Ukraine and the future of war

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As the war in Ukraine continues into its ninth week, it has been interesting to see realists react with horror that American politicians sound super-realistic.

Consider, for example, that Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said in Poland on Monday that “we want to see Russia weakened to such an extent that it can not do the kind of thing it has done by invading Ukraine.” It’s the kind of relative gain logic that should warm the heart muscles of any realist’s atrophied heart. But no, they have to complain about the undiplomatic nature of the statement!

I kid! I’m a child because I love realists (who are right that Austin should not have said what he said out loud – but they are correct for unrealistic reasons). Moreover, the claim that they have no heart when it comes to their analysis of international relations is poorly substantiated. It is rather that realists are painfully aware of the “French violence” created by war and would strongly prefer to see bloody conflicts come to a peaceful end as soon as possible.

That’s why people like Atlantic Council’s Emma Ashford argues that “the longer the conflict lasts, the higher costs increase for the people of Ukraine. Russia [is] clearly to blame, but the standard should not necessarily be to assume that it is better to continue the conflict than the alternatives. “

This has been a strong realistic critique of American politics that has undoubtedly prolonged the conflict. However, I wonder if that is entirely correct. What if the war in Ukraine leads to fewer wars in the future?

I would like to make it clear that I am not entirely sure that I am right in this proposal. Even tentatively proposing this proposal emits a very Orwellian “war is peace” mood and it makes me uncomfortable.

That said, keep in mind that in the last quarter of a century, both the United States and the Russian Federation assumed that they could intervene in small states and achieve their goals with minimal effort. The United States intervened in Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya. In each case, there has been rapid progress on the military front in the initial phase of the conflict. Russia achieved similar successes in Georgia, Ukraine and Syria.

Of course, we know how many of these military expeditions unfolded for the United States. The long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were such that even with the random withdrawal last year, the Americans did not want to keep troops there. The United States’ appetite for military adventure, which peaked during Iraq, has waned.

Russia is now learning the same hard lessons from the war in Ukraine. This is a point made by Alexander Clarkson this month in the World Politics Review: “The current trajectory of the Russo-Ukrainian war should serve as a wake-up call when it comes to these entrenched assumptions about the power of great powers to militarily overwhelm smaller states. ” He concludes: “Ukraine’s ability to maintain an almost equal war with Russia indicates that the challenges facing other well-organized and disciplined smaller states such as Vietnam, Taiwan or perhaps even Iran against major powers may prove less insoluble in a full military conflict than before, often assumed, often portrayed as the helpless ‘little guys’ of geopolitics.

Russia’s difficulties in Ukraine will not stop all wars. However, if superpower interventions are a major source of intergovernmental violence, Russia, China and the United States could be deterred from further aggression in a defense-dominated world. And the more difficulties Russia faces in Ukraine, the more likely it is that Russian officials will internalize the lesson of “not invading other countries.”

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