Dr. Paul Bracken on the Conflict in Ukraine

By Robbin Laird

In late February 2022,  I had a chance to discuss the Ukraine crisis and its broader global context with Dr. Paul Bracken. That discussion provided early insights into the conflict which continue to frame the strategic impact and importance of the war in Ukraine.

Bracken started the discussion by focusing on the structural change aspect of the crisis.

“The mainstream media focuses on the personalistic aspects of this conflict.

“It’s interesting how the media goes with the line that Putin has lost it, or has borderline personality disorder.

“They simply can’t imagine anyone rationally “using” military power or nuclear weapons to get objectives met that they cannot or choose not to achieve any other way.

“We have moved beyond an era where the dichotomy between soft and hard power adequately described the structural conflict we now see. It is different now — and hard power is a key part of changing the rules of the game by the authoritarian powers.”

The question is then how does the West responds and how do we reshape the capabilities that make the United States globally competitive?

It is not just about having nuclear weapons in one box, conventional forces in another box, and having a free for all on domestic issues in another box.

Whether the United States is united or not, it faces a world where an ability to exercise blended soft and hard power and a willingness to directly deal with the military aggression of the peer competitors is part of the historical epoch we’re in. It is not about “leading from behind” or “building back better,” it is about remaining competitive.

For Bracken: “By “competitive” I mean having an economy and policies that generate jobs and wealth. This is key to U.S. strategic competitiveness. Let me give one example going on right now. China sends people to Africa to do business, e.g. developing raw materials, road building, communications, etc. The United States sends in special ops teams. It’s quite a contrast.”

We then discussed precisely the shift in Western defense which is being recast with the inward looking focus of Western states.

As Bracken put it: “We need to consider a much wider band of scenarios and alternative futures than the United States has been willing to consider.

“We have focused largely on the global rule of law, on liberal democracies getting together and that we now have to consider that that will have to go outside of that space to consider scenarios which are more focused on an inward-looking world.

“In such a world, each country acts largely in its own interests rather than as some part of larger block. And I like that term, inward looking, because it’s relatively neutral, it doesn’t say populist or “neo-fascist,” or isolationist. Nationalism, too, is a loaded term today.

“These terms, nationalist, isolationist, etc. are loaded words designed to produce an argument which would rebut national choices and policies. Each country is now looking at its own interests more and I think you see this with Europeans who are no longer just following the U.S. lead.

“So how to shape congruent decisions where possible?”

I underscored that the alliance realities are changing dramatically. My co-author and I argued in our European defense book that as nation’s were considering their direct defense, they were prioritizing working with like-minded states rather than simply plugging their capabilities into the wider NATO alliance, for example.

With a state like Poland playing in many ways the leading role in the response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, such a reality simply does not figure into the normal discourse by the EU about the rule of law “good states” or for the Biden Administration facing a country which simply opposes that Administration’s views on human sexuality.

Bracken noted that the impact of polarization in the United States is a significant part of the global change as well.

“We saw the perspective on many U.S. campuses that the threat is a return of the Third Reich, with Trump the new “Hitler.” But the reality is that the United States is becoming more like the Third Republic in France of the 1930s with its deep divisions, in effect, a conflict of extremes.

“We are seeing significant social chaos affecting our decision making. You have senior military openly political and partisan. These are retired officers but it’s not a healthy trend. The search for right wing subversives in the military indicates to me that the services risk losing their professionalism.

“The Third Republic analogy refers to crippling social divisions, as well as the political paralysis driven by the plethora of political parties in France in the 1930s. I recommend reading William L. Shirer’s book, The Collapse of Third Republic (1969). A key part of French paralysis was the incapacity of the military to act, which Shirer says came from an officer corps afraid of making decisions without considering politics. This environment produced a culture of indecisiveness in the French Army, most especially in the senior officer corps.

We discussed the need to re-think how to describe alliances of the liberal democracies and act on realistic expectations of what nations will do within a world of 21st century authoritarians working to shape a way ahead to shape the global order to their advantage.

Bracken drew from his business school teaching experience: “Rather than a CEO role for the United States, we need to think in terms of an orchestra conductor model where you play off the different themes coming from the orchestra and play down others.”

In other words, we need to recognize that looser forms of coordination shaped by working with the nations is the core reality rather than a top-down alliance framework led by the United States.

We then turned to the nuclear weapons piece of the current crisis in Ukraine.

Nuclear weapons are part of any peer competitor rivalry, whether the United States recognizes it or not.

But we have certainly let our nuclear warfighting, diplomacy and deterrent skills deteriorate. Nuclear weapons are not in a separate box that’s marked “Please open in certain highly unusual and impossible to imagine situations.”

They are part of the entire context of the limited war strategies they are pursuing against the liberal democracies.

As Bracken noted: “Someone called me yesterday to ask if the Russians would actually use nuclear weapons.

“My response was “they already have.” It’s a nuclear head game, and very dangerous. The purpose of the Russian nuclear alert is to deter NATO from massing its forces against Belarus and Ukraine borders. And to signal that the U.S. had better not open up a big electronic warfare or cyber campaign to disrupt Russian Air Forces over Ukraine.

“A U.S. or NATO cyber campaign against distributed tactical nuclear and mobile missiles of Russia would manipulate the risk of escalation, which is why Putin ordered the alert.”