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Great Power Struggle
By Peter O’Brien

People don't change, as a friend reminded me just the other day. 800 years ago the rulers of the Grand Duchy of Moscow wanted more land, buffer zones between them and "others." Kiev soon became part of the Russian "buffer zone."

But, Russia lost Kiev (and Ukraine) in 1991; they want it back.

In 2014, Putin occupied Crimea; the West said very little. Poor Ukraine; it's in an unenviable position: the heart of Russia to her east and north east, the Russian client-state Belarus to the north, and the Russian dominated Black Sea to the South.

Since 2014 Russia has been engaged in a multi-disciplinary war - what has come to be known has "hybrid war" - against Ukraine, focused on eastern Ukraine. This includes a little bit of everything, to include a low-grade insurgency, information war, cyber war, twisting the law ("lawfare"), etc.

Five weeks ago Russian Coast Guard vessels fired on and captured three Ukrainian navy vessels (two patrol boats and a tug) that were moving from Odessa to the Ukrainian port of Mariupol in eastern Ukraine, on the Sea of Azov, via the Kerch Strait. The attack left 6 Ukrainians wounded.

Several points are relevant to the US.

First, the Russians want Ukraine. They consider it theirs. And they want their buffer zones. Tsar Vlad I understands that.

It's worth remembering that Ukraine surrendered 1,240 nuclear weapons in 1994 based on a guarantee from President Clinton that the US would protect their independence from Russia even as they (Ukraine) disarmed. When Russia made the move against Crimea in 2014, President Obama chose not to honor that guarantee.

Without those weapons, there's little Ukraine can do militarily to stop the Russians, if the Russians choose to act. Could the US provide them military support if it chose to? Certainly. And certain weapons (antitank weapons, mines, etc.) would make a Russian invasion costly. Other considerations - intelligence support, aid in cyber warfare, air defense - might also be provided. But the question that must be asked is: to what end?

There's also the question of what to do about Eastern Europe, where we have treaty allies who would call on us if attacked. Ukraine is not a US ally. Poland, Hungary, Slovakia and others are.

Guarantees - and failures to honor guarantees - have consequences. Clinton guaranteed Ukrainian independence in order to convince them to surrender their nuclear weapons. Then Libya traded away their weapons program in 2003. And then President Clinton's wife attacked Libya in 2011. These points weren't lost on North Korea, and they drew the logical conclusion: nuclear weapons matter.

Others noticed that Russia got away with seizing Crimea, particularly China. (Neither Russia nor China are terribly concerned with what we think is "the right thing to do.") Russia wants Ukraine, they intend to take it back. China wants the South China Sea, they are talking control of it. China also wants hegemony over all of SE Asia. And Taiwan. And the US out of the Western Pacific. And control of the Indian Ocean. And eventual world domination...

And those who think the leadership in Beijing, if we're just nice to them and give them sweet business deals, will be nice and behave like us? They're wrong.

China has also learned that hybrid war is a potent tool, particularly for those with few morals. China is already engaged in what can only be described as it's own version of hybrid war in the South China Sea, South East Asia and Africa: aggressive maneuvers against fishing boat, building dams and challenging water rights, shady business deals that leave smaller nations deeply in debt, building gulags for its own minorities, making claims against islands held by Japan, the Philippines, Korea, hostile cyber activities, lawfare, etc.

Clausewitz defined war as a continuation of politics with other means. We have two great power rivals who understand that and are already at war with us. They're using every tool available to achieve their aims. It's time we wake up and realize war has already begun and start prioritizing accordingly.

That means making hard choices, identifying our vital interests, and identifying those things which are, and are not, worth the lives our troops.

But what it really means is this: the return of Great Power confrontations. China wants, Russia wants. Both are willing to use means other than politics to reach their goals. They are challenging the US. We need to defend our interests.

 





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