The Dollar Dethroned

by Scott Kelly

Time to stock up on bitcoin, bourbon and bullets as the U.S. dollar falls under attack and will soon be worthless. At least, according to some of the latest headlines. The BRICS nations are declaring their intention to  break away and form their own currency club, creating a competitor to the dollar that will further accelerate the decline of American power abroad and put us on increasingly unstable financial footing. The use of the dollar as the world’s global currency has been a boon to American prosperity in the post World War II era, elevating the status of our banks, allowing us to finance our deficit spending, and giving us the ability to impose unilateral sanctions to support our foreign policy objectives. So, what are the odds of BRICS pulling this off?

The BRICS nations are Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa, with a few other smaller players as well. How did all of these nations get together? Goldman Sachs in the early 2000s made up a new acronym to describe a group of developing nations with strong economies. That’s it. There’s nothing else holding these countries together, other than eventually a few of them started to drink the kool aid and talk about a new alliance they were going to form to create an alternative to the dollar backed global financial system. A key talking point in all of their meetings has been how they’re going to start trading amongst each other in a currency other than the dollar, specifically to curtail America’s influence in their affairs. Sounds great, and on paper it might look like they could pull it off, but this would actually cause more problems for the BRICS nations than it would solve.

First of all, to do this, either they all need to agree to use one of their existing national currencies, or create a new one. The only country with a monetary supply large enough to use their own currency would be China. However, 99% of China’s currency is kept at home, a deliberate decision by the Chinese Communist Party to help insulate the Chinese economy from larger fluctuations in global markets, and allowing them to manipulate it freely to maintain the ability to cheaply export goods. Using their own currency as the medium exchange for other nations at any meaningful scale would take power away from the CCP, and they’re not going to let that happen. Even if they wanted to, other nations would have to trust the CCP to not manipulate its currency whenever it felt it was in their interest to do so, and that’s a big ask. Especially for a nation like India, who has seen ongoing border clashes between its military and China’s and is an active competitor for influence in the Asia Pacific. 

To create a new, common currency for exchange would also create problems. If it was adopted as the common currency among nations domestically as well as for international trade, it means each country would have to rely on the others to follow the agreed upon rules for banking practices and the fortunes of one country would affect the value of the currency in others. This has already proven difficult within the European Union with Britain leaving the alliance over just such concerns. It’s almost impossible to imagine that the BRICS nations, with differing forms of government, cultures, economic interests, and spread out across multiple continents on different sides of the world would be able to effectively do what Europe has barely managed to pull off. The level of transparency between the nations central banking systems would be politically impossible domestically, as it would curtail the ability of the current regime in each nation to hide financial issues (insolvency, corruption, etc) from their own populations. This is much more of a problem for some BRICS countries than others, but is still a huge barrier to overcome. 

The real issue behind why the BRICS nations will likely never be able to create a meaningful alternative to the dollar is the most basic issue behind the creation of any currency, trust. No one country in the BRICS group has a reason to trust any other. In fact it’s the issue of trust that causes almost everyone in the world to use the U.S. dollar. The dollar is backed by the largest economy in the world, with a well regulated banking system and legal system that creates transparency around who possesses how much of the currency and what its current value is.

Yes, the Federal Reserve changes interest rates whenever it wants and Congress prints money like crazy, but they’re transparent about it, and countries abroad have little need to worry that a change in U.S. administration would radically adjust the value of the dollar or their ability to use it for commerce. No one needs to trust each other, as long as they trust America to be transparent about its finances, however foolish those finances may sometimes look. 

So for now the dollar may lose some global market share to countries entering bilateral agreements, or expanded use of other well established currencies such as the Euro, but it’s not going anywhere, while the most valuable thing about a hypothetical BRICS currency is the headlines and talking points it produces for pundits and politicians. 

Weaponizing ORAN to Beat China

by Scott Kelly

The COVID-19 pandemic shined a light on how critical the infrastructure that connects us in the information age is, as well as how much leverage China has amassed over the global economy. This has fueled an acceleration of creating new technologies that will enable highspeed nationwide 5G coverage, while finding ways to make networks more secure and less reliant on single source, large foreign vendors.

The current model of how telecom networks are deployed, with large vendors deploying proprietary equipment at massive scale, is too costly to keep pace with the growing demand for increased network connectivity. This has led to a move towards Open Radio Access Networks (ORAN). The move to ORAN will radically change the value of large telecom vendors in establishing modern networks, including Chinese telecom company Huawei. Huawei is a key player in Beijing’s espionage efforts and facilitator of China’s drive to expand its global influence. This gives the U.S. and her allies the opportunity to weaponize ORAN to contain China’s expansion through the development, provisioning, and deployment of ORAN technology globally.

What is ORAN

ORAN is a new approach to building and operating wireless networks that aims to increase competition and innovation in the telecommunications industry. The traditional approach to building wireless networks involves using proprietary equipment from a single vendor, but ORAN aims to use open, interoperable components from multiple vendors, allowing for more flexibility and innovation in the design and operation of networks. This will lead to reduced costs, increased efficiency, and faster deployment of new technologies. Additionally, ORAN will allow new players to break into the telecommunications market and increase the opportunities for small and medium-sized enterprises that don’t have the resources to support the cost of building out their own proprietary end to end network.

The U.S. government is funding ORAN research and development because of concerns about the potential national security risks associated with relying on a small number of foreign vendors for critical communications infrastructure. By promoting the development of ORAN technology, the government hopes to increase competition and reduce the dependence on foreign vendors in order to increase security and resiliency in our communication infrastructure. The U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has announced its support for ORAN technology and has proposed more than $1 billion in funding to support the development and deployment of ORAN networks. Organizations such as the ORAN Alliance have brought together various telecom industry vendors to develop standards for ORAN compliant hardware and software. These enable numerous small companies to independently develop tools for different parts of the network and to support unique use cases, many of which legacy vendors won’t support due to the high cost of developing new proprietary equipment that may not profitably scale across a single large network.

China’s Playbook

As China is seeks to replace the U.S. as the dominant player in world affairs it has used diplomacy, information, and economic tools to expand its sphere of influence and coerce nations into compliance with its goals and silence over its atrocities at home and bad faith acts abroad. The vanguard of this effort has been Chinese telecommunications company Huawei.

Huawei has made significant investments in developing countries, contributing to the creation of their digital infrastructure, and providing jobs for local people. They offer an all-in-one end to end telecommunications solution with proprietary hardware, software, access to cheap financing and the technical expertise needed to deploy and maintain a full network. This has helped build relationships with governments and local communities, which in turn helps China to strengthen its influence in and gain access to critical natural resources.

Industry experts have examined how the contracts for these cheap, modern networks are written, and determined that some if not all of them are impossible to be profitable for the company, even accounting for rock bottom labor and manufacturing costs. They have even taken unprofitable contracts in developed countries such as the United States, setting up telecom equipment in hard-to-reach rural areas traditional mobile network operators won’t cover due to lack of a sufficient subscriber base to make deployments profitable. By improbable coincidence, these Huawei supported networks were set up near key national security assets such as our ground based nuclear missile facilities. This has led observers to conclude that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in Beijing is directly funding Huawei’s global ventures as a way to expand their sphere of influence, gain leverage to exploit developing countries, and conduct espionage.

The Enemy is Inside the Gate

There are several security risks associated with the use of Huawei technology in building telecommunications networks. Huawei’s close ties to the Chinese government and the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) make it a tool for Chinese espionage. Critics have raised concerns over the presence of “backdoor” access points in Huawei’s equipment that can be used by the Chinese government for surveillance or other malicious purposes. The widespread use of Huawei’s technology in critical infrastructure, such as power grids and communication networks, has raised concerns that a cyber-attack targeting Huawei’s equipment could have far-reaching impacts, disrupting essential services and potentially causing widespread harm. The vulnerability is enhanced by the possibility that the CCP would initiate such an attack themselves in retaliation for perceived slights, such as speaking out against the Uigur genocide they continue to perpetrate in Xinjiang.*

* Australia experienced a version of this when it proposed an investigation into the origins of COVID-19 and China responded by initiating a trade war, attempting to use economic blackmail to silence their critics abroad by targeting Australian exports with tariffs

The extent of the threat posed by wide scale use of Huawei’s telecommunications equipment was made clear in 2017 at the African Union headquarters building in Ethiopia. Built in 2012 with a 200 million dollar “gift” from China, the building was outfitted with a full ensemble of cameras, teleconferencing equipment, and dedicated servers housed in an onsite data center. Five years after opening it was discovered that every night between midnight and 2 am, those servers that carried the most sensitive political, military, and economic conversations of Africa’s leaders were uploading all of their information off site to Shanghai. The breadth and boldness of the spy effort was as shocking as it was impressive. China was able to gain more insight into the goals, plans, and capabilities of each African nation than those same nations were sharing amongst each other. China knew not only what diplomats shared with each other, but what those diplomats discussed with their home governments and chose not to share with other African nations. With that one telecommunications deployment, China gained leverage over an entire continent and at a bargain price. By way of comparison, the price tag of $200 million was less than what it cost the U.S. to support a single day of combat operations in Afghanistan.

China is able to continue to peddle its telecom products around the world despite the known security risks for two simple reasons. Telecom networks are expensive, and necessary. A traditional telecom network requires a single, large-scale vendor to create, install, operate, and maintain using its own suite of proprietary technologies that create barriers to entry for new players. They are also necessary for modern banking, transportation, healthcare, agriculture, and a host of other industries. In a globalized world, you either get yourself plugged in, or keep yourself locked out. For a government leading an otherwise underdeveloped, impoverished nation with no path towards raising the capital needed for their own network, China’s robust tech and cheap financing, no matter how predatory, can look very attractive. If you’re not trying to get ahead but simply trying to catch up and keep up in the game of globalization, letting China hold a digital gun to your head as they bring you along can seem better than not getting there at all.

Enter ORAN

ORAN disrupts this environment by reducing the barriers to entry for new players in the telecom markets and opening new pathways for nations to build, own, and operate their own networks. Instead of contracting with one major provider to build out an entire network, governments can source components from a suite of vendors all over the world. This allows for incremental deployments, reduces the technical expertise needed to create a network, and avoids the issue of being beholden to one large company for decades to maintain the network. It also changes building out a network from a necessary step on the path to future economic growth, to a key driver of growth itself. ORAN enables numerous small and medium sized local companies, with ownership based in the same countries and communities they operate in, to drive a network’s creation, deployment, operation, and maintenance.

ORAN doesn’t just give developing countries a viable alternative to the legacy model that drives them into bed with China, it gives them a better one.

Although the task of ensuring the integrity and security of components from multiple vendors does present new security challenges, it drastically reduces the possibility of the CCP, through a proxy like Huawei, gaining control over an entire network, and by extension, leverage over an entire country’s economic, diplomatic, and security future. The adoption of ORAN also kicks off a cycle of creative destruction that will play to the advantage of those who are best able to innovate and adapt.

This poses a tremendous challenge to the closed, authoritarian political regime in Beijing and creates a massive opportunity for open, democratic societies to leap ahead in a variety of technological fields. Innovation requires the free flow of ideas, respect for intellectual property, and the ability to collaborate at scale. The CCP can’t allow its citizens to do this without simultaneously opening the door for domestic political revolution. In America, we can’t hold it back even if we tried.

The adoption of ORAN is good business at home, and great policy abroad. Its implications go beyond the technical achievements it enables and reaches into how people interact at every level of society, including the nation state. It poses a direct challenge to the current model China uses to expand its sphere of influence, and creates new problems for the political regime in Beijing as they balance the need for technological innovation with maintaining political control. While they deliberate, the free world will be innovating in as yet unforeseen ways, as more nations will be able to participate in the information age freely and securely.  

Veterans Day

by Scott Kelly

On the 11th hour, of the 11th day, of the 11th month in 1918, the guns fell silent over Europe as WWI ended. Within the year, this day became known as Armistice Day, to celebrate the end of the war to end all wars, and honor those who fought in it. In 1954, after several more generations of veterans had been created, it was renamed Veterans Day – a public concession to the reality that no matter how terrible a conflict was, war would continue, and more veterans would come as a result.

Veterans Day has correspondingly meant different things to different people over the years, based on their own experience, relationship to military service, and the national mood. It has always been a special day for me, though the meaning has changed over time. When I was a kid, it meant that all my favorite old war movies would be playing on the TV. As a young adult, it was a reminder of the sacrifices being made by friends who I watched go off and fight in the forever wars. As a soldier, it was a day to see which of my colleagues would make cringe-worthy posts on social media. This year is different. This year is my first Veterans Day as a veteran.

It is hard to say what Veterans Day means for veterans. Society tends to paint us with a broad brush, but our experiences in uniform, and how we carry those memories after, are very personal. Some of us lived in the mud with a rifle, others poured over intelligence reports in dingy tents. Some were engineers maintaining our nation’s most advanced systems, others handled payroll and administrative functions. The only real constant I have found is fond memories of the best conversations with comrades over the worst food imaginable. Even here though there are differences there, too. For an Army infantryman, it was a cold meal ready to eat (MRE) served with moldy bread and tepid coffee that resembled motor oil. For an Airforce pilot, it was a steak accidentally served well done.

Author in Afghanistan

The transition out of service to becoming a veteran can be challenging. Wearing the nation’s flag every day and working with people who are willing to drop everything and pay any price in service to their country comes imbued with a sense of purpose and meaning that is difficult to recognize until you take the uniform off. For many, myself included, a key part of a transition from soldier to veteran is finding a place that helps you hold on to a little bit of that, to find a place where you’re still surrounded by folks who have an intrinsic motivation to serve and excel beyond just knocking out the daily task list.

I was able to find a new career in a privately owned tech company committed to bringing manufacturing back to the U.S.. My days serving the country by jumping out of planes with a rifle may be over, but I still get to be of service by working to help secure America’s technological future and reduce our reliance on hostile foreign regimes for our economic lifeblood. There are numerous like-minded veterans working to do the same in different companies, filling positions in every department, at every level, modeling excellence in how they carry themselves daily and the leadership they bring to their teams.

Perhaps this begins to get at the heart of what Veterans Day is about. It is a day of remembrance and bonding, both between veterans who come together, and between the veteran community and the nation who asked them to serve. For the nation, it is a chance to express gratitude and develop an understanding of those who have borne the burden of its security. For veterans, it is a day to honor colleagues, remember the past, and remind us it is okay to lay down those burdens we may no longer have the strength or desire to carry as we pick up new tools in our new lives. For both, Veterans Day is an opportunity to reflect upon and learn from the sacrifices of our past so we can better pursue the opportunities of tomorrow

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. 


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.


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.


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.


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.






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. 

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