Issue Briefs

A Diminished America Cannot Win In Ukraine

A Diminished America Cannot Win In Ukraine

Paolo von Schirach 

Looking at the ongoing war in Ukraine, the most optimistic assessment is that Washington, notwithstanding enormous efforts to isolate Moscow and huge amounts of aid to Ukraine, at best managed to prevent Russia from taking over all of Ukraine. This is not insignificant, but hardly impressive considering the economic and military weaknesses of Russia, our adversary. Russia is a second rate economic power. Its GDP is just somewhat bigger than Spain’s. When it comes to their war planning, it seems that the Russians acted on bad intelligence about both Ukraine’s willingness and ability to resists and the preparedness of the Russian invasion force. Finally, all evidence tells us that Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine was a poorly planned and badly executed operation, relying on shoddy equipment, badly trained and unmotivated soldiers.

Russia’s gains

However, all these remarkable flaws notwithstanding, several months into this conflict, today Russia controls about 20% of Ukraine’s territory, after having caused enormous destruction and chaos with indiscriminate bombings of civilian targets. This destruction in turn triggered a gigantic refugee crisis affecting millions of Ukrainian civilians, who are now internally displaced or had to find shelter in Poland, Romania, Germany, Hungary, and other countries. Furthermore, because of the enormous cost of the war, Ukraine is essentially bankrupt. It could not survive without western financial aid. Likewise, its continuing ability to resist against the Russian invaders depends almost entirely on US supplies, augmented by military assistance from just some –very few actually– NATO countries.

Put it differently, the combined resources of the United States– still the world’s greatest economic and military power– and all its NATO Allies, many of them rich countries, (the GDP of the European Union is $ 16 trillion), in combination with a fierce Ukrainian resistance, have not allowed the West to prevail against a large, but hardly irresistible, Russian military machine.

For sure, Russia has not won this war, and is not on it way to a quick victory, if by victory we mean gaining control of all or most of Ukraine. But the west (Ukraine and its NATO supporters) is not winning either. By western victory here I mean achieving the only plausible goal: drive the Russian invaders out of all Ukrainian sovereign territory, including Crimea and the portion of Donbass occupied after 2014.

The west is not winning

If this, driving the Russian invaders out, is the hoped for western objective, then at this time there is no plausible game plan to achieve it, at least in the near term. And if a stalemate, with the two warring sides entrenched in their positions, if the best we can achieve, then we have to conclude that America is a vastly diminished superpower, as it is incapable of engineering the defeat of a second rate, badly trained invading army, led by incompetent generals.

Desert Storm was engineered by a different America

Not so long ago, a different, economically and militarily stronger, America defeated another invading army. Back in 1990-1991, after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and the subsequent decision by Saddam Hussein to proceed with the annexation of its small neighbor, then US president George H.W. Bush declared that “This will not stand”. This statement was immediately followed by the mobilization of American diplomacy, expertly led by Secretary of State James Baker. This effort led to the successful creation of a US-led international coalition whose objective was to field a large, US-led, multinational expeditionary force based in Saudi Arabia that drove the Iraqi invaders out of Kuwait and restored Kuwaiti sovereignty. All this was done relatively quickly, following US leadership. With the successful Desert Storm military operation against Iraq, president George H.W. Bush, with most of the world agreeing with him, reaffirmed the principle that border changes resulting from a war of aggression would not be tolerated by the international community. But that was a different America. At that time, the Unites States had the economic strength, the military means, and the will to act as a defender of world order. But that was then.

The US could not deter Russia

In contrast to 1991, let’s look at American actions as the Ukraine crisis was unfolding. In the months before the Russian invasion of February 24, 2022, fully aware of Putin’s intentions regarding Ukraine, America first tried diplomacy with Moscow to prevent this military attack. That effort went nowhere. Then came the open threat of devastating economic sanctions targeting Moscow in case of any Russian attack against Ukraine. The Russians were told by Washington that any form of aggression against Ukraine would trigger massive economic sanctions that would isolate Russia and cripple its economy. This was supposed to be our deterrent: “Beware: if you do this, your country will be ruined”. Well, that did not work either. Vladimir Putin was not deterred by the threat of unprecedented economic sanctions. The invasion occurred.

The sanctions did not work

After the military invasion, as promised, Washington triggered the supposedly unprecedented sanctions doomsday machine. And what did that do? Frankly not much. It certainly did not put an end to the military operations against Ukraine. The fact is that Russia had prepared itself for harsh economic sanctions. While there is significant economic damage in being cut off from trade with the West, somehow Moscow seems to be able to survive. In response to the US and Allied sanctions, Moscow increased trade with China, India, Iran and Turkey, among others. For sure, the sanctions caused pain in Russia, with more to come. The forecast is that there will be a 6% economic contraction this year, maybe worse than that. This obviously hurts Russia; but it is hardly catastrophic. And when it comes to cash generated by fossil fuels exports, actually Russia is doing better than 2021, before any war started. The simple reality is that the world needs oil, and Russia has plenty to sell. If Europe is doing its best to break its energy ties to Russia and find new suppliers, many other countries, India and China in the lead, are now eager buyers of Russian oil. Translation: the US plan to cripple the Russian economy via heavy sanctions imposed by Washington, in coordination with all major western powers, failed.

The US cannot build a Ukrainian offensive force

When it comes to the actual war, Washington’s military help to Ukraine proved to be essential in allowing the Ukrainians to resist the Russian aggression. But America is unable to supply the large numbers of offensive weapons, (coupled with the necessary training on how to use them), that would allow Ukraine to build a powerful, agile, offensive force capable of staging an effective counter offensive aimed at driving all the Russian invaders out of its sovereign territory. And America is equally unable to convince its many European allies to step up and make a real effort to supply the Ukrainians with more than just symbolic deliveries of some weapons. Surely the countries of the European Union, (most of them NATO members), have the financial and industrial resources to arm Ukraine. Still, with a few notable exceptions, (Poland, the UK, the Baltic Countries, among others), they are not doing it. Translation: Washington talks, but hardly anybody, even among America’s close allies, is paying much attention.

Half the world ignores America

Let’s put all this together. The US, acting as the self-appointed custodian of the post-war rules based international order, tried its best to persuade Russia not to start this totally unjustifiable war of aggression. At first, it tried with diplomacy, and it failed. Then it tried to deter Moscow with the threat of crippling economic sanctions. And this deterrent failed. It tried to stop Moscow on its tracks by enforcing these massive economic sanctions, and that also failed. Then, after some uncertainty, Washington tried to lead all western countries in an effort to supply Ukraine with vitally important weapons, equipment and ammunition, and that half failed. Washington finds itself engaged in an almost solitary resupply effort. Indeed, most of the “allies” look the other way, while half the world is happy to keep doing business with outlaw Russia, ignoring Washington pleas, or threats of sanctions.

The war in Ukraine is not over. And nobody wins until the other side says “I lost”. There is every reason to believe that Russia is paying a very high price for this adventure. But this is a price Putin is willing to pay, so far at least; while life for most Russians continues more or less normally. Russia has been weakened; but it is not crippled and isolated. Putin can find ways to survive the loss of economic ties to Europe. Thanks to effective state propaganda, his popularity at home remains high. Any domestic opposition to the war has been silenced.

America lost its influence

And this brings me back to America. Washington’s effort to uphold international law and hold Russia, the obvious law breaker, to account, failed, at least thus far. Russia has not been ostracized. Its Foreign Minister travels to Africa repeating Moscow’s propaganda. Putin attends G 20 meetings. Unfortunately, the way this crisis unfolded illustrates the inability of a no longer all-powerful America to shape events to its liking. It is clear that in this new chaotic, multipolar world many countries, big and small, are not afraid of defying Washington.

The truth is that the world knows that America, while still a a major world player, is now relatively poorer and weaker. In the eyes of the world, America lost power and prestige; and consequently the ability to enforce its own vision of a world order. (By comparison, think of President Bush and his successful efforts in 1990-1991 to quickly put an end to the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait). It is not that America’s goal regarding the principle of respect for internationally recognized borders is wrong. Indeed it is right. But America lost its almost unchallenged preeminence, and therefore its ability to lead, persuade, or coerce. Meanwhile, the enemies of the post WWII concept of world order largely created by the United States, notably China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea, have gained power and influence.

Without America, more disorder

Let’s make things clear. This is an extremely worrisome development. While some may rejoice looking at America’s relative decline, this new world in which a diminished US lost influence will be much worse than the one dominated by the Pax Americana enforced by a strong America we got accustomed to after WWII. A world less influenced by Washington will be more violent and unpredictable. And if you look at alternatives for a new hegemon, the only plausible candidate is China.

Beware of China

Well, if you were not happy with Pax Americana, be aware that a Pax Sinica will be much, much worse. With all its flaws, mistakes, arrogance and naivete, America believed and still believes today in a rules based system founded on compliance with basic international law principles. In contrast, Beijing believes only in its right to dominate the world. China’s conception of world order is that Beijing rules, and all the others obey, as well disciplined, subservient tributary states should. Get out of line, and you will be sorry.


Paolo von Schirach is the Editor of the Schirach Report He is also the President of the Global Policy Institute, a Washington DC think tank, and Professor of Political Sciencand International Relations at Bay Atlantic University, also in Washington, DC.