The Ukraine War May Engulf the World

What was a local conflict is shaping up as a battle between alliances.


One year after it began, Russia's invasion of Ukraine has evolved into a grinding war with no end in sight. Worse, the conflict threatens to further draw in other nations as Ukraine's support by the West is matched by a growing Russian alliance with China. The dangerous, fractured world that appears to be emerging might look more familiar to somebody living a century ago than to people raised in the aftermath of the Cold War—with the addition of nuclear weapons, of course.

"In early February, the North Atlantic alliance made a statement with actual demand to Russia, as they put it, to return to the implementation of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, including admission of inspections to our nuclear defense facilities," Russia's President Vladimir Putin announced February 21. "I don't even know what to call this. It is a kind of a theatre of the absurd," he added, pointing to the adversarial nature of NATO's strong support for Ukraine's defensive war against the invading army. "I am compelled to announce today that Russia is suspending its membership in the New START Treaty."

Russia's State Duma, the lower legislative house, promptly approved the decision.

In fact, Russia made its own trouble by sending tanks and troops across its neighbors' border. But it would be jarring if cooperation on arms reduction continued while western countries funnel weapons, money, and other aid to Ukraine in what seems like an endless flow to counter Russia's military.

"Adding pledges of nearly 37 billion euros in December, the Americans have earmarked a total of just over 73.1 billion euros ($77 billion) for Ukraine support," according to Germany's Kiel Institute for the World Economy. "For the EU, the comparable figure is 54.9 billion euros ($62 billion). Overall, pledges of humanitarian assistance remained relatively constant over the course of the year, while the share of financial and military support pledges grew."

That's a lot of expense to impose on taxpayers in already heavily indebted countries.

The Atlantic Council breaks down that aid, from cartridges to artillery shells, including to-be-delivered tanks promised by Germany and the U.S. It doesn't yet include the latest pledges of an additional $460 million in military aid made during President Biden's trip to Europe where, as Reason's Christian Britschgi warned, "he promised Ukrainians interminable support in the war against Russia."

Afterwards, President Biden met with the leaders of Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, and the Slovak Republic, who issued a joint statement promising continued backing:

"In line with the UN Charter and international law, Ukraine is exercising its legitimate right to defend itself against the Russian aggression to regain full control of its territory and has the right to liberate occupied territories within its internationally recognized borders. We will continue to support Ukraine's efforts to this end, as long as necessary."

The statement won endorsement from NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg who vowed, "we must give Ukraine what they need to prevail."

It's possible to be deeply sympathetic to Ukraine, which began the conflict as a flawed but relatively free country before it was attacked by its powerful neighbor, and also to worry where this is going. Ukraine has a claim on western support under the terms of the 1994 Budapest memorandum which guaranteed its security in return for nuclear disarmament, and the plan has clearly been to grind Russia down with assistance to Ukraine's forces. But now that may be matched by support for Russia from China, turning a local war into a battle between alliances and threatening to broaden the conflict.

China's top diplomat, Wang Yi, met Putin in Moscow this week, just days before the one-year anniversary of the start of the Ukraine war. 

"Against the backdrop of a very complex and volatile international situation, Sino-Russian relations have withstood pressure from the international community and are developing very steadily," Wang commented on his visit.

The meeting has to be viewed in the context of a document published Monday by China's Foreign Ministry blaming the U.S. for the world's woes.

"Since becoming the world's most powerful country after the two world wars and the Cold War, the United States has acted more boldly to interfere in the internal affairs of other countries, pursue, maintain and abuse hegemony, advance subversion and infiltration, and willfully wage wars, bringing harm to the international community," the document charged. "Today, in Ukraine, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, Pakistan and Yemen, the United States is repeating its old tactics of waging proxy, low-intensity, and drone wars."

Does this mean China will support Russia's war effort? The U.S. Department of Defense says its hasn't yet seen that, but Secretary of State Antony Blinken claims to have intelligence that such aid is in the works. He warned China against providing weapons to Russia. Frankly, military assistance for Russia would be consistent with the Chinese government's professed concerns over "U.S. hegemony" and allegations of a U.S. proxy war in Ukraine. That may have been the point of the document and its timing.

In response to rising tensions with China, including the recent "spy balloon" panic, the U.S. government announced it is increasing the number of troops deployed to train Taiwan's military. The total is only a couple of hundred personnel, but it's a clear slap at China, which claims the island nation.

"China and the United States are in a headlong descent from a competitive but sometimes cooperative relationship to one that is confrontational in nearly every respect," former Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson, Jr. observed even before officials of the two countries squabbled over airships and military aid. 

China's growing alliance with Russia may well turn their aligned grievances with the U.S. and the West, justified or not (China and Russia are extremely aggressive in their own right), into a larger confrontation. That's because, in addition to the high costs it imposes on western taxpayers, continued support for Ukraine's defensive efforts looks increasingly like a game of chicken with whatever is developing between Moscow and Beijing. 

"One of the challenges of setting yourself up as the world's policeman is that people may take you seriously," I cautioned a year ago about the West's assurances to Ukraine. "Then they expect you to intervene in horrendous situations that you have limited will or capability to address."

That's even more true now as the Ukraine war takes on global dimensions.