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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.
In the surreal winter of 2021–22, the United States and Europe are once again contemplating a major Russian military intervention, this time in Europe itself. And once again, many analysts are warning of dire consequences for the aggressor. On February 11, British Minister of State for Europe James Cleverly predicted that a wider war in Ukraine “would be a quagmire” for Russia. In a rational cost-benefit analysis, the thinking goes, the price of a full-scale war in Ukraine would be punishingly high for the Kremlin and would entail significant bloodshed. The United States has estimated as many as 50,000 civilian casualties. Along with undermining Putin’s support among the Russian elite, who would suffer personally from the ensuing tensions with Europe, a war could endanger Russia’s economy and alienate the public. At the same time, it could bring NATO troops closer to Russia’s borders, leaving Russia to fight a Ukrainian resistance for years to come. According to this view, Russia would be trapped in a disaster of its own making.
Nevertheless, Putin’s cost-benefit analysis seems to favor upending the European status quo. The Russian leadership is taking on more risks, and above the fray of day-to-day politics, Putin is on a historic mission to solidify Russia’s leverage in Ukraine (as he has recently in Belarus and Kazakhstan). And as Moscow sees it, a victory in Ukraine might well be within reach. Of course, Russia might simply prolong the current crisis without invading or find some palatable way to disengage. But if the Kremlin’s calculus is right, as in the end it was in Syria, then the United States and Europe should also be prepared for an eventuality other than quagmire. What if Russia wins in Ukraine?
If Russia gains control of Ukraine or manages to destabilize it on a major scale, a new era for the United States and for Europe will begin. 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. As in Syria, victory does not have to result in a sustainable settlement. It could involve the installation of a compliant government in Kyiv or the partition of the country. Alternatively, the defeat of the Ukrainian military and the negotiation of a Ukrainian surrender could effectively transform Ukraine into a failed state. Russia could also employ devastating cyberattacks and disinformation tools, backed by the threat of force, to cripple the country and induce regime change. With any of these outcomes, Ukraine will have been effectively detached from the West.
If Russia achieves its political aims in Ukraine by military means, Europe will not 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 will be the artifact of a lost age. Instead, 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 will also be in a state of permanent economic war with Russia. The West will seek to enforce sweeping sanctions, which Russia is likely to parry with cyber-measures and energy blackmailing, given the economic asymmetries. China might well stand on Russia’s side in this economic tit for tat. Meanwhile, domestic politics in European countries will resemble a twenty-first-century great game, in which 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 an anarchic presence—sometimes real, sometimes imagined—in every instance of European political instability.
Eastern member states would have NATO troops permanently on their soil.
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 suzerainty 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. Responding to a revanchist Russia with sanctions and with the rhetorical proclamation of a rules-based international order will not be sufficient.
In the event of a 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. France and the United Kingdom will assume leading roles in European affairs by virtue of their comparatively strong militaries and long tradition of military interventions. The key factor in Europe, however, will remain the United States. NATO will depend on U.S. support as will the anxious and imperiled countries of Europe’s east, the frontline nations arrayed along a now very large, expanded, and uncertain line of contact with Russia, including Belarus and the Russian-controlled parts of Ukraine.
Eastern member states, including Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, and Romania, will likely have substantial numbers of NATO troops permanently stationed on their soil. A request from Finland and Sweden to gain an Article 5 commitment and to join NATO would be impossible to reject. 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 will be very great. Refugees will flee 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 likely, though, to be 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, new sanctions on banking and on technology transfer would be significant and permanent. They would come in the wake of failed diplomacy and would start at “the top of the ladder,” according to the U.S. administration. In response, Russia will retaliate, quite possibly in the cyber-domain as well as 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.
Europe’s strong suit is its economic leverage. Russia’s asset will be any source of domestic division or disruption in Europe or in Europe’s transatlantic partners. Here Russia will be proactive and opportunistic. If a pro-Russian movement or candidate shows up, that candidate can be encouraged directly or indirectly. If an economic or political sore point diminishes the foreign policy efficacy of the United States and its allies, it will be a weapon for Russian propaganda efforts and for Russian espionage.
Much of this is already happening. But a war in Ukraine will up the ante. Russia will use more resources and be 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. The holy grail of these informational, political, and cyberbattles will be the 2024 presidential election in the United States. Europe’s future will depend on this election. The election of Donald Trump or of a Trumpian candidate might destroy the transatlantic relationship at Europe’s hour of maximum peril, putting into question NATO’s position and its security guarantees for Europe.
For the United States, a Russian victory would have profound effects on its grand strategy in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. First, Russian success in Ukraine would require Washington to pivot to Europe. No ambiguity about NATO’s Article 5 (of the kind experienced under Trump) will be permissible. Only a strong U.S. commitment to European security will prevent Russia from dividing European countries from one another. This will be difficult in light of competing priorities, especially those that confront the United States in a deteriorating relationship with China. But the interests at stake are fundamental. The United States has very large commercial equities in Europe. The European Union and the United States are each other’s largest trade and investment partners, with trade in goods and services totaling $1.1 trillion in 2019. A well-functioning, peaceful Europe augments American foreign policy—on climate change, on nonproliferation, on global public health, and on the management of tensions with China or Russia. If Europe is destabilized, then the United States will be much more alone in the world.
NATO is the logical means by which the United States can provide security reassurance to Europe and deter Russia. A war in Ukraine would revive NATO not as a democracy-building enterprise or as a tool for out-of-area expeditions like the war in Afghanistan but as the unsurpassed defensive military alliance that it was designed to be. Although Europeans will be demanding a greater military commitment to Europe from the United States, a broader Russian invasion of Ukraine should drive every NATO member to increase its defense spending. For Europeans, this would be the final call to improve Europe’s defensive capabilities—in tandem with the United States—in order to help the United States manage the Russian-Chinese dilemma.
The nuclear superpowers would have to keep their outrage in check.
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, because of the brutal uncertainties war brings. Chinese irritation with a Russia on the march will not enable a rapprochement between Washington and Beijing, but it may initiate new conversations.
The shock of a big military move by Russia will likewise raise questions in Ankara. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Turkey has been enjoying the venerable Cold War game of playing off the superpowers. Yet Turkey has a substantial relationship with Ukraine. As a NATO member, it will not benefit from the militarization of the Black Sea and the eastern Mediterranean. Russian actions that destabilize the wider region could push Turkey back toward the United States, which could in turn drive a wedge between Ankara and Moscow. This would be good for NATO, and it would also open up greater possibilities for a U.S.-Turkish partnership in the Middle East. Rather than a nuisance, Turkey could turn into the ally it is supposed to be.
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. This will amount to a fantastically tricky juggling act: a state of economic warfare and geopolitical struggle across the European continent, yet a state of affairs that does not allow escalation to tip into outright war. At the same time, U.S.-Russian confrontation can in the worst case extend to proxy wars in the Middle East or Africa if the United States decides to reestablish its presence after the catastrophic Afghanistan withdrawal.
Maintaining communication, especially on strategic stability and cybersecurity, will be crucial. It is notable that U.S.-Russian cooperation on malicious cyber-activities continues even during the current tensions. The necessity of maintaining rigorous arms control agreements will be even greater after a Ukraine war and the sanctions regime that follows it.
As the crisis in Ukraine unfolds, the West must not underestimate Russia. It must not bank on narratives inspired by wishful thinking. Russian victory in Ukraine is not science fiction.
But if there may be little that the West can do to prevent a Russian military conquest, it will be able to influence what happens afterward. Very often the seeds of trouble lie beneath the veneer of military victory. Russia can eviscerate Ukraine on the battlefield. It can make Ukraine a failed state. But it can do so only by prosecuting a criminal war and by devastating the life of a nation-state that has never invaded Russia. The United States and Europe and their allies and other parts of the world will draw conclusions and be critical of Russian actions. Through their alliances and in their support for the people of Ukraine, the United States and Europe can embody the alternative to wars of aggression and to a might-makes-right ethos. Russian efforts at sowing disorder can be contrasted to Western efforts at restoring order.
Much as the United States retained the diplomatic properties of the three Baltic states in Washington, D.C., after they had been annexed by the Soviet Union during World War II, the West can put itself on the side of decency and dignity in this conflict. Wars that are won are never won forever. All too often countries defeat themselves over time by launching and then winning the wrong wars.
What War in Ukraine Would Look Like—and How America Should Respond