept warfighting. Recently, General Milley testified to Congress that he personally thought the war was unwinnable about five years ago (thanks for letting America know… NOW). Yet a generation of troops went forward to faithfully execute their given mission without Milley’s foreknowledge or the public’s misunderstanding of what was being accomplished in Afghanistan. They went forward under the command and senior leadership of McMaster and others. This is a testimony to the Warrior Ethos of a professional military force. Additionally, the Army is still meeting recruiting goals and seeing historic increases of women and minority recruits. 50% of America’s youth understand and know about military service as an optional career. This doesn’t sound like a public or army disillusioned with serving or refusing to serve.

How Our Nation Understands Our “Warriors”

H.R. claims that Americans do not understand the warrior ethos because less than 1% of the country is serving at any given time. This is a misleading argument. According to the US Census Bureau, as of 2018, 7% of Americans have served in the armed forces spanning from WWII to present day. It’s roughly 8% of the public if you count the active and reserve force currently serving. Although the active force at any given time is less than 1% of the population, that number does not include the millions of supporting personnel in public and private industry who are very familiar with the military’s mission and warrior ethos. This nucleus of veterans, active duty servicemembers, and civilians associated with the military does a pretty good job shaping and influencing the American public’s understanding of war and warriors.

Although individual understanding of the military and its ethos may be cursory writ large, Americans overwhelmingly support their military. According to Gallup 69% of Americans have confidence in the military. Americans may not be looking in the mirror every morning and reciting the Warrior Ethos but they likely understand wars are fought to defend America, warriors do war stuff, and they don’t mind paying taxes to support national defense. Rudimentary descriptions of military missions are common among the American public. After all, most Americans aren’t attending military schools in high school, west point for college, or earning PhDs in American History en masse. They aren’t reading Clausewitz in their spare time or losing sleep over the degradation of a warrior ethos and nor should they.

McMaster also seems to lack confidence in the U.S. Military’s ability to educate senior leadership or the public on what it does. Yet the Department of Defense and military services have robust public relations departments that do educate the public and senior government officials alike on the military’s mission, accomplishments, and warrior ethos. He also neglects to tell the reader that there is an extensive representation of the military in congressional liaison offices, academia, local recruiting stations, veteran organizations, bases in local communities, and a highly visible presence around the globe.

The Warrior Ethos in Popular Culture

Contrary to McMaster’s opinion, popular culture does not water down the warrior ethos. To be sure there are stories of broken veterans and warriors (a testimony to seen and unseen wounds from our recent conflicts) but there are also stories of people giving the last measure, breaking down barriers to serve, protecting innocent people, and generally reflecting the courage, strength, and spirit of a classical warrior. Elements of the warrior ethos are seen in our junior, amateur, and professional sports and competitions like American Ninja Warrior. American TV shows are largely based on simple formulas like response to crisis, overcoming challenges, or competing to be the “top” something. Never mind the millions of Americans who gain some basic idea of a warrior ethos following their favorite superhero franchise. Also, Americans seemingly can’t stop calling themselves “heroes.” Although the term is degraded when it describes every person in the country, it is probably our country’s most consistent Freudian slip. Americans want to be heroic, and self-appointed heroes have an innate warrior ethos. I would submit that this culture actually supports military recruiting and strengthens acceptance of and adherence to the U.S. military’s warrior ethos.

After targeting pop culture, he shifts to education by roughly making the point that Critical Race Theory (CRT) is bad and Americans don’t have a firm enough grasp on military history, national history or diplomacy to understand war and warriors. He warns of a CRT based, racially divided military undermining the mission and will of servicemembers to fight and follow orders. However, he seems to forget that he is in civilian territory now. The military will get whoever is recruited into the military. It may be that a divisive citizenry with new social roots established in CRT becomes the norm of American culture. However, the onus is on the military to establish a warrior ethos with the raw product of American citizenry that joins its ranks via a recruiter’s monthly quota. The fact that he doesn’t like the raw material provided is irrelevant, it simply means the military will have to find a way to instill a warrior ethos in its volunteers and fight wars. 

Continuing this thread he advocates for the general public, academic institutions, and public leaders to better understand wars and warriors through the study of military history, American history, and diplomacy. While depth of this knowledge would better inform the American public’s understanding of war and warrior culture, it does not automatically lead to the establishment of a warrior ethos in the military. Public leaders who are educated at the level McMaster deems acceptable for informed military and diplomatic decisions are not required to align their decisions with his opinions. If leaders choose not to fight a war and Congress or the President ends a military conflict against military advice, then it’s the military’s job to withdraw despite any perceived violation of its warrior ethos. Likewise, it is within America’s right to reject the military’s ethos and not place the mission first, to accept defeat, to quit, and to leave fallen comrades behind. Ignoble? Perhaps. But within its right. It’s the servicemember’s job to understand that their warrior ethos is intact despite an anti-ethos political decision.

A Man At Odds With The Times

Finally, H.R. attacks modernity. He warns that America’s public leaders, citizens, and military are enamored with technology so they can circumvent the horrors of close combat. Here he masks his own knowledge of war. Technology can lull people into a sense of security and might cause some to posit the end of close combat, but it also increases the time, space, and lethality of forces who must engage in close combat. Again, it’s not the American public’s job to master the nuances of fifth, sixth, or seventh generation warfare or the intricacies of warfare. They expect their elected leaders and the military to know those things. After all, aren’t our military leaders commissioned with special trust and confidence to determine these things? Shouldn’t Americans reasonably expect our military leaders to modernize the warrior ethos as warriors fight wars in different ways? Modernity is a benefit to warfare and it is inevitable. America fought a counter-insurgency in Vietnam for about eleven years and we lost approximately 58,000 Americans. We lost 10% of that in twenty years of war across two theaters of conflict during the Global War on Terror. We will remember all of those Americans on Veterans Day, but if it wasn’t for modern technology, we might be remembering a heck of a lot more who didn’t make it back to their families.

McMaster exhibits all the earmarks of a conservative realist who rightly wishes to preserve a warrior ethos he dedicated so many years of his life to. He also seems to embody the old man yelling at kids to get off the lawn. He makes a common-sense observation that a unified public, highly educated in national and military history and diplomacy, have a better understanding of what they represent when they join the military. He commands the respect of the reader because of his military career and education. But he’s a scold demanding the tail wag the dog. Perhaps he’s been in public service so long that he is completely disconnected from the average American.

Americans are a culturally indulgent, individualistic, egalitarian, and proud people who see little separation between themselves and civil or military leaders. In contrast, the military is an extremely authoritarian and hierarchical system in which most Americans will serve for practical or patriotic reasons knowingly accepting limitations of their freedom to serve the nation. It’s an organization that requires one person to acknowledge another person by title with respect, despite their merits, on threat of punishment.

This is counterintuitive to Americans. It’s not counterintuitive to McMaster. The 99 % of Americans not serving right now shouldn’t be expected by less than 1% to embrace and maintain a warrior ethos so that the 1% can magically feel or become more warrior like. Preserving the warrior ethos is squarely the military’s job. If it can’t do that despite being the most supported institution and the best funded institution in America, then maybe it’s time to replace military leadership with leaders that can.  Americans may be culturally warlike (in a rebellious sort of way) but they are not the maintainers of the military service’s warrior ethos. It is not their job to restore it.

Warriors and Citizens

When Veterans toast their fallen comrades this month, they should do so knowing they went forward at the bidding of America’s civilian leaders with an ethos crafted by the military to execute their presidential and congressionally mandated mission. By doing so they exhibited the warrior ethos. They inherently know that holidays like Veterans Day and Fourth of July inherently infer pride in our warriors and warriors’ ethos as well as the nation’s commitment to freedom and liberty. As do each service’s birthday celebrations. Veterans know that they experienced the warrior ethos and our active-duty members know they are the true keepers and maintainers of it. They should never blame the society they defend for diminishing that ethos or charge it with restoring the ethos. Nor should the American public be conned into becoming the “restorer of the warrior ethos.” Americans may like to think of themselves as Spartans, but at heart we are Athenians. Veteran’s day is upon us. It’s time to raise a glass to our fallen and thank those that carry forward the warrior ethos. May God bless those who gave all, some, and those who will do so in the future. Thank you for your service.

Benjamin Lawless, a retired United States Marine Officer, is a graduate student at American University studying U.S. Foreign Policy

Afghanistan Was Not Vietnam 2.0 and It Requires Its Own Lessons

A Veteran’s Perspective

Watching Afghanistan fall to the Taliban was hard. On September 11th, 2001 I was sitting in Algebra class when school halted, the building went quiet, and one of our teachers rolled in a TV so we could watch the news. Seven months ago, I finished my tour of duty in Afghanistan, where as a captain in special forces I alternated between packing up equipment to ship home as part of the draw down, and responding to nightly crises across the provinces my company was responsible for. These past few weeks my colleagues and I watched in real time as one province after another fell, seeing reports in the news and getting frantic messages from Afghan allies who were being targeted by the Taliban for execution for helping us. We weren’t particularly shocked by what we were seeing, we all sensed what was likely to happen after our troops finally left while hoping for something different. As a group we took pride in knowing we had at least done the job we had been given competently and professionally, and everyone we brought overseas with us returned home. That small comfort lasted until a few weeks ago, when one of our soldiers lost a fight with demons we didn’t know he was wrestling with and took his own life.

Our withdrawal from Afghanistan and its aftermath has already drawn comparisons to the Vietnam War, and how the end of that conflict affected our public, our global standing and image, and our veterans. However, there are some key differences for the people who served in Afghanistan. We were all volunteers, who for the most part saw service in Afghanistan as the culmination of years of personal and professional work. Some of us spent most of our young adult lives there, and despite being intimately familiar with the country’s challenges, enthusiastically toiled and sacrificed along with our families on our own small piece of the war. As infuriating as our struggles sometimes were, there was hope that there were cooler heads above us who saw the big picture and were competently, if slowly stitching the whole plan together.

Unlike Vietnam, our greatest challenge moving forward will not be feeling like our service didn’t matter or that our nation doesn’t care about us. We know what we did mattered and that our nation does care, even if it doesn’t quite understand what it’s been asking us to do for 20 years. Our challenge will be wondering if we were fools for ever hoping for a different outcome, and realizing that although people at home may respect our service, few were aware of what was going on and are only now waking up to the realities of the war. Who were the cooler, wiser heads supposed to be across the four administrations that oversaw it? What kind of involvement and awareness should we reasonably expect from the nation we serve? Is there something we can actually learn from this, or will it be just another tragic chapter among many that is used for the talking points it can generate in political debates rather than an understanding of what it means for a democratic society to try and wage a prolonged conflict half a world away from its own shores? In spite of all the naysayers and overnight Afghanistan experts who have cropped up, it’s important to acknowledge we got more right than wrong with our campaign there, if only so we can properly diagnose why our efforts ultimately failed.

My time in service is shortly coming to its end. My son, who is six months old will never have a memory of me wearing combat boots, jumping out of airplanes, or being gone halfway around the world getting into fights with strangers. Perhaps one of my old uniforms destined for a box in the attic will make a good Halloween costume for him one day, or he’ll ask me about the custom engraved pistol dad keeps framed on the wall from one of his old work trips. I’ll have to figure out what to tell him.

America has to decide how it will react to the end of our longest war. We responded to Vietnam by moving to an all volunteer force and developing a more professional military that our citizenry goes out of its way to show respect for 50 years later. We should respond to Afghanistan by wrestling with hard questions about how America has come to view wars and its connection, or distance, from the people and families who serve in them. This extends to our national dialogue, popular culture, and institutional structures in the executive and legislative branches.

The war ran so long, at such cost, for so little in part because as a nation we never held each other accountable for having an honest conversation about what we were doing there and why. As a citizenry we left the war to the professionals while outsourcing responsibility for oversight to politicians who spent most of their time on the domestic agenda which drives re-election efforts. Between the citizenry, the politicians, and the professionals, Afghanistan was left simmering on the back burner, and we lost the plot on what we were there to do and why. Perhaps the abdication came from a good place, a desire to avoid politicizing war. Such a desire is naïve, as everything in war is inherently political, and the separation exists only in the minds of those who have never sought or been forced to look war in the face. This naivety is something we’ve always struggled with, and points to a great need in our country to learn how to have honest conversations about difficult topics. Hopefully we will take this lesson to heart before we get here again.

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