Analysis & Opinions - Foreign Policy

Russia's Defeat Would Be America's Problem

| Sep. 27, 2022

Victory in Ukraine could easily mean hubris in Washington.

At the end of Pericles's speech convincing his fellow Athenians to declare war on Sparta in 431 B.C., he declared that he was "more afraid of our own blunders than of the enemy’s devices." In particular, he cautioned against hubris and the danger of combining "schemes of fresh conquest with the conduct of the war." His warnings went unheeded, however, and his successors eventually led Athens to a disastrous defeat.

Centuries later, Edmund Burke offered a similar warning to his British compatriots as Britain moved toward war with revolutionary France. As he wrote in 1793: "I dread our own power, and our own ambition; I dread our being too much dreaded. … We may say that we shall not abuse this astonishing, and hitherto unheard-of power. But every other nation will think we shall abuse it. It is impossible but that, sooner or later, this state of things must produce a combination against us which may end in our ruin." Burke's forecast did not come true, however, in part because Britain's ambitions remained limited even after France was defeated.

I mention these two gloomy prophecies, because there is a possibility that the United States and its Western allies will come out of the war in Ukraine with a clear win. More far-sighted statecraft by the West might have prevented the war in the first place, sparing Ukraine the vast destruction it has suffered at Russian hands. That counterfactual notwithstanding, a combination of Russian miscalculations and military incompetence, fierce Ukrainian resistance, formidable Western material and intelligence support, and potent sanctions on Moscow may eventually produce a victory for Kyiv and its Western backers. Assuming the fighting does not escalate further—a possibility that still cannot be ruled out—and Ukraine continues its recent battlefield successes, Russian power will be greatly diminished for many years to come. It is even possible that Vladimir Putin will be ousted from power in Moscow. Should Russia suffer a decisive defeat, warnings about the inevitable decline of the West will seem premature at best.

There's a lot to like about this outcome on both moral and strategic grounds, assuming that nuclear weapons are not employed and that Ukraine gets back almost all if not all its lost territory. So, I am definitely rooting for this outcome. But then what? How should the West, and especially the United States, take advantage of is victory? Above all, what steps should be avoided lest the fruits of victory be squandered?

It may seem premature to raise these issues, given that the ultimate endgame in Ukraine is still uncertain. But we should start thinking about what happens if the moment of victory arrives. After all, the last time the United States won a great geostrategic victory—the peaceful collapse of the Soviet empire—it succumbed to the kind of hubris that Pericles warned against, and it squandered the opportunity to build a more lasting and peaceful world. If it gets another opportunity, it should learn from its mistakes and do a better job this time around....

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Walt, Stephen M.“Russia's Defeat Would Be America's Problem.” Foreign Policy, September 27, 2022.

The Author

Stephen Walt