With Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, major war has returned to Europe and with it calls for the United States to prioritize countering the present threat posed by Russia over the threat China could one day pose. But Russia’s ineffectiveness on the battlefield, paired with the increasing investments European nations are making in their defense, gives the United States a better opportunity than ever to finally pivot to Asia and focus on the more formidable challenge China represents. A failure to do so could embolden China and give Beijing an opening to increase its influence, to the detriment of U.S. security and prosperity.
Over a decade ago, President Obama announced the “pivot” or “rebalance” to Asia in a speech to the Australian Parliament, declaring “the United States is turning our attention to the vast potential of the Asia Pacific region.” The president’s speech followed an essay by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton entitled “America’s Pacific Century,” where she argued for a “strategic turn to the region.” All too often, however, the United States has failed to pair this ambitious rhetoric with policies that reflected the region’s importance.
Now, Putin’s aggression against Ukraine has led to a growing consensus that the United States needs to view Russia as its primary geopolitical challenge and shift resources to Europe. But such a reorientation of U.S. strategy would again delay the pivot to Asia just when it is both more necessary and more viable than ever.
The reasoning may be counterintuitive but holds all the same. The war in Ukraine has revealed Russia’s military is incapable of waging modern warfare and does not have the ability to fundamentally threaten NATO. Russia failed to establish air superiority over Ukraine, its logistics are in shambles, and morale among its soldiers is reportedly dangerously low. The defining image of this war thus far is of a stalled Russian convoy stretching forty miles on a road leading to Kyiv. Overcoming these issues will take years and require a fundamental overhaul of Russia’s military culture and doctrine.
Russia will have to undertake these difficult reforms with its military in tatters. While it is difficult to know exactly how many casualties Russia has suffered in Ukraine, it is well into the thousands, and the Russian military will likely suffer far greater losses if it attempts to take Kyiv. Russia has lost some of its most advanced fighter jets, helicopters, tanks, and artillery, while depleting its munitions. It will take a long time for Russia to rebuild its material strength, a prospect that will be even more daunting given the sanctions that are in force.
The crisis in Ukraine has also forced European countries to awaken from their slumber, and they are now willing to shoulder a greater burden for their defense. Most consequentially, Germany has announced it will increase its defense spending to 2 percent of GDP and purchase 35 F-35 fighter jets, which will increase interoperability with NATO forces. Sweden is also looking to increase its defense spending to 2 percent of GDP, while support for joining NATO has surged in the country. Denmark has pledged to meet the 2 percent target, while Latvia, Poland, and Romania have signaled they will boost defense spending to exceed that target.
A depleted and exhausted Russian military and increased European investments in their defense mean the United States can meet its obligations to its NATO allies while shifting resources to Asia. As such, the Department of Defense should continue to identify China as the pacing challenge given its military might and its regional ambitions. Taiwan should remain the pacing scenario, as it is the most difficult one for the United States to address and therefore if the United States gets that right it will be well-positioned to respond to other regional contingencies. Capabilities most relevant for a Taiwan scenario should be prioritized, in particular long-range missiles and submarines, while the United States should continue to distribute its military presence throughout the region. With NATO’s conventional capabilities set to improve, once this crisis passes the United States should withdraw the seven thousand troops it sent to Europe following Russia’s invasion and review its force posture on the continent, where it currently has ninety thousand service members based.
While Putin has upended European security, nothing has occurred since the war in Ukraine began that reduces the challenge that China poses for the United States. China’s military spending shows no sign of slowing down and is projected to increase by over 7 percent this year. It is continuing to invest in capabilities designed to prevent the United States from successfully intervening on behalf of its allies and is rapidly expanding its nuclear arsenal. China’s economy is set to grow by 5.5 percent this year and it is pulling additional economies into its orbit with the entry into force of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership and ongoing Belt and Road Initiative investments.
While the United States certainly needs to deal with the urgent threat to European security, it cannot lose sight of the more serious and multidimensional challenge coming from Beijing. Indeed, if the perception takes root that the United States is pivoting away from Asia and toward Europe this could prompt China to conclude it has a window of opportunity for remaking the regional order.
The U.S. pivot to Asia could easily become a casualty of Putin’s aggression against Ukraine. But that would be a mistake. Russia’s struggle to achieve its military objectives and Europe’s willingness to make critical investments in its own security mean the United States can pivot to Asia while maintaining its commitments to its European allies. It would be tragic to let Putin also claim the pivot as one of his victims.