Russia’s takeover of the Crimea is a week old, but that move — and the plays China has made in its corner of the world — offer valuable lessons about power and, possibly, the future of conflict.
Great power politics may seem a thing of the past in this era of globalism; interdependent economics; and measured, cooperative action.
But Russia and China offer a stark counterpoint. Each is, in its own way, exercising its combined economic and military might to achieve strategic and territorial aims without firing a shot.
Europe’s dependence on Russian natural gas has given Moscow enough clout to shape policy and act almost with impunity in the Crimea. And it has enough raw military power — and the willingness to use it — to get its way with its neighbors.
China is equally adept at this strategic game of leveraging its sheer economic power to underwrite burgeoning military capabilities and intimidate its neighbors.
Having laid claim to most of the East and South China seas, Beijing is working incessantly and concertedly to change the status quo and gain control of the territory it wants by coercing neighbors to yield. It will watch events in Ukraine for signs of resolve or weakness from the West.
The combination of bold strokes and incremental steps continually move China closer to its goal posts while also moving the goal posts closer to China.
Russia may not ultimately regain Crimea — a territory that was transferred to Ukraine in 1954 by then Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev — or, if it can, gobble up more of Ukraine.
The international community is trying to muster a sufficient response, but as it dithers, Moscow is advancing its aims in rapid fashion. Suspending pending arms deals is among the options they are considering, one that has the dual advantage of also affecting Moscow’s ability to wage war with its neighbors.
As Washington debates its new strategy and spending cuts, and as its allies consider their military futures, all would do well to map how to more effectively align their economic, military and diplomatic capabilities to maximize their leverage against foes that are getting ever better at playing the smart power game.