by Rod D. Martin
March 28, 2023

Why is everyone so invested in the war in Ukraine? What does the West (or China) stand to gain?

There is no question: through victory, the United States and the entire world would gain an era in which wars of conquest were confirmed as forbidden. While this is already international law (via the UN Charter), Russia’s flouting of its multiple treaty obligations in its repeated actual and attempted territorial acquisitions has made mockery of this, and the world would do well to re-establish the point. The pre-1945 order is not something to which we should wish to return.

Having said that, though I might wish that were the end of it, it is not.

The astute Tomaž Vargazon here posits a rationale for the West’s investment, that a Ukrainian victory would be a catastrophe for China, leading nearly inevitably to America’s re-establishment as a credible ally, to American alliances with Vietnam and Indonesia, and universally recognized American military superiority for the era to come. In my view, that is indeed a likely outcome, but not the only one.

From the Chinese point of view, there’s a very different hoped-for outcome: the possibility that the U.S. and Europe sufficiently deplete their military reserves so as to enable a Chinese invasion and conquest of Taiwan. This would be catastrophic for everyone except China. Even a failed invasion would impact the global economy by orders of magnitude more than the current war. A successful one would establish China as not just a global superpower but as equal if not superior to the U.S.; it would irreparably break the first island chain; it would establish outright Chinese regional hegemony; it would re-establish conquest as a normal tool of the global order; and it would leave the American alliance system in tatters.

China’s capture of Taiwan could well be the coup de grâce that re-orders the world. And God knows the CCP is looking for exactly such a win, just as it’s looking for reunification. Its achievement would certainly not solve all of China’s very real logistical issues. But depending on how that war concluded, those might be nothing more than a matter of mopping up.

Do I think this outcome is likely? No. Actually, I think it is meaningfully less likely than Tomaž’s suggestion. But at the rate the Pentagon is depleting U.S. weapon and supply stocks, and given the much slower rate at which those are likely to be replenished, the Biden Administration is opening a window of vulnerability that requires this scenario’s serious consideration.

So these potential outcomes are certainly reasons for both Orient and Occident to work against Russia (and if you don’t believe China is doing just that, note well that as one of Russia’s few remaining customers, they are buying Russian oil and other exports for fraction of market price, while forcing the Russians to pay in either Yuan or gold: in effect, they’re making themselves Moscow’s colonial overlord even as we speak).

But I think there’s a bigger hope, one that unites both East and West, one that turned a cold war hot in the first place. Whether it happens is anyone’s guess. But it’s worth the attempt, for everyone.

The real question, the one no one’s asking, is: why did Russia go to war at all? And that’s what bothers me.

Russia should not have gone to war. Not “should not ” as in “war is morally wrong”, but “should not” as in “this war was needless and potentially suicidal”. And Vladimir Putin is many things, but he’s not a fool. So what gives?

Yes, Ukraine joining NATO was and remains an existential threat from the Russian point of view: it potentially places NATO (and from Moscow’s perspective, that means German) armored divisions within 350 miles of Red Square across flat terrain, exactly where they were when Hitler was still winning. Ukraine in NATO strikes terror in the Russian heart, more so than missiles in Cuba to us.

But NATO did not want Ukraine. There was no likely pathway to Ukrainian accession, at least not any time soon. It should have been easy to Finlandize Ukraine, instead of goading even Finland to join NATO. Why would Putin do it?

It seems to me that — though he’s entirely responsible for his own actions — he must have been pushed. And there are three separate power centers with both motive and opportunity.

Here’s the summary:

Everyone gains by breaking up Russia, except Russia.

  1. China has been perfectly clear: it means to reunify all of its lost territories by the 100th anniversary of the Communist victory (Oct. 1, 2049). Everyone assumes Taiwan is top of the list. But is it? Isn’t Siberia every bit as important, and in some ways more so? Wouldn’t the reduction to vassalage of the Russian Far East, and Yakutia, and the rest, vastly enrich China, solve many of its resource issues, assuage its wounded pride, and — best of all — have a greater chance of being accomplished without war? The illegal alien “invasion” of Russia’s eastern territories from China dwarfs anything the U.S. and Europe are experiencing already, at least on a percentage basis. If Russia cracked up, much of its Asian component would fall into Beijing’s hands like ripe fruit, most likely as vassal states as per historic imperial Chinese preference.
  2. Establishment Washington, like the post-Hannibal Romans, has never gotten over the Cold War, having never truly defeated Russia. It forever chases the fantasy of Russian power, now shown all too clearly to be a Potemkin Village. It wants to raze Carthage and salt the land. Were the Russian Federation to break apart as the USSR did in 1991, this would be achieved, and slowly but surely, NATO would be extended to the Urals, “containing” a rump Russian state but actually facing a much empowered China.
  3. Brussels would benefit vastly more still: the many newly-freed Russian Republics would need protection and economic growth, and the EU would gradually expand to the Urals as well. In the process, Europe would have a shot at becoming more powerful than either the U.S. or China, but not so much of a shot (and certainly not so immediate) as to deter either Beijing or Washington from this short-term action.

Is such a breakup even possible? Certainly. Russia is brittle in many of the same ways as the USSR, and lost wars have accomplished such things before. It would likely take an outright Ukrainian victory. But the West seems committed to achieving exactly that, and China remains fascinatingly sidelined (even at times sending humanitarian aid to Ukraine).

I note that last bit with purpose. Again, how could Putin have been so foolish as to launch such a war in the first place? Why take by force what you could almost certainly have had for free?

As I said, I believe he was pushed.

I believe that Washington whispered in Putin’s ear enough disinformation to make him believe Ukrainian accession to NATO was inevitable (and “disinformation” is the right word for that). I believe Putin knew that if he couldn’t negotiate his way out of the box he perceived himself to be in, he would never have another chance to fight: Russia’s demographic collapse is in full swing, and in ten years, any war would likely be on Russia’s soil not Ukraine’s. And I believe that’s why Putin went to Beijing the week before the war, where Xi promised him “an alliance without limits”, knowing full well he was lying. Putin didn’t trust Xi, but he gambled.

He gambled wrong.

Were they all in on it together? I believe they were. Not to force this outcome, which I believe remains meaningful but still unlikely; but rather to enable the possibility of it, at little cost to themselves: no cost to China (and the possibility of depleting America), a mere financial cost to America (and the possibility of testing new weapons systems and buying countless new ones), and at most some economic discomfort for the Europeans, which could be blamed for all their pre-existing economic problems as well.

This is the outlier, but very real, possibility of a very different post-war world. A Russian crackup would create a radically different Eurasia, one in which the 19th Century’s “great game” would be not only revived but played out feverishly between multiple advanced nuclear powers with giant economies and very different visions of the future. It would be vastly more dangerous than the post-Cold War era. It would add enormous new complexity to literally everything. And it would create boundless possibilities for each of the great powers.

This may not be what the U.S. gains if Ukraine wins the war.

But I think it’s what the U.S. leadership is hoping for.

What Does the USA Gain if Ukraine Wins the War? originally appeared as an essay on Quora and a Facebook post by Rod D. Martin.