There is only one war going on and it is global

Like it or not, Russia’s wider war in Ukraine is part of a world war. A world war pitting a quartet of authoritarian states against the world’s democracies. It’s Russia and Russia’s allies – China, Iran and North Korea – against Ukraine and its allies. These are most of the Western democracies and, in fits and starts, the United States. The problem is that only the autocracies are acting like the war is what it is: global.

Unless and until this changes, Ukraine will be at a disadvantage. If and when it does change, Russia could suffer a swift and lasting defeat. A defeat that might teach the other autocracies a lesson or two.

It might be comforting, to the distracted populaces of rich and free countries, to think of the war in Ukraine as a regional war. A small war. One pitting just two countries against each other.

That was never the case. Not since the first days of the war in early 2022, when an alliance of free countries swiftly came together to supply Ukraine with the intelligence, weapons and money it needed to defend and sustain itself as Russian regiments poured over the border and across the frontier in Russian-occupied Donbas.

And then Russia mobilized its own allies. First Iran, which supplied Russia with Russia’s first effective drone design, the explosive Shahed, starting in the fall of 2022. Each 400-pound drone hauls a 100-pound warhead as far as 1,500 miles – and does it cheaply, at just $50,000 a copy.

In first buying Shaheds, and then building them under license at a factory in Russian Tatarstan, the Russians gained an inexpensive deep-strike munition: something they didn’t have before.

In March alone, according to Ukrainian president Zelensky, the Russians launched 600 Shaheds at Ukraine.

“This campaign of terror affects numerous cities and villages throughout Ukraine,” the Ukrainian Center for Defense Strategies noted.

Next, late last year, North Korea stepped up to solve one of Russia’s most serious problems: a shortage of artillery shells. Russians batteries fired tens of thousands of shells a day in the early weeks of the war – a rate of fire that steadily decreased as the war dragged on and munitions stockpiles ran low.

By mid-2023, Ukrainian forces actually enjoyed a firepower advantage over Russian forces – and for one simple reason. “The West provided more artillery ammunition to Ukraine than Russia received from its partners,” according to Frontelligence Insight, a Ukrainian analysis group.

In January 2024, that changed. Moscow cut a deal with Pyongyang to swap Russian food for millions of North Korean shells. It didn’t help that, at the same time, Russia-aligned Republicans in the US Congress blocked further US aid to Ukraine, depriving the Ukrainians of hundreds of thousands of American shells.

“Russia is now getting more rounds than the West sends to Ukraine, thanks to continuous ammunition shipments from North Korea that went into full swing in the fall of 2023,” Frontelligence explained.

Meanwhile, China moved to rebuild Russia’s arms industry, which was suffering under foreign sanctions that deprived it of microelectronics and precision tooling. The kind of microelectronics that are necessary for producing drones and missiles – and the kind of tooling that’s necessary for producing fresh barrels for howitzers.

This week, officials with the administration of US president Joe Biden told the Associated Press that China was providing 90 percent of Russia’s microelectronics imports and 70 percent of its tooling imports. If, during World War II, the United States was the United Kingdom’s arsenal of democracy, today Iran, North Korea and China are Russia’s arsenals of autocracy.

Russia cannot win in Ukraine without allies from all over the world – no more than Ukraine can win without its own allies on several continents. Yes, the actual combat is in Ukraine and Russia, with Iran also engaged against Israel both by proxy and now directly. But the wider conflict is global.

Supreme Allied Commander Europe, US Army General Christopher Cavoli. Cavoli has called Russia a 'chronic threat' and warned that it will not be satisfied with invading Ukraine
Supreme Allied Commander Europe, US Army General Christopher Cavoli. Cavoli has called Russia a 'chronic threat' and warned that it will not be satisfied with invading Ukraine - Virginia Mayo/AP

The stakes are global, too.

“Russia does not intend to stop with Ukraine,” US Army general Christopher Cavoli, the commander of US European Command and also Nato’s supreme allied commander in Europe, said this week. “Russia presents a chronic threat.”

Cavoli said he was also worried about Russia’s dependence on China, North Korea and Iran. “These countries are forming interlocking, strategic partnerships in an attempt to challenge the existing order,” Cavoli said. “This is profoundly inimical to US national interests.” And the interests of the whole free world.

The world’s most powerful autocracies are already treating the Ukraine war like a world war. They support Russia in order to assert the power of countries like Russia to attack, conquer and oppress when and where they choose. This idea is now spreading.

Will the world’s most powerful democracies respond with equal force – and support Ukraine in order to assert the right of countries like Ukraine to choose their own destinies, and live in peace?

The answer, for the leading democracy – the United States – is a qualified sort of. Republicans have been blocking aid to Ukraine since October, and defending their isolationism in part by arguing, wrongly, that the war in Ukraine is only about Ukraine. And that it’s none of America’s business.

That certainly isn’t the view being taken in Tehran, Pyongyang and Beijing.

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