Russia's war in Ukraine is ostensibly all about deterring NATO from its sphere of influence, but the irony is the fight so far has gravely degraded Russia's military position in Europe — and above all its ability to compel with threats of force that fall under the nuclear threshold.
In the runup to his unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin often warned that "military technical measures" might become necessary to prevent the former Soviet republic from joining NATO. From there, he argued, its conversion into an American missile base ready to strike Moscow with just five minutes warning was virtually guaranteed — just as Putin is currently using the vassal-state of Belarus as a launching pad for Russian armies and Iskander missiles assailing Ukraine.
While the Kremlin's increasingly de-platformed media is unsurprisingly weaving a narrative of brilliant success for its domestic audience and fawning overseas admirers, the shortcomings and blunders of its forces are clear to all who can see the imagery pouring out of Ukraine.
Lengthy columns of armored vehicles stalled, hundreds of functional systems abandoned by crews out of food and fuel, a startling number of whom have been taken prisoner. Multiple units of elite paratroopers wiped out in reckless landings behind enemy lines. Poor communications infrastructure leading to reliance on unsecured commercial phones and radios. A shocking number of high-ranking generals and colonels killed on the battlefield.
To be sure, Moscow would have planned any war directly involving NATO very differently. But in terms of conventional deterrence, the damage is done: The limitations of Russia's military, and the deluded judgments informing its employment, have left an indelible impression, making the threat of Russian conventional military power less convincing than before, even while the perceived need to defend against it has increased.
Furthermore, Putin's invasion has dispelled the (largely misconceived) mystique of "hybrid warfare" that grew around his military actions in Ukraine and Syria in the mid-2010s. Instead, Moscow's dreaded global disinformation machine fizzled dramatically with unconvincing false flag operations, its notorious hackers failed to produce notable exploits in cyber-destabilization, and its electronic warfare units are puzzlingly missing.
Instead, "new generation warfare" tactics U.S. analysts observed Russian forces practicing in Syria and Ukraine, which emphasized use of drones and electronic reconnaissance to direct precision air and artillery strikes, now seem to have been only reflective of what a limited subset of Russia's military could do, and then only under specific conditions.
Some will argue, with some truth, that Moscow didn't bring its "A game" to the Ukraine invasion. Indeed, drunk on its own propaganda of Ukrainian brutality and incompetence, the Kremlin planned a Crimea-like smash-and-grab operation that assumed Kyiv would fall rapidly, and the rest of Ukraine with it.
A 2016 Rand study postulating that Russia could discretely build up a killer invasion force to seize the Baltics in 36-72 hours without NATO noticing and counter-mobilizing now seems naïve, given how quickly Putin's months-long buildup adjacent to Ukraine was detected, how badly Russian forces are struggling to advance relatively short distances.
To be sure Russia can and will endure the sanctions thrust upon it, having experienced much worse in its history. But the financial and economic problems that have greatly delayed its touted military modernization—including new T-14 tanks and Su-57 stealth fighters—seem certain to worsen.
Furthermore, even a Russian "victory" in Ukraine (still far from guaranteed) could prove more costly than defeat: Leaving Moscow committed to a long-term occupation of a country full of very angry people with nearly 35 times the land mass of Chechnya and 29 times the population prior.
Such an occupation will brutalize both occupier and occupied and incur onerous costs on the Kremlin. Rubles that could have gone to finding ways to defeat NATO stealth fighters and Aegis warships will have to be poured into sustaining tens or even hundreds of thousands of occupation troops and their ambush-protected vehicles as they thanklessly prop whatever hated puppet regime is imposed by Moscow.
Russia's actions in Ukraine therefore have persuaded leaders across Europe that Russia poses an unpredictable threat, but also one it can likely beat on the conventional battlefield. Indeed, Russia now appears destined to face a reinvigorated NATO alliance, with member states like Germany reinvesting in atrophied military capabilities and rotating, or potentially even permanently basing, larger forces than before to Poland, Romania and the Baltics. Finland and Sweden, which have long shied away from the alliance, have seriously begun considering membership.
By its own paranoid logic, the Kremlin in return will have to maintain even larger forces in its Western Military District to contain this expanded 'threat.'
Of course, Moscow will always have its huge nuclear arsenal to lean upon, with which it has rarely shied away from making threats.
If there is a silver-lining for Russia, it's that NATO truly isn't capable of, nor interested in, an offensive war against Russia. Germany will not launch a second Operation Barbarossa, nor will Washington dispatch a second 'Polar Bear' expedition to install Alexei Navalny in the Kremlin.
Indeed, had Russia not invaded Ukraine in 2022, Germany would have maintained its anemic military spending and begun piping gas from Nord Stream 2. And the Biden administration would have likely sought to shift more of the U.S. military out of Europe and the Middle East and into the Asia-Pacific.
Instead, Putin's criminal invasion has made Russia weaker, and encouraged the states it views as threats to grow more united.