Ukraine: Only three realistic outcomes are now likely
By TruePublica: We are not experts in strategic warfare and so researching the likely outcome of this geopolitical battleground between superpowers (because that’s what it really is) on different ideological levels, starts off with a bit of guesswork. The general consensus amongst experienced strategists is one of four outcomes – but having looked at it, we think there are only three outcomes.
As for the experts, they think the four most likely scenarios as it stands are:
A) That the civilian resistance overcomes the odds and grinds down Moscow’s advance, preventing Putin from toppling Kyiv’s government and establishing a puppet regime. In this scenario, the determination and skill of the Ukrainian resistance force a stalemate on the battlefield that, in the end, favours the defenders. We think this is unlikely.
B) After weeks, maybe months of intense fighting in Kyiv and other major cities, Russia manages to topple Ukraine’s government and install a puppet regime. However, neither Ukraine’s armed forces nor its population will be ready to surrender – and a powerful insurgency emerges, leaving Russia in a political and military quagmire.
C) Is Ukraine eventually collapses under the sheer weight of the Russian invasion due to numbers. Russian forces then manage to take control of the country through the use of increasingly heavy-handed tactics that leads to hugely increased deaths. It then floods the country with armed forces and effectively brings down an ‘Iron Curtain’ (more later).
D) The fourth scenario is the most dangerous one for the future of Europe and the global order. This is where the Ukraine conflict sets the stage for a direct military conflict between NATO and Russia. Unfortunately, no matter how expert the commentator is, no one knows what may happen then.
However, by distilling these scenarios and outcomes in a more simplistic fashion, we can surmise a number of things.
For Russia, Ukraine and the rest of the world, some things are now simply a matter of fact. A new iron curtain is descending between East and West with all of the political, military and economic antagonisms that it will bring. After WW2 and 40 years, it brought little more than economic stagnation and the eventual fall of the USSR. This is what led to the border countries of the former USSR becoming independent states – with some joining the EU and others NATO – which is what led Putin to act in the first place more recently.
Putin has also brought to the world Cold War2. During the first, whilst there was no large-scale fighting directly between superpowers, they each supported major regional conflicts known as proxy wars. However, proxy wars mean something completely different in today’s world than the world of 30 or 40 years ago. Cyberwarfare is now a constant threat. Its effects are designed to destabilise entire societies quite often by denying critical infrastructure systems by say, contaminating water supplies. For instance, last year a hacker tried to poison the water supply of Florida by raising the sodium hydroxide levels from 100 parts per million to 11,100 parts per million. It was by chance that the plot went wrong. And that was a lone hacker – cyberwarfare is something else completely.
At the time, the Cold War was about the struggle for dominance that was expressed via indirect means such as psychological warfare, propaganda campaigns, espionage, far-reaching embargoes, rivalry at sports events and technological competitions such as the Space Race. Now multiply all of that by our fully connected world.
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We now know that right now – an Iron Curtain is descending and a Cold War is starting.
With the way the Russia/Ukraine conflict is proceeding, there are many scenarios but we think these are the three most likely outcomes.
The first and second scenarios is the continued escalation of war leading to enormous death and infrastructure damage to Ukraine that potentially moves across the nuclear threshold or a very bitter peace imposed on a defeated Ukraine.
The former means somewhere between a negotiated peace driven by fear of global warfare and a limited form of nuclear war. The latter will likely morph into the shape of the supposed peace in Northern Ireland called ‘The Troubles’ that lasted about 30 years from the late 1960s to 1998. The difference here is that Northern Ireland had a population of 1.5 million at the time and weapons were not easy to smuggle in – whereas, Ukraine has over 40 million people who hate the Russian invaders, are well equipped – on a landmass larger than France. Both of these scenarios will end with the West and Russia feeling as though they did not ‘win’ (whatever that really means).
By not winning and seeing off the invasion – the West will fund and equipt an insurgency willing to cause even more death and destruction in the name of national sovereignty. This will be like the war on terror – in reverse – because the West will be actively funding and orchestrating it. In response, Russia will do the same. It’s a lose-lose outcome.
Putin will not be deposed one way or another. This is highly unlikely and we’ve discounted it.
Over time, Russia’s economy will be decimated, poverty and starvation will kill many and global stability will not return because of it. If anything, terrorism on Western soil is likely to significantly increase in retaliation – and one only has to think of the Salisbury poisonings to imagine what a catastrophe that might be if widened out. The West is then likely to respond by tightening the economic screw even further.
A third scenario is that Putin (who has now has backed himself into a corner) will, at the very least, want to see Ukraine’s wartime leader Zelenskyy removed. That will probably require the flattening of Kyiv. Putin will then install his puppet government who will sign a peace treaty that will inevitably accede to Moscow’s political dominance.
In each of these scenarios, the global outlook for peace has been significantly eroded. Either, the West and its allies along with NATO will be perceived as having been defeated, Russia will be defeated or neither side wins and a proxy war escalates.
Christopher Chivvis, a senior fellow and director of the American Statecraft Program at the Carnegie Endowment has made clear his views:
Scores of war games carried out by the United States and its allies in the wake of Russia’s 2014 invasion of Ukraine make it clear that Putin would probably use a nuclear weapon if he concludes that his regime is threatened. It is hard to know exactly what turn of events would scare him enough to cross the nuclear threshold. Certainly a large Nato army entering Russian territory would be enough. But what if events in Ukraine loosened his grip on power at home?
Gary Kasparov is in no doubt at all what the situation now looks like:
As I said after the first day, deterrence is over. Strong sanctions and limited weapons to Ukraine would have stopped Putin 8 years ago, perhaps even 4 months ago. Now it’s all-out war, civilians being bombed and shelled, and the US is still acting like it’s 2014.
In both these quotes, you can see the West did not act decisively in 2014 and Putin was therefore emboldened to act now.
Kasparov also takes the view, like many do, that what everyone should recognize is any suffering we experience now for defending Ukraine is a necessary price to pay compared to the world we would be ushering in through inaction (as in 2014). “Russia’s invasion of Ukraine threatens to tear apart the fabric of the rules-based world order countless Americans/Europeans have died to create and defend. In the process, it would make the current shocks we’re experiencing our new normal.”
However, while Kasparov says Putin must be met by the full-scale architecture of NATO’s firepower, this is the reason why calling for a no-fly zone is at best dangerous. It could lead to something quite different. And if Putin sees that he is losing what will his next move be – quietly back-off? No one thinks that will happen. And if nothing is done – what is the new normal?
If Putin is allowed to take control of Ukraine, the West has a big problem that will simply not go away. If the right of every nation like Ukraine wishes to be free and independent of subjugation to foreign rule (and it’s taken away by force), what happens when Putin attacks Moldova or any of the Baltic states, especially those urgently requesting ascension to the EU? What does Putin do if those same states ask to join NATO just as some have?
There’s a reality for us all to consider here, now that Putin has threatened the world with nuclear weapons. We know that wars can quickly get out of control and it’s difficult to work out where they will end as each side plays out its own strategies that effectively changes the response. At the moment, it is easy to see that Putin’s position will get increasingly weaker as the economic effects of being cut off from the world take effect – but that does not guarantee that the West wins anything, including the war.
If nuclear weapons are not used – and all sides keep to conventional strategies of warfare, it may be that whatever the settlement is, it is likely to be one that will be a very bitter pill to swallow for all parties involved. The alternative is scenario four – one that none of us wants at any cost!