America has never been terribly good at managing the post-war of a military victory, World War II being one powerful exception. Unless we can find another George Marshall, we will probably mess it up again. Lincoln’s Reconstruction of the rebellious South after the Civil War would have produced a much better America had low-life politics not killed it prematurely. President Woodrow Wilson had a plan to reset the world order after the First World War. We do not know if it would have worked because it left the Senate stillborn. We botched Iraq twice. In 2003, we sent too few troops (150,000) to occupy the country and outsourced the post-war to an Iraqi exile kleptocrat. Iraq almost disintegrated. It still struggles to recover and to rid itself of Iranian influence that filled the vacuum we created.
Our 2003 failure stemmed from bad management in 1991. We imposed severe economic sanctions on Iraq to force it out of Kuwait. When we did finally liberate Kuwait, we moved the goal posts and made regime change the reason for continuing and even imposing more sanctions. We wrecked Iraq’s economy and wreaked misery on its population. This worked out so well that we had to invade 12 years later to change the regime. Never mind the question of how well we managed Vietnam or Afghanistan. Unlike the British, we win all our wars and mostly lose the Peace.
It looks like Ukraine will win this war if we continue to provide adequate material, economic and intelligence support, and keep the sanctions in place. In attacking Ukraine, Putin made the same mistakes Mussolini made attacking Greece in 1940. Mussolini regarded the Greek military with disdain. He threatened, provoked, and telegraphed his punch for months allowing Greeks time to prepare. Italian troops had been told that a smaller poorly-equipped Greek Army would fold and that fascist sympathizers in Greece would welcome them with open arms. He attacked with inadequate forces (about 150,000 troops) and at the wrong time of year, the beginning of winter (late October). The Greek counterattack pushed the Italians back, decimated an armored division, took thousands of prisoners, and then advanced against furious Italian resistance. Most importantly, Mussolini ignored his big ally, Hitler, who had told him not to attack Greece. (I strongly suspect Xi told Putin something similar.)
History may not repeat but, as Will Rogers said, it often rhymes. Substitute Putin for Mussolini, Russia for Italy, Ukraine for Greece, and Xi playing Hitler’s role.
However, we must get the morning after the end of the current Russo-Ukraine War right. The consequences of getting it wrong are simply too dangerous to risk. Hitler saved Mussolini and then made Italy Germany’s puppet in 1941; done wrongly we may enable Xi to do the same to Russia.
Zelensky has already signaled that he will give Russia a commitment of neutrality and find a mutually face-saving way to concede loss of Crimea; noises emanating from Moscow indicate the Russians might accept something along those lines. As pundits, politicians, and the media intensify their attacks not only on Putin but on all Russians, does anyone believe that we will lift sanctions on Russia even if Zelensky asks us to do so as part of the peace deal? In fact, once we manage to find alternatives to Russian oil and gas in Europe, does anyone doubt that we will not try to shut down Russia’s global exports and throw that country’s entire banking system off SWIFT?
Such a doubling down would be folly, but we can never discount the deleterious effects of internal U.S. political dysfunction and our national tendency to triumphalism. If history is any guide, we might even promise to lift sanctions, just to help Zelensky restore peace to his country, and then find some excuse to reimpose them.
Given the likelihood that destroying Russia’s economy will remain U.S. national policy into the foreseeable future, what options remain for Russia? China remains the world’s largest importer of hydrocarbons and depends heavily on imported grains and other commodities that Russia exports in abundance. Currently that oil and gas and other commodities move by sea from the Middle East. We have only one real strategic advantage over China in the event of a major confrontation: the U.S. Navy now and into the foreseeable future can cut China’s seaborne energy lifeline. If Russia cannot trade with the rest of the world, what options remain open to Putin? China has already opened pipelines and railroads to Russia, the world’s largest oil and gas exporter, and has more on the drawing board. China would also benefit from Russia’s acknowledged capability in designing and developing military and space gear.
Putin and Russia may not like playing second fiddle to Xi and China, but what happens if we leave Putin no alternative? Getting rid of Putin may sound tempting but economic sanctions alone have never succeeded at effecting regime change. A British geographer, Sir Alfred John Mackinder, wrote a paper articulating what he called the ‘Heartland’ theory. Mackinder argued that whoever controlled the core ‘Eurasian Area’ controlled the world. Isolating Russia from the West could easily enable China to control the Heartland – with Russia (and probably Belarus) tucked firmly into a Chinese controlled Heartland (see map). China acquires immunity from American naval supremacy, giving Peking greater power and freedom of action.
Creating a world order to our benefit requires bringing Russia into our orbit, not pushing it into China’s.