The Ukraine War Shows How the Nature of Power Is Changing
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At its core, war is about power—who has it, who doesn’t, and who can effectively use it. The war in Ukraine is no exception. But the outcomes over the first months of the war have surprised many observers, challenging some traditional assessments of military and economic power. Most unexpected has been that Russia’s military advantages did not allow it to accomplish its initial objectives. Instead, Ukrainian forces have held their own and even pushed the Russian military back in places. At least a part of the explanation lies in some changes in the nature and exercise of power that have emerged over the past decade. Three developments have been particularly influential, allowing Ukraine to level the playing field in key ways. Together, these changes have allowed Ukraine to far exceed its performance in the 2014 war with Russia, but they also create new challenges for states seeking to exert influence.
Jennifer Kavanagh is a senior fellow in the American Statecraft Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
A first development has been the extensive influence of non-state groups that are able to act autonomously on the international stage. These actors have increased in number and independence in recent years, as well as in the types of power they are able to wield. Their actions not only amplify state power but also constrain state flexibility.
One example is the role of multinational corporations, whose influence on the Western response to Russia’s invasion is unprecedented in scope—in part thanks to their growth in size, wealth, and reach, as well as their evolving legal status. Historically, corporate activity in conflict has been mostly motivated by profit, with companies either seeking increased sales directly—such as in Iraq in 2003 or during the world wars—or supporting peace to advance business prospects, as in Northern Ireland. But in the Russia-Ukraine war, most multinational corporations have acted primarily on political motives, often at significant cost to their bottom lines. The decisions of almost 1,000 companies to pull out of Russia have reinforced the West’s use of economic power but complicated its political leverage, by making it harder to use sanctions relief as a diplomatic tool.
Non-state groups have also used their power in ways and speeds that were not possible before social media. This trend emerged first in the fight against the self-proclaimed Islamic State and the war in Syria and has greatly expanded in the Russia-Ukraine conflict, due to both widespread social media use and increasing Internet saturation in Ukraine. People on the ground in Ukraine have served as influencers and real-time sources of unfiltered information, and those outside Ukraine have organized relief efforts at a global scale. Today’s response networks are able to deploy in ways not possible before TikTok or Twitter, including by crowdsourcing funding. As just two examples, within days of the conflict’s start, Airbnb used its network to offer free housing to those fleeing Ukraine and José Andrés’ World Central Kitchen arrived on the front lines to distribute food.
States that are best able to take advantage of non-state groups’ activities may have a decided advantage in projecting national influence. This tactic can be especially important for smaller countries that might otherwise have more limited influence, as illustrated during the war by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s ability to capitalize on grassroots efforts through media campaigns. But the growing autonomy and power of these non-state actors also creates risks. States may seek to encourage non-state groups to act politically in some cases, but they will also need ways to direct or at times restrain these groups’ behaviors. This will be a tricky balance, especially when the actions, and even emergence, of such groups can be hard to predict.
The second development is the extent to which relationships between states serve as key sources of power that are decisive in shaping conflict outcomes. Typically, state power is measured by looking at capabilities, such as military weapons or GDP. However, as globalization and changes in technology make it cheaper and easier for goods, services, and information to flow across borders and advance interconnectedness between countries, relationships such as alliances and trade networks have become as important to any assessment of national power as capability-based measures. Interdependence can be a double-edged sword, constraining state power even as it advances it. Still, in today’s interdependent world, when two states compete, the one with stronger and more robust relationships may retain the upper hand, even in the face of capability imbalances.
Interdependence today is more extensive than at any point in the past, connecting more countries and intertwining military, economic, political, and ideological spheres. In the period prior to World War I, known for its relatively high level of interdependence, a narrow set of states boasted deep integration. Major European powers such as Britain, France, Germany, and Russia were tightly connected economically, but ties to the rest of the world—even the rest of Europe—were more limited and often slowed by factors like lengthy transit times. During the Concert of Europe, another period known for its interconnected relationships, true interdependence was even weaker, with ties based on informal commitments and a series of narrow, issue-specific agreements.
The current conflict in Ukraine offers several examples of the ways in which deeper, more interdependent relationships have served as both sources and constraints on power to shape outcomes. For instance, the United States and NATO allies have relied on their strong political, economic, and military relationships to impose far-reaching sanctions and to mobilize massive military aid. And ideological ties between NATO allies and Ukraine are another example of relational power that has given Ukraine access to military and economic assistance, intelligence and infrastructure support, and international status, all of which have been central to its success so far. At the same time, these relationships create commitments that can harden over time and limit decisionmaking space for all parties—now evidenced in the debates over the war’s trajectory.
Russia’s economic and political ties also simultaneously empower and constrain its leaders. Although Russia tried to sanction-proof its economy prior to the invasion, its connection to international financial markets left it vulnerable to punishing Western financial sanctions. However, its central position in oil and gas trade has provided an economic lifeline while bounding Western leverage. Russia has also exploited relational power from its long-standing ideological and institutional ties to India and countries in Africa and has benefited from its deepening connection with China. At this point in the conflict, it’s unclear whether Ukraine or Russia gains relatively more from relational power, but relationships and interdependence are playing complex direct and indirect roles in shaping state behavior.
While interdependence has been influential in the past, its risks and the benefits are magnified by the depth and scope of interstate ties. This does not mean that states should entirely avoid interdependence—although some may be tempted as they watch Russia’s struggle with sanctions. States should, however, pay careful attention to the net balance of their interdependent relationships and sources of self-sufficiency. Independence will be most important to protect the resources, capabilities, and tools that are central to national interests, but it may also be preferrable where the costs of self-sufficiency are low or where there are unique benefits from domestic production. For example, domestic investment in solar energy technology can have knowledge spillover effects that lead to future innovation. This may be one reason to encourage domestic production in this area. Interdependence should be used to pursue efficiencies and to build relationships, and this strategy may also be helpful in tying adversaries into the international system to avoid conflict.
A final development is that some of the most decisive forms of power in the current conflict have not relied primarily on hard power derived from military capabilities or economic wealth. Nor have they been examples of soft power, which influences through norms and ideas. Instead, they have been forms of power that blur this distinction and combine the two. The use of tools of power that merge hard and soft power is not entirely new. For example, China’s use of lawfare—the manipulation of legal frameworks and norms to achieve military goals—in the South China Sea has been a point of focus in recent years. Similarly, there has been much attention on Russia’s weaponized use of information since at least 2016. But the use of such tools has been especially important in the Ukraine conflict because they help Ukraine overcome Russia’s advantages in military size and strength and facilitate a far-reaching Western response without necessitating military intervention.
The U.S. response to Russia’s invasion has relied on tools that combine its soft power—in the form of U.S. brands, companies, and even dollars—with more coercive mechanisms. First, while sanctions are typically considered a form of hard power, the corporate pullout from Russia amplified both the sanctions’ hard economic effects and the implied condemnation and shaming of Russian actions thanks to the well-publicized exits of brands such as Starbucks and McDonald’s. As a different example, U.S. efforts to cut Russia off from currency markets have relied on U.S. financial influence, which derives from both its economic wealth (hard power) and the reputational power and credibility of the U.S. dollar (soft power). Finally, the decisions of sports leagues around the world to ban Russian athletes and cancel competitions to be held in Russia have had a similar effect, combining economic penalty with social and cultural sanction in a single action.
The use of intelligence in the Ukraine war has also blurred the line between hard and soft power. Throughout the conflict, the United States and its allies have used the release of what might otherwise have been classified intelligence not just for military or operational purposes but also to feed wider influence operations, discredit Russian narratives, and undercut Russian morale—an approach that does not fit neatly into either the soft or hard power category. While certainly not the first time that release of intelligence and data hacks have been weaponized, the approach is now being used in a very different context. Not only has the scale of the campaign been more extensive and the duration longer, but the goals have been broader—not just to thwart Russian military operations with cutting-edge intelligence capabilities, but to pre-empt Russian disinformation campaigns by crowding the information space and undermining the credibility of Russian leaders in the eyes of their own citizens. Finally, the audience of these efforts has been more diverse, targeting people in the West, Ukraine, and Russia—sometimes with direct appeals to all three.
A final example of the blurred line between hard and soft power has been the rise of thousands of so-called hacktivists who are engaging in an online campaign to hack Russian websites and combat Russian disinformation. These groups have been using cyber capabilities—a hard power tool—to seize Russian data and hold it hostage, to collect and release internal Russian government communications, and to break through Russia’s internet blockade to communicate with its citizens. These activities have both operational goals—to undermine Russian capabilities—and goals of persuasion, to break Russian popular support for the war.
Campaigns that blend hard and soft power have imposed meaningful costs on Russia, and while they do not involve direct military action, the risks of escalation may be unexpectedly high because they have multiple targets and many audiences at once. When employing such tools, policymakers may need to use incremental approaches to avoid unwanted escalation spirals.
Some analysts argue that the world has re-entered a cold-war period, dominated by bipolarity and competition between autocracy and democracy. But the greater diversity of actors exercising power, the more extensive interdependence, and the proliferation of tools that combine hard and soft power suggest otherwise. Instead, the world seems to be moving to an environment that is hypercompetitive but in which power is more diffuse, dynamic, and cross-cutting than was the case during the Cold War. This may lead to increasing international instability and conflict, and it certainly creates an array of new challenges for states. But it also creates new opportunities, especially for smaller states pushing back on larger ones and for non-state actors seeking influence. To achieve the upper hand, policymakers will need to account for and coordinate the many non-state actors that are able to exercise power and simultaneously leverage relationships and capabilities to exert influence.
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