Ukraine and The “Thucydides Trap,” by Michael Brenner

The importance of Ukraine, in the eyes of American officials, goes far beyond the country’s intrinsic geopolitical or economic value. That was as true in 2014 as it was in 2021 – and most certainly now. The United States’ heavy investment in the campaign to pull Ukraine into the Western orbit signals what are Washington’s broader strategic goals. To put it simply: the crisis is rooted in Washington’s preoccupation with Russia. It has very little to do with Ukraine per se. That benighted country has provided the occasion, not the cause of the current confrontation. 

For the past 20-plus years – since Valdimir Putin’s accession to power – , the denaturing of Russia as a significant power on the European scene (much less the global scene) has been a bedrock objective of American foreign policy. The country’s Phoenix-like rise from the ashes has been unsettling to Washington – policy-makers, politicos, think tankers alike. Even the far more menacing threat to the United States’ dominant global position posed by China has not diminished that concern. Indeed, the dreaded prospect of a Sino-Russian partnership has hardened the ambition to weaken – if not eliminate entirely – the Russia factor in the American strategic equation.

The current Russo-American duel in Ukraine is the inexorable outcome of mounting tensions generated shortly after the inauguration of the Biden administration. That sense of crisis in turn was at once cause and reinforced effect of a flareup in the smoldering embers of the initial conflagration dating from the Washington instigated Maidan coup of March 2014.  The successive phases of that fraught situation should be placed in the context of growing hostility in Russo-American relations generally during that period. Its milestones were Moscow’s intervention in the Syrian civil war, the repeated actions of successive American administrations in breaking or withdrawing from a series of arms control agreements dating from the Cold War which raised Moscow’s concerns about Washington’s military capabilities and intentions: NATO’s irrepressible enlargement eastwards (with the attendant deployment of ballistic missile defense systems in Poland and Romania being a particular source of worry – easily convertible into offensive missile launcher platforms), the sponsored ‘color revolutions’ around Russia’s periphery, and the emotional anti-Russia sentiment aroused by the manipulated ‘Russiagate’ affair. Hence, Ukraine represents the ultimate breakdown in relations between Moscow and Washington.  

From April of 2021 onwards, the contours of the unfolding American strategy toward Ukraine cum Russia rapidly gained clarity. There is substantial evidence that President Biden and his senior foreign policy officials made a judgment that there was reason, and opportunity, to rekindle the Ukraine affair. (1) The objectives were two-fold: 1) to resolve the festering twin issues of Crimea and the secessionist regions of the Donbass on Western terms that would restore the full territorial sovereignty of Ukraine – thereby, paving the way for its formal incorporation into NATO &/or the European Union; and 2) to weaken Russia either by intimidating Moscow to make crucial  concessions in line with Western visions of Eastern Europe’s political space or by exerting military pressure via the deploying of a much strengthened Ukrainian force on the Donbass border that threatened actual hostilities – whether a Ukrainian irridentist attack across the line of control or Russian preemption. The latter variations would lead to the imposition of draconian economic sanctions, already prepared, whose implementation was eagerly sort by influential parties within and outside the Biden administration.  

The prevailing view of the war’s outbreak pays scant attention to this confrontational thinking. Nor does it give proper weight to the aggressive moves by the Kiev government in line with the American strategy. Russia’s military assault on February 24 cannot rightly be said to be entirely ‘unprovoked’ – justified or not. The marked build-up of Ukraine forces along the contact line, supplied with an abundance of Javelin anti-armor weapons and Sprint air defense missiles, could be seen as foretelling preparations for offensive military operations.  Washington expected, and Moscow understood, that the ensuing crisis would force the West Europeans to go along with a comprehensive economic sanctions package (including NORDSTROM II’s annulment). Crippling sanctions were the centerpiece of the plan to use the Ukrainian crisis to catalyze regime change in Russia.  There was complete agreement among Biden’s foreign policy team on the proposition that those draconian measures would produce a collapse of the fragile, supposedly one-dimensional Russian economy. (An ancillary benefit for the U.S. being greater European dependence on America for its energy resources – in particular, LNG to replace natural gas from Russia). Moreover, the deepening commercial ties between Russian and the powers of Europe would be severed – probably irreparably. A new Iron Curtain would divide the continent, one that now is marked by a line of blood – Ukrainian blood. That geostrategic reality would free the West to devote its full energies to dealing with China. Everything the United States has done vis a vis Ukraine over the past year has been dictated by those interlocking objectives.

In short, the main target of what Washington did about Ukraine was Russia – with an entrenching of the Europeans habitual obedience to Washington a collateral gain. A widespread, hopefully global, boycott of Russian natural gas and oil exports was seen as draining the financial lifeblood from of the country’s economy as revenue from exports dwindled. Together with the planned move to cut Russia out of the SWIFT financial transaction mechanism, the shock to the economy would cause it to implode. The ruble would collapse, inflation would skyrocket, living standards would tumble, popular discontent would so weaken Putin that he either would be forced to resign or be displaced by a cabal of discontented oligarchs. The outcome would be a weaker Russia beholden to the West or one isolated and impotent.  As President Biden would say:  “For God’s sake, this man cannot remain in power.” (2) 

Common to these optimistic scenarios was the hope that the budding Sino-Russian partnership would be fatally wounded – thereby, shifting the balance in favor of the United States in the forthcoming battle with China for global supremacy. How was the plan designed and decided? In truth, the overall goals had been in place since the Obama administration. The President himself had given his approval to the Maiden coup, it was overseen directly by then Vice-President Joe Biden who acted as the (usually) absentee prefect for Ukraine between March 2014 and January 2016. The Obama government moved strenuously to block implementation of the Minsk II accord, remonstrating with Merkel and Macron for agreeing to be its underwriters. That is the main reason why both Berlin and Paris never made the slightest move to persuade Kiev to live up to its obligations. The specific operation to provoke a crisis in the Donbass was marinating among influential persons (including Tony Blinken and Jake Sullivan) in neo-con circles during the Trump presidency – whose incoherence and disjointedness prevented the fashioning of any calibrated, concerted policy toward Ukraine or Russia, although the weight of sanctions imposed increased over those four years.


Just as policy toward Ukraine should be viewed in the context of Biden’s tough attitude toward Moscow, so the Russian policy should be placed in the wider context of the new administration’s macro decision to confront rivals – actual or potential – across the board. In other words, full-bore Wolfowitz Doctrine.(3) Pressing Moscow on Ukraine has been companion to the project of diluting the historic commitments made in the ‘One China’ accord with Beijing on Taiwan 50 years earlier, and the casting away of the promised renewal of the nuclear agreement (JPCOA) with Iran by setting rigorous conditions that Washington knew Iran never could accept. This turbo-charging of well-established American strategic plans was not publicized or even hinted at in public communications (with the exception of the Pentagon’s annual National Defense Review and NATO’s New Strategic Concept).4  It did not attract interest in the media, nor directly engage the wider foreign policy community which, in any case, gradually had formed a consensus on its basic premises and goals over the preceding 20 years.  

So, the American strategy as depicted above did not emerge fully formed from the mind of Biden administration officials. Its primary elements have been in place for a generation. Yet, the underlying premises seem out of line with strategic realities in a basic respect. Objectively speaking, the United States is more secure from external danger than at any time since before World War I. It has no enemies capable or desirous of using military force against either national territory or its core interests abroad. China is not an avatar of Imperial Japan and poses quite a different order of challenge. Putin’s Russia is not an avatar of the Soviet Union in ideological terms or great power terms. Its promotion of Russian national interests and dedication to securing its place as a significant player on the world stage is what big countries always have done. These circumstances seemingly open the possibility to pursue policies that aim at accommodation with those two powers.

However, the American perspective on its place in the world deviates from this line of thinking in two critical respects. First, Washington’s principal concern is not security per se; rather it is to maintain its present dominant position in world affairs along with the attendant prerogatives to act and to prioritize its own national interests in all dealings with the rest of the world. Whereas in the post-war decades, it can rightly be said that the United States 

consciously set out to create ‘public goods’ that served its partners’ interests as well as its own, its measures of success progressively became the consolidation of its global dominance along with the national benefits that flow from it.

Over the past decade that has seen the stunning rise of China, the West – at American direction – implicitly has built its strategic thinking on the ‘Thucydides’ model of relations among states. Doing so was not the outcome of a rigorous, deliberate process. There was no great debate either in intellectual circles or among senior policy-makers. Admittedly, in Washington the tight circle of hardline nationalists and ‘neo-cons’ have known for decades exactly what they wanted: a world system dominated by the American hegemon which would set the rules according to its own lights and was prepared to use all means at its disposal to enforce them. That included preventing the rise of any major challenger – e.g. the Paul Wolfowitz design.  Their disproportionate influence in winning the allegiance of the country’s foreign policy establishment represents a remarkable accomplishment – one made possible by the absence of a clearly etched alternatives digestible by political elites prone to acquiesce in fashionable ideas promoted by more willful groups.

The crystallizing grand strategy has the further advantage of being the path of intellectual least resistance. For it revives the simplistic Cold War template and superimposes it on today’s far more complicated, far less comprehensible reality. In effect, this greatly simplified – one might ay primitive – version of the Thucydides model transforms strategy into a form of political hydraulics. The generation of a state’s power, transmitted through its military and economic might, places pressures on other states to which they must either succumb or resist by generating counter pressures. When it’s a matter of a rising power threatening the dominance of the prevailing dominant power, the outcome is war – most of the time. That’s it – dressed out in the dramatic garb of historical cases  and denigrating the peculiarities of the present world circumstances.

Synthesizing all of this is a formidable intellectual and strategic challenge. The world has become too complicated for traditional foreign policy doctrines to bear. The result is not innovation and imagination. Quite the opposite. We are seeking refuge in the old Realpolitik verities of balance-of-power and great power competition to establish positions of dominance. The core conviction is the idea that the United States should use all instruments of influence, not excepting coercive force – and including preventive as well as preemptive war, to maintain its global preeminence while shaping the world to its preferred design. Hence, the growing acceptance of the idea that a conflict between America and China for the Number One spot, ensconced on the throne reserved for the global supremo, is inevitable.  Senior American military commanders have gone so far as to include in an official Pentagon communication the admonition that we should prepare for war with China within two years.6

There is reason to be leery of this structural determinism.  The very fact that we are in unprecedented, fluid circumstances (which likely will continue to be so indefinitely) seems to underscore not only the possible crystallization of a multitude of outcomes but also that competent and willful leaders may well have some latitude in inflecting the trajectory taken. One can visualize some sort of ‘mixed’ quasi-system.  This conception of a multipolar system that emphasizes multilateralism loosely overseen by an implicit concert of the most influential great powers, nowhere has been closely examined – much less considered by the leading figures in Western governments. That is to say, the elites who direct their countries’ external affairs. The statesman who has pondered its modalities is Vladimir Putin who has sketched an outline of its forms and methods in numerous speeches and writings over the past 2007. The blunt truth is that his Western counterparts never have paid them much attention or thought seriously about the ideas they convey. Of course, today that is all a dead letter. There is zero opportunity to engage in the dialogue they foresaw and which could lead to the set of rules, understandings and agreements that would provide the skeletal framework for such a construction.

In practical terms, that would entail various sets of rules-of-the-road (explicit and implicit) that bring a modicum of order to each dimension of an interdependent world – economic, security, ‘communications’ – without there existing any comprehensive, overarching architecture. In addition, these partial regimes need not be universal in membership so long as marginal participants are not in a position to upset/challenge what’s in place.

Does such a quasi-order need a hegemon? Not necessarily – what it would need is a concert. It would retain liberal elements – especially in regard to international economic intercourse; they would be functionally restricted, though – and certainly with no universal political formats. Crisis management and conflict mediation among parties other than the Big 3 would be handled through either their benign mediation or simply encapsulated. Norms and methods also may have to be amended to take account of disruptive domestic impacts such as the revival of insular nationalism and anti-globalization grievances.

Obviously, no such set of arrangements is conceivable without a meeting of minds among the US and China along with Russia. The Europeans are totally devoid of any political will and will follow in our wake. They are a non-player. One can make the persuasive argument that the greatest obstacle is the United States – for all kinds of reasons. Still, in terms of personalities, a case can be made that the two leaders best able to engage in a foundation-laying exercise are Putin and Xi. Intelligent, rational, big thinkers, in full charge of their countries. Incredulous? Quite understandable in current circumstances. The idea is moot. Still, in all honesty, there is not a scintilla of evidence that the thought ever crossed the mind of an U.S. President or a European counterpart at any time since 2000. Indeed, it is doubtful that any of them ever paid close attention to what Putin actually was writing or saying – or sought to discern what Xi’s thinking along these lines might have been. (There is reason to suspect the same is true of their senior aides: Blinken/ Sullivan/Austin; Cleverly/Wallace;  Baerbock; Borrell….)  For Hillary Clinton, Putin was a “new Hitler;’ for Barack Obama, he was the diabolical enemy who attempted to corrupt American democracy though manipulation of the 2016 election – warning Putin that “we can do stuff to you!;”  as for Joe Biden, he is a “killer” who must leave the scene immediately. Anyway, it is hard to envisage a serious, candid discussion of grand themes around a table where Putin and Xi were matched with Biden, Schulz, Sunak/Johnson, Ruud, Macron, Stoltenberg, Van der Leyen, et al.  To picture your adversaries as cartoon figures, at whom you whimsically throw verbal darts, is a sure-fire way to fail – and to risk catastrophic failure.  


Whatever the exact outcome of the Ukraine conflict – in military, political & diplomatic terms – a few conclusions can be made with confidence. Foremost, is the cementing of two antagonistic power blocs: the “Collective West” composing the United States led alliance of the five transoceanic Anglo-Sazon countries, the EU bloc along with the auxiliary East Asian powers: Japan and South Korea. The other, Eurasian bloc will be dominated by the Sino-Russian duopoly supported by a mixed assortment of friends: inter alia Iran, the Central Asian states, Belarus, Venezuela. They will be rivals in every domain: security, commerce, finance and the nebulous domain of values and culture. Other significant players, e.g. India, Brazil, Turkey, Indonesian will avoid joining either while pursuing their own national interests. It is noteworthy that none of the last mentioned participated in the sanctions imposed on Russia; indeed, some (India, Turkey plus Saudi Arabia) took active steps to counteract them while profiting from both discounted energy prices and serving as middlemen between Russia and eager consumers – including some in the West. In fact, no country outside the ‘Collective West’ cooperated in observing sanctions restrictions.

Second, the neo-liberal conception of an economically integrated, globalized world wherein the old games of power politics are foresworn is now defunct. Functional integration in the economic sphere will continue – but with significant qualifications. All states will be more actively involved in ensuring that their national interests are not compromised by the workings of international markets and the decisions of private actors. Too, governments will be attentive to relative gains from all modes of economic intercourse. Political considerations will be omnipresent, although not always determinant.

The broadest, enduring effect of this devolution of the global system into blocs – the legacy of Ukraine – will be that dealings between nations across blocs (or even non-members with major blocs members) cannot escape the logic dictated by an overarching rivalry. Suspicion, close calculation of benefit/costs/risks of transactions, and acute security consciousness will be pervasive. Arms control is the outstanding – and perhaps most important case in point. In that sensitive domain, a measure of trust (albeit grounded on convergent interests) is essential. None exists now nor will it in the foreseeable future. Distrust rules. More the pity.

  1. This assessment is based on interviews with participants in the administration’s policy-making process.
  1. Remarks of President Joseph Biden in Warsaw March 25, 2022
  2. Wolfowitz Doctrineis an unofficial name given to the initial version of the Defense Planning Guidance for the 1994–1999 fiscal years (dated February 18, 1992) published by U.S. Under Secretary of Defense for PolicyPaul Wolfowitz and his deputy Scooter Libby.
  3. 2022 National Defense Strategy (October 27, 2022); and NATO 2022 New Strategic Concept March 3, 2023).

5.      See the seminal article by John Mearscheimer “ Bound to Fail: The Rise and Fall of the Liberal International Order “ International Security (2019) 43 (4): 7–50. His is a refined, rigorous and historically informed exposition of the “ThucydidesTrap.”

  1. General Mike Minihan, who as head of Air Mobility Command oversees the U.S. Air Force’s cargo and tanker fleet, urged airmen to be “unrepentantly lethal” in preparation for potential war with China. Later, he said “My gut tells me we will fight in 2025.” Air Force amn/nco/snco January 26, 2023

Michael Brenner