In times of peace, much of what anyone says about national power is guesswork. Different claims can be based on hopes, prejudices, or even simple self-interest. Analysts and experts can speak confidently about how some states are undoubtedly great powers while others are weak, that some countries are led by strategic geniuses and others by corrupt incompetents. The statements can sound eminently plausible as facts, even be downright persuasive, because there is no way of knowing the truth.
Until, that is, a war breaks out. The Russia-Ukraine war is now cutting through much of the nonsense that dominated the discussion of international power politics, posing particular challenges to blasé assumptions about what makes a state powerful, and what makes a country’s leadership effective. This reassessment doesn’t just concern the question of debatable prewar military analysis of Russia and Ukraine, or theories of international relations. Instead, it is aimed at the whole way we think about how countries interact with one another, about national power, and about leadership.
The best place to start is the widespread notion going into the war that we were witnessing a clash between a great power controlled by an experienced, savvy—some even said brilliant—leader and a small state weakened by national division and led by a second-rate former comedian. This great power–small power dynamic was accepted practically universally among a group of scholars and analysts who have proclaimed themselves “realists.”
Maybe the most famous realist in the world is Henry Kissinger, the former U.S. secretary of state and a longtime believer in the notion of great leaders and great powers. Kissinger, who met regularly with Vladimir Putin, has been arguing for forcing Kyiv to make concessions such as the handing over of the Crimea, internationally recognized as part of Ukraine but annexed by Moscow in 2014, to the Russians. To Kissinger, it has been important that the United States treat Russia as a “great power” and that it accepted Moscow’s claim to have a special interest in Ukraine.
Academics, too, subscribe to this notion. In lectures, media appearances, and articles in the months before the invasion, well-known figures such as John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt described the Russia-Ukraine relationship as operating in the well-worn great power–small power framework. In this analysis, Putin was the clever strategist with a strong grasp on what he wanted, while the Ukrainians were weak, and it would be better for the world if their status was determined by the strong. Russia was, in Mearsheimer’s view, one of only “three great powers” in the world, and Putin was a rationalist, just wanting to secure a buffer state on his border, something Ukraine would have to deal with. Meanwhile, as Walt put it, Ukraine would have to accept the oppression and subjugation of its people to Russian interests because “great-power war is worse and brings much more suffering.” Other analysts, such as Samuel Charap, even believed that Russia was so strong, and would crush a weak Ukraine so easily, that the West should provide no support for Kyiv, because it would all be wasted when the Russian steamroller attacked.
This all sounded eminently reasonable, but then Russia invaded Ukraine and the great power–small power dichotomy was revealed to be the opposite of realism. The fundamental problem was that Russia was exposed at the start as not a “great” power at all. Having sent in almost all of its frontline military units, the Russian army has seized only 20 percent of Ukraine—a far cry from its initial efforts to take Kyiv and subjugate the entire country—and is suffering horrific losses in casualties and equipment. It’s already desperately trying to regenerate its forces by finding soldiers wherever it can, even allowing citizens as old as 49 to enlist, while throwing more and more older, second-rate equipment into the fight.
Russian strength has shown itself to be so overrated that it gives us an opportunity to rethink what makes a power “great.” Going into the war, Russia’s military capabilities—including a large nuclear stockpile and what was thought to be one of the biggest and most-advanced armed forces in the world—were pointed to as the reason for its strength. What this war might be showing us, however, is that a military is only as strong as the society, economy, and political structure that assembled it. In this case, Russia was nowhere near a great power, but in fact a deeply flawed, in many ways weakening, state.
From this point of view, indeed, it can be seen as a power in relatively steep decline. Its economy is about the tenth largest in the world, comparable to Brazil’s, but even that masks how remarkably unproductive it is, basing most of its wealth on extracting and selling natural resources, rather than on producing anything advanced. When it comes to technology and innovation, Russia would hardly rank in the top 50 most important countries in the world.
Moreover, the Russian leadership, and most obviously its president—hailed in many quarters as a canny operator—has shown itself to be the head of a disastrously constructed state that fed misperceptions, stifled real debate, and allowed one man to launch this disaster. It’s odd that this is a lesson that we need to learn again and again: Dictatorial regimes tend to decompose the longer they stay in power, because appealing to the source of power becomes a higher priority to officials in all echelons of the state than simply doing a good job. Putin’s state fed his delusions and created an inefficient military, hobbled by corruption and inefficiency.
We must also reevaluate our understanding of the more basic notions of morale and psychological commitment. One of the most surprising things to analysts who perceived Ukraine as a small power, and Russia as a great one, is that the Ukrainian military and people have resisted with extraordinary tenacity while Russian military behavior points toward serious issues with motivation and commitment. The Ukrainians have shown a national wherewithal that has made any idea of a Russian conquest of the whole country, Putin’s original goal, laughable.
We have seen this play out time and time again in modern history, when a smaller country—or parties within a smaller country—with a willingness to fight can wear down a larger power. Be it Afghanistan (twice) or Vietnam (twice), morale and commitment to a fight mean more than which side is the more “powerful.”
We have much to thank the Ukrainians for, but to some extent, one of the most important things they have done is force us to reexamine many of our assumptions about national power and the balance between states.
We need to reconsider—in many ways, entirely reconstruct—how we judge what makes a great power, or what is the most important part of national power. Militaries, perhaps, should be seen more as creations of the underlying economic, technological, and political characteristics of a country. Military power still matters hugely, but in this view reflects its creators, rather than superseding them. A weak, relatively backward, and uninventive economy will struggle to operate a modern military, even if that military has what are considered advanced weapons.
Further, we need to be careful about praising the ability of authoritarian or dictatorial states to wage war. In times of peace, such states can seem decisive and the possessors of well-thought-out plans, but their systemic weaknesses in crushing dissent and encouraging deceptions that appeal to the throne can lead to strategic disasters in both how wars start and how they are conducted. Finally, national power has a basis in commitment and identity that cannot be overlooked.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine has not been a situation in which a great power assaulted a smaller neighbor. It’s an example of a large, deeply flawed power invading a smaller, but very committed one. The balance of power between the two does still matter—but what makes up that balance needs to be much better understood.