Ukraine and the Specter of Great Power Conflict
The war in Ukraine is challenging assumptions about the world among policymakers and ordinary citizens alike. To help listeners understand what is happening, what it means, and what might happen next, a new Talking Policy series will explore the political, economic, security, and humanitarian implications of the Ukraine invasion. In this episode IGCC’s Lindsay Morgan interviews Vice Admiral Charlie Martoglio about events unfolding in Ukraine and how they relate to growing great power rivalry between democracies and authoritarian regimes. This interview was recorded on March 7, 2022.
We’re here today with Vice Admiral Charlie Martoglio, a former deputy commander of US forces in Europe, who spent much of his career focused on Russian and East European issues, who is now a lecturer at UC San Diego’s School of Global Policy and Strategy.
Thank you very much Lindsay. I appreciate being here.
We’re here today to talk about the crisis that is unfolding in Ukraine and the Russian invasion of Ukraine. In a context where we’re used to thinking about hybrid warfare—economic warfare, cyber warfare, war fought through unconventional means—the Russian offensive in Ukraine has been carried out along decidedly old-fashioned lines, with airstrikes, heavy artillery, tanks. Do you think the West saw this coming?
Yes, we did. We have been watching activity in Ukraine since about 2007. Ukraine is really part of a larger Russian construct of building a USSR-like Russian sphere of influence, which includes many parts of the Russia near periphery that used to either be part of the Soviet Union, or the Warsaw Pact. And so you look at Ukraine as a piece of this—albeit a very major piece, and from Putin’s perspective, a particularly irritating piece.
What’s happening today has as its predecessors what happened in Estonia in 2007. What happened in Georgia, with gray zone conventional attempted large-scale invasion in 2008. What happened in Belarus, with Russian military forces going in to ensure the government stayed in power in 2021. We see the same thing with Russian forces again, in Kazakhstan in 2022. And now we see this large invasion into Ukraine. As I think about what is the objective of the Russian leadership and Putin in particular, it seems to me that it’s this reconstruction of the USSR-like Russian sphere of influence, all along that periphery.
So, it was decidedly not unexpected. The headlines in the run up to this invasion on February 24, were dominated with warnings of a Russian invasion. Why the West didn’t stop Putin?
Well, one of the primary responsible responsibilities of leadership is to ensure the security of the areas they’re responsible for. And as you look to the various tools that national governments can use to try to deter conflict, they’re economic, diplomatic, and informational. We’ve used all three to varying degrees over the last year. In the military dimension, especially when you’re not looking to precipitate a conflict, your military preparations are all about deterrence, and deciding where and how you are going to deter, especially because we’re talking about a nuclear armed superpower. Now, that doesn’t mean you need to be in awe of them. But it does mean you need to act very prudently and responsibly.
Given all of these tools, which have been exercised in varying ways over months and many years, why was and is Russia able to proceed?
The answer is something like this: President Putin views this as a crusade, which means he is entirely objective-focused. The guard rails that constrain normal international relations come off when you’re doing a crusade, because your sole focus is achieving that objective. For the first 12 or 13 years that Putin was involved in this campaign, things tended to roll his way, in part because the geography was a little bit difficult for the Western nations to really step up and help, and in part because Putin saw a lack of cohesion among the principal players in Europe and among democracies on how to challenge him.
If you ask why did Putin invade Ukraine now, I believe part of the timing was because Putin saw growing cohesion, which was being enabled by America, that was the bringing together NATO and democracies from around the world, and was actually having some real-world impact. And the more cohesion there is, the less likely his strategy of taking over countries, occupying them, causing instability, was going to succeed.
Quite honestly, most Western nations never thought that the cohesion would come together so incredibly quickly at the very beginning of this kinetic campaign. And that has been a positive, a very sobering thing for Putin to have to grasp, as well as other authoritarian nations around the world, because they didn’t count on the democracies coming together as quickly as we appear to have done.
Can you give us a sense of what is happening now on the ground? What is happening now and what do you think is Russia’s ground strategy?
Things are moving quickly, and things are moving slowly. Things are moving quickly in the Russians punishing the Ukrainians with indiscriminate bombing, indiscriminate killing. One of the things we know about the Russian way of war, is there is often a huge chasm between what’s actually happening that you can observe either with your own eyes or through other sources, and what the Russians are saying. This indiscriminate killing is an attempt to get the campaign back on a timeline favorable to Russia. It’s very reminiscent of how he cowed Grozny in the Caucuses and how his troops won the campaign at Aleppo in Syria. This grinding away at the civilian infrastructure until the will for war just isn’t there. This is what we’re seeing happening today.
At the same time, there are a lot of things going very, very slowly. Putin’s intent was to launch a very pointed military campaign, install a government that was friendly to Russia, and move on to the next event. That has not happened. So it’s really a combination of things moving fast and things moving slow. And all of it creates the potential for a miscalculation.
U.S. officials have said that the United States and its NATO allies would defend “every inch” of NATO territory if Russia attacks. Why is the United States willing to intervene in defense of NATO countries but not Ukraine?
We have a signed agreement, a NATO charter that commits America and all nations that are part of NATO to come to each other’s defense. This came out of World War II, the coming together of nations to form a balance of power against the Soviet Union, which was itself developing an equal balance of power against Western Europe called the Warsaw Pact. Throughout history, these balances of power have been very, very good ways to set very high levels of deterrence.
But it’s not just about a military alliance. If you think about the great power competition that is led by China on one side and America on the other, and you look at the gross domestic products (GDP) of the principal players—the gross domestic products being the summation of goods and services that are produced inside a particular nation—if you look at America and our allies, defined as NATO, Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, Australia, and nations that we have defense treaties with, add all those GDPs together, and it comes to a total well north of $50 trillion per year. Americans is somewhere in the range of $20 to $23 trillion depending upon how you count it. Russia’s GDP is $1.6 trillion per year, China, again, depending upon how you count, it’s about $18 trillion a year.
If you’re looking at economic heft as a principal tool of either deterrence, coercion, or punishment, that heft is incredibly on the side of the alliance, if the alliance can maintain solidarity, come together and maintain that solidarity. That is what has been, surprising is probably a good word for it, how quickly all of these disparate—not desperate—disparate nations have come together, because they recognize that this isn’t so much about Ukraine, per se. Getting back to your question about why we’re not fighting in Ukraine. This is about democracies versus authoritarian governments. And they know that they want to be on the democracy side when this shakes out. Each nation is posturing in light of the great power competition, and Ukraine will turn out to be a seminal event in the history of the world, in terms of pulling together the various sides of that great power competition. And we don’t know how this is going to impact China. There were initially some hopeful signs that China may f keep a hands-off attitude, and we’re seeing some of that. But in the end, how will China buttress Russia? Because without China, Russia doesn’t stand a chance. Even with China, Russia will be a pariah for a long, long time. And they will pay an economic consequence, which has a deterrent value to aggression from other authoritarian nations as well.
What are the West’s options militarily? And in raising the point about the great economic power of the West and its allies, are you suggesting that the economic warfare obviates the need for military warfare?
No. The reason we don’t go into Ukraine is because we have no commitment to do so. There is nothing that we are committed to in writing in terms of agreements or defense treaties. One of the other responsibilities and goals of NATO, in addition to defending NATO territory to the last inch, is to not widen the war in Ukraine. However good your intentions are, if you’re saying I’m going to do humanitarian corridors, if you’re saying I’m going to do no-fly zones in order to protect civilians, what you’re doing is you’re putting into place an architecture where, without question, NATO troops, perhaps American troops, will fire on and kill Russians and Russians, in turn, will fire on and kill NATO troops. And then you’ve got something that’s no longer contained to NATO.
Everybody’s heart is wrenched when they see the pictures coming out of Ukraine. You can’t not be moved. At the same time, you can’t forget that the primary objective is protecting NATO. Next is helping Ukraine where you can economically. The military is about providing them the supplies they need to continue to operate militarily, and if necessary, to go to some sort of insurgency. But that will take time to play out. I would also add that we have been doing that for about the last five or six years. But again, you need to watch that carefully because you don’t want to go over whatever is perceived as a tripwire where now America or NATO is a belligerent inside the Ukraine crisis. Because remember, we’re still trying to contain that crisis to Ukraine.
What are the long-term implications of the sudden and dramatic change in Germany’s military posture in response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine?
Coming out of World War II until about a year ago, Germany was of the mindset that we are not going to invest in the military hardware that was associated with Germany in World War II. Germany played a very, very active role in the security of the West. Germany hosts U.S. military forces, Germany hosts NATO forces, Germany has immense economic heft inside of Europe. But there was a reluctance to get involved in the military dimension of national power.
It takes time for that mindset to change. What it really takes is some sort of precipitating event. I always go back to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs: once I’ve got oxygen, the next thing I’m concerned about is are you going to kill me? It’s security. So all of a sudden, you get this precipitating event, not in Georgia, not in Central Asia, in Kazakhstan, but right on the European NATO border. You talk about a wake-up call.
I have always maintained that both President Putin and President Xi have overplayed their hands dramatically in the last five to seven to eight years. They thought they just had to bide their time, the West was on this disarmament curve. They played their hands too quickly. This has been a phenomenally cohesive wake-up call for the democracies versus the authoritarian nations. And we’ll just have to see how China shakes out: will they be more moderate or are we going to get into a position where the fabric of the world is being pulled further apart into a bipolar future? Authoritarian nations versus democracies free markets versus state sponsored capitalism? That was already happening. Ukraine will either speed that up precipitously, or slow it down.
A recent piece in the Financial Times by Tim Harford was titled, “Putin’s Actions Make No Sense, And That is His Strength,” or something along those lines. How do you engage with an adversary who is willing to do anything?
Yeah, that’s a great question. And there are many parts to the answer, with some nuances, depending on how it unfolds, but the core is, you really need to go to your strengths. And the strengths in this case are the bedrocks of how nations are governed and how they run economies, and then bringing all of those nations together in a balance of power. NATO has been around for a long time—that is a balance of power in Europe. You see the beginnings of balances of power in Asia, whether they’re economically oriented, like the comprehensive Trans Pacific Partnership, or whether they are pretty broad, but still focused in military cooperation, like the Quad.
There are a variety of things that Putin has done that concerns the Chinese. But what concerns the Chinese is, how quickly all this came together, and what it represents in real terms of how they need to think about their future plans. And it does raise the deterrent bar a little bit higher.
What does victory mean, for the West in this conflict? And what does it mean for Ukraine?
That’s a great question. Theories of victory are always very, very difficult. Ukraine is a real challenge here. Putin will keep going until he achieves his objective. But he has the luxury of defining what that objective is. Is his objective pushing out to the Ukrainian borders and then annexing Ukraine? Is his objective pushing to the Ukrainian borders and installing a puppet government or a friendly government? Is his objective to just capture Ukraine, keep the country occupied, and install a puppet government? Was he looking to just capture, say, east of the Dnieper River, or to unite Crimea with the separatist regions? He has a variety of ways that he can claim victory. And he will not know what that is himself until he can’t go anymore. It’s a crusade and crusades don’t stop until they run out of energy.
And it’s not all about Ukraine. It’s about support back in Russia. It’s about oligarchs. It’s about the population. It’s about world opinion. It’s about his legacy. There are lots of pieces to this that he considers. Having said that he is objective-focused, and his objective is subjugating Ukraine.
For the West, at this point, to talk about victory is premature because in greatest probability, the conflict in Ukraine will eventually either go down to some level of insurgency, maybe peter out, probably come to some sort of negotiated settlement with Russia that is not favorable to Ukraine. And then the strength of the insurgency determines a follow-on course. For the democracies however, this has now turned into a long-term confrontation, different than the Cold War, but with the same mentality: Russia contained, Russia not trusted. As time goes on, we need to get back to: how do you negotiate down from these two very, very high levels of readiness, that are deterrent in value, but really do impact economies on both sides? The democracies have the huge advantage, because they have the economies. Russia doesn’t. Even Russia bolstered by China doesn’t.
China’s big fear is they’re left alone with Russia. Russia becomes an economic basket case, Russia becomes an economic drain on China. Putin on the other hand envisions a Russia that is powerful on the world stage, that is part of a multipolar, not a bipolar world, where Russia is one of the poles independent unto itself, subordinate to no one, especially China. This is Putin’s vision for Russia.
I want to ask you one last question, which is for your personal reflection as someone who has spent your life working on global conflict and cooperation: what is it like to watch this unfold?
It’s extraordinarily disappointing. I spent a fair amount of my time in senior positions in Europe as Europe formed the EU, and as NATO expanded. You leave the emotionalism and the sadness of, of the way the world is going, beside and come back to what has been going on in history for thousands of years. And that’s this idea of a balance of power, whether at the tribal level, the community level, the regional level.
It is interesting to note that the U.S.-Chinese relationship, which started literally 50 years ago last week with President Nixon’s visit to China, is all about the balance of power, with China and the U.S. on one side, and the Soviet Union on the other. Now we have come not full circle, but half circle. Now we have Russia and China, and the biggest thing they have going for them, actually almost the only thing they have going for cooperation, is their intense dislike of America and an authoritarian governance model versus a democratic governance model. They’re very different nations.
Having said that, it’s a classic balance of power teeing up Russia, China versus America and the democracies. And that’s what’s happening. It’s sad to watch. You need to be ready to pony up resources across all the elements of national power. There’s an economic cost, there’s a diplomatic energy that needs to go into this. There are informational capabilities that you need: cyber defenses, cyber offenses, and there are military expenses associated primarily with deterrence. What makes military deterrence effective are the capabilities, the capacity, the readiness, where they’re located (the posture), and the national will to use them if deterrence fails. You’ve got to have all five of those pieces to deter an adversary. If you have all of those pieces, then you don’t have to fight to win. And you won’t lose.
So the big takeaway from a grand strategic perspective for President Xi, for our government, is, as you think about the future, build a strategy. This bipolarization of the world, which has started and is going to get a shot in the arm, if the world continues this way, neither side has to win, but neither side can lose.
Vice Admiral, thank you so much for being with us today on Talking Policy.
Thank you, Lindsay. And thank you to IGCC as well, take care.
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