Ukraine:  A Boon or Bust for U.S. Power?  It’s Complicated

Ukraine-  A Boon or Bust for U.S. Power?  It’s Complicated
Destruction of the AN-225 Mriya. Photo by KCSA, Oleksii Samsonov

By C. William Walldorf, Jr.

A Boon or A Bust?

Is the war in Ukraine a boon or bust for U.S. power?  Despite Ukraine’s remarkable success, NATO’s increased unity, and Russia’s poor military performance, the answer to that question is more complicated than some might think. 

Especially in a war’s early stages, assessing the impact on the power of a participating or associated state, like the United States in Ukraine today, can be tricky business. Though not always the case, early gains in a war sometimes prove a mirage, eclipsed by losses further down the line that turn the war from boon to bust.  If not careful, that could easily be the course the Ukraine war takes for U.S. power in the coming months and years.

History is full of examples of wars going from boon to bust for great powers.  Nazi Germany appeared an unstoppable juggernaut a year into World War II.  Yet, Berlin’s ideological zeal eventually produced extreme strategic overstretch that ended in an ignominious defeat five years later at the hands of the Allied powers.  Likewise, in the early 2000s, U.S. power appeared dominant globally after quick successes at toppling regimes in Afghanistan and Iraq.  Like the experience of Vietnam forty years prior, however, the grinding nation-building work that followed in Afghanistan and Iraq proved a drain on U.S. power.  Among other things, the distraction of both wars delayed U.S. strategic attention to shifting power dynamics in Asia with a rising China. 

Cases like these tell us that whether Ukraine turns out to be a boon or bust for U.S. power depends on assessing not just where things stand today but, perhaps more importantly, where they could stand in six months, a year, or a decade from now.

The Short Term for the U.S.

Start with today.  So far, the war has generally been a net positive for U.S. power.  It demonstrates that the United States still plays an undeniably decisive role in world affairs.  U.S. intelligence capabilities show out as second to none in the war, having both exposed the initial Russian attack months in advance and provided critical information that has facilitated much of Ukraine’s military success to this point.  “What other country has an intelligence establishment that could have got so much right about events half a world away?” observes Hal Brands.  The war demonstrates that U.S. military hardware and logistical capacity to alter on-the-ground dynamics in distant theaters are second to none as well.  Again, as Brands notes, “Helping Ukraine thrive in a war it was not supposed to survive” is an impressive illustration of US power.

The Immediate Geopolitics

The most direct boon to U.S. power from the war in Ukraine has probably come, though, with Russia’s relative decline in military strength.  The war has exposed serious deficiencies in Russian capabilities.  Russian military supplies are dwindling and unexpectedly high battlefield casualties have left Russia short on manpower, forcing Moscow to turn to mercenaries in the Wagner Group for help.  Now, Wagner is running short on forces.  All this depletion in resources adds to gains in relative power for the United States and its allies.

The war’s strengthening of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) has also weakened Russia.  Autocratic Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has ideologically galvanized NATO around the defense of democracy.  While these cohering effects of democracy have been limited mostly to trans-Atlantic relations (i.e., much of the global south is non-aligned or sides with Russia), the impact of this “relational power” is still significant.  Geopolitically, the biggest effect here, of course, is the movement of longtime neutral states, Finland and Sweden, toward NATO membership.  That will be a significant blow to Russian power, and strategic gain, especially for Europe.

And the Future…

These early gains aside, what about the future?  Here, the picture is different.  Things look concerning for U.S. power.  Over the long-term, the United States is probably headed toward a host of new security commitments in Europe.  The number of U.S. troops stationed in Europe have already nearly doubled since the war started.  These commitments and others will likely prove a strategic drain on U.S. resources away from Asia, where the United States has far more vital interests at stake.

In the near-term, potential Russian escalation in Ukraine presents the most dangerous pathway by which the war could become a bust for U.S. power.

Despite its demonstrated weaknesses, Russia is a nuclear state with massive latent power at its disposal.  It has all the capacity necessary to escalate the war through cyber-attacks, bombing supply lines (perhaps on NATO soil) and nuclear weapons.

If any of that happens, the United States will find it difficult not to respond in kind.  In which case, a war that is currently a net positive for U.S. power will quickly become a net negative, likely a forever war with – more ominously – nuclear weapons in the mix.

Potential for Escalation

The potential for escalation could become especially acute in the coming months.  Ukraine’s soon-expected spring offensive will be fought over territory – the Donbas and perhaps Crimea – where Russian interests are particularly strong.  Moscow formally annexed parts of the Donbas  last year and Crimea after the 2014 invasion.  While NATO states consider these moves illegitimate, Russia (and most importantly, Putin) now see these regions as part of Russia.  That means the Donbas and Crimea are much closer to core Russian interests and identity than territory fought over to this point in the war.

The Ukrainian spring offensive will exponentially raise, therefore, the potential for Russia to escalate the war, especially if Putin feels desperate and backed into a corner.  The fact that it’s Ukrainian (rather than U.S./NATO) forces firing U.S.-supplied missiles or dropping U.S.-supplied bombs from U.S.-supplied F-16 fighter jets will be a distinction that would likely matter less to Putin.  In his mind, Ukraine’s offensive (especially if successful) could easily come to represent something bigger: a U.S. attack on Russian territory.  If so, escalation would almost certainly follow.

For those in U.S. policy circles who might see Russia as a paper tiger or doubt that Putin would escalate this way, they need to consider how easily the United States slipped into escalating its own past wars in places like Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan.  In doing so, they also might want to consider again just how easily a war that looks like a boon today can become a bust tomorrow.  Washington needs to proceed with extreme caution and restraint to avoid its own past mistakes and come away from Ukraine with as little damage as possible to its overall relative power.

About the Author

C. William “Will” Walldorf, Jr. is Associate Professor and Shivley Family Faculty Fellow at Wake Forest University as well as a Non-Resident Fellow at Defense Priorities.  He is the author most recently of To Shape Our World For Good:  Master Narratives and Regime Change in U.S. Foreign Policy, 1900-2011.  Will is currently writing a book titled America’s Forever Wars:  Why So Long, Why End Now, What Comes Next that among other things develops a comprehensive model for over-the-horizon counterterrorism for the current era.

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