Russia skulks into the shadows

| February 26, 2023

On the eve of the first anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, it’s timely to consider how this brutal war might be resolved. The chair of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark Milley, said at a meeting with NATO defence ministers last week, ‘Russia has lost; they’ve lost strategically, operationally and tactically.’ This raises the question of what such a decisive Russian defeat would mean for Europe’s future security order and Russia’s position in it. We also need to examine how negotiations between Russia and Ukraine might result in a truce or even some sort of internationally agreed settlement.

So, what are the potential military scenarios and negotiated outcomes for:

  • a military conflict in which Ukraine wins by expelling the Russians from all Ukrainian territory
  • a military outcome that involves a decisive Russian victory, resulting in Ukraine becoming an integral part of the Russian Federation
  • some form of durable settlement with international safeguards?

Needless to say, there is violent disagreement among the so-called experts (including this one) about how, and if, this war will be resolved along any of the outcomes set out above. As I said in my September ASPI report, The geopolitical implications of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, there are even more extreme potential outcomes—for example, the war expanding into a conflict between Russia and NATO, which then raises the prospect of the use of nuclear weapons.

Short of nuclear war, Russia will continue to exist as a geopolitical entity. Former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger said last year, ‘At [the war’s] end, a place has to be found for Ukraine and a place has to be found for Russia.’ He also recognises that Russia could alienate itself completely from Europe. As unpalatable as these views are, it will not be possible in any foreseeable circumstances to freeze Russia entirely out of the future European balance of power.

Another issue I raised in my ASPI report is whether Russia is now going to cease to exist as a major power. US academic Walter Russell Mead observes that the consequences of such an eventuality would be far-reaching, plunging Russia into an identity crisis with unpredictable political consequences. He concludes that Putin isn’t fighting only for adjustment to its frontiers; he is fighting for Russia’s unique concept of its world (the Russian world or Russki mir).

What we are witnessing in Ukraine today may be the prolonged death throes of the Russian Empire. Some respected Russian commentators, such as Andrei Kolesnikov, are talking about ‘the complete collapse of everything’ in Russia because under Putin Russia’s future ‘has been amputated’. In my view, a severely weakened, isolated and smaller Russia might then become more—not less—dangerous for the world. I shall return to that possibility at the end of this article.

These extremely different scenarios show why there is no consensus in the West about the direction of this war. One of the problems is that we have no contemporary war on which to base our judgements. There has been no conventional war on this scale since the Korean War more than 70 years ago.

Now, we have a greatly weakened Russia that is determined not to be defeated in this struggle for territory that it argues is Russia’s historically. But the Western democracies—so far at least—have been surprisingly unified in their strong military support for Ukraine. The central question is whether, if this war drags on, and perhaps escalates, the West will continue its supply of highly accurate weapons, enabling Ukraine to reach deeper into Russian territory.

Let’s now examine my three credible scenarios. In the first scenario, we envisage a series of crucial battles this year in which Ukraine’s military forces impose a succession of decisive defeats on the Russians, forcing them to retreat back over the pre-2014 Ukrainian border into Russian territory. The problem with this scenario is that Moscow, in my view, will simply not give up its possession of Crimea (nash Krim in Russian, or ‘our Crimea’) at any cost. Even so, it may be a practical proposition to envisage Ukraine evicting Russian troops at least from Donetsk, Lugansk, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson.

But there would have to be some sort of international agreement imposed to prevent Moscow from rebuilding its military forces and having another go at occupying Ukraine. The other problem is that a defeated Putin might decide to pull down the house of nuclear cards in revenge. And even if he were to be overthrown, there remains the prospect of an even more extreme nationalistic leader from Russia’s elite taking over.

The second scenario is much worse because it involves a decisive military defeat of the Ukrainian Armed Forces by Moscow. That would result in the complete crushing of the Ukrainian language, people, religion and culture. A victorious Russia might then be encouraged to chance its luck elsewhere and threaten the Baltic countries, Poland and other states on its periphery—such as Moldova and Kazakhstan—with forced incorporation into the Russian motherland.

The aim of the Russian leadership would be to establish a cordon sanitaire of buffer states like the one it enjoyed in the Warsaw Pact, which effectively created defence in depth for Russia and put 1,000 kilometres between it and the nearest NATO borders. The challenge for Washington would be to demonstrate that any such Russian attack on Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland or any other NATO country would automatically provoke prompt US global strikes on Russia, including Moscow. That could well take us all to Armageddon.

The final scenario involves negotiations on both sides resulting in a durable truce and international safeguards against any repetition of military attacks across agreed international borders. Former senior Australian diplomat John McCarthy has suggested to me the possibility of an agreed territorial division along the lines of the Simla Agreement of 1972 over Kashmir between India and Pakistan. That is an interesting proposition, recognising, however, the continuing military dispute along the Line of Control between these South Asian enemies.

Milley has recently indicated that from a military standpoint this war ‘is likely to end in a negotiation’. Such an outcome would effectively reduce Russia to no longer being able to regard itself as a great power (velikaya derzhava). Putin’s own long-held view is that without dominance over Ukraine, Russia cannot be regarded as a great power.

He believes Ukraine’s membership of NATO would be a mortal national security threat to Moscow or, as the prominent Moscow commentator Sergei Karaganov puts it, ‘a spearhead at the heart of Russia’. A settlement that continued to acknowledge Ukraine as a separate nation-state would effectively destroy Putin’s assertion that a country called Ukraine simply does not exist.

In my view, no negotiated outcome is likely in the immediate future. We are more likely to witness a continuing intensive war with no resolution in sight. This would be a prolonged war of attrition or protracted military stalemate whose outcome would depend on which side has the most durable military industrial base (in the case of Russia) or guaranteed external military resupplies (in the case of Ukraine).

Finally, let me return to my earlier speculation about Russia’s demonstrable loss of great-power status. As Russia’s Andrei Kolesnikov—whom Moscow labelled as a ‘foreign agent’ on 24 December—has observed: ‘The Soviet Union in its later years had a lot more global respect than Russia does now.’ Russia in my view is in danger of becoming just another regional power—but one that is able to threaten global nuclear devastation.

And for Europe—no matter what the outcome of this war—the geopolitical presence of a greatly diminished Russia will still have to be acknowledged as part of the European order. But for Russia to decline to a second-class regional power would be a major catastrophe—perhaps challenging its very existence.

This article was published by The Strategist.