Asia Pacific Europe Policy & Politics Security & Conflict

Europe’s Borderlands and China’s Challenge: Why War in Ukraine Matters

How are we to understand Russia’s aggression against Ukraine,[1] and how are we to respond? Invoking fabricated grievances,[2],[3] Russia on February 24, 2022 launched an all-out war against Ukraine. Friends and allies have shown solidarity, as Europe, the United States, and others impose sanctions against the aggressor, and an array of countries pledge lethal defensive hardware in aid of Ukraine’s defense. However, the democratic world still struggles to agree what steps would best address shared security needs in the time ahead. To address those needs, we first must articulate where the conflict between Russia and Ukraine fits in the wider setting of geopolitics to which it belongs.

           Before Russia’s attack began, some policy thinkers may have argued that, because China presents a greater long-term challenge to international public order than Russia, the United States should not allocate resources in response to Russia’s escalation against Ukraine.[4] Implicit here is that resources are scarce. That proposition, without doubt, is valid. But also implicit here is that China’s long-term effort to re-define the terms of international public order—to impose its authoritarian model of politics and society on the world at large[5]—is unaffected by events at the other end of Eurasia, in the borderlands of Europe. That proposition is dubious. Resource allocation in global strategy is not a zero-sum-game, and commitments in one part of the world can have direct impact elsewhere.

           We need to place Russia’s war against Ukraine in a wider perspective of history and present-day geopolitics. The war and the responses that it is instigating reprise several themes that have recurred through the history of Europe’s borderlands[6] but also have affected all Eurasia and thus the world at large. Let us first address the geographic setting and its recurring themes, and then we will turn to the larger geopolitical realities the war affects, for the future of Ukraine has potential ramifications for China and how we respond to China’s revisionist aims.

The Eurasian Setting and Three Recurring Themes

When talking about Russia’s neighbors, Russia’s leaders talk about history. The historical memory of foreign invasion is their oft-repeated motif.[7] Our object here, however, is not to plumb the depths of what might motivate Russia’s leaders.[8] It is, instead, to say how Russia’s actions will affect security, not in one theater alone, but globally, and how we had best respond. Our object is to understand the stakes today as a matter of geopolitics writ large and to identify for the United States (and to the extent relevant, our allies and partners) the most effective allocation of resources, taking in view not only the likely impact of war with Ukraine today, but also its likely consequences in the near-to-medium term for the larger great power competition in which we are engaged.

           To understand the stakes, and to begin identifying our response, let us turn past the history that Russia’s leaders talk about—those episodic invasions from Europe’s west—to three recurring themes that sprawl across the history of Europe’s borderlands and the great Eurasian landmass that lies beyond.

Stability between Europe’s west and east

A tendency grew in modern times to describe the space between western Europe and Russia as forever a potential vacuum.[9],[10] These borderlands, it was said, were inherently unstable; either one of the states of western Europe must take hold there or Russia must. That description, however, is historically contingent. It describes only certain periods of a longer and more varied experience.

           The period that most defies today’s received understanding of Europe’s borderlands as a power vacuum was that of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. A constitutional monarchy avant la lettre, the Commonwealth traced its origins to the late fourteenth century and came formally into being in 1569. It numbered among Europe’s most powerful states through the seventeenth century.[11],[12],[13],[14] Even as its relative position declined, the Commonwealth played a pivotal role in European affairs. It was not for nothing that the royal houses of Europe fought hotly contested elections, and the occasional war, to fill the Commonwealth throne. Western Europeans remember the Commonwealth best for Jan III Sobieski, whose army in 1683 defeated the last Ottoman siege of Vienna.[15] Much earlier, there were the great principalities of Kyivan Rus’, a fixture of geopolitics from the ninth to the thirteenth centuries.[16]

           We also must consider the period between the World Wars of the twentieth century. A geopolitical thinker might protest that the destruction of Poland and the Baltic States in World War II, not to mention Ukraine’s fate in the Russian Civil War,[17] demonstrate the a contrario proposition—that the borderlands are a vacuum, and some vacuum-abhorring power inevitably will rush in. Yet to hold that the course of events in the borderlands between the world wars was inevitable is to take a starkly deterministic view of history. Events conspired to bring not one, but two, of the world’s most powerful states down upon the borderlands at once. The USSR and Nazi Germany with the Stalin-Hitler Pact formally bound one another in a strategy of aggression, so that in 1939 the borderland states faced the crushing weight of both formidably armed dictatorships at the same time.[18] Meanwhile, the western democracies that might have lent them support remained inert. It reads history backwards to declare that the interwar idea of a strong middle between west and east was without hope. The subjugation of the borderlands took concerted effort by the two most powerful states in Europe and passivity from the rest.

           This aspect of Europe’s past demonstrates the falsity of Russia’s claim of a historic mission to rule the borderlands. Those regions, as a matter of fact, have gone long periods outside Russia’s influence. Their sometimes-submergence in one or the other contending side, west or east, has resulted not from inevitable dynamics of geopolitics but from a coalescing of contingent circumstances, exacerbated by a lack of geopolitical vision.

           A corollary to the mistaken idea that the borderlands are a vacuum, another misconception is that the states there have no well-fixed borders. From the late nineteenth century through the mid-twentieth century, forced movement of peoples and coerced changes of borders wracked Central and Eastern Europe over and over. The fungibility of the borders of the borderlands in that epoch, however, offers little support to Russia’s present-day geopolitics of revision. The enormous human cost of wars about borders led countries after 1945 to call a halt to territorial aggrandizement by force.[19] The Soviet Union itself, during the talks that led to the Helsinki Final Act in the 1970s, expounded with seeming conviction about the need for stable borders.[20] During those talks, the United States placed emphasis on human rights. The Soviets insisted that the main goal, instead, should be to clarify and finalize Europe’s borders, so that wars of irredentism and territorial aggrandizement would never again ravage the Continent. The Russian Federation, after the end of the USSR, reaffirmed the Soviet Helsinki commitments. Moreover, when Ukraine regained independence in 1991, Russia declared in unambiguous terms that it accepted Ukraine’s borders as final.[21] It repeated that declaration in various treaties and transactions with Ukraine, practically up to the forcible seizure of Crimea in 2014, the prior act of aggression against Ukraine.[22]

           One does not discard realism and subscribe lock, stock, and barrel to the thesis that States are subject to a “rules-based international order” when one recognizes that respect for international borders, where these are mutually agreed, has held firm for over three quarters of a century. Recognizing the entrenchment of respect for international borders since World War II is the reverse of discarding realism; it acknowledges a fundamental feature of the geopolitics of the present age. That feature of geopolitics emerged in the aftermath of centuries of catastrophic violence, not only in Europe’s but other borderlands as well.[23] Attempts to overthrow a settled state-to-state border, such as Saddam Hussein’s attempt in 1990 in Kuwait, are aberrations. Modern-day precedents for the forced migration of boundaries are as scarce as they are disreputable.

           So, Russia’s aggression against Ukraine finds no justification in realpolitik or in a plea of historic right to impose a border of Russia’s choosing in Europe’s borderlands.[24]

           Perhaps considerations of present-day security lend Russia the justification it seeks. Kremlin mouth pieces say they do; after all, Europe’s eastern borderlands were a runway along which aggressors invaded Russia. However, the Kremlin does not say much, for now at any rate, about the one invasion that truly conquered Russia or that it came the other way: the Mongols invaded Russia in the thirteenth century—from the east.[25]

           More to the point, despite Russia’s plea of vulnerability, nobody will invade Russia from the west today. The nuclear deterrent for over seventy years has mitigated any risk of invasion down to the vanishing point.[26] Even in a thought experiment, in which Russia somehow was stripped of its nuclear defenses, the plea of vulnerability to the west lacks credibility. No state in Europe has the conventional forces to carry out an invasion of Russia, and no government anywhere in the Atlantic world has threatened invasion. Russia’s nuclear deterrent, de minimus western conventional force structures, and the pacific orientation of western policy together render nugatory any Russian claim of vulnerability to a western invader. While talk of a western threat is prevalent in Russian misinformation, it does not match present geopolitical reality.

           That there was once a western-oriented Commonwealth with eastern borders encompassing lands that now belong to Russia is salient, but not in the way Russia’s exponents of aggression today would claim. What is salient in the historic experience of Europe’s borderlands is that Russia has gone long periods—centuries’ long—with frontiers similar to those it has today, and it is none the less secure today. Nor does history offer any support for present-day Kremlin postulates about a “natural” subordinacy of the borderlands to Russia. There is nothing natural about a geopolitical re-ordering of Europe in which Russia controls the fate of the borderlands.

The resource lever

As we seek to understand where Russia’s war against Ukraine fits in the wider frame of geopolitics, a second theme in history merits reflection: the dependency of Europe on resources from afar.

           Europe’s resource dependency did not begin with the Industrial Revolution. Rome itself consumed imports, relying in particular on North Africa and Egypt as its granary. Early modern Europe drew in resources from the Near East and beyond, with Venice the beneficiary of these trade patterns as the Continent emerged from the Middle Ages. The search for alternatives to the transit routes dominated by Venice spurred the rise of the Iberian powers, Portugal and Spain. Industrialization some centuries later led to new dependencies. Tsarist Russia exported oil, grain, and metallic ores, and Europe paid for these with the credits that financed Russia’s industrial development in the decades up to World War I. Germany in the 1930s struggled for resources, particularly oil, and the democracies were rightly alarmed when Hitler entered the Non-Aggression [sic] Pact with Stalin, under which Russia supplied raw materials to the Nazi war machine.[27],[28]

           The recurring crises over natural gas exports since Ukraine’s independence thirty years ago echoes a long-running European theme. The security of transit routes and of supply, and the search for alternatives, absorb strategic thinkers in Europe today.[29] There is nothing new in this, even as the protagonists and the exact contours of dispute have changed.

The Heartland-World Island struggle

Finally, Russia’s push against Europe’s borderlands evokes the long-standing competition between essentially maritime countries and their land-based, Eurasian challengers.[30] Sea-land rivalry echoes much older patterns, probably going back to Homeric times in the pre-classical Mediterranean.[31] Systematic thinking about that rivalry took much of its present form in two turn-of-the-century writings—Alfred Thayer Mahan’s The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, 1660-1773 (1890) and Halford John Mackinder’s The Geographical Pivot of History (1904).[32]

           The basic outlines of both Mahan’s and Mackinder’s concepts of world power are widely familiar. Mahan posited that the determining factor in world power is sea power. The trade-oriented, maritime country, Mahan said, reliably prevails over the land-focused imperium. Mackinder was not so sure. Under Mackinder’s theory of geopolitics, dominance of Eurasia (the “Heartland”) enables dominance of the outlying continents (the “World-Island”), and such a combination is tantamount to world empire. Mackinder also considered what state would be most likely to achieve Heartland dominance. Seemingly most plausible when Mackinder wrote Geographical Pivot was a scenario in which Germany conquered Russia. Perhaps presciently, considering China’s strength today, Mackinder also posited a scenario in which an East Asian power gained sway over Russia.

           When we turn to Russia’s present war against Ukraine, Mackinder might seem the more salient of the two turn-of-the-century strategic thinkers. Looking further into Mackinder’s thinking, he developed a particularly striking idea about Eastern Europe: the state that controls Eastern Europe, he said, will control the Heartland.[33] Observing the re-emergence of independent states in the borderlands at the end of World War I, Mackinder developed this idea about Eastern Europe as a sort of addendum to Geographical Pivot. Here, Russia’s relation to China, and for that matter, Mahan’s theory of sea power, may seem distant concerns. On closer inspection, however, they are vital.

           Surprisingly for the country holding the second largest share of Eurasia’s landmass and facing exposure on long frontiers with Russia and India, China pursues revision of the balance of power not chiefly on land but at sea. China, in geopolitical terms, partakes of the Mahan school, not that of Mackinder. China pursues a maritime strategy, to overturn, or at last to compromise, the role of the United States as guarantor of world order. Why China judges its maritime strategy a tenable pursuit merits explanation, as does how Russia’s potential embroilment in Europe’s borderlands will affect that pursuit.

China’s Mahanian Turn

China has worked for much of the past twenty-five years to transform its navy into a dominant force for its near-seas region and to project power and assert claims in the South China Sea and against Taiwan. By ship count, the People’s Liberation Army Navy is now the largest in the world.[34] China also has developed a massive coast guard[35] and a co-called maritime militia—militarized fishing craft that China uses to intimidate coastal states of the South China Sea and to provoke ambiguous encounters, a maritime counterpart to Russia’s “hybrid” warfare.[36],[37]

           China’s anti-access/area-denial capabilities in its near-seas region are substantial.[38] For some time, war planners in the United States have cautioned that China could render US operations in that region precarious in a wartime environment.[39] Additionally, China’s naval ambitions reach well beyond the near-seas region. Though it has only one overseas base today—in Djibouti[40] —China reportedly is investigating possible host sites for a base on the Atlantic coast of Africa.[41] It has engaged in energetic diplomacy to forge ties with island states of the Pacific as far away as the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu.[42] The full scope of China’s maritime ambitions, however, is not reflected in its massive naval build-up or in its overseas basing alone. China is also aiming to control a global network of maritime trade routes. The Belt and Road Initiative—the BRI—though more famous for land infrastructure[43],[44] also includes China’s acquisition and development of ports across the Indian Ocean and plans to extend China’s maritime reach farther still.[45] Increases in China’s activities in the Arctic presage an Arctic route for the BRI. Red Sea and Mediterranean extensions of BRI routes are under way as well. A “New Maritime Silk Road” features prominently in China’s plans.

           China is not the first country with significant landward security liabilities to have taken a Mahanian turn. Similar instances of re-orienting strategic focus have resulted in failure, though. Napoleon’s France squandered vast resources on a naval strategy that Britain finally defeated in 1805 at Trafalgar. Germany under Wilhelm II pursued both the landward goals of consolidation in Eurasia and maritime goals of naval supremacy; in so doing, it united its Heartland competitor, Russia, with the World Island—a combination that Germany was unlikely to beat and indeed did not. Even Tsarist Russia, though never a major player in maritime affairs, over-invested in its navy to the detriment of the only forces that really mattered for its security, its army. And, closer to China if more remote in time, the Mongol Khanate met catastrophic failure when its hordes took to boats against Japan. Powers that have turned from their natural vocation in the Heartland have met with frustration or worse.

           China today—even if it might have the resources, for a time, to sustain its massive naval buildup—already appears to be provoking the world toward a combination that resembles that which encircled Germany before World War I. To give the most striking example, the Quad Powers—India, Australia, Japan, and the United States—are coalescing in response to China’s build-up.[46] Even Japan and South Korea hint that they might put aside long-standing differences in the face of China. China is instigating a realignment against itself of Wilhelmine proportions.[47]

Shifting Tides in the Heartland

Conditions today for naval expansion, from Beijing’s vantage, nevertheless might appear felicitous. China has the second largest economy in the world. Its manufacturing sector is impressive. Its systematic theft of intellectual property, in addition to the advantages this has given China’s companies that make and export consumer goods, has equipped its weapons industry with critical technologies.[48] Perhaps novel in great power competition, going beyond the psychological warfare operations and misinformation campaigns that adversaries have carried out against one another in the past, China has made inroads into the institutions, economies, and decision-making processes of its adversaries. Not mere agitation and propaganda, but wide-ranging co-optation presents western societies an unusual challenge and confers on China an unusual advantage.

           The most important advantage that China has today, however, is that, despite its geography, it has little to worry about from its landward neighbors. Over a generation has passed since China’s last land war—that with Viet Nam in 1979. China’s armed skirmishes with the USSR along the Amur River were in 1969. True, China provoked land boundary fighting with India in 2020-2021, an exception and a mistake. Other than that,[49] China’s land frontiers have placed few demands on China’s armed forces in recent years.

           The crucial frontier for China is that with Russia. It winds some 2,600 miles along the Amur River and then southward to a tripoint with North Korea not far from Vladivostok. It separates Manchuria from the Far Eastern provinces of Russia. In a world view that embraces geopolitical revision, it is far from clear that this is a settled frontier. Russia acquired its Far Eastern provinces from China under “unequal treaties.” The unequal treaties were a series of transactions in the nineteenth century by which European powers, Russia among them, imposed humiliating terms on a prostrate Chinese Empire. China’s modern legal doctrine—going back to the 1911 Republic and continuing through the present-day PRC—repudiates these treaties. No one in the PRC government has articulated what repudiating the treaties entails for the Sino-Russian border, but the logical conclusion is clear: for China, that border is in the wrong place. Russia’s Far East by rights, if you subscribe to the doctrine that rejects the unequal treaties, should revert to the Chinese flag no less than did Hong Kong in 1997.

           Today, China’s relations with Russia show outward signs of friendship. Since 2001, China and Russia have led the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, a multilateral entity largely serving the interests of Moscow and Beijing and covering most of the former Soviet republics of Central Asia (though extended in 2017 to include Pakistan and India as well). The two main States of the geopolitical Heartland also coordinate in other international organizations, not least of all the UN, in pursuit of their common cause against liberal democracy. Echoes here of the Three Emperors’ League, the format in which Prussia, Austria, and Russia joined against liberal Europe in the nineteenth century, are audible.

           Whatever the ideological sympathies that might motivate Russia and China today, their recent alignment has had geopolitical results. China’s friendly relations with Russia reduce the country’s security liabilities where they otherwise would entail the highest costs. With its northern neighbor for the time being absorbed in other places, China has a free hand to pursue its Mahanian turn. This is the main reason why China judges a maritime strategy a tenable pursuit.

           However, the tides of geopolitics shift over time. China may take comfort from the formal commitments that it has entered into with Russia as well as the commercial relations, especially in the energy sector. Even so, treaties, international organizations, and commercial contracts do not necessarily guarantee security. What would come closer to a guarantee—a guarantee of a free hand for China on its Russian frontier—would be a shift in geopolitics of the Heartland. The most advantageous shift for China would be, not along the Amur or other eastern places, but at the Heartland’s western end. More specifically, China’s freedom largely to ignore its most sensitive landward border would grow significantly if Russia were to turn decisively to the west—not in the Petrine sense of cultural alignment or imitation, but into a long war in Europe’s borderlands.

           The powers of Eurasia through history have had no irreversibly fixed orientation one direction or another. Ivan the Terrible’s Muscovy much absorbed itself with the east until the fall of Tartar Kazan in 1552. After that, the Russian state turned at times to the west, but never so completely that changes in the balance of power might not draw its energies someplace else. Changes that re-orient a state’s geopolitics sometimes become clear only gradually. Sometimes shifts are sudden. More than once in history, an expanding state, having suffered reversal in one place but not total defeat, turned its ambition elsewhere virtually overnight. Napoleonic France, when thwarted by Britain at sea, directed itself back toward Europe. Russia, when Japan sank not one but two fleets in the Far East in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904–05, trained its geopolitical sights elsewhere as well, especially the Balkans and the Turkish Straits. Over centuries, the Ottoman Empire sometimes pursued growth at Europe’s expense in the Balkans and Mediterranean but when rebuffed there would turn against Persia to the east, and, in time, back again.

           It serves China well today for Russia to direct itself toward Europe’s borderlands, because Russian resources directed that way are resources not directed against China. True, nobody can be sure how, exactly, Vladimir Putin would re-position Russia’s geopolitical project if Europe’s borderlands proved too resilient for him to subjugate. This much however is clear: China benefits so long as Russia continues to face somewhere other than the east. A war embroiling Russia in Europe’s borderlands would suit China well, because, weakening China’s junior Heartland partner, such a war would strengthen China in the partnership even more. Having a Russian ally might be desirable for China, as far as that goes. Having a Russian satellite would be more desirable for China by far. It would guarantee China’s freedom from traditional Heartland concerns of land defense and open wide Mahanian vistas of maritime power.

           Russia, drawn into Europe’s borderlands, is unlikely to have an easy time there. Little over a week into the invasion of Ukraine, Russia reportedly had suffered over 7,000 battlefield deaths,[50] approaching one half the total losses in nine years of Soviet operations in Afghanistan.[51] True, Russia can escalate. The opening act of Vladimir Putin’s political career was the 1999 invasion of Chechnya and the defeat of its separatist régime. The centerpiece of that operation was the use of rockets to destroy the city of Grozny. But Ukraine’s population is over thirty times Chechnya’s and its land area almost forty times. Chechnya was lawfully part of Russia; it had no allies. Ukraine is an independent State, and lethal defensive hardware began pouring in from supportive countries around the world as soon as Ukraine’s army and people demonstrated that they were prepared to fight. By the end of the second week of the invasion of Ukraine, coordinated sanctions had pummeled Russia’s banking system, shuttered its stock market, and prompted nationwide protests.[52] Chechnya was not a cost-free venture for Russia.[53],[54] It would be astonishing if a long war in Ukraine were to cost Russia anything less than an order of magnitude more.

           The formal ties that Russia and China have developed in recent years are no doubt a comfort to China in its plans for outward expansion. They are a guarantee—or at least a handshake and a promise—that China need not concern itself with Russia as a security problem. But a protracted struggle in Europe’s borderlands, into which Russia’s blood and treasure sink, is a far better proposition for China. Strategists in Beijing will not only have Russia’s word of friendship—the handshake and the promise. They will have practical assurance, embodied in the realities of power. Russia will not trouble China on the countries’ land border, for war will have drained Russia of the will and the energy to do so. In the worst scenario for Russia, a borderlands war so drains the country that it can scarcely answer back if China increases its inroads—commercial and demographic—into Russia’s resource-rich eastern expanse, that latent irredentum that China ignores in this Mahanian moment but toward which the rising Asian power likely would pivot if faced with a maritime reversal.

           All countries must make decisions as to where they direct their resources. Resources are finite, including for the United States. It makes sense for the United States to aid the defense of Europe, including Europe’s borderlands, only if we do so in a way that strengthens our response to the greater strategic competition that China poses. However, the United States errs if it treats China as a Pacific issue only, clinically isolated from the geopolitics of Eurasia. We must prevent the consolidation of a Eurasian power over the Heartland. Failing to prevent this, we open the door to the wider threat that Mackinder warned would follow.

           Absorption of Russia’s energies in a conflict in Europe’s borderlands would not impede, but hasten, China’s consolidation of Eurasia. The best outcome for China is a war in the borderlands that detains Russia for a long time. The best outcome for the United States is Russia turning its energies another way, or at least reserving them for a time and place that Russia might truly need them.

           Again, the United States must take care not to over-commit its resources to the defense of Europe against the weaker of the two main Heartland competitors. The United States also must take care not to give Europe incentive to free-ride on American defense expenditures. However, confronting the stronger of the Heartland competitors, China, is a worldwide mission. The mission includes what happens in Europe’s borderlands, because if Russia is allowed to draw itself into a long and exhausting struggle there, China’s freedom to direct its efforts outward is assured for many years to come.

Energy Mirage

The proposition that Russia will be stronger if it stays out of Europe’s borderlands likely will draw objection. The main objection likely would run something like this: if it succeeds in consolidating the borderlands, then, according to Mackinder’s calculus, Russia will have gained the predicate for control over the Heartland and that would presage China’s subordinacy to Russia, or at least it would shift the balance in Eurasia in Russia’s favor. In particular, the objector would say, Russia, having taken hold Ukraine or much of it, will dominate the transit routes of natural gas to Europe and thus assure preponderance over the western end of Eurasia—a geopolitical triumph that would lend Russia the weight sufficient to set the terms in its dealings with China, or at least to participate in a partnership with China on a more nearly equal footing.

           On at least two grounds, the objection is unconvincing.

           First, controlling transit routes for natural gas to Europe will gain Russia little, if Russia does not also control the sources of natural gas. The development of a liquified natural gas market between North America and Europe,[55] which the 2018 Trump-Juncker agreement strengthened,[56] would diminish any influence Russia gains from supplying energy to Europe. Development of that market faces opposition on environmental grounds, but political and market forces on both sides of the Atlantic favor its continuation. History illustrates Europe’s dependency on material inputs from beyond its borders, but the potential sources on the world market for energy today dampen the influence that any one producer might wield. Russia would benefit less by dominating the borderlands if the United States resumes the development of its own energy resources as an alternative to Russia.

           Second, while gaining little in the borderlands, Russia would lose a great deal. Russia’s losses after only two weeks’ fighting in Ukraine already suggested just how much Russia might lose.[57] The United States should be concerned, not for Russia’s sake, but because if the borderlands remain Russia’s strategic focus, then China will retain its free hand at sea.

           The objector, at this stage, might posit that Russia’s aggression in Ukraine will not necessarily result in a protracted struggle. The objector would ask, what if Russia prevails in Ukraine, not with difficulty, but swiftly and at little cost? Surely, that would secure Russia on its side of the Heartland and change China’s calculations, shifting that other Heartland power back toward its natural landward vocation to guard against its erstwhile partner, now resurgent competitor? Why not simply allow Russia to prevail in Ukraine, for that, surely, will not detain Russia in the borderlands but, instead, strengthen Russia against all challengers, including China? This objection is not convincing either, however. Firstly, it is inconceivable, considering the atrocities Russia is committing in Ukraine, that western resolve to aid Ukraine will fade. Putin’s declarations that his territorial ambitions extend to several other countries make western acquiescence in a Russian conquest of Ukraine all the less likely. Secondly, Ukraine has mounted a ferocious resistance; Russia has no obvious path to an easy win. Thirdly, Russia’s ambitions for energy dominance over Europe are illusory. If other countries offer an alternative to Russia’s supply of energy, then Russia’s energy lever loses its force. Pursuing the mirage of energy dominance will prove fruitless for Russia in the long-term, whether the pursuit is easy or hard.

           If Russia somehow swiftly won its war in Europe’s borderlands,[58] then that would make the strategic environment for the United States much more difficult. A new state of affairs in the borderlands would have arisen, and this would place demands on defense in the European theater far greater than any since the Cold War. A return to Cold War-levels of defense in Europe would divert American resources from the Pacific. Either variation on Russian aggression in the borderlands—a swift and easy conquest, or a protracted struggle—would strengthen China’s hand. A strategy that reverses Russia’s aggression against Ukraine thus serves our strategic interests either way.

Conclusions: A Strategy for the Borderlands

So, considering the recurring themes in Eurasian history that Russia’s aggression against Ukraine evokes, what should the United States do? What are the lineaments of a strategy that reverses Russia from Europe’s borderlands?

           The most important step is for the borderlands to restore themselves to strength and cohesion. States there are not an inevitable vacuum. For long periods of their history, they have constituted a political-military space in between the modern sphere of western Europe and the present-day western borders of Russia. The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth demonstrates the role such an arrangement might play. The lamentable experience of the borderlands in World War II is no valid counter-example, unless those who attack the borderlands bring a truly crushing weight upon them and the west stands aside as that happens. Today, the borderlands are not caught in a vise between a western and an eastern foe. To the contrary, Europe is mobilizing in aid of Ukraine and the wider security of the Continent. Germany, heretofore anemic in its response, has come to a turning point. The historic speech of Chancellor Olaf Scholz of Sunday, February 27, 2022, made this clear.[59] That even longtime neutrals Sweden and Finland now rise to Ukraine’s aid suggests the strength of European consensus around defending the borderlands. The conditions for a borderland restoration are far more propitious than they were between 1918 and 1939.

           Nobody thinks the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth will precisely replicate itself in the twenty-first century, any more than will Prime Minister Clemenceau’s cordon sanitaire. Nor does a modern analogue necessarily follow Cold War models. The post-World War II neutralization of Finland or of Austria is a dream of Kremlin planners, but a “non-bloc” borderland is not a likely outcome. Neutralization takes consensus at least three ways: from each bloc and from the would-be neutral. Moreover, to recall the history, the Commonwealth that stabilized the borderlands for so many generations and even aided Europe against an eastern empire in the larger geopolitical struggle of the day[60] did not categorically exclude cooperation and alliances with its neighbors. The geopolitics evolved over time. An arrangement that recalls that long period of stability, and that allows for its own evolution, might well re-emerge in response to Russia’s aggression.

           A further important step is to resolve Europe’s resource reliance on Russian supply. Diversification of energy supply in particular weakens the resource lever that Russia at present exploits. This dimension of current geopolitics is, perhaps, the one that most plainly recommends a definite course of action: the United States increases both its own security and that of its allies when it and like-minded countries[61],[62] help diversify supply. Declining to do so could have the opposite effect: empowering rent-seeking and geopolitical gamesmanship by Russia. Stifling the global market in key natural resources might well be a Kremlin goal, pre-occupied as leaders there seem to be with the leverage they believe supply affords them over Europe. But western sanctions could leave Russia only one buyer. If the one buyer is China, then Russia is China’s vassal, not its partner.

           Western Europe of the Cold War had an integrated approach to defense with the United States. It also had diversity of raw materials supply. Independence from the USSR as supplier of raw materials enhanced western Europe’s security by removing or weakening a lever that the USSR otherwise would have wielded in Europe’s direction. Russia after the Cold War, however, regained much of the leverage it had had earlier in the twentieth century because it resumed supplying critical material inputs to the industrial-technological economies. A US-EU natural gas market would diversify supply and thus diminish Russia’s leverage on western Europe. Continuing to support the diversification of energy supply would efficiently enhance Europe’s security.

           Finally, as the United States charts a course of action in the Pacific, its leaders must recognize the current variation on the Heartland-World Island struggle and the cause-and-effect relations that struggle embodies.

           For centuries, the exponents of sea power have prevailed by devoting the resources necessary to preserve freedom of navigation and to deny any Heartland aggressor use of the seas as a route for expansion. A definite policy prescription emerges from this aspect of history. China today poses a more immediate challenge as a great power competitor to the West and its allies than does Russia because China directs its geopolitical program toward the seas. China pursues its program not just by laying claim to this or that insular feature in the South China Sea.[63] China’s program is one of radical revision at systemic level. If the maritime powers do not check it, China’s revisionism will overturn both the rules that define the seas as an open, common area[64] and the “correlation of forces” (to use a Soviet phrase)[65],[66] that allow the maritime powers to defend those rules. The United States must focus on meeting the challenge that China’s revisionism presents.

           We mislead ourselves and fail to meet that challenge, however, if we think Europe’s borderlands and the Pacific Rim have no mutual relevance. Aggression by Russia toward the west is a boon for China in the east. It saves China from diverting resources landward and reduces the liabilities on China that strategic competition with Russia in the Heartland would impose. Russia’s borderlands aggression facilitates China in its Mahanian turn.

           To avoid misleading ourselves and failing to meet the security challenge that China’s maritime revisionism presents, we must address the practicalities. We must turn our own strategic doctrine into defense appropriations, deployments, and operational plans that answer the challenge efficiently. A puzzle for us is how to address these practicalities without obscuring the purpose they serve. It is not an easy puzzle. The “Heartland” is not a functional category in our defense bureaucracy. The Eurasian landmass is not an operational theater. The inevitable debate within our defense community over how to allocate limited resources runs the risk that the protagonists, each responsible for a different political, fiscal, or bureaucratic silo, lose sight of the geopolitical forest for their particular institutional trees. To the extent that our decision-making structures like the National Security Council and the interagency process furnish a unitary stage, it is a stage on which the particular interests and demands of the protagonists involved nevertheless cast long shadows.

           Thus, we rightly assign China priority in our strategic planning, but as we implement our response to China in practice, we must work hard to keep the larger picture and cause-and-effect across a matrix of international relations in view.

           Inaction in face of Russia’s challenge in Europe’s borderlands, it is true, frees up resources that we might deploy today to the Pacific. But resources seemingly conserved through inaction are likely to be dwarfed in time by the costs that inaction imposes more widely. Analogizing to the mid-twentieth century has its limits and all the pitfalls of cliché. Yet, recall that the United States in World War II wisely concentrated the larger part of its resources on the more formidable Eurasian foe, Germany—and that did not mean surrendering Midway to Japan.

           Unlike the Axis aggressors, west and east, of World War II, today’s Heartland revisionists themselves stand face to face across a vast and rich terrain. Even in World War II, the free world’s strategists gave careful thought to how choices they made in one theater might affect the other, and the lesser theater was never ignored. The cause-and-effect connection in geopolitics today is much stronger, not just because we live in a world of more integrated markets and communications, but, moreover, because the two main revisionist powers today are not separated by half a planet. Russia and China are the contiguous co-occupants of the Heartland. Their decisions, and our responses, affect the eventual course of events across Eurasia and beyond.

           Russia, as the weaker partner of the two Heartland revisionists, serves the other best if it absorbs itself in the European extremities of the great landmass they share. Directing its energies to the west, Russia assures China more effectively than any treaty or partnership organization ever will that China shall have the freedom to continue its outward turn. Our strategy in the Pacific does not rise or fall independently, for the strength of the competitor we face there fluctuates on the shifting tides of the Heartland.

           The cause-and-effect relationships do not end with Russia and China. The United States must consider its options on the Euro-Atlantic side of the globe with care. Allocating American security resources to Europe over decades has induced reliance and incentivized inaction. The free-rider problem[67],[68] is one that successive United States administrations had recognized. The Trump Administration aimed to address the problem by making clear that the United States would re-consider its commitments, if Europe did not carry its share of the security burden. Calling on European partners to meet the defense needs of the Continent is futile, if the United States does not credibly express readiness to direct its resources elsewhere.[69] But, if a revisionist aggressor were to make significant inroads against a weak or acquiescent Europe, then the larger security mission of the United States would become even costlier. There are difficult antinomies here.

           This much, however, is clear: the revisionist powers, China and Russia, present interconnected variables. The United States, in addressing China and Russia, must stay alert as to how each variable affects the others and how our own decisions, subject to the reality of finite security resources, affect geopolitics at large.

[1] The conduct here concerned includes, but is not limited to, Russia’s forcible annexation of Crimea in 2014 and intervention in eastern Ukraine (Donbas), as to which see Thomas D. Grant, “Annexation of Crimea,” American Journal of International Law 109, no. 1 (January 2015): 68–95, Russia’s threats of force starting in late 2021 and continuing into 2022 are themselves a significant development in geopolitics.

[2] Chiefly regarding NATO’s presence in former Warsaw Pact areas. The claim that NATO breached an agreement with the USSR to the effect that the Alliance would never include territories formerly part of states of the Warsaw Pact is dubious. See Steven Pifer, “Did NATO Promise Not to Enlarge? Gorbachev Says ‘No’,” Brookings, November 6, 2014, 

[3] See also claims about alleged deployments of U.S. mercenaries and other non-existent threats: David M. Herszenhorn, “Russia claims US mercenaries plan chemical attack in Ukraine,” Politico, December 21, 2021,

[4] Elbridge Colby, who served as a Deputy Assistant Secretary 2017–2018 in the US Department of Defense, is one of the main exponents of prioritizing China and the Pacific. See, e.g., Elbridge Colby (@ElbridgeColby), “You know what phrase really worries me when I hear it about the US military situation? That we can ‘walk and chew gum at the same time.’ Yet that’s what @PentagonPresSec said to @DanLamothe. Beating China in Asia isn’t chewing gum. Totally underestimates the scale of challenge.” Twitter, January 28, 2022, 7:08 a.m., and Elbridge Colby (@ElbridgeColby), “I largely agree with this in the economic and diplomatic. Laid out below. But in military capacity and hard-core diplomatic capital, there is real scarcity and we Americans need to focus on Asia.,” Twitter, January 27, 2022, 4:49 p.m., However, Colby also suggests that a role remains for the United States to aid Europeans in coordinating a security effort largely carried by Europeans: see, e.g., Elbridge Colby (@ElbridgeColby), “I’d just add that it is in Europe’s self-interest to do so. America’s interest directs us to Asia. The result will either be a security vacuum in Europe – which Europeans will bear the costs of – or a concerted effort by Europe, aiding by the United States, to prevent that.” Twitter, January 27, 2022, 3:34 p.m., and Elbridge Colby (@ElbridgeColby), “We can achieve both goals, but we can’t pretend we can do so largely on our own. I do think denying China control over Asia is more important than our interests in Europe – hence the prioritization – but our interests in Europe are very important. Nature of priorities. 1/,” Twitter, March 3, 2022, 7:15 a.m.,

[5] Christopher A. Ford, U.S.-Australia “Track II” dialogue held at the Australian Defense College in Canberra (April 18, 2013), in Christopher A. Ford, “The Asia-Pacific Region’s ‘Operating System’ and The ‘Chinese Dream’ of Global ‘Return,’” New Paradigms Forum, April 30, 2013,; A ‘China Model?’ Beijing’s Promotion of Alternative Global Norms and Standards: Hearing Before the U.S.-China Econ. & Sec. Rev. Comm’n, 116th Cong. 35–69, 169–80 (2020) (statements of Daniel Tobin, Member of the China Studies Faculty, National Intelligence University, and Senior Associate (Non-resident), Freeman Chair in China Studies, Center for Strategic and International Studies).

[6] Not a new description of the European map, this taxonomy owes, inter alia, to Timothy Snyder, Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin (New York: Basic Books, 2010).

[7] As to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s use of history as a tool of present-day politics, see Bohdan Vitvitksy, “Disarming Putin’s history weapon,” UkraineAlert, Atlantic Council, January 23, 2022,

[8] NATO expansion and other events about which Putin complains supply no valid grounds for his war. Thomas Grant, “Vladimir Putin’s Unreal Realpolitik Over Ukraine,” 1945, March 3, 2022,

[9] Or in cognate terms, such as “unstable periphery,” as used by R. Nicholas Burns & James L. Jones, Jr., “Restoring the power and purpose of the NATO alliance,” Atlantic Council, June 1, 2016, 8­–11,

[10] See also for interesting observations about the geopolitics of Nazi-tainted legal philosopher Carl Schmitt and present-day Russian views of Ukraine: Stefan Auer, “Carl Schmitt in the Kremlin: the Ukraine crisis and the return of geopolitics,” International Affairs 91, no. 5 (September 2015): 953–968,

[11] Timothy Snyder, The Reconstruction of Nations: Poland, Ukraine, Lithuania, Belarus, 1569–1999 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003).

[12] Daniel Z. Stone, The Polish-Lithuanian State, 1386–1795 (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2001).

[13] Robert I. Frost, The Oxford History of Poland-Lithuania, Volume 1: The Making of the Polish-Lithuanian Union, 1385–1569 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015).

[14] Orest Subtelny, Ukraine: A History, Fourth Edition (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2009), 69–80.

[15] Norman Davies, God’s Playground: A History of Poland (New York: Columbia University Press, 1982), 487.

[16] Subtelny, Ukraine, 19–54.

[17] See the note from the Ukrainian delegate in Geneva addressed to the Secretary-General of the League of Nations and pleading for diplomatic recognition in the face of invasion from Soviet Russia: A. Choulguiny, Assembly doc. no. 20/48/234 (dated Dec. 11 and 12, 1920) and accompanying dossier on “Occupation of the Ukraine by the Troops of the Soviet Republic of Russia” (dated Dec.1, 1920), Assembly doc. no. 20/48/214.

[18] Sean McMeekin, Stalin’s War: A New History of World War II (New York: Basic Books, 2021), 71–155.

[19] Thomas D. Grant, Aggression Against Ukraine: Territory, Responsibility, and International Law (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015), 103–131.

[20] Thomas D. Grant, “Boundaries and Rights after 2014: Helsinki at a Crossroads,” Security and Human Rights 26, (December 2015): 383–405,

[21] Grant, Aggression Against Ukraine, 107–116.

[22] Perhaps most explicit among Russia’s acknowledgements that Ukraine’s border is final and settled is the Agreement on the Ukrainian Russian State Border of January 29, 2003. However, Russia acknowledges Ukraine’s borders, sovereignty, and independence in many other treaties, not least of all those by which Ukraine agreed to lease naval and military bases to Russia on the Crimean peninsula. None of Russia’s treaties or other transactions with Ukraine before 2013 articulated a formal claim against Ukraine’s territory.

[23] E.g., in Africa: Frontier Dispute (Burkina Faso/Mali), Judgment, 1986 I.C.J. Rep. at p. 564 ¶ 19 (Dec. 22).

[24] Grant, “Vladimir Putin’s Unreal Realpolitik.”

[25] For a survey of the historiography of the conquest, see Charles J. Halperin, “Russia in the Mongol Empire in Comparative Perspective,” Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 43, no. 1 (June 1983): 239–261,

[26] See, e.g., Richard Ned Lebow & Janice Gross Stein, “Deterrence and the Cold War,” Political Science Quarterly 110, no. 2 (Summer 1995): 157–181,

[27] Heinrich Schwendemann, “German-Soviet Economic Relations at the Time of the Hitler-Stalin pact 1939-1941”, Cahiers du Monde russe 36, no. 1/2, (June 1995): 161–178,

[28] McMeekin, Stalin’s War, 77, 84.

[29] See, e.g., the EU’s 2016 Global Strategy, prioritizing “relations with reliable energy-producing and transit countries” (emphasis added), as discussed in Martin Russell, Energy security in the EU’s external policy (European Parliamentary Research Service, March 2020), 9,

[30] Aaron L. Friedberg, “What’s at Stake in the Indo-Pacific. What happens at sea will determine what happens on land across the region,” US Naval Institute Proceedings 147/10/1,424, (October 2021),

[31] Adam Nicolson, The Mighty Dead: Why Homer Matters (London: William Collins, 2014), 144–178.

[32] Alfred Thayer Mahan, The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, 1660–1783 (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1898); Halford J. Mackinder, “The Geographical Pivot of History,” The Geographical Journal XXIII, no. 4 (April 1904): 421–438.

[33] Halford J. Mackinder, Democratic Ideals and Reality: A Study in the Politics of Reconstruction (New York: Henry Holt and Company, Inc., 1919), 106 and esp. id. at 111-112: “The condition of stability in the territorial rearrangement of East Europe is that the division should be into three and not into two state-systems. It is a vital necessity that there should be a tier of independent states between Germany and Russia.”

[34] Congressional Research Service, China Naval Modernization: Implications for U.S. Navy Capabilities—Background and Issues for Congress (updated March 8, 2022), 2,

[35] Congressional Research Service, China Naval Modernization,5 (quoting 2021 DOD CMSD, 75–76).

[36] Congressional Research Service, China Naval Modernization,5, 39, 41.

[37] Regarding Russia’s hybrid warfare, see Thomas D. Grant, “Intervention, Interveners, and Their More Subtle Means,” in Thomas D. Grant, International Law in the Post-Soviet Space II. Essays on Ukraine, Intervention, and Non-Proliferation (New York: Ibidem/Columbia University Press, 2019), 290-309.

[38] Grant, “Intervention, Interveners,” 4, 53. See also Eric Heginbotham, et al, The U.S.-China Military Scorecard. Forces, Geography, and the Evolving Balance of Power, 1996–2017 (RAND, 2015), 153-154,

[39] But see remarks of Chief of Naval Operations John Richardson in 2016 indicating the confidence of the United States Navy in its capabilities for operating “within zones defended by so-called anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) weapons.” Congressional Research Service, China Naval Modernization, 53.

[40] See testimony of General Stephen Townsend, United States Army, Commander, U.S. Africa Command, to House Armed Services Committee (April 20, 2021), and reported by Sam LaGrone, “AFRICOM: Chinese Naval Base in Africa Set to Support Aircraft Carriers,” USNI News, April 20, 2021,

[41] Michaël Tanchum, “China’s new military base in Africa: What it means for Europe and America,” European Council on Foreign Relations,December 14, 2021,

[42] Jonathan Pryke, “The risks of China’s ambitions in the South Pacific,” Brookings, July 20, 2020,

[43] Joshua P. Meltzer, “China’s One Belt One Road initiative: A view from the United States,” Brookings (June 19, 2017), available at

[44] Richard Ghiasy, China’s Belt and Road Initiative: Security Implications and Ways Forward for the European Union, (SIPRI and Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, 2018),

[45] As to the “Maritime Silk Road,” see Michael J. Green, “China’s Maritime Silk Road: Strategic and Economic Implications for the Indo-Pacific Region,” Center for Strategic and International Studies, April 2, 2018,

[46] Sheila A. Smith, “The Quad in the Indo-Pacific: What to Know,” Council on Foreign Relations,May 27, 2021,

[47] Andrew S. Erickson, Lyle J. Goldstein, and Carnes Lord, China Goes to Sea: Maritime Transformation in Comparative Historical Perspective (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2009).

[48] Office of the United States Trade Representative, Findings of the Investigation into China’s Acts, Policies, and Practices, Related to Technology Transfer, Intellectual Property, and Innovation under Section 301 of the Trade Act of 1974 (Executive Office of the President, 2018),

[49] It is true that China has maintained some of the most comprehensive sanitary and health measures of any country, allegedly to prevent the spread of Covid-19 back into China. However, such measures differ qualitatively from armed conflict at the borders. As to the Covid-19 measures, see Timothy McLaughlin, “Can China Ever Reopen?” The Atlantic,February 5, 2022,

[50] Reuters Staff, “Over 7,000 Russian troops killed since start of invasion -Ukrainian official,” Reuters, March 2, 2022,

[51] Seth G. Jones, “The Age of Insurgency” in Counterinsurgency in Afghanistan: RAND Counterinsurgency Study—Volume 4 (RAND, 2008) 25, 27.

[52] Thomas Grant, “Russia’s Chinese Future,” 1945, March 5, 2022,

[53] Jacob W. Kipp, “Russia’s Wars in Chechnya,” The Brown Journal of World Affairs 8, no. 1 (Winter/Spring 2001): 37, 59,; Emma Gilligan, “The Costs of Peace in Chechnya,” Current History 114, no.774 (October 2015): 266,

[54] Stasys Knezys and Romanas Sedlickas, The War in Chechnya (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 1999), 304.

[55] Radio Maryja Staff, “Min. P. Naimski: Planowany nowy plywajacy terminal LNG bedzie mogl przyjmowac gaz skroplony od dowolnych producentow na swiecie,” Radio Maryja, March 4, 2022,

[56] European Commission, EU-US LNG Trade (European Commission, 2019),

[57] See Ukraine Defence Intelligence summary (Mar. 7, 2022):; On Mar. 7, 2022, Major General Vitaly Gerasimov (not to be confused with Valery Gerasimov, the Russian Chief of Staff) was killed near Kharkiv. He is arguably the highest-ranking officer in the army of a great power killed in a combat theater since World War II. See “Під Харковом ліквідовано генерал-майора російської армії,” Головне управління розвідки Міністерства оборони України, last updated March 7, 2022,

[58] Aris Roussinos, “How Russia could invade Ukraine. A shock and awe campaign could overwhelm Eastern Europe,” Unherd, January 29, 2022,

[59] “Policy statement by Olaf Scholz, Chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany and Member of the German Bundestag, 27 February 2022 in Berlin,” The Federal Government, last updated February 27, 2022,

[60] See Otto Forst de Battaglia, Jan Sobieski, Mit Habsburg gegen die Türken (1982); Norman Davies, God’s Playground: A History of Poland, The Origins to 1795 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1982), 487.

[61] Important in this regard is the like-mindedness of the alternative suppliers. Venezuela under the illegal administration of Nicolás Maduro would not qualify. Marianna Parraga, Vivian Sequera, Matt Spetalnick and Diego Oré, “U.S., Venezuela discuss easing sanctions, make little progress: sources,” Reuters, March 6, 2022,

[62] As to the illegality of the regime in power, see Maduro Board of the Central Bank of Venezuela v. Guaidó Board of the Central Bank of Venezuela [2021] UKSC 57 (S.Ct. UK, 2021).

[63] Thomas D. Grant, “Islands, Rocks, Low-Tide Elevations, or None of the Above: Some Practical Considerations in Case You Have to Decide,” in Tomas Heidar (ed.), Maritime Challenges in Asia (Seoul: Korea Maritime Institute, 2017), 221-249.

[64] E.g., articles 88, 89, and 90 of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, December 10, 1982: 1833 U.N.T.S. at 433.

[65] Julian Lider, “The Correlation of World Forces: The Soviet Concept,” Journal of Peace Research 17, no. 2 (June 1980): 151–171,

[66] Clint Reach, Vikram Kilambi, and Mark Cozad, Russian Assessments and Applications of the Correlation of Forces and Means (Santa Monica: RAND, 2020), 1–2.

[67] A problem that Elbridge Colby, among others, have highlighted. Elbridge Colby (@Elbridge Colby), “If this is right – and there’s reason to think it is – then the *last* thing Washington should do is reassure Germany. Germany needs to see clearly the costs and risks it will bear, not have them concealed as if America will always take care of things,” Twitter, January 30, 2022, 1:05 p.m., and Elbridge Colby (@Elbridge Colby), “Germans should take heed. It would be ‘brain dead’ for the US to jeopardize its primary interest in Asia to float German free-riding. Germany holds Europe’s future in its hands. It can take the lead and preserve a stable Europe or open it to chaos. America can’t bail it out,” Twitter, January 30, 2022, 11:17 a.m., Among earlier academic commentary, see Hans Binnendijk, Friends, Foes, and Future Directions: U.S. Partnerships in a Turbulent World: Strategic Rethink (RAND Corporation, 2016), esp. Ch. 5, “European Partners and the ‘Free Rider’ Problem,” pp. 61 ff.

[68] Among earlier academic commentary, see Hans Binnendijk, Friends, Foes, and Future Directions: U.S. Partnerships in a Turbulent World: Strategic Rethink (Santa Monica: RAND Corporation, 2016), esp. Ch. 5, “European Partners and the ‘Free Rider’ Problem,” 61.

[69] Elbridge Colby (@Elbridge Colby), “Well, the only way we’ll get them to do it is if they see we’re serious about shifting. They have to believe we won’t actually be there to carry the load. That’s inevitable. We can do the shift now somewhat gracefully, or later very suddenly and precipitously,” Twitter, February 1, 2022, 8:32 p.m.,

By Thomas D. Grant

Thomas D. Grant is a Fellow at Wolfson College, University of Cambridge and a Fellow at the Lauterpacht Centre for International Law, University of Cambridge. He served as Senior Advisor for Strategic Planning in the Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation and to the Office of the Undersecretary for Arms Control and International Security, US Department of State, 2019–2021. The opinions and characterizations in this piece are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the US government or any other organization.