What if Russia wins?
Von Ruud Koopmans
Ukraine’s army and citizens continue to bravely resist. While this keeps the hope for a different outcome alive, the military odds are still heavily stacked in favor of Russia. The most likely outcome still is that Russia wins this war. Some think that Putin has lost already, because he has seriously underestimated Ukrainian resistance, overestimated Russia’s own military readiness, and probably also reckoned with a less strong response from Europe’s democracies. But despite these miscalculations, all of Russia’s war aims are still within reach, either on the battlefield or through a negotiated cease fire or peace agreement: recognition of Russian sovereignty over Crimea; recognition of the separatist “people’s republics”; Ukraine giving up its ambitions of NATO and EU membership; even maximalist aims such as the establishment of a “Novorossiya” connecting the Donbass, the Crimea, and Transnistria, or the removal and replacement of the Ukrainian government are still within the realm of the possible. Any strategic and normative consideration of what “the West”, what the EU, what NATO, and what more generally the alliance of liberal democracies should do in relation to the war therefore needs to first and foremost consider the implications of the scenario in which this war ends favorably for Russia.
The key to answering this question is to view this war not just, or not even primarily as one between Russia and Ukraine. There never was a time in which the consequences of wars affected only the warring parties, but in a global and interconnected world this is even less the case than in the past. The vast majority of wars in the past decades have been civil wars, many of them, like the ones in Syria and Yemen, with foreign involvement, but not direct confrontations between states. The few interstate wars of recent decades – e.g. between Eritrea and Ethiopia – all took place on the periphery of the global system. The Russian-Ukrainian war, by contrast, occurs within the center, directly at the borders of NATO and EU, it involves one of the world’s major powers, and, importantly and unlike virtually all civil and interstate wars of the past decades, it involves a democracy attacked by an autocracy. A budding and imperfect democracy, certainly, but quite clearly a country with the aspiration to join the camp of liberal democracies.
That the world will become more democratic is no longer self-evident
After a surge of democratization in the 1980s and 1990s, in the last two decades the number of democracies worldwide has stalled or even somewhat declined, autocracies have become more assertive, and anti-democratic forces have gained ground even within established democracies. That the world will become more democratic or even that those countries that are democratic will stay that way, is no longer self-evident. Viewed against that backdrop, the outcome of a war in the heart of Europe between what is probably the most vocal, assertive and expansionist autocracy in the world, and an aspiring democracy at the borders of EU and NATO is attentively watched by democrats and autocrats around the world. It will be seen and interpreted as a strong signal of what the democratic world is willing to do to protect its way of life, and conversely of what autocracies can get away with if they ignore the rules of international law and impose themselves by force or the threat of force on their neighbors.
Putin has thrown down the gauntlet, and autocrats worldwide, in China, in Turkey, in Iran, but also many smaller regional potentates as well as populists within liberal democracies are awaiting the outcome with hopeful curiosity. Democrats and democracies worldwide our watching with fear and despair. Of course, we can only with great uncertainty predict how particular actors would react to the outcome of this war. Would Putin’s Russia set its eye next on Moldova? Would it even start pressuring the Baltic states? Would China push ahead on Taiwan or on the contested islands in the South China Sea? Would Iran and North Korea draw the lesson that one can get one’s way if one threatens with nuclear weapons? Would Turkey annex the parts of Syria it has occupied? While reliable predictions regarding the strategic choices of specific actors and conflicts are very difficult to make, this is much less the case for the implications on the population level of world states. If Putin wins – in any way that is sellable at home and to autocrats abroad as an outcome in which Russia has been able to realize its demands by using force – it will be read as a signal of defeat and weakness of “the West” and of liberal democracy.
The world in which Russia has won this war will not be a pleasant one to live in
If the West cannot and will not stop the annihilation of a sovereign state, and the slaughter of civilians in an entirely unprovoked invasion of a budding democracy, an associate member of the European Union, right at the doorstep of EU and of NATO, how can any democratic movement or state elsewhere still hope to receive support when suppressed or attacked? If the West, or the alliance of liberal democracies, is not willing and able to stop Russia here and now, why would any autocrat elsewhere shy away from employing the same bullying tactics as Russia? The world in which Russia has won this war will not be a pleasant one to live in. It will be less liberal, less democratic, and more violent. The Western alliance will survive in that world, behind the walls of the NATO borders, the only red line that it has so far signaled it is willing to defend and take real risks for. But it will be geopolitically marginalized, and will have to deal with empowered enemies of democracy within its own ranks. It will no longer be a beacon for freedom and a meaningful ally of liberal democrats worldwide, and the liberal global order that it had hoped to establish will be further away than ever.
This is why we need to support Ukraine to the maximum of our abilities, not just as a moral, but also as a strategic imperative. Of course, that does not mean the willingness to pay any price and take every risk, but it does mean doing a lot more than the liberal-democratic alliance generally, and Europe and Germany in particularly, are currently doing. To begin with, economic sanctions should be extended to those that hurt the Russian state and its war machinery most directly and most quickly. First, a complete exclusion of Russian banks from the Swift system and an end to the exemption for several banks that are of central importance to the Russian state. Second, an immediate halt to oil, gas and coal imports from Russia, which since the beginning of the war have earned the Russian state billions of dollars. This will hurt Western economies, too, but the price is small compared to that of a Russian victory in this war. A gradual phase out of our dependence on Russian energy imports will not do the job, because the likelihood is very high that the war has by then already ended, most probably in some way favorable to Russia. Thirdly, military support for Ukraine should be greatly and swiftly extended, possibly including the stationing of military personnel from neighboring European countries in parts of Ukraine outside the current combat zone and for purely defensive purposes. For instance, to train Ukrainian military to employ Patriot anti-missile defenses around cities like Lviv. And fourthly, while a full no-fly zone over Ukraine would be impossible without engaging in an all-out confrontation between NATO and Russia, we should seriously consider the introduction of such a zone in the Western part of Ukraine, that is until now still outside the direct combat zone. Not only to prevent war, destruction and the massacring of civilians to reach these parts of Ukraine, but also to provide a safe haven for refugees from the parts of Ukraine that are under direct Russian assault.
Saving Western Ukraine from the horrors that are now unfolding in the East and South of the country is not escalation, it is the prevention of escalation and of further, irreversible human suffering and the destruction of a whole nation. We must do more, and we must do it quickly, because Ukraine’s future is also the future of liberal democracy. The world will not be the same after this war, but we still have the capacity to determine in what manner it will be different. In a way that favors the Putins, the Xis, and the Erdogans of this world, or in one that encourages the world’s liberals and democrats? If ever there was a time to act on “nie wieder”, “never again”, that time is now.