WAR IN EUROPE ANALYSIS
One day, Russia’s Ukraine invasion will be over — what will happen next?
The Russian invasion of Ukraine will end eventually, but however it turns out, the world will never be the same. Here we offer some possible futures.
It is a truth universally accepted that all wars end eventually. But, like most truisms, while a truth can be overstated (some civil wars around the world never seem to end), there is a real element of truth (as well as some real hope) in such a statement, even if the rancour that follows, the revanchist fervour, the hatred of one another, and sometimes the growing eagerness for a military rematch, may remain alive for years or decades.
For example, Franco-German relations only changed after three increasingly destructive, even calamitous wars — the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, then both World War 1 and 2. Moreover, that 75 years worth of conflict doesn’t even include earlier fighting from the Napoleonic era stretching right back to the Thirty Years’ War in the 1600s, often on territory that eventually became Germany.
Ending this enmity required — beyond a recognition of the disaster such fighting had been and with the total defeat of Nazi Germany — the eventual integration of France and Germany in an interwoven network of supranational institutions that began with Nato and the European Economic Community, now the EU, and then on to organisations like the European Parliament and European Central Bank.
Even as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine continues, we must attempt to imagine what outcomes are possible once the rockets, bombs and cruise missiles cease. These scenarios range from the most likely to the least; and from the most disastrous to those where an outcome might possibly offer some hope amid the wreckage.
Previously, we have written about how Ukraine might be supported once fighting ends, including how reparations could — and should — be funded as the fighting ends. That financial cost could exceed a trillion dollars.
Now it is time to examine various scenarios in the ways fighting might draw to an end, as well as possible winners and losers, even if the hostility on the part of the respective combatants (or the threats from Russia towards its neighbour) do not end.
First is the scenario of a real Russian victory on the battlefield and the surrender by the outmanned Ukrainian military, in spite of increasingly sophisticated western military assistance flowing to Ukrainian forces and those forces’ skilful battlefield tactics. Such an outcome would dictate the end of Ukrainian resistance as its leadership accepted the reality that further fighting would only produce further death and destruction for Ukraine and its people, but without the chance of a victory. In this scenario, Russians would effectively set the terms of surrender as well as the terms under which a future Ukraine would exist.
Surrender would obviously be an enormously difficult decision for Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky personally, his government, and the nation as a whole — after all the sacrifices they have endured. This would also mean a realisation that Russia — and, in particular, the economic circumstances of more than just its oligarchs and nomenklatura — would also have suffered grievously from the war its leaders so unwisely initiated. Accordingly, there may be anger from Russian citizens as they come to grips with the cost of the war — as they did following the Soviet Union’s failed military intervention in Afghanistan. There will be no cheering throngs.
A second alternative would be a standoff in the eastern reaches of Ukraine, coming concurrently with a Russian decision to declare that victory in the Donbas and nearby territories was their real war aim. Such a possibility might even come soon if Russia’s leadership feels the need to have something to offset the casualties and economic costs it has incurred in time for its annual 9 May Victory Day parade. A stalemate would, of course, mean great costs to Ukraine, beyond what it has already endured.
A third possibility would be an actual victory by Ukraine, albeit at tremendous cost to its people and infrastructure, beyond what has already been inflicted on it. This possibility might well arise from the costs of Stalingrad-style urban warfare that draws in masses of Russian troops into bitter street-to-street, building-by-building fighting, leading to a decision of a Russian pullback to those notionally independent Luhansk and Donetsk statelets and the Crimean peninsula, but before casualties swell to insupportable numbers.
A fourth alternative could be a contemporary version of World War 1 western front-style static warfare. The Ukrainian economy would be on life support by then, as its exports wither and foreign economic assistance would be the only thing keeping it going. But by then, the Russian economy would be in an increasingly desperate state as well, as those financial, economic, and personal sanctions really inflict pain. The effects on the global economy would similarly be severe as Ukrainian exports of agricultural commodities such as wheat and oil seeds similarly collapse and Russian energy exports also shrink, following hard decisions by European nations still dependent on Russian oil and gas, thereby cutting the financial lifeline of Putin’s Russia.
A fifth alternative could be a cessation of active hostilities that leaves an independent but rump Ukraine, but with the Donbas, much of the southern coast almost as far as Odesa, and perhaps the region around Kharkiv either under Russian occupation or holding a kind of nominal independence. But such circumstances would also be a continuing source of irredentist agitation and continuing irregular, guerrilla or terror attacks. Study the Chechen experience, along with other conflicts around the world, for what happens in such an eventuality.
Finally, a sixth alternative might also even be possible. That would be a real degradation of the internal political cohesion of the Russian system itself due to this debacle. This might begin with the forced rustication of Vladimir Putin from authority by other senior figures and military commanders who understand that the growing pressures on the military and the country’s economy under Putin’s leadership offers a potential existential threat to the continuity of the Russian Federation’s leadership.
Such internal regime changes have been a feature of leadership change through Soviet Union/Russian history, at least since Vladimir Lenin’s time. If carried out semi-peaceably, it might even be the salvation of Russia’s geopolitical and economic difficulties. By contrast, continuation of the war might even encourage fissiparous forces among other minority ethnicities in the nation as the government and military continue to face major strains.
Obviously, any of these alternatives would inflict enormous costs on both Ukraine and the invading nation. But these alternatives can also represent enormous costs (and consequent geopolitical shifts) for the world. As it has come to be better understood, Ukraine’s role (and to a degree Russia as well) in international commodity markets is very important globally.
At least for the short- and medium-term, disruptions in Ukraine’s current planting season will mean, at a minimum, agricultural commodity prices globally will rise sharply. Shortages of wheat will adversely affect fragile regimes in Africa, the Near East, and Asia, and such will also threaten supplies for the UN’s World Food Programme. Meanwhile, Russia is also a large global supplier of fertiliser, and continuing combat could adversely affect such supplies (and thus Russian earnings), even if its petroleum and oil sales largely hold.
To the extent Russia appears to be losing the new fighting, or if the hostilities are in a deadly stalemate, Russian leaders may undertake cyber warfare attacks against the critical infrastructure in America and other western allies in retaliation for their military assistance to Ukraine. In fact, threats of just such efforts are already being voiced, although western nations presumably have countermeasures ready (or even reprisal attacks).
More serious, are the possibilities of the Russian deployment of chemical warfare — or even a tactical nuclear weapon or two — against Ukrainian forces or population centres. Given the international approbation such an attack would generate, it would trigger even more rigorous sanctions or the transfer of more sophisticated military hardware to Ukraine. Ultimately, the worst case in response to such an attack could be deployment of Nato forces inside Ukraine, thereby facing Russian military forces. Should that happen, it could be hard to contain the escalation of hostilities — a scenario every military planner and political leader should fear.
Regardless of the battlefield outcome, one result of Russia’s unnecessary war will be a much closer relationship (and perhaps even full membership) of both Sweden and Finland with Nato. Because of this invasion, the leaders (and public opinion) in both nations have been moving that way and both militaries have already engaged in exercises with Nato members. The unintended geopolitical impact of this Russian attack on an independent nation has now triggered a serious rethink in Helsinki and Stockholm about their neutral status.
Even without Ukraine as a Nato member (something that now seems distant, even if EU membership does not), Finland’s joining Nato would double the common border between Nato members and Russia, in turn forcing some serious strategic rethinks by Moscow. Continuation of the war would also — unless there is a serious change in leadership and thinking in Moscow — trigger an end to efforts to integrate Russia further into international economic networks.
Thinking and actions about the benefits of globalisation will also look different as a result of this war. There will be increasing pressure for the localisation of supply chains in many industries — especially those crucial to military strength and capabilities.
One of the great imponderables — regardless of how the Ukraine hostilities end — will be how China responds to whatever lessons it draws from the fighting, as well as the responses from Nato and other western nations to the invasion. China may determine policies other than a direct military assault on Taiwan are more appropriate under the circumstances, or, contrawise, it might decide an attack would be to its benefit since the US and other western nations are preoccupied with Ukrainian events. This calculation represents a very big unknown.
Regardless of how the battlefield eventualities play out, and given the evidence of atrocities already committed, there will be pressures for war crimes investigations, criminal charges and possibly prosecutions. Gaining access to alleged perpetrators would be much more difficult than making such charges. However, should the Russians leave the battlefield under less than victorious circumstances, hypothetically it might even be in the Kremlin leadership’s interest to offer up a few candidates for trials to demonstrate flexibility and international cooperation — especially if new leadership emerges in Moscow.
Similarly, the pressure to enact a reparations process will only grow, especially if Ukraine manages to hold on to most of its territory — and its sovereignty and independence. There are hundreds of billions of dollars of Russian reserves now sequestered in western financial institutions and millions of potential claimants for restitution in Ukraine (or who are now refugees) as well as the enormous need to fund massive efforts to rebuild the infrastructure blasted by the invasion.
Finally, regardless of whether the Russians declare a victory (however meagre), or if the Ukrainians manage to force a stalemate or even a withdrawal, this invasion has made it necessary for Nato members to acknowledge the sharply changed nature of their relationship with Russia. That will mean more military spending by its members, likely the assignment of more US forces back into Europe (where until recently there had been been a two-decade-long shrinkage in the footprint of US forces in Europe), as well as efforts for the more intensive integration and interoperability of Nato forces.
While it remains unlikely the US and Russian militaries will confront each other directly as they did during the Cold War at Checkpoint Charlie in Berlin, and along the Fulda Gap landscape in central Germany, the circumstances of the post-Cold War world from after 1991 are definitively history. A new age, call it the Cold War v2.0, is now upon us. DM