GAZETTE: Would any of these actions have taken place if Russia had not invaded Ukraine?
LUTE: It is safe to say that none of this would have occurred. From President Putin’s list of demands before the invasion in February, you can see the kind of strategic effects he’s had. He complained about NATO enlarging its membership to the east, and now he’s going to achieve two more states joining that list. He argued against NATO force deployments, and he’s going to see more of that. So, he’s had a decidedly non-strategic impact on his own interests by way of this invasion.
GAZETTE: In what ways is this conflict starting to reshape the global order? Which factors will be most determinative of that outcome?
LUTE: It’s very early, so these strategic moves take a while. But in my view, this invasion and the Western response to it will be as significant a geostrategic inflection point as the 9/11 attacks were 20 years ago. I think we’re going to be living with the repercussions of this invasion for perhaps 10 or 20 years.
Going forward, it’s quite clear that Russia, under Vladimir Putin, will be a pariah state. It will be as isolated politically and economically as we can make it and will not return to anything that looks like pre-invasion [Russia]. This will be equally evident in the economic arena. Obviously, Russia depends for revenues on gas and oil, and there’s going to be a major market shift away from the Western markets. Now, it’s too soon to know what that means. It may mean that prices spike and, in the near term Russia increases its revenues. In fact, we’ve seen a bit of that in the first two months. You could also see the Chinese and others who are not abiding by the Western-imposed sanctions, they could benefit from this by way of energy deals, trying to make up for the deals that Putin has lost elsewhere.
A really important thing to watch will be the countries that are sitting on the fence. So, as this persists and as evidence of atrocities continues, as the refugees continue to flow out of Ukraine, and who knows what lies ahead in terms of Russian actions — what’s the impact on China, most significantly, but also important states like India and Brazil, and so forth. There are important players here who haven’t yet actually declared their hand. Among those three, China, India and Brazil, China is probably most closely, at least rhetorically, aligned with Putin, so far.
GAZETTE: Most of the fighting has migrated to eastern and southeastern Ukraine. Do you see anything happening that could accelerate or even upend any of the trend lines that you’ve been talking about?
LUTE: We’re transitioning from Phase One, which was in and around Kyiv and which the Ukrainians won, and Phase Two, in the so-called Donbas region. We’re between phases right now, with both sides catching their breath. Going forward, we can expect that the Ukrainians will continue to outperform Russia on the battlefield. And I say this, despite, on paper, the physical advantage of the Russian forces. But I’m reminded of the old military tenet that when in war, the moral is to the physical as 3 is to 1. That’s a Napoleon quote. What he meant was that the non-quantifiable, the intangible factors, like morale, cohesion, leadership, discipline, and so forth, typically outweigh the physical factors, like numbers of tanks, number of fighter aircraft, and so forth. And in all those factors, Ukraine has a quite decided advantage. So, I think the Ukrainians will win out. The question is, how ugly is it? How brutal is it? What’s the cost and where do we end up? Do we end up with a frozen conflict where the battlefield is stalemated, Russian forces continue to occupy parts of territorial Ukraine, or are Ukrainian forces able to evict Russian forces from the east and the south? It’s just too soon to tell.
GAZETTE: If Russia becomes a pariah state, like North Korea, what does Russia’s future look like?
LUTE: By pariah state, I mean that virtually all meaningful economic contacts, market connections and so forth with Russia would be broken, which would devastate the Russian economy. We would be unwinding 30 years of economic integration of Russia into the global economy.
GAZETTE: Haven’t the sanctions since February already done significant damage?
LUTE: We’re two months into that, but there are things we haven’t done. Our European allies, EU partners, have not ended their energy dependence on Russia. That would be huge and that’s a major step. We’ve cut off some financial channels with some Russian banks, but not completely. As bad as it is, and these are historically severe economic sanctions, there are more steps we can take on the economic front. And then politically, their leadership will not be able to travel outside of Russia. They will be completely isolated for as long as Putin is president. I don’t see that changing.
Militarily, this will have an interesting impact which will be worth watching. Because of the incompetence of the Russian forces in Ukraine, I think Russia will increasingly rely on nuclear forces as the ultimate “guarantor” of its security. And Russian threats against Finland joining NATO seem now kind of hollow because Russia is being defeated by Ukraine. So, what conventional threat does Russia pose to NATO? And does this allow NATO to shift to the next generation of emerging technologies, to spring ahead and take advantage of the fact that Russia’s demonstrated that they’re not 10 feet tall?
GAZETTE: How will a diminished Russia impact the countries that seem, at least for now, to be standing by Russia, like China, India, Brazil, and several in the Middle East?
LUTE: The biggest potential impact is on China and China’s relationship with others. It’s conceivable that China would look at the unified Western response against Russia and take that as a warning that any overt aggression would face a similar unified Western response. And, of course, the Chinese economy is just as dependent on the global economy as the Russian economy was before the invasion. I am hopeful that President Xi [Jinping] and the Chinese Communist Party are watching this and this may have a deterrent effect on China if it has ambitions of territorial aggression. I ran the math recently: The international sanctions regime includes 44 countries and 60 percent of global GDP. That’s huge. And this is without China, which is about another 20 percent of global GDP. So, you can imagine President Xi and his economic team sitting down and saying, “Wait a second. We don’t want to be in that position.”
GAZETTE: No country, not even China, can survive if cut off from 60 percent of the global economy, I would imagine.
LUTE: No, they can’t. And so, if Professor Joe Nye has been right for the last 20 years, that interdependence and these interconnections in the world serve not only for prosperity and well-being, but also serve a deterrent effect against major aggression, then maybe we’re going to see that play out in this episode.