Consequences of Russian Victory
By Lt Gen JK Sharma (Retd)
When Russia joined the ongoing civil war in Syria, in the summer of 2015, it shocked the United States and its partners. Out of frustration, then President Barack Obama claimed that Syria would become a “quagmire” for Russia and Russian President Vladimir Putin. Syria would be Russia’s Vietnam or Putin’s Afghanistan, a grievous mistake that would eventually rebound against Russian interests.
Syria did not end up as a quagmire for Putin. Russia changed the course of the war, saving Syrian President Bashar al-Assad from impending defeat, and then translated military force into diplomatic leverage. It kept costs and casualties sustainable. Now Russia cannot be ignored in Syria. There has been no diplomatic settlement. Instead, Moscow has amassed greater regional clout, from Israel to Libya, and retained a loyal partner in Assad for Russia’s power projection. In Syria, what the Obama administration failed to anticipate was the possibility that Russia’s intervention would succeed.
Putin has invaded Ukraine, which everyone thought and wished, though in naivety, that it will not happen. Was he driven to do this? Many even within United States and Europe believe so.
Putin now is on a historic mission to solidify Russia’s leverage in Ukraine (as he has in Belarus and Kazakhstan). And as Moscow sees it, a victory in Ukraine might well be within reach. The consequences of Russian win for Europe are rather uncomfortable?
When, which till days ago was just if, Russia gains control of Ukraine, which it seems is matter of a few days, a new era for Europe is on the horizon. U.S. and European leaders would face the dual challenge of rethinking European security and of not being drawn into a larger war with Russia. All sides would have to consider the potential of nuclear-armed adversaries in direct confrontation. These two responsibilities—robustly defending European peace and prudently avoiding military escalation with Russia—will not necessarily be compatible. The United States and its allies could find themselves deeply unprepared for the task of having to create a new European security order as a result of Russia’s military actions in Ukraine.
For Russia, victory in Ukraine could take various forms. It could involve the installation of a compliant government in Kyiv or the partition of the country. The defeat of the Ukrainian military and the negotiation of a Ukrainian surrender would effectively transform Ukraine into a failed state.
Once Russia achieves its political aims, which it is likely to, given the present stage of campaign, Europe is not going be what it was before the war. Not only will U.S. primacy in Europe have been qualified; any sense that the European Union or NATO can ensure peace on the continent is going to be the artifact of a lost age from now on.
Security in Europe will have to be reduced to defending the core members of the EU and NATO. Everyone outside the clubs will stand alone, with the exception of Finland and Sweden. This may not necessarily be a conscious decision to end enlargement or association policies; but it will be de facto policy. Under a perceived siege by Russia, the EU and NATO will no longer have the capacity for ambitious policies beyond their own borders.
The United States and Europe are going to be in a state of permanent economic war with Russia. The sweeping sanctions and threats are only in vain. Russia will parry this with cyber-measures and energy blackmailing, given the economic asymmetries. Meanwhile, domestic politics in European countries will resemble a twenty-first-century great game, the signs of which are already visible, and Russia will be studying Europe for any breakdown in the commitment to NATO and to the transatlantic relationship.
Through methods fair and foul, Russia will take whatever opportunity comes its way to influence public opinion and elections in European countries. Russia will be significantly present—sometimes real, sometimes imagined—in every instance of European political instability.
Cold War analogies will not be helpful in a world with a Russianized Ukraine. The Cold War border in Europe had its flash points, but it was stabilized in a mutually acceptable fashion in the Helsinki Final Act of 1975. By contrast, Russian control over Ukraine would open a vast zone of destabilization and insecurity from Estonia to Poland to Romania to Turkey. For as long as it lasts, Russia’s presence in Ukraine will be perceived by Ukraine’s neighbors as provocative and unacceptable and, for some, as a threat to their own security.
Amid this shifting dynamic, order in Europe will have to be conceived of in primarily military terms—which, since Russia has a stronger hand in the military than in the economic realm, will be in the Kremlin’s interest—sidelining nonmilitary institutions such as the European Union.
Russia has Europe’s largest conventional military, which it is more than ready to use. The EU’s defense policy—in contrast to NATO’s—is far from being able to provide security for its members. Thus, will military reassurance, especially of the EU’s eastern members, be key.
With the Russian victory in Ukraine, Germany‘s position in Europe will be severely challenged. Germany is a marginal military power that has based its postwar political identity on the rejection of war. The ring of friends it has surrounded itself with, especially in the east with Poland and the Baltic states, risks being destabilized by Russia. The rumblings of the same are already evident where the German Parliamentarians and even Military leaders have been saying since long that Putin deserve respect.
Eastern member states, including Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, and Romania, will likely have substantial numbers of NATO troops permanently stationed on their soil. In Ukraine, EU and NATO, countries will never recognize a new Russian-backed regime created by Moscow. But they will face the same challenge they do with Belarus: wielding sanctions without punishing the population and supporting those in need without having access to them. Some NATO members will bolster a Ukrainian insurgency, to which Russia will respond by threatening NATO members.
Ukraine’s predicament is even greater. Refugees are fleeing in multiple directions, quite possibly in the millions. And those parts of the Ukrainian military that are not directly defeated will continue fighting, echoing the partisan warfare that tore apart this whole region of Europe during and after World War II.
The permanent state of escalation between Russia and Europe may stay cold from a military perspective. It is going to be, though, economically hot. The sanctions put on Russia in 2014, which were connected to formal diplomacy (often referred to as the “Minsk” process, after the city in which the negotiations were held), were not draconian. They were reversible as well as conditional. Following a Russian invasion of Ukraine, the new sanctions on banking and other sectors are significant and may seem permanent. However, Russia has responded conservatively and is likely to retaliate, quite possibly in the energy sector. Moscow will limit access to critical goods such as titanium, of which Russia has been the world’s second-largest exporter. This war of attrition will test both sides. Russia will be ruthless in trying to get one or several European states to back away from economic conflict by linking a relaxation in tension to these countries’ self-interest, thus undermining consensus in the EU and NATO.
In days to come Russia will up the ante, the sign of the same being visible and is more or less unchained in its choice of instruments. The massive refugee flows arriving in Europe will exacerbate the EU’s unresolved refugee policy and provide fertile ground for populists.
With the Russian victory, Europeans will be demanding a greater military commitment to Europe from the United States. Also, this will, drive every NATO member to increase its defense spending. For Europeans, this would be the final call to improve Europe’s defensive capabilities.
For a Moscow now in permanent confrontation with the West, Beijing could serve as an economic backstop and a partner in opposing U.S. hegemony. In the worst case for U.S. grand strategy, China might be emboldened by Russia’s assertiveness and threaten confrontation over Taiwan. But there is no guarantee that an escalation in Ukraine will benefit the Sino-Russian relationship. China’s ambition to become the central node of the Eurasian economy will be damaged by war in Europe.
A bitter consequence of a wider war in Ukraine is that Russia and the United States would now encounter each other as enemies in Europe. Yet they will be enemies who cannot afford to take hostilities beyond a certain threshold. However far apart their worldviews, however ideologically opposed, the world’s two most significant nuclear powers will have to keep their outrage in check.
Wars that are won are never won forever. All too often countries defeat themselves over time by launching and then winning the wrong wars.
*Author is an Indian Army veteran. Views expressed here are personal.