To say that the early 21st century is a turbulent era is an understatement. In the last two decades, the international system has experienced the incremental reactivation and intensification of geopolitical rivalries. As any historian can attest, such phenomenon is hardly surprising in the grand scheme of things. In this respect, as a fateful turning point,
the recent outbreak of the Ukraine War likely represents the first major violent clash of the new Cold War, an unfolding drama of rising strategic competition. This development has buried the optimistic spirit that flourished in the 90s and replaced it with a dark and ominous zeitgeist. Although its outcome is still unclear, it already provides instructive lessons about developing trends and harsh realities whose understanding is crucial to envisage what the future might bring in the coming decades and to prepare accordingly. Their implications cannot be described as pleasant, but one cannot afford to ignore them for that reason. Thus, the in-depth assimilation of the following lessons is essential for policymakers, analysts and researchers involved in foreign policy, national security, intelligence analysis, military statecraft and grand strategy.
Lesson 1: War is not going anywhere
The reduced likelihood of a direct war between great powers ‒ thanks to a coolheaded reluctance to unleash a nuclear Armageddon ‒ and the eruption of several irregular wars in decent decades has projected the illusion that conventional interstate conflict is obsolete. Such belief is out of touch with reality; it is simply not supported by empirical evidence: episodes like the Iran-Iraq War, the Gulf War, the 2003 Anglo-American invasion of Iraq, the 2008 Russo-Georgian War, and the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh War demonstrate that hard power remains an asset that national states can resort to against their counterparts in order to pursue their interests in a zero-sum world. So long as the flawed character of human nature and the anarchic structure of the international system prevail, the spectre of war will keep haunting the world.
Of course, the Ukraine War ‒ especially considering the proportions of the corresponding military mobilizations and the far-reaching resonance of the conflict’s shockwaves ‒ points in a similar direction. Yet it also shows that great powers think that kinetic power projection is a valid option whenever they consider that their national security is at stake and that smaller nations under assault have no choice but to engage a superior rival that threatens their sovereignty or survival, even if that entails bloodshed. In general, this is a reminder that, since it is an existential struggle, war embodies the potentially lethal collective distinction between friends and enemies as the quintessential concept of the political identified by Carl Schmitt. War cannot be abolished as long as humans are political animals, and though individuals might even embrace the creed of pacifism, war threatens to engulf them anyways regardless of their views.
In this case, the overall political driver that motivates the Russian invasion of Ukraine is the interest in altering Kiev’s strategic orientation and the parallel quest for lebensraum. It is still unclear if that outcome will be reachable through sheer force, but Moscow thinks that, in a world in which might often makes right, it can get away with it if its campaign is ultimately successful. The expectation is that even if there are high costs that would have to be paid in terms of economic resources, political capital, material losses and casualties, the benefits would be superior. The course of action followed by the Kremlin reveals a mindset in which ‘soft power’ is seen as irrelevant, which is unsurprising if one considers that Russian strategic thinking has traditionally embraced the Machiavellian principle that it is better to be feared than loved if one cannot be both. However, as the historical record shows, overlooking the importance of the non-military aspects of war can be a recipe for disaster. For example, the Americans did not lose a single battle in the Vietnam War and the US still was defeated despite its overwhelming military, economic, and technological superiority.
Lesson 2: Conflict is a kaleidoscopic phenomenon
Although the fundamental nature of war is constant, the permutations of its grammar are endless, as military theorists like Sun Bin and Martin Van Creveld have observed. In this regard, the Ukraine War is a conflict that blends traditional and innovative elements. Concerning its classical ingredients, it features the traditional envelopment of enemy forces in urban positions in order to cut the flow of supplies, prevent the arrival of reinforcements, demoralize the defenders and maximize psychological pressure. Surrounded by several flanks, those inside said pockets have little choice but to surrender, flee or fight under disadvantageous conditions in vicious street combat. This siege warfare approach is usually referred to as Kesselschlacht (i.e. ‘cauldron battle’). On the other hand, the defensive strategy employed by the Ukrainians against the Russians is ironically based on Soviet plans originally crafted during the Cold War to deal with the prospect of an invasion by NATO forces. The point is to use cities as fortified strongholds that deplete enemy resources, capabilities, dynamism and manpower.
Furthermore, this conflict is also notorious for the involvement of more modern components. For instance, the Russian version of ‘shock and awe’ includes airstrikes, drones and hypersonic missiles in order to overwhelm the Ukrainians, as well as threats of nuclear sabre-rattling to deter the direct intervention of NATO. The Ukrainians are responding with asymmetric engagements and weapons. Their fierce resistance cannot be explained without the crucial role played by Javelins and Stingers. Likewise, the Ukrainians are relying on FinTech platforms, cryptocurrencies and digital assets in order to fund the purchase of military hardware, a development which highlights the growing importance of virtual war chests for contemporary battlefields. Moreover, the presence of unconventional fighters like mercenaries, foreign volunteers, special forces and paramilitary squads adds another layer of complexity that is reminiscent of operational theatres like Syria and Yemen. Fighters belonging to the Azov Regiment, the Chechen Kadyrovites and the Wagner Group certainly challenge traditional conceptions of soldiering.
On the other hand, the Ukraine War is not only being fought with bullets and rockets. The full span of the conflict ‒ in terms of both depth and space ‒ goes much further. In fact, it also involves measures of economic and financial warfare. Although there are several meaningful precedents throughout history. this would arguably be the first time in which said weaponized vectors of coercion and disruption are used on such a massive scale. Similarly, the Russian ultimatum to stop the flow of natural gas to European consumer markets unless payments are denominated in rubles shows the growing complexity of today’s geoeconomic chessboards. Moreover, the conflict confirms that cyberspace has become a confrontational domain that is suitable for acts of sabotage, espionage, attacks and disinformation. Finally, the intensive use of psychological warfare has also been noteworthy. Even though the battle to win ‘hearts and minds’ is as old as dirt, the massive reach of digital technologies and platforms like social media exponentially increase the circulation of propaganda in order to shape perceptions, trigger strong emotional reactions, generate supportive attitudes amongst both local and foreign audiences and advance convenient narratives. Therefore, this war is not just being fought by regular Russian and Ukrainian servicemen or even irregular warriors. It also involves legions of financiers, bankers, business executives, hackers, influencers and spin doctors. Hence, episodes like this emphasize the importance of holistic doctrines that can comprehensively explain the multifaceted character of modern war, including the Russian concept of hybrid warfare, the American concept of fourth-generation warfare and the Chinese concept of unrestricted warfare. Permanent change and full-spectrum clashes are structural features of contemporary security environments.
Lesson 3: Geography is a key pivot in international politics
Place matters. This axiom is the intellectual cornerstone of geopolitics, an analytical model that examines the political control of space by states under Darwinian competitive conditions. As Hans Morgenthau explains, the importance of geography as a driver of state behavior comes from its permanence in time. In other words, kingdoms, empires, states and rulers come and go but rivers, oceans, mountains, steppes, forests and desserts remain. Not surprisingly, the nature of Ukraine as a contested battlefield for centuries is not random. It is a result of its condition as a geographical and logistical corridor that connects the European peninsula with the very core of the Eurasian ‘heartland,’ an area that Sir Halford Mackinder ‒ one of the towering theorists of classical geopolitical thinking ‒ regarded as pivotal for imperial pursuits of world domination. Such position can represent a defensive buffer state, a spearhead for the projection of military power or a bridge for economic exchanges. Hence, it has constantly operated as a magnet that has attracted the ambitions of conquerors, czars and warriors. Moreover, it is also worth fighting for due to its agricultural comparative advantages, navigable waterways, warm water ports, infrastructure networks, demographics and abundant deposits of mineral resources.
Lesson 4: The global balance of power is in flux
The balance of power ‒ a geopolitical concept based on a Newtonian understanding of physics ‒ is never static. A lot like a clockwork mechanism in perpetual motion, it operates as a dynamic correlation of forces in permanent flux. In this respect, since wars reshuffle existing political equilibriums, they do accelerate the speed of history in a drastic and tectonic way. Hence, chaos and order can be seen as two sides of the same coin. Thus, even though the Ukraine War is not a hegemonic conflict comparable to the Napoleonic Wars, the future structure of polarity and the prevalence of strategic stability in the international system are at stake. It is still unclear if the configuration that will eventually arise will favor the Western bloc ‒ undergirded by American leadership ‒ or the Eurasian axis of continental powers. One way or another, it is pertinent to underscore that victory and defeat are never permanent conditions. Another unanswered question is whether rivalries can be managed in Cold War 2.0 or if it will be more dangerous than its forerunner.
As a revisionist state, Russia is engaged in a dangerous gamble to rewrite the architecture of European security. A decisive Russian triumph could very well represent a catalyst that could hasten Russian regional hegemony in the post-Soviet space, favor its reassertion as a force to be reckoned with and give birth to a more multipolar world. In turn, the West has joined forces in order to make sure that the combination of economic warfare and the exhaustion of Russian forces in Ukraine will diminish the strength of the Eurasian behemoth until it finally implodes as a great power, perhaps with the expectation that what is left can potentially be used as both a spearhead and cannon fodder against China. Nevertheless, there is no way to tell what would happen if Russia would collapse. Hypothetical scenarios involving turmoil, civil war or balkanization ‒ all of which would entail a high degree of unpredictability ‒ cannot be disregarded. Furthermore, the cohesiveness of the Western bloc should not be taken for granted. Several European states are already disinclined to antagonize Moscow. In turn, a frozen conflict or the partition of Ukraine would represent a fragile stalemate waiting to be overturned, and a dormant flashpoint.
On the other hand, Beijing is caught in a complicated position. It could take advantage of a weakened Russia as a junior partner under Chinese suzerainty or try to bolster Russia even if that entails the risk of challenging Washington and Brussels. After all, the Russian invasion of Ukraine deflects American attention away from the Indo-Pacific. China can also to play with ambiguity and try to buy more time in order to increase its overall national power and advance its ambitious projects designed to position itself as the axial cornerstone of an Eurasian geoeconomic corridor. It must be kept in mind that the completion of the Middle Kingdom’s strategic agenda requires a reasonable degree of stability rather than engaging in potentially counterproductive confrontations or quixotic adventures. However, the collapse of Russia is also problematic because it could mean that China is targeted next. Revealingly, so far most countries from the Middle East, the Asian subcontinent, Southeast Asia, Latin America and Africa are acting cautiously, an attitude that gives them the chance to hedge their bets and avoid the potentially reckless choice of choosing sides. It is too soon to make risky decisions but, once there are clear winners and losers, realignments might take place.
The Ukraine War also illustrates that the idea of a global ‘rules-based order’ as a system that can guarantee international governance and regulate state behavior is based on inaccurate assumptions. Collective rules conceived to ensure the harmonization of interest can only be enforced as long as ingredients like an overwhelming coercive power, a centre of uncontested legitimate leadership and a strong multilateral consensus are present. Needless to say, such conditions are absent in an anarchic environment that encourages constant predation. Plus, there is no such thing as an international community or a global village in which the same values are universally shared. In the cutthroat jungle of international politics, power is the only thing that can keep power in check. When an imbalance reaches destabilizing proportions, there will be an organic reaction to correct it. In other words, opposing forces and mutual fear can certainly engender violent conflict but, if harnessed properly through diplomacy to avoid their most unpleasant consequences, they can operate as anchors of predictability. In an imperfect world, the prevalence of a realist order does not mean that mutual animosities subside, only that their aftermath does not become too nasty.
Lesson 5: Nationalism is the strongest political force
The strength of nationalism in the modern world is not diminishing. Far from it. In fact, the Ukraine War demonstrates its growing traction as a powerful political force that can push people to die and kill under frightening and dangerous conditions. Nationalism is often misunderstood because the influence of liberal internationalism has made it look irrational and parochial. However, according to the Israeli thinker Yoram Hazony, nationalism is all about the organic effort of sovereign polities to pursue their self-preservation, retain the ability to determine their own fate in a world that is often hostile, reassert their cohesiveness and preserve the identitarian features ‒ e.g. ethnicity, heritage, culture, religion, historical background, language ‒ that make them unique. In the ruthless arena of international politics, abstract rhetorical appeals to humankind sound hollow. Therefore, as an energy that encourages vitality, nationalism makes a lot of sense in a Hobbesian reality. For nationalists, loyalties are defined by collective relational frameworks and, by definition, that excludes outsiders, which can be seen as either allies or enemies depending on the circumstances.
Thus, despite the pro-Western orientation of Ukrainian foreign policy, Ukrainians are not fighting for the concept of democracy. What they are willing to sacrifice their lives for is the survival of their families, communities and homeland. Paradoxically, rather than demoralizing the Ukrainian people, Russian aggression has reinforced their resolve to disregard their differences and bitter internal rivalries in order to resist together. After all, having a common enemy is a powerful incentive to close ranks and develop the critical mass that is needed to achieve sovereign statehood. That is why Russian troops have not been greeted as liberators in the streets of Ukrainian cities. On the other hand, the increasing ostracism of Russia and the prospect of imminent economic hardship has not demoralized the Russian people, either. In fact, the imposition of sanctions designed to bring down Russia as a national state have encouraged widespread popular revanchism and resentment. After all, when a whole nation is targeted, rallying around the flag is a natural reaction. Tellingly, most Russians support Moscow’s military intervention in Ukraine and the approval ratings of President Vladimir Putin are rising instead of falling.
Lesson 6: Statecraft must face the challenge of unintended consequences
One of the reasons it is often claimed that war is a gamble is because it could set in motion a chain of events that lead to unintended consequences. Thus, when faced with challenging circumstances, the decisions made by statesmen might bring unforeseen outcomes or, in the worst-case scenario, backfire spectacularly. The Ukraine War provides several illustrative examples. First, Russia’s heavy-handed approach towards the reincorporation of Ukraine into its geopolitical orbit has in fact galvanized the reluctance of Kiev to return to Moscow’s sphere of influence. Moreover, the Russian invasion alienated even sectors of the Ukrainian population ‒ especially in its Eastern regions ‒ that used to harbor Russophile attitudes not long ago. Ironically, the refusal of the Ukrainians to be reabsorbed by an increasingly aggressive Russia has been strengthened by the Kremlin’s desire to realign Ukraine as a satellite through force. This decision was made likely because other measures ‒ covert action, increasing military pressure, psychological warfare, proxy militias and clandestine operations to provoke regime change ‒ failed to shape the course of events in accordance with Moscow’s strategic agenda; but an overt military attack is not making it easier either. It is too soon to tell, but only time will determine if even a pyrrhic victory could turn out to be counterproductive in the long run. Unless the tables are somehow turned, an occupation and a parallel protracted counterinsurgency campaign against rebels backed by intelligence, weaponry, cash and logistical support provided by NATO have the potential to badly damage Russian national power.
Nevertheless, the transatlantic bloc will also likely suffer the effects of this law. For instance, Europe has already experienced the results of outsourcing its national security and defense through a complacent overreliance on the nuclear umbrella provided by the US under the framework of NATO. However, although the alliance looks robust right now, it is still unknown if the US would be willing to fight against Russian troops in the case a NATO country ‒ especially those located in problematic positions that are hard to protect, such as Poland or the Baltic Republics ‒ is attacked by Russian forces. Such direct engagement could literally trigger a nuclear exchange. Are the Americans prepared to accept the risk of a potential apocalyptic confrontation with a great power armed with nukes to honor Article 5 of the NATO charter in the defense of Warsaw? The answer is unclear, but the matter and its ramifications are certainly generating concerns in both Washington and Brussels. Ironically, in hindsight NATO expansion might have configured a more dangerous environment rather than acting as an effective security shield. Furthermore, under Franco-German leadership, the EU is a geoeconomic heavyweight, but it lacks the autonomous capabilities that would be needed to secure its own geopolitical perimeters. As a result, it is being held hostage by a vortex of geopolitical rivalry between Russia and America. Moreover, the strategic desire to reduce dependency on the flow of Russian energy supplies is understandable under the circumstances, but replacing Russian natural gas with American LNG will be an expensive solution and, more importantly, it will not become self-sufficient in energy security. In turn, the economic disruptions unleashed by rising energy prices can generate political unrest and/or pressure to reassess the strategic pertinence of sanctions against Moscow.
On the other hand, the impressive projection of Western economic firepower through vectors like financial sanctions, the confiscation of monetary assets and the infliction of economic disruptions against Russia is intended to punish Moscow, downgrade Russian natural power, deplete the Kremlin’s war chest, destroy wealth and instigate regime change. Hence, this onslaught will test Russian preparedness and resilience. Nevertheless, this course of action might also trigger systemic game-changing shifts. In fact, it highlights the pertinence that states which could potentially challenge Western interests develop alternative financial and monetary platforms, systems and nerve centres beyond the direct control of Washington and Brussels. The Western weaponization of finance can reinforce the determination of certain countries to bypass and even challenge both the status of the US dollar as the hegemonic reserve currency and the transnational financial arteries organically linked to its circuits through vehicles such as gold and other hard assets with intrinsic value, FinTech innovations, multilateral deals and digital currencies. Thus, an accelerated bifurcation or fragmentation of the global monetary and financial order is a scenario that cannot be dismissed.
Lesson 7: Colliding civilizational worldviews exacerbate tensions
Although the Ukraine War is a result of incompatible strategic interests, clashing civilizational worldviews are also fueling the flames. This development seemingly validates the idea advanced by Samuel Huntington that national states tend to gravitate towards their counterparts who share similar values and a common heritage and to clash with those whose historical, sociocultural and ethnic backgrounds are fundamentally different. The West sees itself as the leader of the free world, the champion of the ideals of the Enlightenment, a beacon of progress, a community of ‘open societies’ and the guarantor of a ‘rules-based order’ in which liberal democracy, free markets and human rights are upheld. In turn, Russia is largely portrayed as an imperialistic, backward, kleptocratic, draconian and repressive dictatorship. In several Western countries, even Russian products, music, works of literature and art are being removed as an outright condemnation of everything the Eurasian country stands for. On the other hand, Russia sees itself as a proud and legitimate heir of the Byzantine Empire (Russian imperial tradition claims that Moscow is ‘the Third Rome’), a bulwark of Orthodox Christianity, the defender of the so-called ‘Russian world,’ a proponent of geopolitical multi-polarity and an unapologetically illiberal stronghold of order and tradition. In contrast, the West is viewed as decadent, hedonistic, materialistic, hypocritical, godless, arrogant and morally bankrupt. The outspoken rejection and mockery of ideological trends currently fashionable in much of the Western world is an overt reflection of this contempt. In contemporary Russia, the West is essentially depicted as an overrated postmodern version of the Weimar Republic.
Therefore, although there have been intermittent episodes of both closeness and rivalries between Russia and the West, it looks like the current divorce is irreversible. The fact that the views advocated by both sides are profoundly messianic is troublesome because a negotiated compromise is hard to reach when self-righteous ideological crusaders delegitimize each other. For the Western world, Russia has become an utmost heretic and pariah that deserves to be ‘cancelled’ and, in response, Russia has stated its desire to embrace an eastward strategic orientation, a shift supported by the geopolitical theories of both the late Yevgeny Primakov ‒ a former KGB man like Vladimir Putin himself ‒ and Aleksander Dugin ‒ the chief ideologue of Eurasianism ‒ which hold the need to forge deeper ties with China, India, Iran, Turkey, Central Asia, the Middle East and the Far East instead of seeking an accommodation with the transatlantic bloc. This reorientation would represent a radical departure from the time when French was the language of the Russian imperial court, the efforts undertaken by Peter the Great to modernize Russia in accordance with European standards and the popularity of American rock music amongst younger generations during the Soviet era.
The cosmopolitan, technocratic and rosy worldview of the proverbial “Davos men” that Samuel Huntington himself criticized for its mistaken assumptions and intellectual short-sightedness has been mugged by the reality of the Ukraine War. Such a house of cards has been badly shaken by geopolitical seismicity. Modern ‘experts’ whose analytical prisms are narrow reach the conclusion that events that they cannot explain do not make sense at all or that those in charge are acting in an irrational way. Hence, the lessons taught by this rude awakening accentuate the imperative to embrace more sober and comprehensive frameworks that offer a sharper sense of situational awareness about complex phenomena and impersonal forces whose behavior challenges conventional wisdom and groupthink. Hence, in order to overcome both sophistry and strategic myopy, interpretative models like geopolitics, geoeconomics, political realism, long-range macro-historical analysis and multidisciplinary strategic foresight can be useful. Overlooking the dramatic significance of the Ukraine War would not just be a cognitive shortcoming, such neglect could lead to an even greater tragedy in a foreseeable future. After all, accurate navigational compasses are badly needed to sail in the middle of a chaotic storm in a sea of uncertainty. In the lions’ den, wishful thinking, sanctimoniousness and binary Manichean representations are pretty much useless. The metaphorical writing on the wall is clear, its message just needs to be read before it is too late.
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