No doubt the war in Ukraine, which has claimed more than 6,000 lives and internally displaced more than one million people, is a large-scale human tragedy. Yet President Vladimir Putin of Russia’s adventurism and President Obama’s restrained response are not, as some commentators have suggested, evidence that the world’s security architecture is collapsing.
Should the crisis in Ukraine remain in Ukraine, this entire episode would actually signal victory for the international order that the United States has underwritten since World War II.
Much of Europe is more united on security issues today than it has been in years. Germany is finding its feet as the Continent’s foreign policy leader. Although many European countries’ defense budgets fall short of their commitments to NATO, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Norway, the Netherlands and Romania have announced that they will increase their defense spending. More needs to be done, but that Europe is taking its defense more seriously is undeniably a good thing for the United States.
In another notable victory for American leadership, just years after rallying support for an international sanctions regime against Iran over its nuclear program, Washington has repeated that diplomatic feat against Russia. It was partly at its behest that the European Union enacted firm sanctions against Moscow. And those, combined with plummeting world oil prices, have left the Russian economy in tatters.
In January, the ratings agency Standard & Poor’s cut Russia’s sovereign credit rating to junk status. Wealthy Russians are leaving the country in droves. Capital flight more than doubled in 2014, to about $151 billion that year alone. Consumer prices are skyrocketing. The International Monetary Fund estimates that Russia’s economy will shrink by 3 percent in 2015.
Mr. Putin, in other words, has bitten off much more than his country can chew. Russia may still be a nuclear-armed regional power with military forces mightier than all its neighbors except China, but it is a shadow of the Soviet Union in terms of power projection. Seizing Crimea and waging war in Ukraine’s eastern provinces has taxed Russia’s armed forces and its treasury, leaving this United States rival weakened, if not chastened.
The Russian government protests that it has no troops operating in Ukraine. This claim is ridiculous, but also significant: It is a bow to international law. If Mr. Putin really was flipping over the geopolitical chessboard, he would not be so dogged about making transparent attempts at obfuscation.
All of this has repercussions well beyond Europe. Some commentators fear that Washington’s failure to react more robustly to Russia’s aggression in Ukraine might encourage China to seize territory from its neighbors in Asia. In fact, the crisis in Ukraine has demonstrated that America’s commitments to its allies remain sacrosanct, and that sends an important deterrent signal to China.
The Chinese Communist Party should be wondering if it would trigger severe reprisals in East Asia should it ever secure disputed reefs or islands in the South or East China Seas. China makes much of its wealth by exporting manufactured goods, and is at least as vulnerable as Russia to international sanctions and other more assertive countermeasures, such as a naval blockade.
For China’s neighbors, too, the crisis in Ukraine should both justify and strengthen the current American-led international order. Ukraine had made itself vulnerable by tolerating corruption and failing to modernize its military forces; Asian states beware. Especially for those not formally allied with the United States, the risks of remaining outside regional security arrangements have become plain. It is no coincidence that Vietnam and Malaysia have been trying to forge stronger relations with the United States.
Ukraine’s fate as a united entity is uncertain, and the ongoing suffering of its people should not be minimized. But as grave as these issues are, they do not threaten the vital strategic interests of the United States. If anything, Russia’s war in Ukraine means net benefits for Washington: NATO allies are recognizing the importance of strengthening their defense capabilities; the states of Europe have drawn closer together; and countries elsewhere are seeing the need to offset regional powers by strengthening their own military forces and forging alliances.
This is a point well worth underlining to the hawks in Washington. Indeed, people in both main parties are insisting that the United States arm Ukraine, even though that course of action risks escalating the conflict into a larger and deadlier war, while undermining the unexpected gains it has brought to date. Mr. Putin’s gambit in Ukraine was a bid to boost Russia’s strength and world standing, but it is only bolstering the American-sponsored world order. Don’t interrupt the enemy while he makes the wrong move.
Ryan Evans is the editor in chief of War on the Rocks, a digital platform on strategy, defense and foreign affairs.