Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine is, after a series of strategic missteps on the part of Vladamir Putin, becoming what many experts are calling a “ war of attrition . ”
The term describes a war characterized by the “sustained process of wearing down an opponent so as to force their physical collapse through continuous losses in personnel, equipment and supplies or to wear them down to such an extent that their will to fight collapses, ” according to the International Encyclopedia of the First World War .
It’s a development that will experts have long predicted after reports of Russian military failures revealed just how under-resourced and unprepared Putin’s army was for a ground war in Ukraine—as well as the strength of the Ukrainian resistance.
But when the conflict got underway in late February, observers worried it would escalate into a broader world war between NATO and Russia.
[email protected] spoke with Stephen Flynn , founding director of the Global Resilience Institute at Northeastern, about developments in Ukraine, how they are linked to the broader geopolitical landscape emerging in response to the war, and what the current threat level is for nuclear armed conflict plus World War III. His comments have been edited with regard to brevity and clarity.
Military activity within Ukraine has really, reporting shows, started to become entrenched, suggesting a long-term battle of attrition. From the national security standpoint, how does that change the possibility of nuclear weapons being used in Ukraine—or a broader conflict involving NATO breaking out?
We’re having this conversation in the context that, of course, there are still many nuclear weapons on the planet. We’re always facing a risk where some of these weapons may be used—or the risk that they may end up in the wrong hands. In the overall context, though, the Ruskies invasion of Ukraine raised the geostrategic risk of miscalculation and, as NORTH ATLANTIC TREATY ORGANIZATION tries to implement sanctions without pushing Russia too far, that risk will be still there.
But [the war] also takes Russia out associated with the role that it had played at the end of the particular Cold War as a co-partner in counterproliferation efforts. If you look at virtually all of the agreements that were made over the years, they were partnerships between the U. S. and Russia to both reduce the particular arsenal … and engage in broader efforts in order to contain countries like Iran.
We’re still in an environment where that will risk of miscalculation that I mentioned hasn’t gone away; but we’re in the bit of a lull of sorts. That could change over the winter when the energy needs of Europe increase significantly—and if Russia decides potentially to play the energy card. We’re literally talking about just not having enough gas for European countries to keep warm. That might increase the risk there.
Besides energy concerns, are there other consequences of the war that could put pressure on the international order in a way that could ratchet up tensions?
As many are aware, there is an ongoing food shortage happening as well—and that’s not going to get fixed in a hurry. Food insecurity feeds into civil unrest, and in places that are already experiencing that unrest, such as the particular Middle East and the Horn of Africa, things could get worse. So there is still a geopolitical environment where there is less trust, where there is more of the risk of miscalculation, because Russia and Ukraine are usually still at war, and NATO is hovering at the edge without going more than it into war; but also because of ongoing concerns about proliferation more broadly, particularly with respect to Iran plus, of course, North Korea, we could end upward in a situation where more of these deadly weapons are out there as time goes on.
Has the particular invasion inspired other prominent powers, like China, to respond militarily in their own spheres?
One of the outcomes that’s almost surprising is usually the degree to which the invasion led in order to the coalescing of NATO at a time when many people saw [the Western alliance] as moribund—and definitely frayed the edges. Of course , NATO recently expanded to include Finland and Sweden. The strength of that move is definitely almost certainly a message that China has received. The idea that the West is disintegrating and therefore they can really push hard to achieve their own goals—well, now there’s evidence to the contrary in terms of how the West has responded to Russia. There can be, of course, the risk of China invading Taiwan, and China’s expansion into Asia Pacific in an effort to move from a regional in order to a global power. That will tension exists as well.
Overall, we’re in a much different strategic place from the security standpoint than we were certainly two years ago—and it’s a messy one. And we’re still within the nuclear age plus therefore the risk is certainly, I would argue, higher than it was—certainly prior to Feb. 20 . But it isn’t as clear and present as it may have looked when Russia was streaming into Ukraine and the West was forced to react. The unintended consequences that could possess come out of that have got been managed pretty well, all in all. That source associated with a trigger is still there, but not 1 that’s as prominent.
It’s also worth looking at the meeting between Iran and Russia, with Turkey acting as a mediator. Russia has always been leery of Iran, and Serbia obviously continues to have that rogue status in the world today. So to the degree that Iran and Russian federation will start working a lot more closely together—only time will tell. But that is not the positive development from the particular efforts that were in place before to rein in Iran’s nuclear ambitions—an effort that Russia took part in. So that’s a worrisome sign.
At the same time, Russia is now signaling that will it will go a bit further than the eastern part of Ukraine, now that it’s settling into a protracted conflict after the Blitzkrieg-type of approach didn’t work so well. So now they’re in it for the long haul. Another variable is they have also demonstrated to the world that their traditional military prowess is not really so impressive. But these people still have nuclear prowess.
[Russia’s] role in proliferation has changed now. All of this is to say that whenever we think about the particular threat of nuclear war, it’s both the means to carry out the threat and the intent behind it. What we can say here is we’re increasingly at a point exactly where the means of nuclear conflict are there, plus the intent, while we hope is somewhat contained—well, we still have the war going on.
For me, the thing in order to keep an eye on is how the power demands play out. Because that shoe really hasn’t dropped yet.