The Ukrainian war has had far-reaching consequences. It has wreaked incredible suffering in Ukraine and caused widespread destruction. It has also stoked inflation globally, upended energy markets worldwide, and exposed the dangers of Europe’s reliance on Russian natural gas exports.
Its geopolitical consequences have been equally profound. It has exposed fundamental weaknesses in Russia’s feared military, led to a recalibration of the Moscow-Beijing relationship, and increased Chinese influence throughout Eurasia, particularly in Central and Southwest Asia.
The consequences of communist China’s increased influence in Eurasia will weigh on the United States long after the Ukrainian war ends. Ultimately, the United States will have to rehabilitate Russia and include it in a broader coalition to contain China. Geopolitically that makes sense. In practice, it will be difficult.
More than a century ago, the British academic and politician Harold Mackinder postulated, in a 1904 paper titled “The Geographic Pivot of History,” that whoever controlled the continent of Eurasia, what he termed the “World Island,” would become the world’s preeminent power. Such a superpower, reasoned Mackinder, would be largely self-contained and less vulnerable to the exercise of naval force by either Great Britain, then the world’s reigning maritime power, or a rapidly growing U.S. Navy.
The world has changed considerably since Mackinder’s day. But his insights still largely hold true. Preventing the rise of a Eurasian power has underscored American foreign policy in the region since World War I. It was the genesis of American interventions to prevent the German dominance of the continent and to contain Soviet ambitions there. Mackinder also matters because his ideas are closely followed in Beijing and underly China’s foreign policy across Eurasia.
For much of the last half-century, Moscow has been a check on Beijing’s relentless expansion of its influence across Eurasia. This is particularly true of the countries in Central and Southwest Asia, once constituent republics of the Soviet Union. As Moscow’s influence in the region has waned, partly because of its disastrous war in Ukraine, Beijing has been the beneficiary, expanding its influence in tandem.
The United States will oppose China’s objective of dominating Eurasia for the same reasons it opposed German and Soviet ambitions. Crafting a foreign policy to accomplish that at an acceptable political cost will be difficult, although not impossible.
For its part, the United States has little inclination to engage more broadly in Central and Southwest Asia to check China’s growing influence there. Following a two-decade-long involvement in Afghanistan and an even longer involvement in the Middle East, there is little support in Washington or among American voters to renew American engagement in the region.
The European Union (EU) has sought broader engagement and access to the region’s commodity wealth. But its progress has been constrained by Moscow. Much of the transportation infrastructure linking Europe with Central and Southwest Asia traverses Russian territory and is held hostage by Moscow. Endemic corruption among the region’s authoritarian regimes is problematic for Brussels, less so for Moscow, which has acted as the ultimate guarantor of those government’s stability. Europe is incapable of providing the regional stability that Russia offers.
The Chinese regime, conversely, has had significant success at what is euphemistically called “elite capture” while expanding its economic relations and, correspondingly, its political and diplomatic influence.
If Central Eurasia’s historic links to Russia fade, it will ultimately turn either east to China or west to Europe. Currently, the trajectory favors Beijing, even as Moscow fights a determined rear-guard action to slow it down.
Turkey, Iran, and India are all potential counters to the rise of China’s influence across Eurasia. Turkey and Iran have significant stakes in Central Asia due to historical, linguistic, and cultural ties and because they offer potential transportation corridors that bypass Russia. Neither, however, can provide an effective counter to China.
Historic links notwithstanding, the region looks neither to Tehran nor Ankara for leadership. Constrained by Western sanctions, the transportation corridors offered by Iran have limited utility. Turkish transportation corridors are more complicated geographically due to the mountainous terrain of the Caucasus. Moreover, Ankara has its own agenda in Eurasia, most of which does not serve Brussels’ interest.
India has been cut off geographically from the rest of Eurasia by the Himalayas and the Hindu Kush. Although New Delhi is a ready market for the region’s mineral wealth, access is constrained by a lack of transportation infrastructure. Historically, India’s entry to Eurasia has been through what is now Pakistan and Afghanistan, both problematic relationships for New Delhi. India is potentially a source of capital, technology, and consumer goods for Central and Southwest Asia, but China dwarfs its capacity.
Finally, while they can provide a source of sophisticated though low-cost arms and a broad range of consumer goods, neither Turkey, India, nor Iran can guarantee the region’s security. Only Russia, and eventually China, can play that role.
Russia is the logical actor to counter the rise of Beijing’s influence in Central and Southwest Asia. It has historically played that role, has long-standing regional ties, and currently guarantees the region’s stability. Moreover, China’s and Russia’s regional objectives are ultimately at odds. Beijing’s rising influence will come at Moscow’s expense.
Moscow must distance itself from Beijing to check it while coming to some reconciliation with the United States and the EU. That is certainly possible but difficult while the ongoing Ukrainian war increases Russia’s dependence on China, and Moscow adheres to a national security doctrine fundamentally at odds with NATO.
Russia is losing the Ukrainian war on three separate fronts. First, it is losing the ground war. Moscow failed to impose regime change in Kyiv and to return Ukraine to its fold. Its territorial advances have been largely contained, and Ukrainian military forces have successfully taken back about half of the territory Russia initially seized.
Secondly, it lost the propaganda war. No one believes, not even Russians, that “the special military operation” was designed to “denazify” Ukraine. On the contrary, Moscow is widely condemned as the aggressor. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy waged a brilliant campaign to mobilize international public opinion to Ukraine’s cause. That campaign has forced many governments to support Kyiv for fear of angering their voters.
Moreover, the much-feared Russian army has shown itself hopelessly inept, failing such basic tasks as adequate troop resupply, coordinating multiple command operations, and being forced to conscript prison inmates to refill its ranks. It is still a deadly force, as the rain of destruction unleashed on Ukraine demonstrates. Nevertheless, an inept army can still win a battle, even at a frightful human and material cost.
It also demonstrates that Russian military doctrine and battlefield tactics have not changed much since World War II. In a head-to-head contest with NATO forces, Russian troops would lose badly.
Finally, Russia is losing the de facto war with the United States and its NATO allies. Rather than weakening NATO’s resolve, the Ukrainian war has strengthened it. Sweden and Finland (Turkish roadblocks notwithstanding) are joining NATO. Moreover, its members announced a significant increase in defense spending, even if Berlin shows signs of backtracking on its 100 billion euro funding increase for the Bundeswehr.
Moreover, Moscow has failed to find any bargaining chips to counter the unprecedented U.S. and NATO support for Ukraine. Despite shutting off the flow of natural gas to Europe, temporarily blocking Ukrainian agricultural exports, and dropping hints of risks of a nuclear escalation, Moscow has failed to dissuade the United States from supporting Kyiv. Indeed, the level of that support and the sophistication of the armaments supplied has increased, not diminished.
Moscow can use proxies (Venezuelan, Cuban, Serbian, or Iranian) to foment trouble for the United States and increase the “cost” of Washington’s Ukrainian support. Moreover, an expansion of the conflict into Moldova or the Baltic states, while currently unlikely, can’t be ruled out. Neither can Russia instigate instability in the Balkans. Nonetheless, the Ukraine war has proven that Russia’s energy leverage against Europe and its political and military leverage against the United States and NATO has largely failed.
The Biden administration suggests that “Putin is the problem,” effectively calling for regime change in Moscow. While Vladimir Putin is undoubtedly the architect of the Ukrainian war, replacing Putin will do little to change Russia’s trajectory. The problem isn’t Putin but a Russian national security doctrine that is outdated and irreconcilable with NATO’s current posture.
Historically, Russia has measured its national security contingent on its ability to project power along its periphery. The broader and deeper it projected that power, the more secure it felt. This view was true for Tsarist Russia as it was for the USSR and the post-Soviet Russian state. The problem with this doctrine is that it is inherently unstable. The more secure Russia felt, the less secure its neighbors felt, and vice versa.
This system could only be maintained by the application of overwhelming Russian power. When that power failed, for example, after Brest Litovsk or the USSR’s dissolution, Moscow’s security framework collapsed. Putin has spent most of the last two decades trying to reestablish that framework. Initially, with some success, but lately largely failing.
NATO has committed itself to preventing Moscow from implementing that doctrine by guaranteeing the security of Russia’s East European neighbors. As long as Russia defines its security as contingent on its ability to project power westward, it will be at odds with NATO regardless of who runs the Kremlin.
Reconciling with Moscow will require the Kremlin to formulate a security doctrine compatible with NATO that doesn’t hinge Russian security on its ability to dominate its neighbors. What such a doctrine would entail is unclear right now. Formulating it will be difficult but not impossible. Implementing it while the current Kremlin leadership rules is unlikely.
Ultimately, Moscow’s abhorrent and genocidal behavior in Ukraine notwithstanding, the United States must enlist Moscow’s help to contain China’s Eurasian ambitions. Such a reconciliation is not unprecedented historically. Who would have imagined in 1944 that by 1955, West Germany would have become a critical American ally and an important and valued member of a Western defense alliance? Washington’s reconciliation with Hanoi is equally instructive.
A similar outcome is possible with Russia. How to get there remains unanswered.